When Is It the Right Time to Leave a Church?
When is it right to leave a local church? What are the legitimate reasons to separate yourself from a local expression of the body of Christ? How can you avoid a schismatic spirit that disdains the unity of Christ's church?
Before answering these questions, it is important that we acknowledge the unique temptations that we face in our day. Ours is a time when Christians have a lesser sense of commitment and loyalty to the local church than perhaps at any time in history; and this is a serious problem.
It is a problem because the church is precious to our Lord and it ought to be precious to the Lord's people. He died to create the church. He rules from heaven on behalf of his church. He prayed for the unity of his church.
Yet Christians flit about from church to church as if they were trying on shoes. We have developed a consumer mentality when it comes to participation in a local fellowship, visiting one and then another, looking for the perfect fit. In the process we avoid any sense of commitment to a body of believers and deny the principle of unity which is fundamental to the very nature of Christ's body.
It is part of a neurosis that afflicts most of our society today. Everyone is looking for perfection and in the process discarding whatever falls short of that standard. Men seek the perfect mate and so enter into what amounts to serial marriage through divorce. They seek the perfect job and so transfer from one company to another. They seek the perfect home and community and so move on average every three to five years. They seek the perfect church and so hop from Bible Fellowship this to Christian Center that.
But, of course, the search is a vain one. We will never find perfection in our spouse, our job, our community, or our church. The result is that we simply end up disconnected and frustrated.
The affliction of denominationalism is another part of the problem as there is such a variety of churches from which to choose. And the fervor of the anti-denominationalists only adds to the confusion as the options are multiplied by an infinite variety of independent churches, each likewise trumpeting their uniqueness.
Whatever the causes, however, we must acknowledge the tragedy of the low level of commitment of most believers to a local assembly. For this reason it is especially important that we deal carefully with the question of leaving a church.
What are some reasons people offer for leaving church?
1. Relocation - moving to another area (but many do not find a church)
2. A change in leadership
3. Family issues
4. Change of hours at work
5. Spiritual needs unmet
6. Backslidden, or grown cold
7. Called out by God
8. Offended by preacher
9. Offended by another member
10. Heresy is being preached, or fundamental doctrine being omitted
12. Burn out
13. Getting married and choosing the partner's church
14. Friends going elsewhere
15. Upset about decisions
16. Immorality of leaders, or mishandling funds
17. Not feeling appreciated
19. Heard of a better church
As a pastor it is sometimes difficult to not be personally offended at those who come into the fellowship of the body of Christ and then, for whatever reasons, decide to drop out. Amazingly, those given the most attention and fussed over to a fault are often the ones who drop out faster than others.
There are many reasons for the dropouts of the church and society. Most of these reasons are merely excuses. Jesus asked some people to follow him (Luke -24) and they at once began to make excuse. One had to go see a field he had already bought. He should have looked it over before the purchase. Another had to try out a team of oxen he had acquired. And one had to go bury his father. All of these were merely excuses used to get out of submission to the Lord.
Let us first set aside some reasons which are not a legitimate basis for leaving a fellowship of believers.
What are some bad reasons to leave?
1. The Excuse of Others
Often people don’t stay with the church because they find offense in others. They come to the church with the mistaken notion that it is a provider of entitlements. They shop for church as they do for fast food. They want a little McChurch and might even suffer a few McSermons on Sunday. But don't ask them for any service or involvement. They come asking a myriad of questions. "Do you have a youth minister who can play with the kids? Do you have an attended nursery so we don't have to be bothered with the baby? Do you have an aerobics class and free counseling?" What a shame! You see they are coming not seeking salvation or service to the Master, but membership in a club. They want all the perks of body life but are unwilling to extend themselves in providing the same thing for others. They are takers, not seekers. When they don't find their felt needs, every one of them, met by the church staff and members, they drop out. Actually, they were never in the body in the first place. As the apostle John stated,
It is not right to leave a church simply to run away from problems. If we are having trouble in our relationships with certain people, for example, then we need to draw on the grace of God to overcome those difficulties. We may need to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, gaining more patience, kindness and love. Running away short-circuits the very process God may want to use to conform us more nearly to the image of Christ.
