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Staying in Church: Complicit or Faithful?
We cannot search for a “germ-proof” life or church.
Lucy called with a grim incident to report.
Weeks before, she had been sexually molested by her senior leader. My heart broke for her every time her voice cracked with emotion. I was angry at the perpetrator and livid at the authorities who blamed her for the unwanted sexual touching.
With what seemed like the last breath of a dying person, she whispered, “I want nothing more to do with them.”
She was done with church. Done with being hurt by a system that protected visible leaders and the organizations they represent, while tossing aside the people that abusive leaders manipulate, groom and use.
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When I hear stories like Lucy’s, I wonder: Am I being complicit by staying in church leadership, or am I being faithful? I explore this conundrum in my book, What Jesus Intended: Finding True Faith in the Rubble of Bad Religion (coming July 2023, IVP), and I’ll share a few of those thoughts below.
When I’m wondering if I should stay or go, I ask myself, “Is leaving a real solution, or is the problem systemic and universal?” For instance, if I leave my small group and go to another, I am still a part of a local church. If I leave my church and go somewhere else, I am still a part of a network or denomination. If I leave my denomination, I am still Protestant. If I switch to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, I am still a part of the universal Church. If I leave the entire Church, I am still in the human community.
I also ask myself, “Do I have a goal greater than non-complicity?” Non-complicity as the overarching decision-making pattern of one’s life often fails to acknowledge complexity, nuance and timing. Anti-complicity, especially when it is motivated by virtue signaling, is too often mean and judgmental. It settles for the articulation of a negative without putting forward positive alternatives.
Jesus is the perfect example of non-complicity plus positive action. Jesus did not simply refuse to be complicit with the militarism of the Zealots, he went further, showing himself to be a healer of wounded bodies. He did not merely separate from the religious errors of the Pharisees and Sadducees, he taught and modeled good religion. He didn’t merely refuse to flee the world for the caves of the Qumran, he touched lepers, conversed with a woman at a well, ate with sinners at dinner parties, and, in a social setting, let a woman touch his feet. He didn’t simply nag about the political and religious compromises of the Herodians, he persistently demonstrated single-hearted loyalty to his Father.
Non-complicity with sin, wrong or error is good. But it is only partial followership of Jesus. Something positive, something more powerful than non-complicity animated the words and works of Jesus. It was cooperation with his Father in the inbreaking kingdom of God, making non-complicity with sin and error natural and normal.
It is fruitless to search for a “germ-proof” life or church, according to an article for the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics. Even Jesus’ first friends had big issues: Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. James and John, eager to protect Jesus’ reputation, wanted to call down fire from heaven on whole towns. In Jesus’ day, the Qumran Sect tried the germ-proof, sanitary approach. They fled sinful cities to live in the moral cleanliness of caves. I get the impulse, but it doesn’t work for followers of Jesus. We are called to be proximate to the pain and destruction caused by sin in order to be agents of healing.
While listening to Lucy, I sought to cooperate with God as an agent of healing for her. I could do that because I set aside my deep frustration in order to stay in the church with her. My goal was to be complicare (Latin for “to fold together or to be united with or twisted together like a strong rope”) with her.
However, it’s not always right to stay. Moral perils accompany staying in churches with forms of bad religion. We can imbibe a corrupt culture so much that it begins to shape us. In addition, staying can be a validation that makes observers think everything is OK. The Georgetown Journal article calls this “the bystander effect: facing an ambiguously alarming situation, we check out whether others are alarmed.” Signaling alarm can be a righteous act, protecting additional people from harm. Staying quiet may pave the way for more people being hurt.
The Bottom Line: Discernment Is Required.
I don’t have the space here for a full treatment of “knowing when to leave a church.” But a quick Google search will reveal books, articles and talks from notable leaders like Beth Moore, Russell Moore and many others.
Lucy was right to leave her specific church—she was not the least bit safe. But I could not have helped her unless I was willing to run the risk of staying in the wider Church, even when it felt complicit to do so. Though challenging, the answer seems to be staying proximate enough to people that we can be a redemptive presence, while simultaneously not participating in a sinful church culture.
To get an imagination for this, consider:
1) God, seeking redemption, stayed next to sin: From Adam and Eve, to the thieves crucified next to Jesus, to you and me. Divine presence with us and through us is the basis for dealing with complicity and non-complicity.
2) We can only love neighbor and enemy in a relationship of some sort. This does not mean victims should stay in unsafe environments. But it may mean that leaders who have agency, capability and power must stay so they can come alongside the marginalized and advocate for their healing.
It takes discernment to know whether to stay or go—and whatever your situation, I pray that you will have it.