The Compost Pile: An Analogy of Forgiveness and Forbearance in Marriage

January 29, 2013

[This article was originally written six years ago, when John Piper was preaching the series of sermons that eventually became This Momentary Marriage. The sermon referred to here was revised to become chapter 4 of the book. Beth and I use this document both in preparing couples for marriage, and in helping those who are dealing with marital problems.]

This last Sunday, John Piper continued his series on marriage, discussing forbearance and forgiveness. In conclusion, he relates an analogy he and his wife have found helpful. What follows is an edited transcription of that analogy; I’ll extend it with some additional thoughts afterwards:

The compost pile: Trying to pull together forbearance and forgiveness and all the things we’ve seen – I’m closing with the compost pile. Picture your marriage . . . as a grassy field. You enter it at the beginning full of hope and joy. You look out on the field and you see beautiful flowers and grass stretching and rolling hills and trees. . . . It is beautiful. You want to walk in this all your days. (The grass, the flowers, the hills, the sky, the warm breeze: [these represent] not what happens to you, [but] the relationship. . . . I’m describing the relationship). And on the wedding day, I want this woman, and I want this man, and we want to be together, to walk in the beautiful fields of green grass, and spring flowers, and trees, and hills, and bright sunshine and cool breezes. That’s the way [we think] it’s going to be. But before long, you step in a cow pie. And in some seasons of your marriage they seem to be everywhere: “This is not grass; this is just manure!” Late at night they become especially prevalent. . . . These [cow pies] are sins, flaws, idiosyncrasies, weaknesses, annoying habits in your spouse. And you try to forgive them and you try to forbear.

The problem is, they can tend to dominate the relationship. Everywhere you step, it smells. It may not be true that they’re everywhere; it just feels that way. I think the combination of forbearance and forgiveness leads to the creation of a compost pile. Here at the compost pile, you and your wife or husband begin to shovel cow pies into this pile. And you put a fence around it to hold them in. And you look at each other and you simply admit that there are a lot of cow pies, . . . [saying,] “You and I bring a lot of cow pies to this relationship.” And you say to each other, “You know, we’ve got to do this because [these cow pies are] all we’re thinking about. I mean, we’re looking for them to step in. So let’s get them and throw them in one place. Let’s throw them in a . . . compost pile. Compost can do some good. . . . When we have to, we will go there . . . and we’ll smell it, and we’ll feel bad and we’ll deal with it as best we can. Then, we’ll walk away from the pile . . . and we’ll set our eyes on the rest of field.” [This] is right at the heart of what I’m trying to say. Satan and our flesh can begin to take a few disappointments, a few frustrations, and multiply them so out of proportion that we think there is no green grass anywhere, there are no flowers anywhere, there are no trees, there are no hills, there is no sunshine – which is an absolute lie. And then we say to each other, “We’re going to walk away from that pile and set our eyes on the rest of the field, and we’re going to pick some favorite paths and hills that we know are not strewn with cow pies. And we’re going to be thankful that that part of the field . . . is sweet.” It may be a small part now, but that part is sweet.

Our hands may be dirty. And our backs may ache from all the shoveling. But we know one thing: We will not pitch our tent by the compost pile. . . . We won’t go live there. We won’t retreat there. We won’t lick our wounds there. . . . We will go there when we must. This is the gift of grace that we will give each other again and again and again. . . . Why? Because you and I are chosen and holy and loved.

This is covenant keeping. I recognize that I am a forgiven sinner. And, with eyes wide open, not eyes that are blind to her faults, I recognize that Beth is a forgiven sinner. Furthermore, I recognize that she and I are credited with the righteousness of Christ Himself. And so, having been forgiven much, and living with a forgiven sinner who has  Christ’s righteousness, I promise to pick up all the cow pies that she is responsible for that are strewn over the hills of our marriage, and carry them to the compost pile and leave them there. She promises to do the same.

That’s the promise. And that’s vital in marriage. It’s vital in any intimate Christian relationship.

