Christian Living

When It Is Time To Leave7 min read

April 9, 2014 5 min read


When It Is Time To Leave7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[A few days ago I wrote, “Thinking About Leaving Your Church? Not So Fast.” It has generated quite a bit of traffic, and many of you have written some very good responses, both publicly and privately. Some readers have asked: When, if ever, is it okay to leave?]

churchgoThe disease of consumerism is a plague within the Lord’s church. Since we stop shopping at stores that no longer carry the products that we want, and since we stop eating at restaurants that change the recipe of our favorite menu items, we think we should leave our congregation when things no longer go our way. 

Yet, consumerism – “The church owes me for my patronage” mentality – is foreign to what God wants for His church. The moment we became Christians, the Lord added us involuntarily to His church (cf. Acts 2:38, 47). Since we have been raised with Christ, we are now seeking what is best for Him and His kingdom, not ourselves (Matt. 6:33, Col. 3:1-4:6). The local congregation of Lord’s church needs us (Heb. 10:24-25, 1 Cor. 14:12), and when we leave for petty reasons, we are guilty of abusing – not building up – the Bride of Christ (cf. Eph. 5:23, 25-27, 30). If Christ is dedicated to me despite my imperfections (1 John 1:7-2:1), I need to be dedicated to His church despite her human imperfections.

But is it ever appropriate to leave your congregation and attend another? Yes.

Knowing when to leave is a matter of judgment. But that does not mean the Bible does not have anything to say about the matter. I like the advice of Jonathan Leeman in his book, Church Membership: How The World Knows Who Represents Jesus. He writes:

All of us, at times, will be called to endure humbly a leader’s mistakes and sins. Nonetheless, should you find yourself in a church were the leadership is characteristically abusive, I would, in most cases, encourage you to flee. Flee to protect your discipleship, to protect your family, to set a good example for the members left behind, and to serve non-Christian neighbors by not lending credibility to the church’s ministry. (p. 118)

I believe you should leave when the leadership is characteristically abusive. The key word is “characteristically,” meaning “indicative of character or typical of personality.” The fruit of the spirit is characterized by longsuffering (Gal. 5:22), meaning we need to lovingly endure the occasional human blunders of our otherwise godly leaders (cf. Heb. 13:17). Such mistakes are not characteristic of penitent, spiritual men who simply want to shepherd the flock of God (Acts 20:28). In other words, mistakes are the exception, not the norm, for godly leaders.

Yet, things that characterize an abusive leadership include (a) lacking of respect for the silence of the Scriptures in matters of religion and worship, (b) depending on charm or passive aggression rather than God’s Word and prayer, (c) playing favorites, (d) using extreme forms of communication (tempers, silent treatment), (e) speaking often and quick to pompously bloviate, (f) rarely serving others in secret, (g) teaching others without grounding them in God’s Word, and (h) emphasizing outward conformity rather than genuine repentance and contrition in spirit. 

I understand the above characteristics are sometimes subjective. So here are some more specific qualities of an abusive leadership which, I believe, require you no choice but to leave.

Flee Your Church

1. When leaders teach blatant false doctrine (Gal. 1:7-9)

If elders are teaching or endorsing flat out error, and refuse to repent, it is time to leave. Staying to ‘fight’ may not be as fruitful as the statement you make by leaving. Of course, make sure you are leaving over a specific scriptural issue, not merely a matter of opinion.

2. When leaders tolerate outright error from those who teach (Rom. 16:17)

When we no longer hold to “one faith” (Eph. 4:5), we are no longer unified in the apostle’s teaching (John 17:20-21). When elders permit ‘alternate views’ to be taught within the assembly, it is time to leave.

I have experience with one church that permitted a man to teach an entire class on the subject of the Holy Spirit, wherein he taught obvious untruths about how the Spirit leads Christians & non-Christians alike, and how the Spirit supposedly still gives Christians miraculous abilities today. I know of another church that would permit a sermon on Matthew 19:9 so long as an ‘alternate teaching’ to what Christ taught was presented.

In cases like these, I would suggest leaving immediately in order to protect your family and to set a good example to the rest of the church.

3. When leaders no longer demand holiness (1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14)

If a church not longer expects saints to live like saints (1 Cor. 1:2; John 17:17), you must leave. Any church that tolerates open, impenitent sin among its members is no true church of God (1 Cor. 5:12-13).

I know of several churches that refused to discipline a man and a woman who had no scriptural right from God to be married (cf. Matt. 19:9). I know of another congregation that refused to discipline a man for living with a woman – as though they were husband and wife – though they were not married. And I know of still another congregation who tolerates a member (because she is a major financial supporter of the church) who openly supports the LGBT agenda. All of these serve as examples of downright wickedness.

If any of this describes your church, my advice is to leave immediately. I fear there will be many who will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and hear Him ask, “Why did you continue to attend that congregation when you knew they had lost their first Love?” (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 2:4).

And When It Is Time To Leave…

1. Don’t burn bridges. Chances are – if you were building the relationships within the church community that God wanted (1 Cor. 12:25; Eph. 4:25) – you will still encounter members of that church from time to time. You’ll see them at the grocery store, at weddings, at funerals, at ballgames, and maybe even at family reunions. Do what you can to keep those meetings from being awkward. Try to leave your congregation on the best terms possible. 

