When I was younger, I had a very idealistic (read: innocent and naive) Christian faith. I saturated myself with Scripture, especially the words of Jesus, and because I believed in the power of the Gospel, I knew that anything could be accomplished even if our human minds didn’t think it was possible. I hid verses in my heart like John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And coupled with this call to sacrificial love, I took Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 to mean that unity meant staying together. Unity meant eventually we could all agree. Unity meant no one had to hurt for very long.
Unity meant we would never leave each other.
And then in high school, I experienced one of the most painful things in my Christian journey: my church split in two. People I loved and cared about were leaving. Believe me, we had tried to work it out. We loved each other. Families were split down the middle. The issues were tough and painful and there were tears on many Sunday mornings. The first years after the split were very difficult, but over time, healing happened. There remained two churches instead of one, but both congregations were flourishing. God’s amazing story was still being told. Joint services began to be held, not in the hopes of reuniting, but as a testament to the love we had for one another, and for Christ who united us.
It was the first time I realized that sometimes Christians didn’t stay together, and sometimes it still worked out in the end. I’m not saying church splits are what God wants for us, but in this broken and fallen world, sometimes it happens.
Sometimes the conflict reaches a point where staying together is no longer loving each other.
Now that nearly 20 years have passed from that first experience of separation, I have a much more nuanced view of Christian unity. And now, as my denomination navigates yet another controversial issue and more people have begun threatening to leave because of theological disagreements, I can hear the voice ringing in my heart: “Let them leave…even though it hurts.”
There comes a point where it is no longer giving glory to God for the in-fighting to continue. After a while, the hurtful venom begins to poison the body. The hurtful words have damaged, or even destroyed, trust. The aggression and vindictiveness gives witness to the opposite of what the Gospel calls for. In these cases, there is no unity no matter how hard we think we’re trying to stick together. There is no mutual love. There is no trust. There is no unity for the sake of Christ. When we’re too busy asserting how convinced we are that our agenda is the right one, we’ve missed the call to be about God’s work rather than our own.
I remember once telling my dad that you never want anyone to leave your church. He said, “April, that just isn’t true. When someone only wants to be divisive, let them leave…even though it hurts.”
Do we remain together because of our shared history? Do we refuse to acknowledge our mountainous differences because we’re aspiring to the unity of Jesus’ prayer in John 17? Do we stay together in name only, all the while tarnishing the reputations of our brothers and sisters in print, and by the things we say and do? If we are staying together under these circumstances, are we really together at all?
In a perfect world, we would find a way to sit down with each other. We’d share a meal and talk about how much our kids have grown, and share stories of God’s amazing work in our congregations. We’d share in mutual love, and then we would do the difficult work of repairing our relationships. We’d stay there all day (or longer) if that’s what it took, and we’d find a way to reconcile even if our differences remained.
But when one side already has one foot (or both) out the door, let them leave…even though it hurts
When the relationship is only serving to wound the church and the world, let them leave…even though it hurts.
When the relationship has become so filled with venom that it poisons the body, let them leave…even though it hurts.
Because sometimes, in this broken and fallen world, letting them leave is the first step of healing…both for them and for us. We have fallen into a trap in our churches of overusing a marriage metaphor when it comes to the work of the church. The Bible tells us that Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. The Church universal, not a church particular. And as the Church, we are striving to be the bride of Christ.
But sometimes we get our wires crossed, and we think the metaphor also applies in our denominations. Our congregations are not married to their denominations. Yes, we have a commitment. It’s true that we have a lot of shared history. And leaving isn’t something any congregation should take lightly. But, we do not have an obligation to try and convince every congregation to stay with us. It’s not part of the ministry of a denomination to keep every member church happy. The ministry of denominations should be to discern to leading of Christ in the world, and to find ways to live faithfully into that calling. Not every congregation will always agree with the outcome of that discernment.
When there is disagreement, we need to talk. We need to have open and honest conversations. We need to pursue unity. But when one congregation or one family or one person makes clear that there is no investment in maintaining the relationship from their perspective, let them leave…even though it hurts.
Because perhaps through leaving, healing will eventually be possible for everyone, not because Christ wants our division, but because the goal of the church isn’t creating superficial unity. The goal of the church is to be a thriving representation of the reign of God on earth. And that can happen in a variety of ways, through a variety of churches and denominations, through myriad polities and doctrinal stances.
We cannot bring glory to Christ when we are busy acting shamefully towards one another.
Even though it hurts, let them leave. And pray that the healing of Christ can overshadow all of us so that we may grow into the likeness of our Savior.
Come, Lord Jesus. Quickly.