But then a miracle happens. Have you ever had a compost pile? We keep vegetable scraps under our kitchen sink before carrying them out to the compost pile. And sometimes, if we’re slow to take out the buckets, they can smell putrid by the time we take them out. Even rinsing out the container can be a chore. It stinks! The compost pile smells rotten when you first dump the bucket on it. But if you add some dirt and leaves and mix it and turn it occasionally – after a few weeks, it no longer smells bad. Instead, it smells fresh. Deep. Earthy. And if you then take that compost and spread it over the grassy fields, the grass sucks up the nutrients, and thrives, and becomes deep and thick and luscious and green.

Just so in marriage. The compost created by all the forgiveness and forbearance represented in the pile deepens and enriches the marriage. You now grow wonderful grass in areas where, in the past, the hilltop was barren and bleak. You can now stop and rest – yes, you can enjoy – parts of your shared life that previously were messy and stinking and unapproachable. You can laugh at your former insensitivity and stand amazed at what God’s grace has done in your shared life through His Spirit’s enablement of forgiveness and forbearance. Oh, you will each continue to create cow pies. But your covenant is: “I will take these to the compost pile. And I believe that God will use these too to enrich, and not to make barren, our life.”

Will you make that covenant with your present – or future – spouse? Will you commit to forgiving and forbearing one another – to the glory of God? Will you practice covenant faithfulness?

That is my commitment to you: To model such faithfulness in my marriage, to seek forgiveness quickly when I do not, and to help you to live this out through opening up the Word. May God be pleased within DGCC to make us a people who forbear, who forgive – and who thus make wonderful, nourishing compost to the glory of God.

Will You Pay Attention?

January 26, 2013

When God speaks, do you listen?

We often plead with God to speak to us, to tell us what we should do, whom we should marry, where we should move. We ask God to guide us and direct us and comfort us and lead us.

Yet do we answer when He calls?

How does He call?

1)      He calls through the evidence of creation around us:

Psalm 19:1-2, 4a  The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. . . . Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

2)      He calls through His Word, His revelation to mankind:

Psalm 119:105  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

2 Peter 1:19  We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

3)      He calls through His people proclaiming His message:

2 Timothy 4:2a Preach the Word!

Luke 9:60b “As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Mark 5:19  ”Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

Jesus commands us to answer that call, to obey what we hear:

Luke 9:44 “Let these words sink into your ears.”

Matthew 7:24-27 ”Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Yet time and again we have not paid attention to His Word, instead closing our ears and willfully refusing to hear:

Zechariah 7:11-13  But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.  They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts.  “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the LORD of hosts.

Seeing this danger in history, understanding the stain of sin within us, we must be sensitive to the stubbornness and rebellion in our own hearts. So will you pray with me?

Father God, guard my heart from stubbornness, from stopping my ears so I do not hear Your Word. I see those elements of rebellion within me, the desire to go my own way, to forge my own understanding of reality, instead of depending upon You and upon Your revelation. There is within me the longing for independence, for autonomy rather than for being Your child, looking to You for wisdom and understanding. Forgive me for these longings. Time and again You have shown me that true joy and fulfillment come from leaning on You, from depending on You, from acknowledging that I am not wise on my own, that I can do nothing on my own, that I will destroy what I love most and will dishonor the One to whom I owe everything unless I humbly acknowledge my need. So free me from the slavery of Self, and lead me willingly and joyfully in Your paths, for my own good and for the glory of Your Name. Amen.

Thoughts from an Unlikely Convert

January 26, 2013

In the late 90s, Rosaria Butterfield was content. She seemingly had all she wanted: A tenured position in her department at a major research university. A respected administrative position in the university community. A long-term, stable relationship with her lesbian lover. A large group of people who admired her as a person and agreed with her worldview.

As recorded in her recent book – The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith – God smashed to pieces that world of contentment. Through a research project on the religious right, God brought a local pastor and his wife into her life. They loved her, listened to her, and invited her into their home. God opened Rosaria’s eyes: “I asked him to take it all: my sexuality, my profession, my community, my tastes, my books, and my tomorrows” (509). He did. After a few years, the only constant from her past life was her dog.  She experienced a series of difficult trials as she dealt with “the rubbish of my sin, forgiven by God, but still there to be cleared away” (596). As she writes, Rosaria needed to fall on her face to learn God’s lessons – so He was kind enough to let her fall (1414).

