A few weeks ago, a video clip made the rounds on social media of John Piper responding to a question about a believer who says, “I’m not walking away from Jesus, but I’m done with the church,” after an experience of church hurt or failure in leadership. While not ruling out the choice of a believer to walk away from a particular congregation, Piper stressed the impossibility of thinking someone could follow Christ and leave the church altogether. “To walk away from the church is to walk away from Christ,” he said.

That this statement was controversial says something about our contemporary, individualistic context. It’s true we’ve experienced a season of rot and corruption being exposed in a number of high-profile churches, so it’s not surprising that some might conclude a personal relationship with Jesus is what matters most, to the exclusion of organizational Christianity in all its messiness. In a survey from a decade ago, a minority of self-identifying Christians claimed the church was essential to one’s faith.

Church as Mother

But if you zoom out of our contemporary Western setting, you find that Piper’s comments about following Jesus and belonging to the church are standard fare for nearly all Christians around the world today, as has been the case for nearly all of church history. Cyprian of Carthage (AD 210–58) is the one who said you cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church as your mother, a statement reiterated by the reformers, including John Calvin who pointed to the motherly terminology as a sign of “how useful, indeed how necessary” the church is for believers (Institutes 4.1.4).

We can go back even further, to the New Testament itself, to see this connection between following Christ and belonging to his people. The church is the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:24). It’s impossible to cling to the head of Christ without doing the same to his body.

The apostolic letters assume the first Christians were committed to each other in covenantal fellowship, and since the author of Hebrews commands believers to gather (Heb. 10:25), it’s a contradiction to claim to follow Jesus and yet disregard the apostolic instruction. An unchurched Christian, as John Stott pointed out, is “a grotesque anomaly. . . . The New Testament knows nothing of such a person.”

Disappearing Agency in Dechurching

The recent dustup over Piper’s comments on walking away from the church has helped crystallize some thoughts I’ve entertained for a couple of years now, an aspect of the discourse on dechurching that bothers me. I discussed it briefly on an episode of Reconstructing Faith with Megan Hill.

In the way we talk about dechurching, it seems like personal agency disappears. We talk as if dechurching is a phenomenon that just happens, much like a snowstorm or hurricane blowing through and leaving the landscape changed. The reality is, dechurching is the result of personal choices extended over time. Dechurching doesn’t happen to someone, as if people are passive spectators. Leaving the church is something people do.

The statistics in The Great Dechurching demonstrate that the decision to leave the church, for many, isn’t always conscious. For a good number of people who’ve dropped out of church, the process is like a slow leak in a tire, or drifting away due to a change in life circumstances, inconvenient schedules, and superficial relationships. There may never be a conscious choice to “walk away.”

Still, dechurching requires decisions. We choose to invest our time in something other than our local congregation. We put off the decision to join a local church when we move to a new town. We prioritize other activities over worship with other believers. We leave a fellowship if we experience hurt and distress there, and we choose not to look for another church where spiritual healing might be found.

Dechurching doesn’t just happen to us, as if we have no moral agency. Thinking you can pursue the Christian life on your own, apart from a local body of believers, isn’t only wrongheaded; it’s wrong. It’s disobedience to King Jesus. By removing the moral frame of dechurching, we do a disservice to believers who need to be wooed back into community.

Moral Problem of Churchlessness

I can hear the howls of protest already—as if insisting on church membership is just another way to minimize, justify, or excuse the abominable behavior of some who claim the name of Christ. Let’s be clear about the rot in the church. God will not be mocked. He will deal justly with bad shepherds who misuse his name to commit atrocities and prey on his precious flock. No sin against his people goes unnoticed.

I sympathize with those whose experience in the church has left them spiritually battered and bruised. But most of today’s dechurching is the result of our wayward hearts, not church leader scandals. The human heart tends toward sin, and when we walk down a disobedient path, we’re inclined to rationalize our direction and decisions. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,” the old hymn goes. Most of us haven’t borne the brunt of church scandals, at least not personally, which means if we rely on these stories as the reason for our churchlessness, it’s likely we were searching for the slightest justification to do what we wanted in the first place.

Road to Unbelief

Matthew Lee Anderson points to a letter J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his son who had written to him about his “sagging faith.” Tolkien acknowledged the church’s sins and failures and how corruption might weaken a believer’s devotion, but he warned against the temptation to find in the church’s scandals a “convenient” opportunity to “turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own fault to find a scape-goat.”

Leaning on the work of historian Philip Jenkins, who claimed it wasn’t the church’s transgressions that sped up secularism but a rapid secularization that looks for more church scandals, Anderson comments,

In a society where piety prevails, the incentive to cloak the church’s transgressions is considerable—which is perfectly compatible with a widespread expectation that the church will be terrible (since a pious society will know its church history and read its Bible). By contrast, a secularizing society will look for justifications for its growing unbelief—and find them in the repugnant and wicked conduct of Christians.

We think people are leaving the church today because of all the church scandals. But it’s possible we hear more about church scandals today because people seek to justify their decision to leave.

Church as Glorious and Complicated

Why is the New Testament so insistent on gathering with believers in covenant fellowship? Perhaps it’s one way we’re inoculated against the Docetist heresy that said Christ only appeared to have a body when he was actually just a spiritual being.

C. FitzSimons Allison writes,

“I’m religious but I don’t believe in institutional Christianity” is often another Docetic way to say, “I want to be spiritual without any of the ambiguities, frustrations and responsibilities that embody spiritual commitment.” I want to be a parent, but I don’t want to change a diaper. I want to be on the soccer team, but I want to do my own thing over in the corner, show up for practice whenever I feel like it and do whatever I please. . . . Institutions are embodiments and substantiations of ideals, aims, and values. Docetism is a special abnegation of any responsibility to incarnate ideals, values, or love. It is altogether too easy to love and care in the abstract. Concrete situations of diapers, debts, divorce, or listening to and being with someone in depression and despair, is the test of real love. Docetism is the religious way to escape having love tested in the flesh. All of us are tempted to audit life rather than to participate fully and be tested by it.

The Christian needs the church. Working out our salvation with fear and trembling is a corporate exercise (Paul’s instruction is plural), not an individualistic pursuit (Phil. 2:12–13). We must not lose sight of worship as the most important thing we do—our duty and our joy. To gather and celebrate the risen Lord on the morning of the first day of the week is to say something about the nature of the universe, to align our hearts with the wonder at the heart of the world, to give testimony to the still-glimmering truth of King Jesus crucified and raised.

Jesus remains committed to us, no matter our many sins. Perhaps it’s our call to match today’s church scandals with a scandalously determined commitment to Christ’s people.

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