One could not help but be moved by the careful wording Barack Obama used in announcing why he left Trinity United Church of Christ (you know I wrote United Methodist Church first - must have been thinking of Hillary - both churches are ultra-liberal, they simply have somewhat different priorities). He made clear his differences with the church, but also his sympathies and his regard for the people there. It was a highly personal news conference, and one on a subject I have never seen before.
To be sure, people leave churches and people stay in churches. Many who are quick to criticize Barry Obama would not have been as graceful and considerate, particularly since a complete and categorical denunciation of Trinity would have scored far more political points. Many people stay in churches for all kinds of reasons. Obama freely admitted he hadn't been there in months. Some pundits have castigated him for sitting under inflammatory preaching week after week. My friends, he was not there much. Does that mean that he did not know what Jeremiah Wright's positions? Hardly. Pastors are not known for hiding their feelings and they often get caught up in the passion of the moment and say the most indefensible things. Barry knew Otis Moss and Father Pfleger well enough to know their fire as well. So is Barry Obama a closet radical or simply who he says he is? He says he is a Christian interested in social justice and helping the poor and he acknowledges that the pastor and others at Trinity did not mix mercy with justice, being counterproductive in bringing unity.
Let's look at some other examples. I was part of a church years ago where drastic changes were made. The church trashed its evening service, Sunday School, and everything else but the weekly service and a Bible Study. They added home meetings, and no person was to have to go to more than three activities a week - they had found that meetings for meetings' sake was counterproductive and hurtful to families. I agreed with what they had done. Some women did not. They kept coming and sat right up front in the Pastor's face, wanting to be there when it "all came crashing down". Some of my fellow ministers can probably identify with that - they have people they wish would either change or go away - they are such high maintenance and causing trouble at every turn.
I belonged years ago to a church that fell short of my ideals in many ways. I considered myself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War - the pastor could not conceive of a Christian believing that way despite ample evidence that was the pattern of the early church. Nonetheless he wrote a letter of support to the draft board while arguing my positions. He was against the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues when I experienced both. While I freely fellowshipped other places, I did not remove my membership until several years later. It had been the church where I was baptized and learned much about the Lord. It was where I achieved the Herald of Christ Award in the Christian Service Brigade, been taught the supremacy of the word of God, been spiritually occupied during my teen years which kept me out of all trouble, and I highly valued the people even though I believe many of them thought I had gone south with my long hair, pacifistic wars, and charismatic slant. None verbalized anything much but the pastor, but I figured - hey, he's wrong, but I'm not going to let that ruin everything. When the time came that I found a church where the leadership embraced the work of the Holy Spirit whom I had come to know, and the people encouraged me to grow in the grace of God, it was only natural that I move on and link myself to that local body.
Barry Obama's struggle was that on many issues, he strongly identified (and still identifies) with the mission of Trinity United Church of Christ. TUCC believes that the poor are in a special position with God (they are right about that), that there are many social injustices (they are also right about that, though the leaders preach some social injustices of their own which takes away the ability to speak on the issues), and that social liberalism is not only compatible with Christianity, it is the mandate of Christianity. On the latter point, and in his news conference Barry Obama clearly said that he would have extreme problems with any pastor who expressed an aversion to homosexuals and lesbians. The United Church of Christ is primarily a white denomination, probably the most theologically liberal protestant denomination. Their embrace of homosexuality goes back over thirty years. In that area, Barry Obama is in lock-step with a belief system which is incompatible with the Bible.
Before you say "I told you so!", keep in mind the recent comments of John Hagee on the Holocaust, and endless racially offensive comments I have heard from theologically conservative pastors. Many who disagree totally with these totally unbiblical and hurtful comments still stay in their churches. We cannot attribute those comments to any but the person uttering them, but if a person stays under insensitive or off-base leadership for any length of time, asking why is fair game. Many people who are pentecostal remain in churches that preach against it. They believe they can change the system from within. Many minorities remain in churches where they are regularly insulted because they like other aspects of what the church stands for and teaches.
So where do you draw the line? Where do you respect the diversity in the church and swallow hard and when do you take a stand? I remember not long ago I was greatly criticized for staying in a church for a while that taught tithing even though I know it was not a New Testament practice and that God has a better way. However, when I joined the church, I mentioned that and other issues including my views on the end-times, which are not the dominant pre-millennial pre-tribulation rapture model, and my views that baptism and communion are more than symbols, but avenues of grace (not to be confused with beliefs that saving grace is in either). The pastor was fine with that - I did not cause a ruckus and he wisely understood that intelligent Christians differ on these issues. In fact, he told me he wished every person in the church approached giving the way I did. But the critic called me a compromiser and worse.
I was in a church where I was deeply hurt by lies told by an elder that resulted in a severe financial setback (and a mediocre result for the church as well). One of the pastors asked "Why are you still here?" I responded I would stay until the Lord told me to do otherwise. Other events made it clear that there was growing spiritual incompatibility and it would be best to go another direction.
I often visit and enjoy pastors who yet sometimes say things that I know are totally unscriptural. Yet, most of what they say is a blessing and right from God. We need to be charitable, but also understand that when we put ourselves under a minister, we must have a basic trust and have an open line of communication so we can be honest. Apollos was as aggressive a preacher as any, but was WAY off base. Priscilla took him aside and explained the way more accurately.
I believe that Barack Obama should have approached his Pastor and told him that racially divisive talk was reprehensible. He should have told him that Louis Farrakhan should not be honored. Yet, how often have we figured "what's the use" and let an untimely remark at church go unchallenged? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. I do believe we need to help each other out. We need to approach our elders with respect and with compassion, but we cannot let them offend with impunity. If there is no healing, no repentance, and no change, then the only reasonable thing to do is to leave that local body and go where our conscience is not harmed and where imperfect leaders are humble enough to let God change them.
Here are some reasons I believe are sufficient to leave a church:
1) If you are ashamed to bring friends or coworkers there because you could be embarrassed by ethnic comments, loose-cannon political statements, or other common indiscretions.
2) You sense a divergence from the Bible and a hardness to correction from any source.
3) You and your spouse are not in agreement about the church - family unity trumps individual preferences.
4) You find your spiritual appetite is not met - there is little meat and insufficient challenges to grow. You have experienced Christ yourself in ways that are not encouraged in that church.
5) You are discouraged from following the Lord in ways he has clearly directed you in.
6) You sense there is a lack of reality - religious exercises mask spiritual famine.
7) The church has developed man-made rules that are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
8) The church is financially abusive, using teachings not in accord with sound Biblical principles.
9) Church leadership is worldly or given to financial excess. You cannot serve God and mammon - you will end up serving only one of those, and it is usually the latter.
10) Immorality is tolerated in leadership or in the congregation without reproof and correction.
11) Politics rules - left or right - and political or nationalistic goals are equated with Biblical directives. In these case, politics and nationalism usually trump the Biblical directives leading to error and separation in the Body of Christ.
12) The church engages in unethical and sharp business practices - misleading, underpaying, or deceiving those working for them, not paying their bills when the funds are available simply to stretch out others, being secretive about where money is spent, etc.
These decisions are not easy, but they must be done. Spiritual life and death are in the balance, and so is our personal integrity. Let us pray that Barry Obama will find a new church where he can find healing. I also pray that God will touch him and speak to him so that he will be influenced to believe the whole counsel of God and view homosexuality, abortion, and the like the same way God does. We have to be on the same page with God. I believe Barry's heart on reconciliation is where God's is, but like most of us, there are glaring contradictions where we do not see things the way God sees them and we have to change so that we are not fighting God. I sincerely hope Barry and Michelle find that opportunity for themselves and their daughters.