Thus for 150 years churches have been competing with each other for members and therefore just like shopping at your local mall, there are churches today specifically designed to appeal to various “niches” in the market place. For lack of a better term, I call these “broad evangelical” churches because they really do not care much about doctrine apart from people believing the basic gospel. They have no set opinions on church government, discipline, or even worship.
So for the average American Christian, joining a particular church is really no different than choosing one country club over another. Now never having been a member of any country club (they do have STANDARDS, you know) I cannot speak from personal experience, but I do have friends that have been members of such organizations. They want a nice place for the kids, and a certain kind of people to associate with; people who share their values and beliefs. And if it so happens that a few good business deals can be made there, or one’s career advanced by “hob-knobbing” with the boss, then , so much the better.
Pragmatism rules; whatever gets a person in the door is perfectly fine
And so, a person chooses the club that best “fits” their personality and needs and whose membership fees are affordable. And that my friend is probably EXACTLY the same criteria the average Christian uses to decide which church to join, or to leave.
Which of course brings us back to our original question; when is it appropriate to leave one particular church for another? The answer lies I think in the theology of the covenant. Your salvation is by covenant (the “new” covenant) wherein God promises to save you from your sins IF you repent of your sins, confess Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Rms 10:9-10). Your marriage is a covenant wherein you promise to forsake all others, and become “one flesh” with your spouse, “till death do you part.”
And in one sense your membership in a particular church is a covenant. However, the details of that covenant are usually vaguely (if ever) defined. Some churches will require members to support the work and worship of the church, strive for its peace and purity, live in lawful submission to the form of government, etc. However, usually there is a set of unstated expectations that both the church, and the potential new member brings to the table-and it is those expectations that usually bring people into discord. Some churches make it easy for you to get in, but like the Mafia, almost impossible to get out.
However, the point is that ALL orthodox churches recognize that essentially, membership is voluntary-you cannot retain a person as a member of that church if they wish to leave. When I was a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, based on their own experience with the liberal PCUSA, the founding fathers wrote into the constitution (the covenant of the church) that both individuals and CHURCHES had the right to depart any time they so chose.
Therefore, while everyone might rightly criticize those ecclesiastical butterflies we mentioned earlier, the very covenant that established the relationship in the first place, recognizes a person’s right to leave for any reason that seems good to them
So for those of us who have adopted some form of Reformed (or Presbyterian) theology, we really have NO leg to stand on if we insist that the ONLY legitimate reason for leaving a church is “heresy” or “apostasy.” The covenant that the church made with us, and which we made with them, specifically forbids such an interpretation. We can leave a particular church (or a particular church can leave the denomination) whenever we choose to, for whatever reasons seem appropriate.