Should We Ever Leave the Church?

Doug Batchelor 
Speaker, Amazing Facts 

Is it time now to "jump ship"? How can we know what to do?

"Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 27:31).

Two teenage brothers, Bo and Joe, decided to take advantage of the warm weather one Sunday afternoon and drove to the ocean pier for a swim.

"I can’t wait to dive in," said Bo.

"Me either," answered Joe as they parked the car.

They changed into their swim trunks and headed for the pier. Above a rocky shoreline it led out to where waves crashed on the pilings below.

"Last one in is a rotten egg!" yelled Bo, charging down the pier and diving off the end.

"Hey, wait for me!" Joe called as he ran to catch up.

More cautious than his brother, Joe paused to look over the end of the pier before diving. To his horror, he saw the body of his brother floating in the surf, his neck broken by the rocks inches below the water surface. A young teenager had lost his life by diving when the tide was out. He didn’t know when to jump.

You may be thinking Bo was not very smart for not stopping to look before he dove, but many today are doing the same; they are diving out of the church like lemmings running blindly off a cliff into the sea. They do not stop to look before they leap; they do not ask whether there are rocks below. They see a problem in the church and follow those who say, "Last one out is a rotten egg!"

Discouraged. It is easy to get discouraged when you consider all the potential problems one may encounter in a church. Myriads of voices constantly remind us of our church’s hypocrisy and failures. Independent ministries provide a stream of tabloid information, regurgitating present rumors and past scandals, the squandering of money, lack of the Holy Spirit, the famine of real Bible preaching, the general worldliness . . . as reasons to leave the church.

You may be thinking, "Is there any virtue in pretending we are the Titanic’s captain and going down with the ship? Can’t I be part of God’s church without being part of a specific denomination or organization? Must I endure pathetic preaching and spiritless fellowship week after week forever? Is there never a time to leave the church? Or is there, sometimes—please?"

Before I answer that question, it is imperative that we first answer another. Why do we join a church? Once we understand that matter it will be easier to evaluate when to leave.

Why Join? I took a survey as to why people join a church, and here are some of the answers I received. (This was not a scientific study, but based on the consistency of answers, I think it is very accurate.)

1. It’s the church of my parents.

2. It’s close to our home.

3. The people are friendly and loving.

4. The music is beautiful or invigorating.

5. The preacher is handsome or dynamic.

6. They have a good children’s program.

7. The building is impressive.

8. The important or influential people go to this church.

9. The services are exciting. 10. The church needs me.

Though each of these elements may be good in and of itself, none—not one of them—is the right reason to join a church.

There is only one right reason to join a church. It can be divided into two parts:

(1) The foundation teachings of the church, what we might call the doctrinal pillars, are the true teachings of the Bible, and (2) you are committed to following truth.

You may be surprised but, yes, there is a time to leave the church! I’ve been asked this question many times so I have thought carefully about my answer.

When the fundamental doctrines of the church are no longer the teachings of Christ, when you are no longer allowed to discuss and practice your convictions of truth within its fellowship, then you have no choice but to go somewhere else.

But my next question is, When that happens, will there be anywhere better to go?

Paul and the Leaking Boat

There is a true-adventure story in the Bible about a terrible storm in which Paul and his shipmates nearly drowned. You can read the vivid details in Acts 27. Paul was traveling to Rome along with a boatload of passengers, several of whom, like himself, were prisoners facing trial before Nero. Shortly after leaving Asia Minor they found themselves trapped in a terrible tempest. For fourteen days and nights "neither sun nor star . . . appeared" (v. 20). The little ship, burdened with 276 souls, was lashed by the merciless wind and sea. As it pitched and rolled, the passengers threw practically everything overboard, including, no doubt, their lunch—many must have been dreadfully seasick! The situation got so bad that most gave up any hope of survival (v. 20). The last place in the world they wanted to be was on that boat . . . but, please notice, nobody jumped overboard.

In the same way, there may be times when you think that God’s ship, the church, with all its problems and faults is the last place in the world you want to be. But I promise you, you are much better off tossed about in the church with sinners than floundering in the water with sharks.

Exiting? Reading on, the Bible tells us that as Paul and his shipmates neared land, some of the sailors tried to get off the ship under pretense of wanting to help. "Some of the sailors planned to abandon the ship and lowered the emergency boat as though they were going to put out anchors from the prow" (v. 30 TLB).

In other words they were saying, "We’re going to take a lifeboat and paddle off by ourselves; we’ll leave the others to go down with the ship."

Some people in the church are doing this now. They are branching off by themselves. With divine authority Paul told the soldiers in charge: "Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved" (v. 30).

Did the soldiers say, "Every man for himself!" and join the offshoots by heading for a lifeboat? No. The Scripture states: "Then the soldiers cut off the ropes of the boat, and let her fall off" (v. 31).

The empty lifeboat was cut away to drop into the sea in order to keep the crew together.

Together. Why is this story in the Bible? For our encouragement and instruction. Paul is saying that unless we stick together we’re not going to make it to the kingdom.

