Consider with me the following hypothetical situation: someone has been attending a church for a while, maybe even joined as a member. It took a long time to find this church, and it’s perfect—or so he or she thought. But now something has happened, and he or she realize the church has some problems. Maybe a church leader has been found to be living in serious and unrepentant sin, or perhaps the pastor has some serious flaws in his theology and teaching. Hurt, confused, and disappointed, church has become stressful. Is this church even worth going to anymore? What is this person to do?
While the first reaction might be to just leave (understandably), there are a few things to consider.
1. The work of the church is not only for teachers and preachers.
In Acts 18, we read about two ordinary Jewish Christians, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who corrected a young preacher’s theology. This preacher, named Apollos, came to Ephesus having already received some training in the Bible; however, he was not teaching everything accurately.
He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:26)
There are several important things to notice about this story. First, even though Apollos knew his Bible well (Acts 18:24), he still needed help understanding it. Preachers and teachers can and do make mistakes. No one, not even a church leader, is above correction and reproof.
2. Get involved and help out before doing anything else.
When Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside, they were not just outside observers but had been, themselves, helping out with the work of ministry (Rom. 16:3). If the pastor and elders have seen you involved in the life of the church, they will be more likely to listen to your concerns when you bring them up. This will also help you understand the unique burdens church leaders bear. So seek to contribute to the life of the church, so that you might be part of the solution. The Lord might just give you an opportunity to give counsel and advice to church officers to improve the life of the church.
3. Always talk privately to your leader about your concerns.
Aquila and Priscilla did not openly question Apollos but took him aside privately, so that he could continue his ministry once he had learned from them (Acts 18:27–28). Jesus also instructs us that if a brother or sister sins, we should always begin by talking to them privately about it first (Matt. 18:15). Listen carefully to what your minister has to say. Allow yourself to be challenged. Do your research from trusted resources. Study the Bible carefully. If after all this, you still see serious biblical teaching being neglected or misunderstood, or continue to see evidence of serious sin in the minister’s life, it may be that you will be able to provide correction.
Depending on the issue, or if the leader refuses to listen to you, it might be wise to ask an elder or trusted member to accompany you to talk to the minister (Matt. 18:16). Make sure you ask only a very trustworthy member so as not to spread slander and gossip. If it is a very severe accusation, Paul tells us that accusing a minister in the church is a very serious occasion. He writes to Timothy,
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19)
If the situation is so severe that the leader will lose his position in the church, make sure you have trustworthy evidence and witnesses before formally accusing him.
If speaking to him privately does nothing to change things for the better, it is wise to seek outside counsel, especially if your church is a member of a denomination.
4. The church is a body, not just one person.
Despite all these efforts, a minister may remain unchanged or unrepentant. However, that does not mean God is not at work. God often works through the patient efforts of ordinary people to bring change and reform. While it may be difficult for you, bearing with your church, even amid its various problems, is often the best thing for the church. God purifies his church because he loves her (Mal. 3:3).
Paul counseled many congregations that had serious flaws (the Corinthian church and the Galatian church are just two examples). There has never been a perfect church. Therefore, being a member of a church means seeking to build it up, encourage it, and participate in it according to the Word of God. We are not meant to live alone as Christians.
5. Remember that Christ is the head of his church.
As head of his church, Christ commissions people to be his ambassadors in the church; they are responsible to Christ for their actions and leadership (Eph. 4:11). When they fail to teach and lead according to God’s Word, they fail Christ as well as their congregation. In God’s wisdom, which so often seems foolish to us, he uses sinful men and women to lead and teach. Above everything else, we must trust that Christ through his Holy Spirit will continue to work despite the failings of his servants, for he has promised to never abandon his bride (Isa. 42:16; Heb. 13:5; Col. 3:16).
Especially today, it is crucial to remember that the church does not belong to the minister or elders or any other church leader but belongs to Christ, who is her perfect savior (Eph. 5:23). Our membership in the church and our faith in God and his gospel should not rest upon the moral integrity of our church leaders, but on the Word of God that proclaims salvation in Christ Jesus alone.