When People Leave (Part 4)


So far we’ve seen how pastors view the departure of members and families from the churches they shepherd through several lenses. “It’s my fault,” “It’s their fault,” “It’s the church’s fault” are some common ones. Often these “fault” lines intersect and overlap…at least they should! Hopefully as pastors we’re mature enough to know that in a world (and churches) full of sin and sinful people (ourselves included) no one person or party is ever completely at fault. What’s more, since ministry is a spiritual endeavor engaged in both the physical and spiritual realms, it’s not uncommon to add to the mix of these first three assumptions a fourth:

It’s Satan’s Fault. We’re not completely off-base in making this assumption. The Devil is after all the father of lies, an angel of light with a desperately dark heart intent on deceiving, dividing, devouring, and destroying anyone and everything the Lord loves. Ample biblical evidence proves Satan’s involvement in bad and painful things in the human realm: the garden temptation & fall of man, the anguish of Job, the delusion of Israel’s kings, the temptation of Jesus, the sifting of Peter, the seduction of Judas, and the physical torment of Paul—the list goes on! But despite his vile viciousness, humility again forbids us from ascribing him absolute blame.

So, if we’re imperfect leaders, our church members are imperfect, and the churches we lead are themselves troubled and flawed, in what ways and to what extent might we justly attribute the dis-membering of our churches to Satan? For example, when we see disunity or its potential rising in our fellowship, is it right to pray against Satan’s dividing spirit among believers, or is that just neglecting the hard work of confronting and confessing sin in order to keep harmony between believers? Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one,” and later in v. 22, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one …” Why does Jesus pray for such unity? Because of an evil (Satanic) spirit of division He knows will come against them, as we see in v. 15, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Some early manuscripts just say “evil,” but apparently it’s not abusing the Greek to attach such evil to an individual (the same translation renders the same Greek as simply “evil” in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:13).

So yes, it’s perfectly right to pray against Satan’s divisive tactics. But remember, Satan never divides two Christians against each other without first doing a dividing work inside of one or both individuals. Take the case of Peter and Jesus. No one could’ve given a stronger verbal affirmation of Jesus’ true identity than Peter in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.” Yet in short order he denied Jesus (essentially departed from Him). Why? Because he was inwardly divided. Why/How was he inwardly divided? It’s not that Peter didn’t want to support Jesus, it’s just that in that instance he wanted personal safety and comfort more. He was divided against himself. Interestingly, before the denial (departure), Jesus tells Peter at the Last Supper that Satan had demanded to “sift you like wheat,” but then says, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Wait a minute. Peter’s faith failed royally just a few hours later! So, was Jesus’ prayer ineffective or pointless? Not at all.

Nor are our prayers against Satan’s sifting/dividing tactics ineffective or pointless—no matter what happens in the short-term! Jesus takes the long view in His prayers for the outer unity of His people and the inner unity of His individual disciples. Peter’s faith did fail; he denied Jesus and departed from Him; he and all the disciples scattered, but that wasn’t the end of Peter’s story. His faith didn’t ultimately fail. Jesus and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit overcame his inner dividedness and eventually led him to serve the church, to work for the unity of believers (Jewish and Gentile ones), and to sacrifice his once-beloved earthly comforts and even his life for the testimony of His Lord.

Satan is a real enemy who really wants to divide Christians and dis-member churches. We have to pray against him and his manipulation of our desires and those of our fellow church members. But we also have to pray with the mind of Christ which says that even if God permits Satan a degree of divisive access to the church in the short-term, while it may be painful, Lord willing, it won’t be permanent. Of course by “not permanent” I’m not suggesting that everyone who leaves your church or mine will eventually return to it. But if those persons are truly the Lord’s born-again people, there will be a final (and glorious) reunion with them one day. Maybe Satan is using sin and self-interest to draw people away from our churches. Perhaps their faith—like Peter’s—is weak at present, and only by the distance of separation from Christ and other believers will they see that weakness and come to cling more humbly and desperately to Jesus.

In Peter and all the other examples listed above (Job, Paul, etc.) we must never forget that Satan is not rogue. He wants to be, but he isn’t. He’s a created being who has never done and will never do anything outside of God’s permissive will. He’s a rebel to be sure, but he’s on a rope that can’t be broke! God doesn’t have to be pleased with the actions of His creatures in order to permit them. His permission simply points to a higher purpose for those He loves, AND at the same time produces a more devastating punishment for the Devil and everyone else whom He in His sovereignty permits to rebel.

Well, we’ve got one more assumption of fault to deal with in this series of posts about “When People Leave” our churches. Any guesses who’s left to blame?

See you next week for Part 5!