Not sure which church to join? Rev Stephen Brooks shares the qualities we should look for when seeking a church family, and the right reasons for leaving a church
When we were born, we did not have any choice of what type of family we were born into. But, when it comes to our church family, we do have a choice, and there are biblical guidelines to help us make right choices, so that we are able to fulfil our role as a functioning, healthy member of the body of Christ.
Some unhealthy church family characteristics to avoid include the following:
- Authority is used to boss and control members
- How people behave is more important than what’s really going on in their lives
- People who notice and try to address problems are labelled contentious and unfaithful, and are encouraged to be quiet ‘in the spirit of church unity’
- There is a sense that relationships with people outside the particular church denomination/organisation are considered disloyal
- There is an over emphasis placed on loyalty to certain people and church programmes, rather than to Jesus
A healthy church demonstrates the opposite of the characteristics listed above, where one can grow in healthy relationship with God and one another.
Authority should be used to serve, equip and empower others (Matthew 23). True spiritual authority doesn’t come because you hold a title; it is given by God for the purpose of shepherding God’s flock, to serve, build and set them free. In 1 Peter 5:2-3, Peter tells leaders to “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”
In a healthy church, God’s rules are important, and serve to help the lives and relationships of members. When someone makes a mistake, a healthy church family will condemn the behaviour not the person, according to Romans 8:1. Even in the case of church discipline (1 Corinthians 5), there are two goals in removing a person from the fellowship: the first is to protect the church family from someone who is unrepentant and is a negative influence; the second is to benefit the person, and to try to restore him back into fellowship with Christ and the church family (2 Corinthians 2).
In 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, Paul speaks with clarity on the matter of thinking that our safety is in staying away from people outside our congregational group. If a church’s security is in doctrines, traditions and culture, then you will always be asked to separate from other members of God’s family. Some churches separate from others, based on whether Jesus is coming back before, during, or after the Tribulation; the length of people’s hair; whether hymns or choruses are sung; or issues of religious politics, and many other reasons.
In healthy churches, being able to talk about truthful matters is more than how things look; truth and honesty are more important than tradition or culture. Pat Springle, in his book Trusting, gives advice on how to choose a healthy church family.
It is foolish to:
- trust people who consistently wound you
- think that intimidating people have your best interests in mind
- see people as all good or all bad
- withdraw from all people because some have hurt you
- seek advice from foolish people
- avoid conflict at all costs
- be too self-disclosing in order to earn the love or pity of others
It is wise to:
- call on God and wise people for help
- slowly elevate your level of trust in others as they prove their trustworthiness
- be honest with most people about your feelings and desires
- withhold your feelings and desires from abusive people
- forgive and love, but not necessarily trust, others
- expect conflict when you are honest
Having said all that, if God sent you to a church, do not leave until God releases you. If the Lord is silent, He is often saying, “Stay where I have placed you!” Leaving a church is not only based on how bad you perceive things to be, but also on acting on God’s instruction. When God does instruct you to leave, you will go with peace. To leave with an offended or critical spirit is not healthy (Isaiah 55:12).
If people insist on the church being ‘their’ church, they risk hearing Jesus say, “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” (Matthew 23:38). Literally, “I leave to you the house of you.” If Jesus has left your church, is that where you want to be? Hebrews 10:25 tells us that it’s important to “…not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” This is not about the ritual of going to a certain geographical location, with a certain group of people at certain times during the week. This is about relationships that build God’s people and spread His Kingdom. Just because we do things in God’s Name, doesn’t mean God is doing it or is even in it. Pastors, church programmes, denominations, etc, are all resources to serve the church family so that, in love, we in turn can serve others in the common cause of building God’s Kingdom.