So far in the four parts of this “When People Leave” series we’ve touched on a number of factors and assumptions involved in church departures. It’s never cut and dried, nor is it ever one-sided; in other words, it’s never any one person’s or party’s fault—not even Satan‘s—when individuals leave our churches! As pastors keenly aware of our leadership deficiencies and personality defects we often assume “It’s My Fault” out of self-pity. Then, turning defensive, our pride and self-protective instincts might lead us to point the finger of blame at the departing ones enumerating all the reasons why It’s Their Fault: “They’re the ones whose expectations are too high; they’re the ones whose commitment is too low, etc.” Further analysis can then swing the pointed finger church-ward noting all the known imperfections within the congregation resulting in an “It’s the Church’s Fault” assumption.
These highly emotion-based reactions and assumptions can quickly follow an announcement of departure, only then to be rehashed and revisited over a period of weeks, months, or even years as we come to grips with the fact that those we’ve loved, served, and who have supported us for a season are not coming back. Slowly we realize there’s some truth to each of the first three assumptions: we are imperfect leaders of imperfect Christians who together make up imperfect churches. And on top of that, we have a spiritual enemy always ready to seize upon our own, our church members’, and our congregation’s imperfections with lies, wounds, suspicions, and other tactical distractions from our mission of making and multiplying disciples.
And yet once all the guilty ones, human and demonic, have been ascribed their portion of blame in the dismembering of our churches, I speak for myself at least when I say this: I’m not satisfied! I’m not satisfied because I know another person is involved. And by involved I mean invested – invested to an infinitely greater degree than all the sinner–saints who will ever call on Jesus’ name and all the fallen angels who will ever seek to divide his body on earth. But because this one is perfect I want to be clear that I am not attributing real blame nor using the “f”-word quite the same way when I say…
It’s God’s Fault.
By “fault” I mean responsibility, involvement, permission. No one has ever divided nor could ever divide Jesus’ bride and body without His permission. The question we must ask is of course why He would ever grant such permission.
In short, the answer boils down to one word: sanctification. I don’t need to tell you that sanctification and sanitization come from the same root word. Jesus is always cleaning up His bride, making her ready and beautiful for that great marriage supper to come. And yes, while our sins were all forgiven on the cross, they are still found in abundance, clinging to us, gunking up every aspect of our lives, even our church families. No matter how precise and edifying the preaching, no matter how attentive a pastor is to his flock’s spiritual health, no matter how eager the volunteers nor how smoothly the programming runs at any given church, sin is there collecting like dust in the corners. It’s why at bath time moms tell their kids to wash everywhere, especially in the cracks and creases where the different parts of our bodies come together. Well, in the body of Christ the cracks and crevices where different parts join are inter-human relationships between flawed people. Those relationships can sometimes be held together by unholy things under a mask of church unity: co-dependencies, idolizations, self-serving infatuations. The body-washing metaphor breaks down somewhat in that at times in order for Jesus to get at our most dingy parts, He actually has to separate pieces.
Separation works a couple of different ways in the process of sanctification. First, separation may need to happen between two or more true Christians. Again, on a level we can’t even see, something unholy has gotten trapped and held in place by a relationship. Like dirt under the skin, infection will eventually set in, and then the whole body will suffer. In due course, after the parting happens, the separate parts will eventually see what Jesus was doing. Better that Jesus separate parts of the same body temporarily that they might be further sanctified and reunited in a glorious eternity than letting sin fester and do greater damage to the whole.
Secondly, separation is part of how Jesus rids His body of false parts. The sheep will be separated from the goats. Yes, that will happen on Judgment Day. Likewise wheat and tares are sometimes permitted to grow up together right up to the harvest, then comes the threshing, the separating, the burning. On earth, the Church and all of Her millions of local expressions, will never be fully sanctified. Sometimes, members will leave and their attitudes and actions afterwards will reveal that they never were really part of the true church. They were there for entertainment, to socialize, to network, to self-promote, or in some cases to play at being religious while on a secret (and evil) mission to purposefully sow division.
It’s the church’s job to pray that Jesus would first root out sin by saving any among us who are not truly His disciples. We should also pray that He would sanctify the body by separating those who would do harm (by the way, it’s probably be best not to use names in these prayers—unless we’re willing to use our own too). But we should always pray with a view to the supreme wisdom of our Lord in sanctifying His bride in His way for His ultimate glory…and ours.
The Church—and every member of it—belongs to Jesus. None of us want or look forward to separations and departures of people from our churches, any more than my kids want or look forward to bathtime. But God—like any good earthly parent—is not going to let His children remain in a state of uncleanness. It’s not their favorite part of the day, but my kids know that getting baths, washing behind ears, under arms, between fingers and toes, and all the other places where their parts come together, is just part of being in my family. We cry when people leave our churches. Like soap in a cut, it hurts; but it also cleans!
May we labor with Jesus—not against Him—in continually uncovering and washing away sin with the Word and the discipline of confessing it to God and to each other. And may we seek His strength to shepherd His people well, even when the process of sanctification means people must leave.