2. The Excuse of Time
Many have said that after leaving the church that they just didn’t have enough time in their schedules to be active members of the body of Christ. And yet as often as not their houses (for I could scarcely call them homes) are run like Grand Central Station where family members drop in to refuel and then are out again to do whatever it is that fills their lives. They have time for bridge club, and the spa, and tennis lessons, and tap lessons, and track meets, and seminars, and a 300-column newspaper to read, plus three hours on the computer, and four in front of the TV, ad nauseam. But they have no time to serve and worship the Lord.
So many of us have lives so full we hardly have time to rest. No wonder families are falling apart. Without time for spiritual and emotional renewal, it's a wonder folks this busy even have time to think of church and eternity.
3. The Excuse of Poor Leadership
“We just don’t like the way you’re running things” some say. They may be right. Perhaps there are some leadership problems. Perhaps a young pastor’s inexperience can lead to poor decisions. Perhaps an older pastor who has faithfully served for decades is lacking in flexibility. Perhaps financial problems are worrying the church. Sometimes morale is sagging due to bad decisions. A lack of vision may be creating an internal sickness.
There is a tendency to look for someone to blame and as often as not, the fingers begin pointing at the pastor. But decisions are rarely made solely by the pastor and we need to determine if the problem is the pastor’s or if it is more systemic. There is an aphorism that states “you get the leadership you deserve.” Perhaps the problem is that there is not enough mutual accountability. Perhaps the people need to step up to the plate and let their leadership know their concerns.
But sometimes the leadership is not approachable. Sometimes they keep trying to cure the church with their own diagnosis and prescription rather than God’s. Sometimes they will not listen to their people. Does this necessarily mean you have to leave the church? Not always. Perhaps it’s time for a revival in the church. Maybe it’s time for new leadership. Maybe it IS time for you to go – just don’t think that it’s an absolute.
4. The Excuse of a Different Style
Church members will often leave because they yearn for another style of ministry. They desire a different style of preaching or worship. They hunger for a certain style of music. Their expectations about a church might come from a church, pastor, or program they had in another town. But a church is not like a restaurant. You don’t just leave a church because you have developed a yen for a different flavor of the month!
5. The Excuse of a Specific Program
When asked, “How did you discover our church?” people will often respond “We heard about the church because of the youth program. Some friends told us about your youth ministry” or “We really like the Music Ministry of our new church,” they respond. But a church is a holistic experience and you should not determine your membership based solely on one program.
Besides, that’s a pretty selfish motive – a self-centered motive. The thought is “how can this church serve me” instead of “how can I serve my brothers and sisters? How can I serve Christ?”
6. The Excuse of Disillusionment
William D. Hendricks talks about a “dark side” to the church. He details numerous stories about people leaving their churches in his book, Exit Interviews. He writes, “Despite glowing reports of surging church attendance, more and more Christians in North America are feeling disillusioned with the church and other formal, institutional expressions of Christianity." (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993, p. 17). These people remove themselves from the church out of frustration with structure or bureaucracy.
People often experience disillusionment because they have been serving in ministry or in leadership and have seen the ugly side of the human sin nature at its worst. But Christ also saw the worst in humanity and served anyway. He loved us in that while we were yet sinners He died for us. Ministry is not about getting patted on the back and stroked and everyone liking you. Christ was underappreciated. Paul was underappreciated. If you are doing things right, odds are good you will also be underappreciated. However, this cannot be the underlying motive for leaving a church or a ministry.
7. The Excuse of Inner Hurts
People will at times shock you by informing you of their imminent departure from church. “It’s in the best interest of our family,” they may say. Often, however, they will come up with some kind of excuse of how they were offended or the choir sings off key or whatever. But a while later you find out the sad news of their divorce, or of his affair, or of her losing her job due to fiscal irresponsibility or worse. Rather than seek help in the church, people will flee the church. They retreat to ease the surprise and embarrassment of their impending disaster.