The book is a compelling story of Rosaria’s struggles at conversion and in her Christian life to grow in Christlikeness. It also contains an invaluable critique of evangelical American subculture from someone who shares a belief in biblical authority, but lived for much of her adult life outside that subculture.

I strongly recommend the book. As Carl Trueman writes, “I do not agree with everything she says; but I did learn from everything she wrote.” Let me whet your appetite by providing excerpts – some clearly helpful, some provocative – on four topics: Sexuality, effective outreach, her critique of the evangelical subculture, and the strengths of a biblical church.

1) Sexuality

Homosexuality— like all sin— is symptomatic and not causal— that is, it tells us where our heart has been, not who we inherently are or what we are destined to become (690).

In understanding myself as a sexual being, responding to Jesus (i.e., “committing my life to Christ”) meant not going backwards to my heterosexual past but going forward to something entirely new (705).

2) Effective Outreach

Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue. There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted (238).

Ken and Floy invited the stranger in— not to scapegoat me, but to listen and to learn and to dialogue. . . . We didn’t debate worldview; we talked about our personal truth and about what “made us tick.” Ken and Floy didn’t identify with me. They listened to me and identified with Christ. They were willing to walk the long journey to me in Christian compassion (308, emphasis added).

If Ken and Floy had invited me to church at that first meal I would have careened like a skateboard on a cliff, and would have never come back. . . . Ken was willing to bring the church to me (320, emphasis added).

That morning— February 14, 1999— I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew at the Syracuse [Reformed Presbyterian] church. I share this detail with you not to be lurid but merely to make the point that you never know the terrain someone else has walked to come worship the Lord (494).

3) Critique of the American Evangelical Subculture

I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much (176).

Christians claimed that their worldview and all of the attending features that I saw— Republican politics, homeschooling biases, refusal to inoculate children against childhood illnesses, etc.— had God on its side. Christians still scare me when they reduce Christianity to a lifestyle and claim that God is on the side of those who attend to the rules of the lifestyle they have invented or claim to find in the Bible (208).

I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin. I think that many of us have a hard time believing the God we believe in, when the going gets tough. And I suspect that instead of seeking counsel and direction from those stronger in the Lord, we retreat into our isolation and shame and let the sin wash over us, defeating us again. Or maybe we muscle through on our pride. Do we really believe that the word of God is a double-edge sword, cutting between the spirit and the soul? Or do we use the word of God as a cue card to commandeer only our external behavior? (588)

[Reflecting on Ezekiel 16:48-50) Living according to God’s standards is an acquired taste. We develop a taste for godly living only by intentionally putting into place practices that equip us to live below our means. We develop a taste for God’s standards only by disciplining our minds, hands, money, and time. In God’s economy, what we love we will discipline. . . . Undisciplined taste will always lead to egregious sin – slowly and almost imperceptibly (653).

I know, I told my audience, why over 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce: because Christians act as though marriage redeems sin. Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus himself can do that (1632).

[When reflecting on some who left their small church plant because of a “lack of fellowship.”] What does it really mean to “lack fellowship”? At least as it regards the handful of families that showed immediate excitement and then after a month a changed heart, this is what “lacking fellowship” means. It means that the family needs to be in a church made up of people who are just like they, who raise their children using the same childrearing methods, who take the same stance on birth control, schooling, voting, breastfeeding, dress codes, white flour, white sugar, gluten, childhood immunizations, the observance of secular and religious holidays. We encountered families who feared diversity with a primal fear. They often told us that they didn’t want to “confuse” their children by exposing them to differences in parenting standards among Christians. I suspect that they feared that deviation from their rules might provide a window for children to see how truly diverse the world is and that temptation might lead them astray. Over and over and over again I have heard this line of thinking from the fearful and the faith-struggling. We in the church tend to be more fearful of the (perceived) sin in the world than of the sin in our own heart. Why is that? Here is what I think: I believe that there is no greater enemy to vital life-breathing faith than insisting on cultural sameness (2229, emphasis added).

