When Is It Time To Leave A Church?
by: Rev. Brian M. Abshire, Ph.D. ©Used by Permission
We have all been there; having to make the tough decision whether to stick it out in a church that is “less than satisfactory” (to put it mildly) to leave and try to find something “better.” What that “better” may be is sometimes hard to determine, and more subjective than we like to admit; but the dilemma is genuine; what justifies leaving a church?
OK, clearly, if the church is teaching “heresy” (i.e., really, REALLY bad doctrine), then no one would doubt the rightness of removing one’s self and one’s family from the “ministry” of that church. But in the circles I run in, there seems to be a widespread assumption, never questioned, that heresy is the ONLY reason for ever leaving a church. Being the sort that finds other people’s assumptions sometimes a little hard to swallow, this one immediately caught in my throat; were such people serious? Where in Scripture does one get the understanding that membership in the local church is equivalent to marriage; i.e., “till death do us part?”
Sure, we all recognize the problem of “Church Hoppers” who like butterflies in the spring, flit from fellowship to fellowship never settling down anywhere. We all also realize that many people probably have a deep rooted problem with ANY authority; or at least are so “thin-skinned” that whenever they are not treated JUST the way they DEMAND to be treated, they get all “huffy” and “outraged” and start visiting with the folks down the street. And yes, in six months or so, someone THERE will offend them and they will again leave in a “huff” and continue their search for the mythical “perfect” church. And of course, there are many instances where people leave a church because neither they, nor anyone else around them, understand or apply Biblical principles of conflict resolution. Problems arise, and are not dealt with properly-eventually even the most longsuffering and patient of Christians come to a point where they say, “enough is enough” and walk away.
But we are not talking about those kinds of people here; instead we are talking about you, Mr. and Mrs. Average Joe Christian. You are not perfect, you have sins you struggle with, you do not always fulfill your duties towards your spouse, and your kids are no one’s idea of “ideal;” but you love the Lord, want to serve Him, and want to worship with others who share your basic beliefs and values. You want to belong to a covenant community of men and women who can minister to you, and to whom you can minister in return. You want a place where your kids can meet other kids and form friendships without the fear they are going to come home one day with purple hair and pierced body parts because that’s the latest craze sweeping the “youth group.” You want a reasonable pastor who knows your name, and occasionally takes an interest in your life and problems, not to mention, preaches something worth getting up for on Sunday mornings.
And for whatever reason, you have not found that yet. You are attending a church which is just not “scratching where you itch” yet you feel guilty about leaving. You certainly do not want to be classified with those people we talked about earlier and yet, should you stay, or can you leave? What does God think about all this anyway?
Well to answer that question, we have to do a little background work. And the first thing we have to do is admit up front, that there is absolutely NOTHING in the Bible that talks about belonging to one particular church over another! Wow, bet that one shocked you, didn’t it? But it is true; the whole concept of individual church membership is largely a problem created by the unique cultural situation that faced our ancestors.
First, if you go back all the way to the New Testament era, the very question of “Can I ever leave this church” was never specifically addressed because by definition it was irrelevant. You see, in the first century, there were only two groups of people in the world; Christians and pagans. If you were a Christian, you attended the ONE church in your city. If you didn’t attend that church, then by definition you were a pagan! So if there is only one church the whole question of when is it appropriate to leave a church and find a new one simply never comes up. This situation existed all the way down through the medieval church to the Protestant Reformation.
During the Reformation, every European nation came down on one side or the other regarding the appropriateness of leaving the Roman church, with each country having its own state-endorsed church; whether Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Presbyterian, etc. Therefore if you were a citizen of a particular country, by definition, you were a member of that state church. This situation still exists somewhat in Europe even to this day. I well remember twenty years ago when I was working on my doctorate in England receiving a visit from the local “vicar” of the Church of England. He was a nice enough fellow, and unlike many of his fellow Anglicans actually believed the gospel and preached salvation by faith. But in those days, I was an ordained Baptist minister and really, as much as I appreciated his work, I had no interest in attending his church. As I tried to explain that to him, he went to great pains to gently inform me that since the Church of England was the established church, and HE was the vicar of this particular parish therefore, I was a member of that parish and he was spiritually responsible for my soul! Simply because the laws of England tolerated my Baptist distinctives did not for a moment relieve him of his responsibilities as MY vicar!