Not every person who leaves the church because of inner hurt leaves on bad terms. Some leave to seek answers to their hurt. Still others take flight to find the acceptance they have missed. But at the very time they need help and support the most – they run.
8. The Excuse of Church Size
“I sure have missed you at church,” you say in casual conversation to a person who has been gone. They reply, “Don’t take it personally, but the church has gotten too big for us. We like a smaller church.” Sometimes the church may grow too large. In other cases the church may not be large enough. But once again we come back to a wrong perspective. The thought pattern is based on what makes that person comfortable. The premise is false – it is a prideful, self-seeking mindset.
9. The Excuse of Boredom
God has not given us the inalienable right to bore each other in the name of Jesus. Gatherings of disciples should be the highlights of our week. Too many lessons are dry and ineffectual. This is a fact. Classes should be led by teachers who know the book and live it. Sermons should be dynamic and make us feel like walking closer to the Master after we hear them. They should also challenge us to reach down into ourselves and come up with the wherewithal to let our faith be felt wherever we go.
But if someone says to me he has quit attending because a class was boring I would have to tell him the class wasn't presented for his entertainment and that if it was boring it was his responsibility to help make it interesting. By the way, usually the high critic has never volunteered to teach a class in his life. If we approach church as some institution to meet all our felt needs and to serve us instead of us being body members who are active and eager to serve others, it's a wonder we would hang around at all.
10. The Excuse of Weakness
Like an automobile that needs some mechanical attention, people will sputter and quit now and then before they stop altogether. A brother in Christ may confide that the reason he is starting to miss assemblies is because he is just too weak to walk the walk. But he is a prime candidate to keep on keeping on and to stay with it. He may feel he is unable to overcome the sin in his life. But if he actually wants to walk with Jesus and overcome his demons then I reason that if he would keep with it and keep praying and trying, the Lord would eventually empower him in the Holy Spirit to overcome the evil one in his life. The very reason for dropping out is one of the greatest for staying in.
11. The Excuse of Family
Sally is her name. She comes to church with her two children who are pre-schoolers. With a vivacious presence she jumps into the programs available, not to be served, but to participate in them. She even volunteers to teach a Sunday School class. This is the kind of new member that ministers just adore. They seem to have that drive that makes them low maintenance. But within six months Sally will start to miss services. When approached, it all comes down to her husband's inability to encourage her. He might even make fun of her eagerness to be a "goodie two shoes." She’ll be finally beaten down to the point where she just wants to give up.
Perhaps more than anyone people whose families are not supportive may have the most understandable cause for burnout. With much love and encouragement Sally needs to recommit herself to Jesus and hopefully eventually win her husband to Christ. But if Sally quits, what are her chances of leading her husband to the Lord?
12. The Excuse of God
“Where was God when my son died?" the sobbing man asks with tears running down his heavy cheeks. Standing beside the casket of his teen-age boy, the thoughtful preacher answers, "John, He was right where He was when His Son died."
Perhaps it is understandable why people will shake their fists in the face of God and presume to accuse him of malfeasance. "If I were God I would not let babies be born deformed. If I were God I would not allow suffering in the world. If I were God I would not let wars and famine and earthquakes occur." But we aren't God, are we?
Actually, the problem of pain is only a hurdle for believers. Atheists don't have the right to quarrel with the Almighty because they think this is all one big bang of an accident in the first place. And maybe it did begin with a bang, but God was the one who lit that firecracker.
Human suffering is the hardest obstacle to overcome in the minds of many. Much suffering is brought upon ourselves by our own behavior, or those around us. We do suffer the consequences of the evil that surrounds us. But not all pain is self-induced. And this is where those with skeptical minds feed their misgivings. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Famines. Floods. These natural disasters we flippantly refer to as "acts of God." Though we don't have all the answers for why people suffer, perhaps the sacred hymn provides some solace: "We'll understand it better by and by." Punishing God by punishing the Church is not an adequate answer. If you are hurting, you need the loving support of your church family more than ever.