4) The Strengths of a Biblical Church

I needed (and need) faithful shepherding, not the glitz and glamour that has captured the soul of modern evangelical culture. I had to lean and lean hard on the full weight of scripture, on the fullness of the word of God, and I’m grateful that when I heard the Lord’s call on my life, and I wanted to hedge my bets, keep my girlfriend and add a little God to my life, I had a pastor and friends in the Lord who asked nothing less of me than that I die to myself (566, emphasis added).

The fact that God is sovereign over the good and the evil does not necessarily make the evil any less frightening (1370).

I came to believe that my job was not to critique and “receive” a sermon, but to dig into it, to seize its power, to participate with its message, and to steal its fruit (1424).

Through [her pastor’s] preaching, I would learn how to grieve through repentance without feigning false innocence. I learned that night the simple truth of sanctification on this side of heaven: it is as the writer of Hebrews tells us, both “already” and “not yet.” Even when faced with the blinding sting of someone else’s sin, it really is not someone else’s sin that can hurt us. It is our own festering sin that takes the guise of innocence that will be the undoing of us all (1490, emphasis added).

[All references are not to page numbers but to Kindle locations of the beginning of the quote.]

Scripture, President Obama, and Roe v Wade

January 19, 2013

Tuesday is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which declared unconstitutional virtually all state laws protecting the lives of children still in their mothers’ wombs. Since then, well over 50 million such children have been put to death in the United States.  We rightly are horrified at the murder of 20 children in Newtown CT; on average there are more than 160 Newtown killings per day of unborn children in this country.  In light of this anniversary and these facts, please take time to reflect on the following Scriptures; read their contexts; consider them in their relation to the overall storyline of the Bible. Then, in light of these Scriptures, reflect on the words below of President Obama in Newtown. Do not his arguments hold all the more strongly for our unborn children – who, in their mothers’ wombs, are in much greater danger than children in school classrooms or in shopping malls?

Psalm 127:3-5  Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.  4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!

Jeremiah 1:5  Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

Psalm 139:13  You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

Isaiah 44:2  Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you.

Isaiah 46:3  Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb.

Psalm 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. [King David is not saying that his mother was particularly sinful. He is saying that from the moment of conception, he was in sin. A subhuman being cannot be in sin.]

Luke 1:15  [John the Baptist] will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.

Luke 1:44   For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb [John the Baptist] leaped for joy.

Proverbs 24:10-12   If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.  11 Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.  12 If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?

Psalm 82:3-4   3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.  4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

From James 3:14-4:7 If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. . . . 4:2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? . . . 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  7 Submit yourselves therefore to God.

Luke 9:23-24   And [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

From President Obama in Newtown:

This is our first task — caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations?  Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? . . . Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? . . .

If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no.  We’re not doing enough.  And we will have to change. . . .

These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. . . . But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child . . . then surely we have an obligation to try. . . .

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

For more information see abort73.com. We encourage you to support and to volunteer at the Pregnancy Resource Center of Charlotte.

What Jesus Started: Joining the Movement, Changing the World

January 11, 2013

Yesterday I finished an excellent book by Steve Addison, What Jesus Started: Joining the Movement, Changing the World. Steve highlights six elements of the movement Jesus started, and thus six elements of any church planting movement: See the need, connect with people, share the Gospel, train disciples, gather communities, and multiply workers. He uses this grid to look sequentially at Jesus’ ministry on earth, Jesus’ work through Peter and the early church, Jesus’ work through Paul, and Jesus’ work today. In between each section, he includes modern case studies: of Jeff Sundell‘s work in south Asia and North Carolina, of Ying Kai’s work in east Asia, and of Julius Ebwongu in Uganda. Here are some quotes:

When Michelle and I planted our first church, we felt we had to form a church to share the gospel and make disciples. Church first, then gospel, then disciples. Evangelism for us typically meant inviting someone to come to church. Two decades later we’ve learned to change the order and priorities to gospel first, then disciples, then churches. When we connect with people, we’re not trying to get them to come to our church. We share the good news about Jesus, not the good news about our church. We’re looking for responsive people. As people are putting their faith in Jesus, they are also learning to obey what he commanded and become disciples. . . .

