When It Is Time To Leave7 min read
[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?]The 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.