13. The Hedonistic Excuse
One tragic line of thinking is the idea that we are here to grab for all the gusto we can get. We want a Michelob weekend and all the trimmings and we want it right now. Some of us are an impatient lot as we feel the constant urge to experience every known sensation a body can have. I've had people tell me that life had too much fun to offer and that church restrained them from that.
Well, I agree with these folks in the sense that I think church should be fun, and many of us church folk have missed the point of "church" in the first place. Too often our assemblies are designed to produce sad, pious, pursed lips and frowns on our faces when the writer of Hebrews tells us that our gatherings should provoke us to love and good works. Unfortunately, we do a lot of provoking, but not the right kind.
Without going into more detail, let me just say that our assemblies ought to be more fun than getting drunk, and committing adultery, and stripping at the beach, and attempting to grab for all the gusto we can get crammed into one lifetime. Church is people. Church is the body of Christ, with active and vibrant members. It's truly a family affair. When we allow the pastor to do all the work and have all the fun, we miss out. Let's not buy the devil's lie that church can't be fun. Let's make it fun. For everything we do when we are together that goads us to love and good deeds is just the ticket for a great and exciting life.
14. The Excuse of Not Making Connections
Demographic studies have revealed that if new members in a church do not "connect" with at least three others that befriend them and help disciple them, they will drop out within six months. This perhaps explains why so many choose to leave the church. "Discipling" is not always easy. Jesus said to make disciples, baptize them, and then disciple them some more. If a baby is left to fend for himself he will die. Spiritual babies also need tender loving care and guidance. This is the heart of discipling. We don't like to admit it because it puts the onus on us, the rank and file of the congregation. So, instead of writing people off as merely weak and disinterested, perhaps we had better take another look at how we welcome and assimilate new faces that come in among us.
However, the Bible also says that if a man wants to have friends he must show himself to be friendly. Before you leave that church due to a lack of connections let me ask you something. How many people have you invited over to your house? How many bowling games have you gone to with someone else? How many after service fellowships have you attended? Or do you run out of the church at the last “Amen?”
15. The Excuse of a Lack of Perfection
Based on what has already been written we conclude that a lack of perfection is not a reason to leave a church. Any church will have problems and no one is going to have his needs totally met in any fellowship. Let us not be surprised that things are not as we would like them to be. That is the nature of life in this sinful world, and we are part of the problem. Our presence in the church may be part of what keeps it from being a perfect place from someone else's point of view! Leaving because things are not perfect simply reveals our low level of faithfulness.
16. The Excuse of Our Views Being Challenged
We should never leave a church because we are being challenged about our doctrine or pattern of life and find it uncomfortable. We ought always to be ready to examine what we believe and what we do by the standard of the Word of God, and we should not feel threatened by someone challenging our cherished notions. How else can we grow? The Bible says that “Intelligent people are always open to new ideas. In fact, they look for them.” (Prov. 18:15) It is sad how immature so many Christians are, how unable to enter into discussion about important questions of life and doctrine. It is precisely because there is one Truth which is revealed in Scripture that believers need to be able to deliberate and learn from one another so that they can be faithful to Christ and his Word alone.
WHAT ARE SOME GOOD REASONS FOR LEAVING?
Christians need to be committed to the church! Lack of commitment to other Christians can never be the reason for departing. Actually, the only reason for leaving a church should be, in reality, a desire for more commitment to the body of Christ. What, then, are the legitimate reasons to make one's departure?
The first reason one may choose to leave a church
is that its leaders do not teach the Bible's doctrines faithfully.
Paul could say after his three-year ministry in
A father must decide if a church's teaching is faithful to the Scriptures. If he believes it deviates at some point, he then has to decide if it is a matter of sufficient weight to justify breaking fellowship. The doctrine of the deity of Christ is fundamental. So is the doctrine of Bible inspiration. Failure in regard to these issues would present clear reasons for separation. However, doctrines related to tithing or the nature of the millennium probably do not constitute a basis for departure.
