‘Come out’–and stay pretty much the same

For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed.” (Hebrews 4:2)

“Depart, depart, go out from there!
    Touch no unclean thing!
Come out from it and be pure,
    you who carry the articles of the Lord’s house.” (Isaiah 52:11)

I have written previously that it’s not that difficult to start a church. That is not to dismiss anyone’s sincere intentions of advancing God’s kingdom in ways they think are being neglected or poorly executed. But the ecclesiastical landscape in 2020 America is much different from other periods in church history.

The Separatists we usually call the Pilgrims met secretly because their services were illegal. King James, when he wasn’t coloring in the maps section of his new Bible—they had to let him do something since he was the king as well as the sponsor—hounded the Pilgrims out of England and across the Channel to Holland.

It was dangerous to “come out and be separate.” Even in the 18th century, the evangelist George Whitefield took to the fields and open air because ecclesiastical regulations with the force of civil law gave some clergy leverage to shut him out of their pulpits.

Today, new churches appear about as often as new shows debut on the streaming services. The first visible sign is usually the signs, the wire ones you push in the ground at busy intersections. It’s resulted in what’s known as transfer growth, which is basically people exiting one church to find another—and, they hope, better–church elsewhere.

The first thing to note about the “come out and be separate” impulse is how it’s recorded in the Bible. The verb form is an imperative, a command. Not a blanket command like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but for a particular time and set of circumstances.

In other words, despite the inevitable build-up emotionally, mentally and spiritually when things go south in a church, “the tipping point” really isn’t yours to define. For one thing, everyone’s tolerance for error, discouragement and decline is different, which in turn varies because of varying personal standards, which may or may not have a sound biblical basis.

You need a “green light,” in other words, a clear sense from Scripture, the consensus from counseling with others and a clear sense of leading from the Spirit of God that this must happen. Doing it because you can do it—no membership commitments constrain me, there are plenty of other churches around, my life really won’t skip a beat if I leave—can be premature and actually counter to God’s purposes for you.

Many people balk at hearing things like that, but from experience I can tell you that leaving may not produce much more than a temporary sense of relief. There’s a reason for that. Many persons whose intention is to “come out and be separate” just come out and continue to be the same.

That applies to individuals as well as churches, and the reason is that our character—our strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings, failures that leave a mark, successes that can lead to pride, etc.—are portable. We take them with us wherever we go.

Until we lose them, that is. And we will only lose them when we “be [i.e., become] separate.” Because “come out and be separate” is not a simple parallelism of “rhyming ideas” such as you find frequently in the Psalms (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”). It’s a two-part command.

The “coming out” and “being separate” work in tandem, but the latter doesn’t necessarily happen just because the former takes place. You can think of them like those two-part epoxies which come in two-chambered plastic syringes.

When you depress the plunger, equal parts are meant to ooze out to be mixed together into something that then forms a strong, durable bond when it cures. But if one of the chambers is clogged, one-half of the epoxy leaves just a sticky glob. It doesn’t cure at all and it won’t hold anything together.

The “two-part” aspect of our sanctification is in the quote from Hebrews 4: “the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed.”

Same message, but two different results. How do you account for that? The Amplified Bible (Classic Edition) elaborates: “the message they heard did not benefit them, because it was not mixed with faith (with the leaning of the entire personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness) by those who heard it.”

The Greek word translated “share” or “mixed with” is synkerannymi, “mingle together, combine, blend,” like the two-part epoxy. It’s implying that faith (i.e., not just belief, but trust) and word belong together or they will be ineffectual (“of no value” or “did not benefit them”).

Paradoxically, in the providence of God, the same time you feel the urge to leave a church may be the precise time you should stay right where you are. In fact, if you don’t, the work of God in transforming you may end up being “of no value.” A waste of time, in other words. No progress made toward maturity in Christ.

Let me explain. I’ve written several times about my former need for approval and acceptance (fear of man, Pr 29:25) that hamstrung my faith. We have names for that: man-pleaser or people-pleaser are a couple; others are more vulgar, their vulgarity adding the edge of contempt we feel for this type of person.

When I got involved in planting a new church in my hometown I ended up sharing an apartment with another single man in the church. He worked in town and served as the pianist and worship leader for the church.

Looking back, especially with the knowledge of how pervasively the fear of man infected my entire personality, it’s hard to believe there could be anyone as encumbered with this sin as I was.

I was mistaken. There’s was at least one other person: my new roommate.

He was a sincere believer, don’t get me wrong. But it didn’t take long to realize that his almost obsessive need to be helpful, thoughtful or conscientious was partly to win others’ approval. Everyone knew him as “the servant of all” in the church.

Later, when he got married, there was a shift in his behavior. Now that he had found a permanent companion, a guarantee of being loved and approved, he wasn’t quite so eager to be the first to offer help. etc. He didn’t need our approval so much.

The Lord speaks to us in many ways: directly through his word, the combination of living illustration and scriptural association (i.e., Peter on the day of Pentecost: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel”), pastoral counsel, listening to someone’s personal testimony.

But he also speaks to us by other means, some of them not so obvious. The prophet Habakkuk choked on the idea that God would speak to Judah through the Babylonians (Hab 2), but that is exactly what happened.

Once they were abducted and deported to Babylon, it prompted the same question God asked Adam and Eve when they were hiding from him: “Where are you?” Not for God’s benefit, of course, but theirs, to alert them to their real (not imagined) standing with him. (The answer: We’re not in Kansas anymore.)

I didn’t enjoy my new roommate’s presence for very long. I quickly grew tired of being solicited—almost nagged, really—into acknowledging that he was helpful, always thinking of others, etc.

In fact, I was soon repelled by his personality. He wanted to be accepted, but the effect was similar to pressing like poles of a magnet against each other—basically futile since they naturally deflect from each other. Living with “darkened hearts” and trying to operate on “futile thinking” (Rom 1:21) often produces the exact opposite of what we intend or want.

He didn’t understand that, but I did. Every day I lived and interacted with him I was looking at me. “Where are you?” Now I knew much better.

The “be separate” part, of course, meant repentance, acceptance of my spiritual poverty and determining to “blend” faith with the message I was receiving loud and clear—you’re not living in the kingdom of God when you succumb to the fear of man.

But if I had “departed” too soon, the whole experience would have been “of no value.” If you miss the memo, guess where you’re still living?

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