Thank you for all your articles and all questions and answers! I have a question I’m interested in. Often, when people leave the Church, they say that they are leaving the Church, but not away from God. They are sure that they are continue to live with God, even if their “journey” is delaying for many years. One of those people even told me recently that when he “was asked to leave the ship,” he just continued to float next to the “ship”, in the same direction. How would you answer these people who claim that they don’t need the Church and they continue their life with God without it? Thank you!
Those who choose to leave their particular fellowship fall into a number of categories, and I want to be careful how I respond to your question.
1. Some leave a local church because they are dissatisfied with some aspect of how the group they have been in do Christianity, and therefore choose to join another group. I do not believe that this means, necessarily, that they have left the Church (ie the number of those who are called out and are saved by Christ) because they join another fellowship.
a. Even in this case, there are differences, as people can leave to join a group with rather blatant false doctrine and they can begin to teach such false doctrine on essential matters. For this person, I believe we should ask them to discuss these doctrinal errors, but if they choose to persist in believing in false doctrines, we will probably have to simply leave them in the hands of God to judge them.
b. Others leave to join another group which we may not entirely agree with, but which has a life and doctrine without blatant error in essential doctrines. For these people, we may want to express our concerns, but we need to let them go and find their own way. We should try to support their decision as a brother, even if we do not agree with that decision.
2. Others leave and totally go back into the world. For these people, we need to reach out to them in the hopes that they will not get to the point described in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-31—that they will come to their senses and return to Christ.
3. Other leave their fellowship but become something like a free-range Christian. They float around, perhaps attending a church here and there and perhaps having their own lone relationship with God, or perhaps even occasionally attending one of our meetings, but not committing themselves to membership and committed fellowship in any Christian group. They have not rejected the idea of Christianity and believe that, on some level, they still are in a relationship with God. It seems that this is what you are describing in your question. For this person, I believe it is our job to read the scriptures with them and explain to them that they are putting their salvation in extreme jeopardy. Christianity is lived out in a fellowship, and in submission to a local leadership, and practiced using the one another passages and the sermon on the Mount (and other passages as well, obviously…) as a guide to life within the Church. There are dozens of passages which express this absolutely essential truth. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 is a good example. We need each other. If we cut ourselves off from the body, then we will ultimately be cut off from Christ. Anyone who thinks differently is wrong and is living in rather blatant disobedience to Christ. 1 Cor 12:21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The Bible commands us to encourage one another daily (Hebrews 3:12-13) and to not fail to meet with the body (Hebrews 10:25). I am not saying that someone who is supposedly floating next to the ship will lose his or her salvation immediately. I believe that God is patient and wants all of us to come to our senses. However, I would suggest to this person to come to their senses sooner rather than later. If they do not want to be part of the ICOC, then they should find a group that they can in good conscience join with in fellowship and submit themselves to that body and to that leadership (Hebrew 13:7,17). If there is no Christian group in their town or city with which they feel they can join, then they should humble themselves, swallow their pride, and come back into the ICOC fellowship. We do not need to judge them for no longer wanting to be part of our fellowship, but to be out of committed Christian fellowship is to commit spiritual suicide.
I hope this helps.