A second reason for leaving a church is that its leaders do not teach, model and promote a biblical pattern of life. The Bible not only teaches a set of ideas we are to believe; it also teaches a pattern of life we are to follow. Paul wrote, "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (Phil. ). Church leaders are supposed to be "examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3), demonstrating what a godly lifestyle looks like.
Liberals in the apostate mainline denominations are likely to fail the doctrinal test. They will tend to hold views which are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, like a denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus or inerrant quality of the Scriptures. Evangelicals, on the other hand, those of us who take the Bible very seriously when it comes to fundamental doctrines, are apt to fail the lifestyle test. We often do not take the Bible seriously as a guide for our pattern of life.
Evangelicals will affirm the bodily resurrection but deny in practice that gossip is an abomination to God and destructive of the peace of the church. They will affirm the virgin birth but deny in practice that God requires them to protect their children from evil influences that militate against the faith. They will affirm the substitutionary atonement but deny in practice that debt is slavery and to be avoided at all costs. They will affirm the verbal inspiration of Scripture but deny in practice that God hates divorce and that it is tantamount to adultery. They will affirm justification by grace through faith but deny in practice that men are to sacrificially serve their wives as Christ loved the church and women are to submit to the spiritual leadership of their husbands. In short, they tend to affirm Bible doctrines while disobeying the Bible's pattern for life.
Neither the liberal nor the evangelical way of denying the authority of Scripture is acceptable. God means for his Word to be believed (doctrine) and he means for his Word to be obeyed (life).
So church leaders must not only teach Bible doctrine; they must also model biblical ways of living. Imagine a leader who is obese because of gluttony and lack of self-control; he teaches the importance of limiting family size; his children are not under control; he lives beyond his means on credit; and he has been divorced but his doctrine is impeccable. Could you remain under the authority of someone who so denies the Bible by his life? Could your family continue to maintain fellowship in a church whose leaders so disregard the clear teachings of God's Word?
A third reason for leaving a church is its failure to practice discipleship and discipline. This is contrary to popular ways of thinking. Many leave because they are under church discipline or they are offended by the fact that someone else is under church discipline. But discipleship and discipline are closely related in form and meaning. Discipleship is the process of training someone to live the Christian life. Discipline refers to the correction and sanctions that are imposed on one who professes faith in Christ but who fails to live the Christian life.
Jesus' last instruction to his followers was to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19). This was to be accomplished by "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (v. 20). A church is failing in its fundamental task if it is not making disciples, if it is not teaching its members how to live a life of obedience, if it is not equipping people to live according the pattern of life set forth in Scripture.
A man should expect his church to provide training in both Bible doctrine and biblical patterns of life. He should be instructed in the fundamentals of the faith so that he can become a good workman (2 Tim. ) and can teach his own family the truths of Scripture. He should also be trained in biblical lifestyle: how to handle finances in a godly way, how to teach his own children, how to be the spiritual leader of his family, how to deal with temptation, how to meditate on Scripture.
Jesus also instructed his disciples how to deal with professing believers who refuse to repent when confronted with sin in their lives (Matt. -17; cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-5). Such persons are to be rebuked and eventually excommunicated, cut off from the fellowship of the body. If a man teaches false doctrine or practices a sinful lifestyle, he is to be confronted and called to repentance. Lacking repentance, he is to be removed from the body of Christ.
Too few churches provide training for the Christian life. Fewer still practice church discipline. Yet both of these are essential to a healthy church. A lack of them is reason to seek another place of fellowship.
We could summarize our three points this way: It is legitimate to leave a church when its leaders dishonor Christ by a failure to apply his Word to themselves and the congregation in matters of doctrine and life. Although separation should always be accomplished with some measure of grief, it is sometimes necessary for the honor of Christ and as an expression of loyalty to his Word to separate from a Christian body.
has a long and esteemed tradition in church history. Even as the Roman church
reached the pinnacle of worldliness there were the Waldenses
and Albigenses, the Lollards
and the Hussites. These small sects sheltered the
light of biblical faith in very dark times. During the English Reformation the
Separatists broke from the corrupt state church in order to follow pure
biblical doctrine and life. These saints became the Pilgrims who settled
goal of separation is always a more pure church. However, not everyone who
becomes convinced that a church needs purification believes that it is best to
leave the church. Some become like the Puritans in
When it comes to separating from evangelical churches the choice becomes much more difficult. Again, these churches affirm the right doctrine, and they are often filled with many sincere Christians who love the Lord. But if they deny the Bible when it comes to the teaching and practice of biblical lifestyle, it may be necessary to separate for the sake of Christ and the spiritual health of one's family.
