My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I also blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
Should I stay or should I go?
I often hear that question from leaders as they talk about how they are fed up with what they see as troubling trends within their denomination. Their concern is apostacy, and their proclivity is to flee and find moral or doctrinal purity somewhere else. They may even seek to start a new movement that is exactly what they think a New Testament church should be.
The concern for sin is commendable. The love of truth is laudable. The desire for a pure Christian witness is honourable. Even the craving to be with a group of like-minded people is understandable.
But what about the impulse to flee when things go awry? Is it biblical to stay in a church that seems to have lost its way?
Consider for a moment the life of Old Testament prophets.
The prophets of Israel had some really serious stuff to deal with. At times the nation had its act together and the priests, monarch, and people were generally faithful to the covenant requirements. But at other times, things were a mess. And, comparing the list of “good kings” with “bad kings” indicates that the days of frustration outnumbered the days of faithfulness.
For decades at a time the land could be filled with idolatry, pagan worship, sinful priests, desecration of holy places, false prophets, corrupted morals, false teaching, and the abandonment of God’s laws. And the guilt was widely shared – as Jeremiah states, the prophets lied, the priests abused their authority, and the people loved it! (Jeremiah 5:30-31).
Making matters worse was the corruption, failure, and betrayal of one’s colleagues, the persecution of the state, and the exile to far flung regions. As the example of Elijah indicates, loneliness could lead to abject despair (1 Kings 19), or rulers could round up prophets for execution (1 Kings 16). Godly prophets even went into exile with everyone else as they faced the consequences of the judgment of God on the nation.
It is hard to imagine being a leader in a worse condition than what they had to work in. And if any had a reason to say that their faith had lost its way, they did.
Yet despite their troubles, trials, and tribulations, there is no example of prophets saying that due to the sins and corruption of the faith of Israel they would be leaving to start their own movement. No prophets left to reboot the “true” faith of Israel. There was no new Temple, no new priesthood, no new covenant, or no new religion.
Instead, the prophetic record indicates that they remained witnesses within the corrupted faith of the land, continually pointing to the truth, working against all odds for the renewal of their faith, and providing comfort for the faithful remnant.
What does that mean for those concerned about the state of the church today? If the examples of the Old Testament prophets are any indication, the answer to “do I stay or do I go” may be to stay.
There may very well be a time to throw in the towel. There may be a time to go elsewhere. There may be a time when it is neither wise nor safe to stay. Those are matters of spiritual discernment.
But the example of the prophets reminds us that there can be a compelling biblical basis for staying in a church that has lost its way. Sometimes the work for renewal needs to come from within.