In 1519 Hernando Cortez landed near the site of Vera Cruz, Mexico. When he detected a lack of resolve among his troops he burned the ships of his small fleet to eradicate all thoughts of retreat. I believe as we, God’s people, near shore (the end of time) God is reminding us that we must stay together through the storm. I think He wants us to cut the ropes to the lifeboats and commit ourselves to staying with the ship.

Jesus said, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Lk 9:62). Likewise, those in the church who are constantly looking over their shoulders at the lifeboats steer a crooked course. How can we effectively win souls into the church if we are forever planning to leave it?

When someone encourages you to be an escape artist, tell them, "Why should I leave? God has promised to bring me safely to shore if I stay with His ship."

What About Sinners?

They may answer that there are so many sinners in the ship that it can’t possibly be God’s vessel. But, in our Bible story, Paul tells us that the ship, steered by pagan seamen, contained among the idol-worshiping passengers many a criminal on his way to judgment. There were many different kinds of people of whom very few were good, yet the message was that they all must stay together.

Eventually they did have to leave the ship, when it broke to pieces on the rocks. At that point, they had to grab what was left of the ship—just the pieces—and make it to shore. But do notice that when there was no more ship for them to stay in, holding tightly to the pieces got them safely to land.

Look again at that battered old ship, for our ship will be shaken too. Paul’s leaky ship managed to stay in one piece until it struck land.

Trouble Coming. This, I think, is how God’s church is going to be in the last days. I believe that here in North America, where we have so long been free, it will become illegal for our church to operate as a visible organization approved by the government. The organization of our church, the ship, very well may break apart as we strike the rocks at the end of time. If and when that happens we’re each just going to have to make our own way to land through the dangerous water, clinging to any parts of the old ship still floating, gathering in small companies to strengthen and encourage one another.

The great final tribulation will be preceded by a small time of trouble. At this time government restrictions and regulations will make it impossible for commandment keepers to worship openly. The church will be forced underground.

"As the decree issued by the various rulers of Christendom against commandment keepers shall withdraw the protection of government and abandon them to those who desire their destruction, the people of God will flee from the cities and villages and associate together in companies, dwelling in the most desolate and solitary places. Many will find refuge in the strongholds of the mountains" (The Great Controversy, p. 626).

Spared to Witness

Acts 27:24 gives one of the reasons why God will preserve us in His church. It reads: "Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee."

In case you missed it, God is here promising Paul that his life will be spared so that Paul can witness to Caesar. In the same way, near the end of time, each one of us may be called to be a witness to worldly powers if we remain faithful. Like Paul we may be imprisoned and brought before kings and rulers. God wants us to bring the last message of hope to a dying world. If we jump ship, we’ll miss that opportunity. We are doomed to drown in the dark abyss if we try to cross the stormy ocean with nothing but a rubber duck and a bathing suit.

Are there problems in the church? Yes, big ones! Is this a new condition? No. The sad history of God’s people is one of compromise and backsliding. But over and over the Lord told His leaders to stay with the people and struggle to effect revival. You cannot clean a house from the outside; you must be inside it. You cannot bail out a boat if you’re in the water; you must be in the boat.

When Elijah was hiding in his cave God asked, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"—then sent him back to His wayward people (1 Kgs 19:9, 15). When the Lord consigned the children of Israel to forty years of wandering because of their unfaithfulness, Moses wandered with them. Even more importantly, God went with them. Consider for a moment how many times in their history the Israelites backslid, and yet still they remained God’s people. Why? "Chiefly," as Paul explained, "because that unto them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom 3:2).

Unique People. That’s what makes Seventh-day Adventists unique among the world’s faiths and denominations. God has committed to us the oracles of truth. We are modern, spiritual Israel. "Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard" (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 12).

And if the church is the object of God’s supreme regard, it stands to reason that it is the object upon which the devil concentrates his most intense rage. "The dragon was wroth with the woman" (Rev 12:17).

Just as a wolf scatters the sheep of the flock away from the shepherd in order to bring one down, the devil is working frantically to separate God’s sheep from the Shepherd and from one another, so he can claim us as his prey. Divided we fall!

When the final crashing wave breaks the ship apart, grab onto anything that floats and swim for shore! I don’t know what form that wave will take, whether government decrees or religious persecution, and I don’t know when it will come. But I do know that things are going to get a lot worse than they are now. We need to be firm in our beliefs. Otherwise we will be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph 4:14).

The way to be ready is to be daily in prayer and Bible study, to be putting on the robe of Christ’s righteousness. When the final storm breaks upon us and those last waves hit, that robe will be our life jacket.

Faith. That’s the way it is with our church. Some people feel that it is the church that will safely bring them to the shores of eternal life. These people are only along for the ride and lose their faith in times of storm. Others have placed their faith in Christ’s life, death and ministry and live in obedience to Him. They are daily placing their faith in Him through prayer, study and service. They are also in His church, but they know that when the waves hit, He, not the church, will be the one to hold them up. So long as the ship is afloat, they are on board, not as tourists, but as crew members. Not until the ship sinks do they try to make it to shore by any other means.

Friends, that’s the kind of person I want to be, the one wearing the life jacket of Christ’s righteousness. It’s the only way to survive.