"Who then among you is noble-minded? who compassionate? who full of love? Let him declare, 'If on my account sedition and disagreement and schisms have arisen, I will depart, I will go away whithersoever ye desire, and I will do whatever the majority commands; only let the flock of Christ live on terms of peace with the presbyters set over it.' He that acts thus shall procure to himself great glory in the Lord; and every place will welcome him. For 'the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.' These things they who live a godly life, that is never to be repented of, both have done and always will do." (1 Clement 54)There are many reasons people leave a church, and for many of them, their reasons are not too noble or motivated by love. Many people leave churches because of hurts, offensives, and differences of opinions; problems that could be worked out but for which leaving is easier than putting forth the effort. When we leave in this way, our focus is on ourselves; our hurts, our wounds, and our pride. Our concern is not for the body but what is best for us. When we leave in this way, we leave with the wounds intact and festering; wounds that will often resurface in whatever church we find ourselves next.
However, there are times when leaving can be the best thing for the church. When we choose to leave, not because it's what's best for us but because its what's best for the church; sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the church. Clement reminds us that such sacrifice is not uncommon, even amongst the heathen.
"To bring forward some examples from among the heathen: Many kings and princes, in times of pestilence, when they had been instructed by an oracle, have given themselves up to death, in order that by their own blood they might deliver their fellow-citizens [from destruction]. Many have gone forth from their own cities, that so sedition might be brought to an end within them. We know many among ourselves who have given themselves up to bonds, in order that they might ransom others. Many, too, have surrendered themselves to slavery, that with the price which they received for themselves, they might provide food for others." (1 Clement 55)I have experienced this very principal in my own life. There was a time when my wife and I had been long-time members of a church and were even elders in the church. However, over time, our vision and desire for the church started to differ from that of the other leaders and especially the pastor. Over time, in regards to our vision for the church, we found ourselves facing in different directions. We loved the brethren, we respected their leaders, but we had a different hope for the church. In time it became clear that to continue at the church would invite strife and contention in regards to the vision and, because of our leadership role, could even open the door for division within the church. Most of all, we realized that to try and walk in such close concert together could even harm the friendship and love we had for one another. Because of this, we realized that it was time for us to go; not because it was what was best for us but because it was what was best for the church.
Leaving a church is never easy, but when we evaluate our decision based on what is best for the church rather than what is best for us, the decision can become clearer. In these cases we must have courage to do the right thing, even if it means leaving. Finally, as those who remain behind in the church, we must realize that not everyone will remain with us forever; from time-to-time people will leave, and we must let them leave with our blessings and without attaching any judgment to their decision.