I recently witnessed an exodus from my local church as influential members, families, and leaders chose to sever ties. Some left quietly while others made a scene, burned bridges, and took people with them. I don't aim to criticize or pass judgment but to speak the truth in love to the body of Christ. While there are multiple sides to every story, God knows the truth.
Survivors: In situations of spiritual, verbal, or physical abuse, survivors are not to blame. When this happens in a church, especially at the hand of ministry leaders, it's terribly sad, unfair, and unfortunate. There is a time to vent frustrations, manage emotional and psychological trauma, confront the abuser, and perhaps take legal action. There's also a time to heal and move on. God doesn't want anyone enslaved to the past, and believers are warned to never harbor unforgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35).
Victims: Some claim to be victims of circumstances but fail to accurately tell the whole story. According to their account, someone else is to blame. Leaders fell short, members were too cliquish, and no one cared to reach out and work through the issues. I've discovered a majority of victims are simply offended or wounded. If we're honest with ourselves, we've all been there. We've all had moments where we didn't get our way, our expectations went unmet, or we wanted more control, recognition, or status in the church.
Conspirators: There are some who stir up issues that didn't exist before they arrived and ceased to exist once they departed. Tension, quarreling, gossip, and division manifest when they're around. On their watch, plans get miscommunicated, appointments are missed, and someone else tends to apologize for their mistakes. These behaviors can be attributed to a spirit of manipulation or seduction. By seduction, I don't mean sexual temptation, but luring others into isolation and agreement to ensure someone is always "on their side."
OFFENSE IN THE CHURCH
Offensive attitudes in American culture (i.e. entitlement, rejection, animosity) are highly visible in the American Church. We have 30,000+ Protestant denominations and even more religious sects. Congregations are constantly splitting, individuals are wandering off, and the purpose of many gatherings has little to do with Jesus Christ. Some people spend years in bad relationships, on jobs with terrible bosses, and allow situations to "slide" if there's a benefit involved - yet, a pastor who doesn’t shake everyone’s hand or uses one verse out of context is enough to send them packing.
Jesus said, “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).
I don't think many Christians understand these verses; I've personally heard very few sermons on this topic. We're not taught to handle conflict in the church, we're simply encouraged to be loving and kind...to "be like Jesus." Uh, okay. As a result, most will bypass the private discussions with offenders and immediately go to the witnesses (“prayer partners”) who will “understand” the situation. This is out of order. At my church, leaving offended appears to be the only step that was taken. Or, maybe I missed something...
DON’T LEAVE OFFENDED
I’ve left many places and people in the heat of offense. When I examined myself, I found I hardly fit in the category of an abuse survivor. Yes, I worked for scandalous organizations with incompetent bosses. Yes, I’ve had so-called friends betray my trust or stop acknowledging me altogether. However, even in these situations, I now see where I overreacted (victim) and where I stirred up issues that set my exit in motion (conspirator). Although this has not been the case in churches I've attended, my behaviors were no less disruptive as I changed jobs and started new friendships every year.
Without excusing the poor behaviors of leaders or the neglect from members, we must be mature enough to take responsibility for our actions. When we’re unwilling to admit that we also contributed to the problem, we're in the wrong as much as anyone else. Conflict, in and of itself, is not negative, but our emotional and physical reactions can be. Rather than leave offended, why not consider issues in the church a learning and growth opportunity? It’s entirely possible that young and "seasoned" Christians alike need someone with a different perspective to speak up — gently and respectfully.
If you're planning to leave a church for whatever reason, wait on direction from God and leave quietly. Don’t be toxic. Don't play the victim. Don't expose yourself as a conspirator. If there’s a disagreement, but you sincerely care and want to stay, follow the model Jesus provided. Remain humble when correcting other believers, especially those in leadership positions. If you do leave offended, repent, receive God's forgiveness, get rid of any bitterness or regret, stop posting about it on social media, and move on with your life.