Why the problem with the church is the “church” (not with the people who leave)

I’ve appreciated the conversations that happened off the back of my “I can’t do this any more” — many friends have reached out to express concern about what might prompt such a raw post, some pastors have contacted me because I hit on a shared experience, but mostly I’ve appreciated the pushback (even from those who suggest it sounds like I want to authoritatively lead some sort of cult). The pushback I’ve most appreciated is from those who fear a message like this, from a pastor figure who has some authority might bind people who’ve been abused or traumatised to churches that will then continue that traumatising or that abuse.

That’s a legitimate concern to be raised in this sort of conversation; especially if I’m essentially arguing that our covenant commitment to one another in the church — the “bride of Christ” — is similar to the covenant commitment we make in marriage. 

I want to say, like a pastor might say ‘marriage is a fantastic thing that God has made for the joining together of two people as one, and its value is ultimately not in ‘feelings’ or what it does ‘for me’, but in a lifelong commitment to love one another in sickness and in health; for better and for worse, as a picture of Jesus’ love for the church (Ephesians 5). I also want to say as I teach on marriage, that divorce is a necessary provision in a fallen world for the protection of people from abuse, and to provide a way to escape trauma when a covenant is broken. 

So I want to say that belonging to a church is a fantastic thing that God has given us, as a gift, by uniting us to Jesus and one another by the Spirit; that belonging to ‘the church’ is expressed by belonging to ‘a church;’ and that the value of that relationship comes through covenant commitment to unity with one another. This commitment is expressed and lived out through forgiving and forbearing; through love as an act of sacrificing self interest for the sake of others; and for being in relationship for the long term on the basis of the covenant commitments we make to one another at certain junctures (like baptism, membership, and even sharing ‘communion’ or ‘the Lord’s supper’ with one another). In 1 Corinthians, Paul builds the metaphor of the body and our belonging to one another in marriage, to explain why believers should not unite themselves to others in sexual immorality; he argues that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit; and then in 1 Corinthians 12 that same Spirit is uniting the members of the church to one another so that we also belong to each other. This sort of belonging is as open to abuse as Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5. I am certain that these verses can be used to force people into submission to church authority. 

But, just as there are grounds for divorce in marriages that do not reflect the Gospel, but ‘Babylonian’ narratives about self, and power, and domination of others, so too there are grounds to leave a church. I think the duty of a believer in such circumstances is, perhaps, similar to the duty of a Christian spouse leaving a marriage where both partners have made a covenant with one another on the basis of a shared faith. I think sin should be rebuked, repentance and reconciliation sought, other parties involved, and the rights, safety and wellbeing of the victim protected above those of the perpetrator.

To be clear, the bone I’m picking in my recent post is not with people who leave the church; it’s with a church that perpetuates a view of itself that makes leaving the most normal course of action for someone as an expression of the free market and individual choice. Our problem is that we’ve perpetuated a thin view of church where church is a product; but also that our churches have essentially been Babylonian and so doing real harm to people without a path to restore relationships or reform the church; pastors and leaders of the institution of the church are to blame for this, because who else is shaping the culture, understanding and practices of the church and thus how we experience and understand church? My call is not for people to be more committed to bad models of church, to express that commitment by putting up with more — it’s for all of us to change how we conceive of church. If people have been traumatised by churches they should not stay in ways that perpetuate the trauma; but the church (as an institution) has a responsibility to consider why we’ve caused trauma and how we play a part in healing. But it’s also true, I think, that our conception of the church (or a church) as a thing we can just ‘leave’ is the result of a false picture of church that we have perpetuated (and one that is probably more inclined to traumatise people than a more Biblical, less Babylonian, church).

And, mea culpa, there are people who have left our church because of my failures as a leader. Some have perhaps been traumatised by my bad decisions, or my words, or my actions; or by our culture, our practices, and our environment. We have fed a culture of consumerism, and so consumed and burned out people by suggesting that godliness looks like doing more. I am imperfect and inexperienced. I have been Babylonian in my approach, at times. Lots of this is self critique and a desire to approach church differently. I am the leader of a church that is still working out how leadership and authority are worked out, and where elements of our practice have been more Babylonian than shaped by the Gospel. The thing that haunts me about these leavings, more than my guilt about my own failures (though that is real), is the lack of reconciliation — both because when someone leaves it removes some of the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness, but also because the break of fellowship removes the capacity for the healing that comes from forgiveness, forbearance, peacemaking, and ongoing love and unity. 

