When should we unfollow our Christian leaders? When does our loyalty to God override our loyalty to a certain church? We get the question from a listener named Peggy. “Hello Pastor John. I have a burning question for you to answer. As Christians, do we pledge our loyalty to church or to God? And when and how should that line be drawn?”
The way I answer Peggy will depend on what she is referring to when she says, “loyalty to church.” Does she mean loyalty to the people of God as a whole — namely, the church universal consisting of all the children of God who are ever born again through the Holy Spirit, through the gospel — or does she mean one particular local expression of that church? She may not even be thinking of that distinction, but it’s an important one, so I’m going to answer her at both levels: first church universal, and then specific church.
“Sometimes people may have no choice but to dissociate from unqualified elders.”
Three different witnesses in the New Testament, Paul and John and Peter, tell us that to be united to God in Christ is to be united in principle and in love to the people of God. We’re not permitted to choose between belonging to God and belonging to his people. They go together always. To have God is to have the family of God. To have the Father is to have his children as brothers and sisters. There’s no escaping it. That’s the way it is. To love the Father is to love the children.
Here’s John’s testimony: 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” You can’t say, “I’m going to love God and be faithful to that relationship, and I’m going to have nothing to do with Christians.” It cannot be done. You cannot say that. That’s a contradiction. Here’s 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” The very reality of being born again, and thus belonging to God as our Father, can only be known if we love Christian brothers and sisters. If you don’t love them, then you can’t know that you belong to God.
Here’s 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” John is clear. He cuts a straight row. And the text goes on, “For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” You can’t honestly claim to love God or have loyalty to God where there’s no love for his children, your brothers and sisters. So, that’s John’s witness.
Here’s Paul. This is Romans 12:5: “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” To be grafted into Christ’s body by faith united to him is to be members of one another. To be in Christ is to be attached to other members of the body. You can’t have it any other way.
Here’s Peter’s testimony. This is 1 Peter 2:4–5: “As you come to him [Christ], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices.” In other words, to come to Christ, the living stone, is to be built with other little living stones, like yourself, into a house. You cannot come to him on any other terms. I conclude: loyalty to God in Jesus Christ necessarily includes loyalty of love to his people. That’s the universal church, Christians, wherever you find them.
"Take membership in a local church seriously. But this loyalty is not absolute like it is to the universal church."
Second, what about loyalty to a specific local church? My guess is Peggy’s talking about this. I think all the New Testament language of membership in Christ and in the body implies taking membership in a local church very seriously, but this loyalty is not absolute like the loyalty to the people of God in general. We know this because there are New Testament instructions which imply that a church leadership can be unworthy of being followed, which would imply no longer putting yourself under the ministry of that leadership.
For example, 1 Timothy 5:19 talks about what happens when an elder ceases to be qualified to be an elder. Here’s what happens: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Let’s suppose you do have three witnesses, and they are guilty. “As for those who persist in sin” — elders who persist in sin; in other words, they’re no longer qualified — “rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Now, that implies that if this principle of handling unqualified elders is not carried out, the people may have no choice but to dissociate from unqualified elders. That’s the meaning of unqualified. They can’t lead anymore, so they’re not going to lead us. If they won’t step down from leadership because of their disqualification, then we have to step out from under their leadership in order to be obedient to that text, I think. I would say this is the case in thousands of churches who have pastors who do not believe in the basic truths of the gospel.
Here are two more examples. In 1 Corinthians 5:11, it says, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.” Well, what if it’s your pastor who is sleeping around, guilty of greed, an embezzler, idolater, reviler, drunkard, swindler? What if it’s your pastor who’s living in sexual immorality? What if the other elders are complicit and they’re not bringing him to discipline, or no denominational structures are being implemented to discipline him? Well, then the text says you’re not supposed to have anything to do with him, so you clearly wouldn’t sit under his ministry anymore.
“Allegiance to a local church depends on the leadership fulfilling its spiritual and doctrinal responsibilities.”
One more example: 2 John 10–11, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching” — namely, the apostolic teaching — “do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” Okay, so what if it’s your pastor who’s not bringing the apostolic teaching, and the elders are doing nothing about it? The text says don’t even greet him. If you’re not supposed to greet him, how much more would you not attend his church?
My conclusion for Peggy is that she should realize that to belong to Jesus Christ and to be a child of her heavenly Father binds her together in a love relationship, a loyal relationship with all true Christians. She may not be indifferent to loving them, and that means fellowshipping with them in some way. She should delight in this and seek to find ways to live it out. But her allegiance to any specific local church depends on the leadership fulfilling its moral and spiritual and doctrinal responsibilities.