Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. And certainly, we have all witnessed cyclical debates, especially within the church. Music (in some way, shape, or form), dress, food, and how to worship are among the perennial topics. The sentiment of “leaving church but not God” is not a new one, but the topic has seen a resurgence in debates, both online and in real life.
One of the things that often happens in discussions like these is that people talk past one another because they don’t define their terms. Without establishing what you’re discussing in the first place, everyone gets lost. In this case, it’s imperative that we determine what is meant by “church.” When I taught high school religion classes, my sophomores and I delved into the various definitions of this seemingly simple word:
1. Church: A worship service or event. It may or may not follow a formal liturgical format.
E.g.: “We’re about to have church.” “Once church is over, we’ll go to potluck.”
2. Church: a building or structure where people gather for religious purposes.
E.g.: “The deacon board will meet at church on Friday to set up for communion.” “I’m going to be late for church (worship) because it’ll take an hour to get to the church (building) in this traffic.”
3. Church: a specific, local congregation.
E.g.: “They are members of Ephesus Church.” “Once the construction is finished, our church (congregation) can stop renting and finally have church (worship) in our own church (building).”
4. Church: a particular denomination.
E.g.: “I’m a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.” “Our church (building) won’t be open this weekend because our church (denomination) is holding General Conference at the convention center right downtown; our whole church (congregation) is taking a bus to attend church (worship) there instead.”
5. Church: The invisible church, also called the church universal. The entire body of Christ, which is comprised of every Christian believer.
E.g.: “It’s like church folks have their own subculture and speak their own language of Christianese.” “Even if you don’t have a church (congregation), the Bible teaches that people are the church (universal) even if they belong to different churches (denomination) and wherever two or three are gathered, they can have church (worship) without being in a church (building).”
Usually when people talk about being hurt by the “church,” it’s either their local congregation (or a subset of people from their congregation) or sometimes, though less commonly, the entire denomination. There is no doubt that entire denominations have been corporately guilty of policies of intolerance and harm (see also: Southern Baptist Convention and racism or sexism or homophobia; or the LDS Church and racism or sexism or homophobia; or the Seventh-day Adventist Church and racism or sexism or homophobia; or . . . well, you get the point). However, very often, people extrapolate experiences they had with people in a local church congregation and apply them to their perspectives on the denomination as a whole.
Years ago, I wrote a comment under an article about Adventism. The article was in a secular publication, part of a series they were doing on various faiths. Out of nowhere, an ex-Adventist (who subsequently went on to found an entire ex-Adventist group) attacked my comments and accused me of lying to the publication because in my comment I had written about my positive memories of growing up in the Adventist Church. Her reaction was jarring. But mostly, I pitied her. Sadly, she couldn’t fathom that her experience was not everyone’s experience. What she went through was not necessarily representative of the entire denomination. She could not bring herself to believe that the harsh things to which she’d been subjected—while they were her truth—weren’t true for me. And it clearly angered her that anyone would dare testify about their upbringing within the church actually being good. I later found out we had a mutual friend. Apparently, the commenter had been so incensed she vented her frustration at my “lies” to this third person. My friend confirmed what had already been glaringly obvious: this woman had been subjected to mentally oppressive teachings in her church (congregation). And she blamed the entire church (denomination) and left. She harbored intense bitterness and lashed out at anyone she perceived to be “pro-Adventism.”
That’s not an unusual story for people who leave the church. I’m not by any means saying that is how everyone reacts. Many leave and simply choose another path. But it is not hard to find those who have been subjected to church (congregation) hurt and therefore carry resentment toward those who remain in the church (whether members of a particular denomination or Christians universally).
Nevertheless, the pain from past experiences with people doesn’t always result in a break in relationship with God. Sometimes it does. But it’s inaccurate to presume that’s always the case. Many people have to remove themselves from a congregation or even denomination to achieve healing for their soul and mind. Remaining in an abusive environment would only degrade their connection to God. But not being part of a local congregation (or perhaps not part of any organized denomination) doesn’t mean they’ve completely severed themselves from the church universal.
Inevitably, someone mentions the admonition to “forsake not the assembly of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). In other words, believers are charged with the importance of congregating with other believers. And it is true that humans are made for community (Genesis 2:18). But that doesn’t necessarily require belonging to a specific congregation or even denomination. Just because someone has left church (as in congregation or denomination) doesn’t mean they don’t still participate in church (worship). And their worship of God and communion with others doesn’t have to take place in a church building. It may not follow a formal format. But it’s still possible to regularly participate in fellowship with other believers, even outside of those constraints. All believers are still part of the body of Christ and the invisible church universal. Worshiping in the company of other believers is still worshiping with the church, regardless of whether or not you have a group name, are officially recognized, or meet in a special building. It is quite possible to remain disconnected from any church (definitions 2, 3, or 4) while still being connected to church (1 and 5).
When people say they’ve “left the church but not God,” someone will almost inevitably decide to argue with them. This likely only reinforces their beliefs about the decision to leave. Instead of debating with those who assure us that they still remain a part of the body, why not try to help them reconcile the hurt they may still hold? Seldom have I met someone who has felt the need to make a public declaration about leaving and who has absolutely no unresolved feelings toward the church they left. When one part of the body is hurt, the entire body hurts too (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 4). That individual may never return to their former church (congregation or denomination), but we have to be okay with the truth that even without returning, they are still in the body of Christ. This is really difficult for some Adventists, particularly those who lean into the remnant identity of Adventism. Some of us think Adventists are the only ones in the “Ark of Safety.” Those with this mindset struggle with the idea that Adventists won’t be the only ones in heaven (and conversely, not every Adventist will be there either!). So it is extremely difficult to see those who aren’t Adventist as part of the church. But if you don’t see it, that’s okay. Christ does. And he’s the one doing the sorting. His perspective is the only one that matters. Even if someone doesn’t belong to your church, that doesn’t mean they’ve left his.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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