Thus in the “old country” you attended the particular church that was nearest your own home; both because it was YOUR church and simply trying to visit another church was just impracticable. Remember, in those days, only the “upper class” could afford to take even a carriage to church. You went to whatever the established church was that was closest to your home; one you could reasonably walk to on Sunday morning. Failing to attend that church COULD get you into serious trouble; you could be arrested, fined, imprisoned or even killed if you failed to regularly attend your local church. If nothing else, after various “toleration” acts were passed in various countries, your neighbors might refuse to do business with you if you did not attend the same church.
Hence, if you have no choice about which church to join, basically you do not have any choice about whether to leave it. Therefore the question of when is it appropriate to leave a particular church never came up. The Puritans in New England closely followed this practice and even made laws ensuring that no one could build a home any further than reasonable walking distance from the local Congregational church.
When various groups came to America, since they were often fleeing religious persecution, they wanted to ensure that the government wouldn’t continuing doing here, what had been done to them in the “old country.” People usually came as groups; the Puritans in New England, Anglicans in Virginia, Scot’s Presbyterians in the Carolinas, Catholics in Maryland, Quakers in Pennsylvania, etc. And each group basically set up their own churches. After the War of Independence, the new Federal Government was specifically forbidden from establishing a national church and though many of the individual states already had established churches, there was a great deal of tolerance for Christians who saw things differently.
Then, in the 19th century, two groups exploded across the nation; Methodists and Baptists. At the time of the writing of the American Constitution both groups were tiny and together only made up less than 10% of the Christian community. By the end of the century, they made up 90%! Meanwhile, the “established” churches no longer received mandatory tithes from the citizens (one of the benefits of having your church “established” is that you can FORCE people to tithe by law!). All of a sudden, there was great competition for church membership. Presbyterians and Congregationalists found themselves left behind as Baptist and Methodist “circuit-riders” built the churches of the advancing West. And since in many communities a Baptist church or Methodist chapel was the ONLY church, many Congregationalists and Presbyterians ended up joining those churches.
Now fast forward to the 20th century; the established churches have largely gone liberal theologically forcing many devout believers to leave their “traditional” denominations. Baptists and Methodists have been conducting revivals further decimating the old churches and winning converts to THEIR churches. Furthermore, Americans have an “independent” spirit with few people having any loyalty to a denomination anymore. Sure, our ancestors might have been English Puritans, or Scot’s Presbyterians, or even German Lutherans, but American is great at forgetting the past and looking to the future; so our ancestry is simply not important.
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. Pragmatism rules; whatever gets a person in the door is perfectly fine.
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.
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. God deals with man by covenant which is a relationship based upon certain criteria. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Having said that, and acknowledging the problems we cited earlier, what kind of “good” reasons ought we to have when leaving a church? After all, we might have the right to leave, but ultimately, every sincere Christian will want God’s approval for such an action.
As mentioned previously, if we are leaving because we are “thin-skinned” or have not resolved conflicts Biblically, it is likely that we will just face the same problems in the next church we join. God is sovereign and His providence governs every area of our life. And as an old friend used to quip, “God is more concerned about your character than your comfort.” Often, the problems we face in a particular church are in reality, opportunities God is giving us to work through problems, character flaws, weaknesses, or even to help and minister to other people. When problems and conflicts are worked through properly, they bind people together and give them a depth of intimacy and caring, that other, more superficial (and less painful) relationships never experience. Think about your marriage; you’ve been through a lot together, and some times it got pretty rough, didn’t it? But you stuck it out, learned what you had to learn to live in peace and love with one another so that today, your marriage is strong and solid and you cannot imagine living without your spouse, right? (If this isn’t the case for you, I do marriage counseling on Tuesdays and Thursdays; call my secretary for an appointment).