God used unqualified, inexperienced, under-resourced people. Think about what this missionary movement didn’t have. Funding was limited. There was no central organizational structure. There was no professional priesthood. No schools for training missionaries. Galileans were not well thought of throughout the rest of Israel. Jews were cultural outsiders in the dominant Greco-Roman culture. The political and religious powers of the day were against the disciples. There were no historical precedents for what they were trying to achieve. The disciples only had Jesus’ example, his teaching, the message of his death and resurrection, his authority, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, they had very little to aid them in their mission. . . .

The building and equipping of his church is exactly what Jesus’ kingly rule is designed to produce. The gospel of the kingdom is not an alternative to the gospel of Christ crucified for our sin. Jesus came to announce the reign of God and to perform the decisive act through which God will bring in his reign. Talking about the kingdom of God requires us to talk about the cross, the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. . . .

The goal is not to teach new disciples everything they need to know. It is to teach new believers the habit of obedience to what they know. . . .

There is a world of difference between a command to teach disciples and a command to teach disciples to obey. The former focuses on the teacher, the latter on the learner. The first is concerned with transferring information; the second is concerned with life transformation. Learning to obey Christ is the goal of discipleship. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present as new disciples gather around his Word and learn to follow him one step at a time. Our methods must be simple and transferable so that new disciples can immediately begin teaching others. Evangelism that aims at decisions rather than disciples will never produce a multiplying movement. Movements spread through new believers who hear, believe and obey! . . .

Should I Leave My Church?

January 11, 2013

It happens time and again. George attends a church a few times, and excitedly moves into membership. Then, over the course of a year or two, his excitement wanes. The grass looks greener elsewhere. So George finds a second church, and excitedly joins it. Two years later the process repeats itself. Hop, hop, hop. One church after another.

The American consumer mentality has affected the way many of us choose to join and leave churches. Yet committing to a particular local assembly in the Body of Christ should not be a consumer decision. For Christians are not consumers in a church market; we are the hands and feet and eyes and ears of the Body.

Several years ago, we put together an outline of biblical guidelines concerning how to choose a church. Today, we address the other end of the decision-making process: When should I leave a church? And if I leave, how should I leave?

Consider first of all some common bad reasons for leaving a church:

a) “Someone hurt me!” Scripture commands us to “bear with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other” (Colossians 3:13). So in our church covenant, we commit ourselves to be “slow to take offense, and always [to] be ready for reconciliation.” God uses the sins of others to mold us into His likeness as we learn to forbear and forgive. As in marriage, this growth only takes place in an atmosphere of covenant faithfulness to one another. We have to be committed to each other in order to work through difficult issues. So don’t leave a church because you are hurt.

b) “I think I would be happier elsewhere” or “I’d like to be a part of this program that this church doesn’t have.” This is the essence of the American consumer mentality. Instead of this “me first” attitude, we are to have a “Kingdom first” attitude through commitment to a local body. When (not if!) we see its flaws, we are to work to strengthen those aspects of the body. Indeed, frequently we most notice those areas of weakness in which we ourselves are gifted to serve. So if you see something that is not getting done – do it! Then organize and motivate others to do it with you.

c) “My friends have now left.” Again, this reflects a consumer mentality. Our commitment is to the body, not to a few individuals.

d) “I should be an elder or teacher and I’m not.” Sometimes this is more pointed: “I should be serving in that role rather than so-and-so.” Being an elder or a teacher is a privilege, not a right. A person becomes an elder or teacher by finding ways to serve and then serving faithfully, often one-on-one and behind the scenes, all the while supporting the present church elders and unifying the church behind their leadership. Someone who will only be happy with the public recognition of the office is, in fact, unqualified to serve in the office. If someone “aspires to the oversight” (1 Timothy 3:1, literal translation), he should step out and do it without the title, all the while working toward Christian maturity as detailed in the biblical lists of qualifications for elder. When he faithfully serves in this way, it will then be easy for the church to formally recognize this man as an elder when the leadership team needs his specific set of skills and gifts.