So what should I do?
1. Don't leave your church immediately! Jesus laid his life down for us (John -18). We need to be willing to lay our lives down for a season for our brethren. You have no authority to just walk out of a church. To our shame, many of us have no more commitment to the local church than we do to McDonald's or Burger King. Don’t make your decision hastily. Seek the counsel of some wise Christians. Seek God’s face in prayer, fasting, meditation and Bible study. Once you feel you have found God’s answer then and only then should take such a grave step as breaking fellowship with your church.
2. Make sure you are an example of what you are advocating before you speak (Matt. 23:3). Why would any body of elders or pastor be interested in a new way of doing things when your own life does not exemplify the principles of which you speak?
3. You must submit to the leadership (Hebrews ). Realize that you are not authorized to make changes in the church unless you are an elder. Try to understand their point of view. Work hard at determining if perhaps the fault is not your own. Do not remove yourself from their protective authority quickly.
4. Get any and all logs out of your own eyes before speaking to the elders (Matthew 7:1-6). Anything that the church or elders may have against you (on any previous issue) must first be dealt with by you (Matthew -24) before you speak. Allow for enough time between reconciliation and speaking about your issues with the church so that the two are not confused. Don't reconcile and then in the next sentence bring up the issue.
5. Speak to the leadership in love (Ephesians ). It is your duty. It is part of your responsibility as a believer-priest. As in any relationship, choose a time when they may be the most receptive. Treat the leaders as you would want your wife to treat you in bringing up an issue.
6. Provide them with resources and give them time. The best thing you can do is get out of the way. Assume the best. Assume they love the Lord, want what is best and will be open. Don't keep pressing the issue unless they ask questions. Follow up once a month with a short and simple inquiry as to their conclusions. Love is patient (1 Cor. 13:4) and kind.
By “patient” I mean how long you are willing to wait. By “kind” I mean how you speak. Remember elders have a responsibility you do not have. They must be careful in what they present to the flock. Even if they become convinced, they will need time to get others on board with their new thinking. They will need time to think through the implications and how best to implement a new path. Often they will move in the right direction but will need to walk in their new convictions for a while before arriving at: the same place you have come.
7. Be truly teachable. It could be that the problem is you and not the teaching of the church. Sometimes people will say “I am not being fed” but the reality of the matter is that they do not like the truth they are being told and they refuse the food! Make sure that this is not true of you. Do not rebel to the Word of God but humble yourself under the mighty hand of God.
8. Practice your convictions with humility (1 Peter 5:5-7). “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble youselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” Sometimes your quiet gentle spirit will model the proper way of doing things and will slowly change the way things are done in your church. Regardless, even if you end up having to leave, at least you will have modeled righteousness to those you left behind.
9. Be a servant to the church (Mark ). Be a part of the solution. Perhaps you could offer to teach a family-based Sunday School. Offer to disciple and mentor other families. You must serve the body in some way. Pray and ask God to show you how and where. Don't contribute to the perception that you only care about yourself.
10. Be a witness (Matthew ). Be a model of reaching out to a lost and dying world.
11. Seek counsel (Prov. ).
12. Finally, you cannot wait forever. There may come a time to leave. However, you must aim to find the proper response between the extremes of, on the one hand, walking out the minute there is resistance to your ideas and, on the other hand, never joining in fellowship with like-minded saints.
We live in dangerous and exciting times. They are dangerous because of the temptations that accompany the need for separation. They are exciting because the Lord is at work calling the remnant of his people out of compromise and into holiness.
May God grant that the result of your decision is indeed a purified people who earnestly devote themselves to Christ and his Word.