This is an article I wanted more to see.
Sam and Jennifer Johnson just returned from their 2-year anniversary trip. While traveling, they attended a congregation that had a great preacher. His sermons were passionate, dynamic, and interesting. When they returned to their home congregation, they noticed just how dull their own preacher really is. Now in his late sixties, his sermons are predictable, long, difficult to follow, and he has no plans on retiring.
Jack, the deacon over the bus ministry, is upset that his elders have not purchased a newer church van. The current van, a 1997 Dodge Ram with 240,000 miles on it, is now unreliable. It’s had a rough life of senior trips, benevolence, youth events, and regular Sunday morning routes. Now, the bottom of this ugly van is rusted out, the transmission has been rebuilt twice, and the gas mileage is terrible. Yet the elders still won’t sell it and buy a new one. And Jack is the one delegated to drive the van most of the time.
Marilyn, a 56-year-old single woman, loves to decorate for events. This past month, however, the Vacation Bible School planning team did not choose the theme she wanted this year. She already had several decorations and prop ideas for the theme she suggested, and now thinks to herself, “They knew what I wanted, but decided to go with a more boring theme. How could they do this to me? They just don’t care! I don’t think I can work with these people.”
What do these people all have in common? They are all thinking about leaving their church.
No, they are not upset about moral compromise, false doctrine, or spiritual infidelity within the church. Marilyn, Jack, and the Johnsons are simply suffering from a ‘consumer’ mentality. They have contributed emotionally and financially to their respective congregations, and now expect a return on their investment. “What is the church doing for me?” is the unspoken attitude.
Their stories illustrate the common reasons people decide to leave: personality conflicts, hurt feelings, pride, and selfish preferences. People rarely leave over legitimate biblical issues. When things get difficult, their grievances start multiplying. “I’m not being fed here.” “The elders don’t do anything.” “They aren’t using me.” “There aren’t enough activities for my kids.” “I’m tired of all the hypocrites.” “The elders won’t listen to me.”
Yes, the church has plenty of people whose lives do not resemble the life of Christ. There are elders who abuse their authority or are really bad at leading. Big decisions are sometimes made haphazardly and without the consent of others. And there are plenty of personality conflicts, power fights, and relationship squabbles. The temptation to find refuge in a “stronger” congregation can be very appealing.
But the church is not a business, and you are not a consumer. You are Christian who is part of a community – a church family that is imperfect. Your commitment – not your circumstances – to the body of Christ is what matters the most. Regardless of whether your circumstances are delightful or dreadful, it is your dedication to Christ that should determine whether you should stay or go.
“But you don’t understand. My church has a lot of problems!” Yes, and so do you. So do I. We were slaves to sin, and now – by the grace of God – we have been rescued (cf. Eph. 2:8-9; Luke 15:11-32). For the rest of our Christian walk, we will be in a state of transformation into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:2; Gal. 2:20). If Christ is committed to us, despite our shortcomings, should we not be committed to His Bride, despite her human imperfections?
More than likely, church problems aren’t keeping you from becoming more like Christ. It is your commitment to building up the church (1 Cor. 14:12), despite her problems, that is making you more like Christ.
Would Christ have you run away from your church the moment a bad decision is made? Or would He ask you to be His light in the period of darkness?
“They aren’t using me.” Maybe you haven’t been given the job you want. But maybe that is because you could serve a greater role doing something else.
“I’m not being fed here.” Maybe you are confusing real spiritual growth with faux spiritualism. Maybe you are relying too much on the church, rather than your own study of the Scripture, to grow closer to God.
“The elders don’t do anything.” Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. What they need, however, is your encouragement. “The elders won’t listen to me.” Maybe you just need to learn to be submissive to their decisions (Heb. 13:17).
“There aren’t enough activities for my kids.” Then you need to step up and help with the children’s ministry at your church. If you think of church as a daycare for your kids, you have other problems to deal with.
“I’m tired of all the hypocrites.” If your brother or sister is wrestling with sin, then they need you to help them overcome their inconsistencies (cf. Heb. 10:24-25). They need the encouragement and support of faithful Christians like you. The last thing they need is for strong Christians to flee.
God has given us His church, and through it His grace transforms us (Titus 2:11-12). Christians are to build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11), but that can only happen if we are committed to one another.
Think twice about leaving. Perhaps your congregation needs you now more than ever before. And perhaps fleeing the moment the road gets bumpy will keep you from maturing in an area in which you need to grow spiritually the most.
When It Is Time To Leave
[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.