Not too long ago, I saw the following posted on social media:
Ultimately people don’t quit church because of bad Christians or churches. They don’t stop eating out after they go to a bad restaurant. They don’t stop going to the doctor even though doctors make mistakes. No matter how much they blame others, Jesus said they quit the body of Christ because of themselves:
“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:20-21)
While it is true that ultimately each individual's decision whether to follow Christ or self rests with that person, those of us who claim to represent the King of kings do bear a great responsibility. In Luke 17, Jesus said:
Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.
Did you catch that? The fact that someone's decision to walk away from church, or abandon faith in Christ, is a personal choice does not in any way excuse believers behaving badly and doing things that damage the faith of another person. The individual who turns his or her back on God will face a final judgment before the Judge of the universe for that decision. But anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ whose failure to live a life worthy of the calling he or she has received (Ephesians 4:1) contributes to someone else's apostasy will also have to give an account before God, especially if that Christian is in a position of leadership or influence.
In the NIV Application Commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock points out that Jesus here is talking about causing someone in the body—a believer—to stumble. This seems to me clearly to be a different scenario from the people of whom John 3:20 is speaking, as those individuals "will not come into the light." Unless you hold to the "once saved always saved" perspective that says that anyone who apostatizes was never really a believer to begin with, you simply can't apply John 3:20 to everyone who abandons faith.
Now if the person clearly demonstrates that they find Christian morality too restrictive on their "personal freedom," and abandons belief in God because they are motivated by fleshly desires, than a case might be made for applying John 3:20. But I fear that in too many cases, Christians have behaved so badly, and so poorly represented the Savior they claim to follow, that they have truly contributed experiential evidence to feed any intellectual doubts that may have been poking at the minds of those who end up walking away.
I recently heard a speaker say that young people leaving the church in America today are not running toward secularism in the world as much as they are fleeing from secularism in the church. People whose words say they believe the Bible to be true live in ways that don't line up with God's word. Those who claim to be "fighting for the faith" carry out that fight in a carnal, worldly manner, rather than in the way of the Lamb. As Russell Moore observes, "We see young evangelicals walking away not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what it teaches." You can't overcome the world by adopting the world's tactics. Any attempt to do so only brings about conformity to the world, rather than transformation (Romans 12:2).
So maybe things aren't as clear-cut as the post I saw on social media claims. Perhaps not everyone who walks away from faith does so out of a love for the world and preference for the darkness over the light. Just maybe, some of them are sincerely seeking light that illuminates the path of truth, but are not finding any in the churches they visit or Christians they encounter.
While suffering at the hands of imperfect followers of Christ doesn't excuse one's decision to abandon Christianity, neither can Christians excuse themselves for saying and doing things that push people away from God's truth. We can't simply follow Pilate's example, wash our hands of the matter, and claim we are innocent of the blood of the former believer.
RESOURCES: For some really good discussions on dealing with doubt and questions concerning faith in Christ—whether your own or someone else's—I highly recommend checking out the In Faith and Doubt podcast hosted by Nijay Gupta and A. J. Swoboda.