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Although I’ll begin exploring this topic in more detail soon, it seemed apposite to introduce the subject of joining and leaving a church.

Those of us who have grown up in a looser tradition of transferring congregations in more flexible denominations might not realise that not every denomination works in that way. Therein lies potential trouble.

It is not unusual to find today a tightening up of admission requirements. Although taking an enquirer’s class, is normal with becoming a new member of the Catholic, Anglican (including Episcopal), Lutheran and Reformed denominations, transferring among them can be problematic in certain circumstances. This is also true of smaller denominations.

When some congregants find they have created a ‘problem’ in pointing out to the priest or vicar that proper doctrine or liturgical rubric is not being followed, they become dissenters. The clergy and, where applicable, elders can view these faithful as ‘divisive’, ‘troublemaking’ and so on. Some whistleblowers find themselves under church discipline for pointing out that the truth of the Gospel and confessions of faith are not being adhered to. They, through an exchange of letters and meetings, might be excommunicated or disfellowshipped from that congregation if they do not recant of the truth. That’s right, recant the truth. Other congregants quietly bow out of the congregation to go church shopping. Pastors and elders as well as members of the congregation might harrass them with visits, letters and telephone calls.

However, this can also result if congregants have not shown up at church for reasons other than illness or bereavement. They might be evaluating other churches; they might be doing independent study.  Even in our apostate times — and in our apostate churches — the powers that be feel authorised to follow up.

Sometimes this is out of kindness and genuine concern. More often, though, it is out of authoritarian control. These church authorities present themselves as surrogate parents and Christ’s representatives. ‘You’re part of our church family,’ they say. Or, on a doctrinal issue about which they are mistaken, ‘I know more about this than you, I have the theology degree’.

Theology degrees, to paraphrase Casablanca, don’t stack up to a hill of beans these days. Men pursue ordination in ‘liberal’ churches these days for reasons other than a love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. Some ‘need’ a second career, no more than that. They come from atheist backgrounds and have only recently converted to the faith. They then apply to seminary after a few years, are accepted and listen to apostate professors.  After ordination, these middle-aged men consider the congregations to which they are assigned as fiefdoms. They exercise more control than concern, even though they use the latter word frequently. They label recalcitrant, doctrinally-minded members as ‘troubled’, ‘in need of counselling’ or worse.

Then, there are the young thrusting types, men who enrol in seminary in order to pastor in conservative denominations.  Some of them also have issues which brings out the authoritarian in them. As pastors, they tighten up the membership rules of the congregation. They might make it mandatory that all members join at least one small group. They might demand legalism which goes against the freedom we have in Christ, our Redeemer.  When more discerning members then go astray because they know this is wrong, the pastor and his men harrass them and threaten them with expulsion. ‘Church discipline in love’, they call it.

Other young pastors, enlivened by their egos, begin questionable parachurches or multisites featuring sermons on a live feed video. They also react badly when members decide that sort of church isn’t for them. More ‘Church discipline in love’. It’s ‘biblical’, don’t you know.

This is why it is important to know as much as you can about what the Bible says. Examine what these pastors are saying and doing against the Word. If the two align, the church is healthy. If you leave a Sunday service with something upon which to reflect during the week, no matter how challenging, you’re doing very well.

However, if you find erroneous or precious little alignment between what the clergy put forward and chapters from the New Testament, then, you have grounds for departure.

Unfortunately, several conservative and fundamentalist blogs suggest that your church membership is not your own. It’s up to the clergy to agree to release you to another congregation or denomination.  Some of these sites also say that you should never change churches!  If you think they are ‘bad’, then, obviously, you haven’t prayed or studied enough, brother, and you’d better stop backsliding — otherwise, you will not be saved!

Nonsense.

These men are reading egocentric, authoritarian, extra-biblical demands into Paul’s letters. Where you worship is between you and the Lord. We are on this earth to please Him, not our pastors. If you have a godly pastor, your faithful obedience to Christ’s commandments should please him. That has nothing to do with your level of activity in the church, including participation in small groups.

Furthermore, the church is not your inviolable family. God gave you a family: your parents, siblings, grandparents and so on. Your pastor is not Big Daddy — your surrogate father or big brother, no matter how much he would like to be in order to get you to obey him, not Christ.  If a church describes itself as a ‘family’ and pressures you to sign up to a to-do list, head for the door.

In closing, here are brief points to consider:

Before you sign a membership agreement (I would advise against joining a church like this but some are used to it), ask the difficult questions: what conduct is expected of you, how much activity they want, what level of financial donation is required, how long periods of membership last and, most importantly, what the exit procedures are!  If the clergy and elders vacillate or soft-soap any of these issues, do not sign!

If you need to leave over doctrinal issues where your clergy are in the wrong, try not to discuss them with anyone in the congregation, including clergy. This might sound strange, I know — after all, we’re talking about church — but this can easily get their backs up and you ostracised from everyone.  You can easily open yourself up to disciplinary procedures that can dog you for years.

If you get ‘love bombed’ with letters, visits and telephone calls, remain non-committal. If asked, ‘Are you coming back?’ simply reply, ‘I’m not sure’. Do not be pressed for a decision deadline, especially if you have no intention of returning. Be polite to the extent you can. In any case, be firm and be succinct.

Do not be lured into any conversations with anyone as to why you are leaving or have left. Again, be non-specific.

Do not agree to be sent off in a ‘love’ ceremony in church. You might find that your supposed ‘sins’ are read out to the congregation.

Be prepared to be shunned, criticised and told that you need ‘help‘. After all, someone who leaves a congregation basically says that there’s something wrong with it. Members who love that church will feel uncertain and defensive, especially if you are the one critical thinker in the group.

Clergy from other congregations do talk, so if you’ve left under a cloud, when you sign up to a new church, do not tell anyone else from your old congregation. It’s none of their business, even the pastor’s, no matter how much he insists it is. The danger in being open about where you’ve gone is that your old pastor can get in touch with your new one and exchange notes about you.

This isn’t to put anyone off church, and I’ll have more specifics soon as to how I arrived at these words of advice. However, there are a lot of hurting Christians out in the world right now who need advice as well as some recovery sites to read and, perhaps, participate in.

This is a sad development for Christ’s holy Bride, however, it seems as if some of these authoritarian congregations and denominations may find themselves in trouble because of too many horror stories and egotistical domination on the part of clergy.

Forewarned is forearmed. Be aware — and be careful out there.

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