And sometimes, God has so providentially arranged circumstances in such a way that YOU have a particular ability to help a church with problems or weaknesses. One of those unstated assumptions we mentioned earlier that many Christians have today is that the church exists to minister to ME. Therefore, if the church ISN’T ministering to me, then we feel perfectly justified leaving and trying someplace else. However, what we forget is that often, God may want YOU to minister to THEM! Yes, that’s right, God gave you certain gifts, talents and life experiences and He expects you to use them for His glory. Hence, He sends you to “Brand X” Evangelical Church and expects you to use what He gave you to help them become a better church. Perhaps you have gifts in music that would really be helpful to improving their worship services; rather than complain about how “awful” the music is; maybe you are supposed to be helping them out?
Or perhaps you are disgusted that the church does not have an evangelistic program; perhaps you are supposed to start one. Maybe their Christian education classes are insipid; maybe God intends for you to start teaching? I learned this lesson many, many years ago when I was just “Joe Pew-fodder” and tried finding a “reasonable” church home. Time, after time, I could see EVERYTHING that fellowships were doing wrong, and most of the time, the pastor and elders were oblivious. Nobody would do ANY of the things I thought a church ought to be doing. So I was frustrated, and critical and blew off steam with friends.
And then one day, like a lightening bolt, God finally made the scales drop from my eyes; rather than complain DO something! Instead of complaining that the church didn’t have an evangelism program I started one; I just went door to door sharing the gospel with people; yup, all by my lonesome, with no support or money or even interest from anyone else in the church. But instead of complaining about what other people were NOT doing, I just got on what I knew I was supposed to be doing.
And amazingly, God blessed! For the first five or six weeks of door to door evangelism (on a military base in the barracks) God led me to people who were willing to prayer a prayer of repentance and faith. After a while, it got around that I was having this ministry and amazingly enough, another young man asked me if he could come along. Then, we saw OTHER people coming to faith in Christ; and a bunch of other Christians suddenly wanted to be involved. Before you know it we had several Bible studies going on every week; some for converts, some for “discipling” the brethren in how to do evangelism. The result was one of the most productive periods of my life.
And you can do the same; rather than running away from a church with weaknesses or problems, it could be that God wants to use you to bring them up to speed. Is the pastor’s preaching weak? Well, why not take copious notes and then call the pastor during the weak and ask him questions? He will be so encouraged that someone is actually LISTENING to his preaching that he will welcome your interaction. Of course be respectful and polite; but before you know it, since he now is getting some good feedback, he’ll start studying longer and reading better books and spend more time on sermon preparation. I have seen this dynamic work time, and time again; once a pastor knows people care about what he is saying, he’ll take greater care in saying something worth hearing!
Sometimes your ministry in a church may be even more basic than this; if you understand the dangers of gossip, slander, backbiting and whispering, then you will be appalled when you encounter it in the church. Most people just walk away; they value THEIR peace over the purity of the church. But a godly family that refuses to participate in smear campaigns, stands up to the gossips and slanderers and lovingly rebukes them can help turn around a problem church literally sometimes over night. Sometimes all it takes is one godly person who says, “NO!” and the entire church can be rescued.
Now all of the above is nice and all, but what does it have to do with LEAVING a church? Well, let me suggest that it is perfectly appropriate and sometimes even mandatory to leave a church when they have broken covenant with you. Those earlier comments we made about apostasy and heresy fit in here; the church covenanted with you to teach the truth of God’s word. When they no longer teach that word, they have broken covenant with you and therefore you may lawfully and appropriately leave them.
However, there may be other than just outright apostasy involved. Most churches agree that the Bible is the final authority on all matters of faith and practice. If the church refuses to abide by the Bible’s standards in say rebuking sin, resolving problems, wisely using the resources God entrusted to it, etc., then again, it is both lawful and appropriate to leave.
Since I came to Presbyterian convictions a long time ago (Presbyterianism refers to the system of church government; that the church is to be governed by ascending courts composed of elders-1 Cor 6:1ff, 1 Tim3:1ff, Titus 1:5ff, Acts 15:1ff, etc.) one of the distinguishing characteristics is that the “courts” of the church are to help resolve problems. All Presbyterian denominations have very specific “Rules of Discipline” that lay out their procedures for handling problems wisely and justly. Though the details vary from group to group, Presbyterian “courts” when they are used properly are a great joy; they preserve the peace of the church and they maintain its purity.
