Donald Miller has written a lengthy follow-up to his original post explaining why he has left the church (to which I responded yesterday). In this second posting, he doubles down on his original position that Christians need not involve themselves in a local church. They can attend if they want, if it helps them. But it is not necessary. It is certainly not a norm that should be imposed on all Christians everywhere.
Because Miller’s essay is so long (over 3,000 words!), I will not attempt a point-by-point rebuttal. Nevertheless, a response is in order since he takes issue with my contention that leaving the church is “spiritual suicide.” Under point #8, He writes:
One twitter comment said by leaving the church I was committing spiritual suicide. I read that comment to a friend (a nationally known, strong Christian leader who does not attend church but doesn’t talk about it) and both of us were taken aback.
Do people really believe there’s no spiritual life, no walk with Jesus, no community and no love outside a Sunday morning worship service? For those who’ve never taken a break from church, this will be a hard one. But I assure you, He’s alive and well and happy and working both inside and outside the traditional church. He’s going places many of us are unwilling to go, or perhaps scared to go. He exists outside our worldly tribes, even if those worldly tribes are labeled as a local church.
When I called leaving the church “spiritual suicide,” I wasn’t trying to be hyperbolic or cute. I really do believe that to walk away from the church is to walk away from Jesus. Miller says that he is a follower of Jesus. Yet the spirit of Jesus breathed out these words about those who leave the church:
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.” -1 John 2:19
The spirit of Jesus says that leaving the local church reveals one’s true spiritual condition. The one who leaves is at best one who is Christian in name only. His leaving reveals that he was never really a bona fide follower of Jesus.
To be sure, being a disciple of Jesus in a church involves much more that attending a weekly meeting. But biblically speaking, it cannot involve less than that. Miller has adopted a practice that involves no regular gathering of God’s people, no preaching of the word, no breaking of bread or baptism, no discipline or accountability. In other words, it is a norm that does not conform at all to what the Bible teaches us about our lives together in Christ (see my previous post).
So the question we have to ask ourselves is this. Who are we going to believe? Do we believe Donald Miller’s revision that has no precedent in scripture or in the 2,000-year history of the Christian church? Or do we believe the spirit of Jesus speaking to us in scripture?
I agree that spirit of God is at work both inside and outside of the church. But it does not follow from that fact that God makes no distinction between the church and the world. In fact, Jesus specifically prayed that his church would be in the world, not of the world, for the sake of the world (John 17:15-21). That means that even though the church exists in the world, it is a community that stands apart. In its gathering, its fellowship, its preaching, its discipline; in all these ways it is a counterculture bearing witness to another kingdom. It is not clear that the church stands apart at all in Miller’s formulation. A church this inconspicuous bears witness to nothing. That is why his formulation is disastrous in terms of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Miller reveals that he is not the only famous Christian leader who no longer attends church. He says that he’s just the only one who’s willing to admit it. Forsaking the church is an open secret among a certain class of so-called Christian leaders. I do not mean to be unnecessarily divisive or caustic in what I am about to say. I say it with all the seriousness and sobriety that I can muster. Forsaking the church is a grave error. Leaders who have forsaken the church are at best “Christian” in name only. Leaving the church reveals more about them than their book contracts, the conferences they headline, the adulation of their followers, or their reputation as a “Christian” leader.
We are not playing games here. Leaving the church means leaving Christ. And that is true no matter who you are or what your learning style is.