The more Babylonian a church is in its structures and practice — including the authority given to the pastor and how much they are perceived as being the primary ‘image of God’ (remember the Babylonian creation story where the king was the image bearer) — the more likely it is to be abusive and traumatic. Don’t stay in Babylon; just don’t leave without challenging Babylon and giving those in leadership the chance to repent and be reconciled. Recent history is full of Babylonian, abusive, church leaders who fail to genuinely repent in those circumstances (there’s some well documented examples in the U.S, and probably some not so well documented examples in Australia with the current conversations about bullying within church ministry teams happening online), so the path towards this sort of leaving well is also fraught with danger. A hint will be if in such a conversation a leader appeals to his or her authority and refuses to let you go. But I suspect lots of the literature around domestic violence, narcissm, and abusive relationships will also help spot traumatising church systems and leaders. To say we shouldn’t work through that difficulty is a bit like saying that domestic violence is a reason to stop encouraging people to get married and pursue covenant faithfulness when times are tough. 

Churches abuse. Churches traumatise. Pastors abuse. Pastors traumatise. Church members abuse and traumatise each other; where those churches, pastors, and members, are genuinely living the Gospel story those moments of sin that cause trauma are opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, and forbearance; and in those processes it will become more or less clear if the abusers are Babylonian wolves who should either be run out of town, or run from… but if that’s the case then your brothers and sisters in those churches should leave too, not be left behind. And the processes of church discipline that our western churches have departed from (because when you try to discipline someone — whether a pastor or an individual — they tend to just leave one church and go to, or start, another) were perhaps an essential part of a less individualistic church and its ability to be what the church is called to be in the world.  A lack of accountability to anybody but yourself; and your sense of where the Spirit might be guiding you is a recipe for Babylon. God gives us a community, who we’re united to by the Spirit, to discern where the Spirit might be leading us together. It’s hard for me to believe that the Spirit who unites us will also lead you away from the people he has united you to without any opportunity for you to talk through that leading with those people. But 99% of the people I see leaving churches have done that without speaking to anybody (except perhaps, the leaders of the church recruiting them to their ‘better’ show), and most of the conversations I’ve had have been with people who have already decided to leave (and so lost some of the capacity to be sent well to another church). Where people have left us because of trauma — or my failures to love and leave well — they have left without the conflict being truly resolved or any opportunity for reconciliation and ongoing fellowship and unity to be experienced by either party; this is the loss of an opportunity to experience the Gospel; the love of Jesus; in the midst of our sinfulness, but also in our new, non-Babylonian, relationships. It might very well be that in those circumstances the trust in a relationship is broken to the extent that forgiveness and reconciliation is possible, but full restoration is not. I’m not arguing people should never leave a church; or that the pastor alone should dictate when — Paul’s picture of the church has the pastor playing some sort of shepherding role, absolutely, but has the members belonging to each other; not the pastor as the image bearing king.  The trick is also that in church communities (as opposed to marriages) the absolute best thing for an abuser; a Babylonian; is to belong to a church — they may need to be sent to a different church to protect their victim, but connection to the body of Christ is the best context for repentance, forgiveness, and genuine reconciliation; for dealing with sin in a way that breaks a vicious cycle. 

The point isn’t that churches or marriages should be built on rules, or even on vows. It’s that our vows reflect the story we are participating in (both in marriages and the church), and more than that, that we come together united in love; and love that expresses itself through deep, lifelong, commitment that does come at a cost, but also comes with benefits. It’s no coincidence that Paul lands his teaching on the oneness of the church, as one body, with a passage that gets read ad nauseum in weddings.

And yet I will show you the most excellent way. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

‭‭1 Corinthians 12:31-‬13:1-8‬ ‭

A church built on this version of love won’t feel like Babylon; it won’t abuse or traumatise; it will deal well with sin and hurt. It might feel like a cult, but it will also be a place where the love and example of Jesus, and the story of the Gospel — of sins being forgiven, relationships reconciled, new lives being given — is lived and experienced by all those members of his body, and those who might come amongst us.

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The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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