2. Leave graciously. Any time someone leaves a congregation (e.g. moving to a new address or graduating school), it is a painful experience. The pain is exacerbated when someone leaves for doctrinal reasons. Fight feelings of bitterness and anger. The temptation to leave a gaping wound will be strong. However, recognize that vengeance does not belong to you (Rom. 12:19). Rather, if the church – particularly the eldership – is guilty of abuse, then it has the judgment of the Lord to fear. Leave with gentleness, and let the Lord handle how they have treated His Bride. 

3. Tell the elders why you are leaving. This is deeply important. Too many just ‘drop out’ from attending without telling anyone why or where they have gone. This makes the job of shepherding much more difficult (cf. Matt. 18:12-14). If you tell the elders you are leaving and why, maybe they can repent or clear up a misunderstanding or miscommunication. Maybe they need to learn from you. Since the Lord will judge them for their mistake (Heb. 13:17), the loving thing to do is expose their error before that Day.

4. Make it a ‘clean cut.’ If you’re going to leave, then leave. Don’t fade away, slowly dropping your commitments and relationships. If you are part of that church family, then be part of the church family. If you are leaving, then leave completely. Place yourself under another faithful, godly eldership as soon as possible so they can watch over your soul. (Read: Yes, Local Church Membership Is Essential)

5. Keep praying for the congregation you left. Pray for your former elders. Pray for the sheep still in their perilous care. Pray that those who are guilty of abuse will come to repentance. Pray for reconciliation. 

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has returned to pursue his MDiv. He has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
  1. Fee

    Excellent Article Ben! Too many just walk away and never say anything to the elders, letting them think that things are okay with what they are doing. Thanks for the great article!

  2. Hal Cole

    Hey Ben! I may be traditionalist, since I can't remember where the verses are, but seems like the bible teaches us to expose false rebuke and even embarrass if need be, to keep the gospel pure???? I don't mean hurt people for the sake of hurt! However, your reasons for scripturally leaving a church: teaching error, or elders having behavior unbecoming of an elder, should we just allow that with out following the scriptural procedure? Seems like your saying if we see error we should just "leave in peace"? I may be old school but that doesn't seem to fit what I've been taught about error in church leaders. If we did just leave in peace would we not be leaving a congregation of people vulnerable to false doctrine? Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought if we condoned error that we would be cut-off from Christ? Leaving souls to go to hell just so one can avoid an awkward situation at a drug store seems contradictory to the importance of truth. If I misunderstood please clarify what one should do if they encountered a situation where a church leader violated the scripture, was confronted, and refused to repent. Go in peace? Thanks Ben for desire to help the cause Of Christ

    • Ben

      Hal - Thanks for the very great comment! I was actually anticipating someone raising the very point you raised. Yes, if we see a brother or sister who believes or is teaching error, love demands that we graciously and humbly confront him or her. And, depending on the situation, the Bible does provide some procedures for how to do this. While this comment is not the appropriate platform for going into details about this, Matthew 5:5:21-26 and Matthew 18:15-17 certainly provide some guiding principles. Additionally, if there is a problem with the eldership specifically, 1 Timothy 5:19 lays out some special rules. And preachers have the responsibility to publicly refute false doctrine that is taught, regardless of who has taught it (2 Tim. 4:2-5). As a preacher, 2 Timothy 4:2-5 is especially difficult for me because it specifically requires me to address any kind of false teaching that happens within the congregation. This article assumes that all of this has already taken place, and you have run into a brick wall. Some people simply refuse to repent. A dead church is a dead church. And a bad eldership is a bad eldership. And if they are not going to heed God's Word (as only God and His Word can bring a dead church/eldership back to life, cf. Eze. 37), then you have no choice but to leave (in my opinion). I am very reluctant to advise anyone to take a wrecking ball to a church when the elders refuse to repent. If their hearts are hardened and they have turned their backs on the Lord, I would probably advise Christians to leave peacefully and "shake the dust off their feet" (cf. Matt. 10:14). It is God who will judge them. All other members have the responsibility to see for themselves the error that is present as well (cf. Acts 17:11). Those are just my thoughts. I may give more specific advice depending on the specific situation. -Ben

      • Hal Cole

        Well said! Thanks, ben

  3. Vincent J. Eagan, III

    This and the last article were both very good. With regard to the issue raised in the comments, I thought about the letters written to the churches in Revelation. Each one had problems, even doctrinal problems, but no one was encouraged to leave. In fact, Sardis was one of the worst, yet the risen Christ said of them that there were "some who have not soiled their robes". This is one reason I have always opposed the "disfellowship" of entire congregations (that, and the fact that there is absolutely no scriptural basis to do such...) - some may choose to stay in such a congregation and do their best to bring things back around.

    • Ben

      Good thoughts, Vincent. Keep in mind that the letters to the 7 churches were written to the churches as a unit. I believe it has little bearing on individual members staying or going. Note how Jesus is by nature optimistic as to the heart of each congregation; He gives them a warning, but has not yet removed the lampstand. The meaning is if Christ Himself would leave specific congregations, then individual members certainly have the right to separate themselves from impenitence as well (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6). We, like Christ, should be optimistic by nature. We should explore whatever avenues are necessary to bring about repentance and reconciliation (cf. Matt. 18:15-17, &c...), but like Christ, we must be willing to leave if our attempts are unfruitful. As I stated in the article, leaving is a matter of judgment. Every congregation is different, meaning every situation is different. You not only have your brothers and sisters to be concerned about, but your own family members (for whom you are indeed very much responsible). What is needed is prayer, humility, self-examination, wise judgment, and experienced counsel.

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