e) “I’m disappointed in my pastors and elders.” There are several forms that this disappointment takes: “I don’t get the personal attention from the leadership I once got;” “The preaching is not speaking to me as it once was;” “The pastor’s personality is different than what I thought;” “The elders are not leading the church the direction I think it should go.” A sermon from several years ago, ‘Why are My Pastors and Elders So Disappointing, and What Should I Do About It?” goes in to much more detail on this point. In sum, we should speak about such issues with an elder, being honest and open about our thoughts, and listening carefully to his response. But we must maintain an attitude of humility, and – with the qualifications discussed below – should have an inclination to follow the leaders, saying, “I trust God to direct you, and trust His leadership through yours. Whether I agree or not, is there anything I can do to support you?”

Those are all bad reasons to leave a church. They have in common a focus on me, my needs, my gifts.

Consider, second, some biblical reasons to consider leaving a church. Note how these do not have “me” at the center:

a) “My life circumstances have changed, making continued participation difficult.” For example, a young couple without children may be willing to drive 45 minutes regularly to participate in church activities. Once they have a baby, this may no longer be an option, and they have to decide between considerably less involvement or finding a closer church home.

b) “There is a significant opportunity to advance the Kingdom and grow as an ambassador of the Kingdom in another church.” Here we must carefully distinguish between a consumer mindset and a Kingdom mindset; we’ll need help and prayer from others, including from the leaders in our present church, in making the distinction.

c) “The leadership of my present church has made biblically questionable decisions.” These could include questionable teaching, a questionable direction of the church, or a questionable response to sin in the church. Again, the guidelines in the “disappointing elders” sermon are helpful here. We need to give the leadership the opportunity to address our concerns, and we must acknowledge that there are some areas in Scripture that are disputable among Bible-believing Christians.

If any of these possible reasons to leave are a concern, we should seek the counsel and prayer of the leaders early on. Never approach a pastor or elder with a concern you are stating for the first time, and then say, “That’s why we’ve decided to leave.” God gives the gift of elders to provide oversight and prayer in tough situations. Take advantage of that. The final decision to leave or not to leave is always yours, but take the counsel and advice of your elders seriously.

Consider, third, some serious issues that, if accurately assessed and not corrected, require you to leave a church:

a) When important and clear biblical doctrine is distorted or avoided (as, for example, in the churches in Galatia). In this case, if you can, try to stay and correct the wrong teaching. This is not always possible, however.

b) When there is a lack of financial accountability. Even the Apostle Paul was careful not to give even a hint of financial impropriety in the way he handled an offering (2 Corinthians 8:18-21).

c) When there is clear, publically known, unconfessed sin in the church, which is not dealt with (as in 1 Corinthians 5).

Even in these serious cases, we should approach an elder early on and use the guidelines from the “disappointing elders” sermon. It could be that we misunderstand the situation; it could be that a faithful elder has been working behind the scenes to correct the situation, and needs your support and the support of others to move forward biblically. You may be part of the solution.

If you decide after counsel and prayer that it is time to leave, how should you leave?

If at all possible, depend on your current leaders through the process: Ask them for recommendations concerning other churches; tell them where you are visiting and seek their prayers and counsel; unless they have proven themselves to be heretics, stay under their authority until you formally move into membership in a new church. Finally, consider with the leadership how best to say goodbye to your present congregation.

For the local church is not a club. It is not a preaching point. It is, instead, the Body of Christ actualized, lived out in microcosm – a gathering of the redeemed and justified, but a gathering of those still stained by sin. We thus will hurt each other; we will disappoint one another. But God commands us to “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). This includes speaking hard truths to one another when necessary, gracefully and humbly. This also includes being committed to one another, and continuing to serve God together faithfully, especially when that is difficult.

We elders would be delighted if every present member of DGCC remained in this local body for the next 20 years, for you all give us great joy. But we know that’s not God’s plan – and thus we know that that is not best for us, not best for all of you, not best for His glory. There will come a time for many of us to move on. But we pray that when the time comes, each of us would go with the blessings of the leadership, and we would then continue in prayer for one another, thankful for the way God used us to spur one another on to love and good works, and eagerly anticipating our reunion before the Throne, singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).