The problem however is that the courts are composed of less than perfect men and often, therefore they give less than perfect justice. Since God is the final judge, we can trust His providence that ultimately He will put all things right despite injustices that happen on earth. But there is a difference between an occasional lapse of judgment or miscalculation and a systematic perversion of justice. In the old Nazi régime or in the Soviet Empire, there was no justice; the courts existed to carry out the will of the leadership, pure and simple. These courts were perverted. Sadly, many evangelical Presbyterian courts also seem afflicted by this same disease and it is not unknown for certain people to regularly misuse the courts to save their friends from embarrassment, or persecute someone they do not like (see my essay Judicial Malfeasance).
Since I became a Presbyterian BECAUSE I wanted to live and minister under a good judicial system, when a church systematically refuses to obey their own constitution or perverts their rules of discipline THEY have broken covenant with me. Therefore I am not only justified, but REQUIRED to leave them. There are many warnings in Scripture about being closely associated with ungodly men (Titus 3:10, 1 Cor 15:55, etc.). And a man who breaks his solemn oath before God to govern Christ’s church in a particular way is a man without integrity or honor. I do not want to be associated with him, and I certainly do not want to depend on him to help resolve a problem! He IS the problem!
Sometimes though a church does not break covenant with you and it may be perfectly appropriate to leave then. In the book of “Acts” (chapter 15) Paul and Barnabus have a falling out over taking John Mark; Barnabus wants to take him on their next mission’s trip-Paul wants someone reliable who won’t “jump ship” as John did last time. They argue, and go their separate ways. Barnabus (whose name means “Son of Encouragement” takes John under his wings; Paul takes Silas. Who was right?
My answer has always been that they were BOTH right-they just had different callings. Both callings were legitimate and for a while they worked together. But a time came when one man’s calling to be an “encourager” required a different direction than another man’s calling to be a missionary. Eventually, John Mark goes to work for Peter and records his gospel (the gospel of Mark) AND Paul says of him, “Send him to me because he is of great service…”
And friends, sometimes that's what you might have to say about a church; sure they are doing good things, and there is nothing wrong with the pastor or ministry-but you are headed in a different direction. However, because many Christians assume that the ONLY legitimate reason for leaving a church is apostasy they find themselves in a bit of a quandary. They are not “happy” at their present church because their calling is different. But their theology will not allow them just to say, “Good bye and thanks” so they become frustrated with the church. Eventually, (and never underestimate the human capacity for self-deception) they end up leaving but need to justify their departure. SO they leave angry, frustrated and trying to convince themselves and others that the church, pastor, session, people, etc., are “bad” or “apostate” or even “heretical.”
The ONLY problem I see with the way that Paul and Barnabus resolved their problem was they allowed it to degenerate into a fight. Though the text does not tell us exactly what happened, Acts 15 is the last time we hear about Barnabus. Hopefully, because both were godly men, there was no real long-term problem and we can assume that even though they had to depart from one another they remained friends and on good terms with each other. But the lesson we ought to learn from their experience is that it is OK to have different visions and different callings and it is OK to go our separate ways, as long as we do not try to justify it by “slamming” the other guy, or the other church.
So my friend, what have we learned? Leaving a church is always painful, and too many people do so for all the wrong reasons. Let us not imitate them, but instead realize that church membership is a covenant we make as a congregation, with God and each other to worship and serve Him together. We should never leave a church because we are upset, frustrated or “hurt” by the actions (or inactions) of others, however, we have the right to leave whenever we want to. However, God is watching those motives and will hold us accountable for what we do, and just as importantly, why we do them.
A perfect church will never be found this side of eternity; therefore get used to going to an imperfect fellowship. Rather than looking to your own needs look out for the needs of others. Resolve problems, disputes and conflicts Biblically and appropriately. When a church breaks covenant with you, shake the dust of your sandals and move on. Don’t judge or criticize other people or churches because they do not share your vision, wish them well and just get on with what God wants YOU to do. And in so far as it is possible; live at peace with all men.
This article is used by permission of the author, Rev. Brian Abshire. The original appears at Christian Civilization.
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