When it’s Okay to Leave Your Church

Yesterday I struck a nerve by writing an article called When it’s not Okay to Leave Your Church. My main point was it’s not okay to be selfish, and leaving your church because your personal preferences aren’t being catered to is unbiblical.

I would be remiss, however, to leave the discussion at that. Because the fact is there are times when it’s okay to leave your church – and by “okay” I mean biblical.

The number one reason you should leave your church: the Gospel is not being preached.

Here’s what I am not saying: it is biblical to leave a church if the Gospel isn’t preached how you like it preached. In other words, if you don’t like the preacher or his preaching style, I am not saying you are right to leave. In fact, yesterday I said you’d be dead wrong to leave over that kind of thing.

What I am saying is, unfortunately, there are a lot of feel good churches out there that teach things not found in the Bible.

Churches that teach Bible stories but never get around to explicitly stating that Jesus is God, He died for our sins, He rose again, He is the only way to Heaven and right relationship with God, and we all need Him.

Churches that preach self-help instead of Jesus-help. The Bible teaches all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and apart from Jesus we can do nothing (read: we can’t help ourselves), but if we remain in Jesus, we will bear much fruit (read: Jesus is our help).

Churches that teach if you love Jesus enough, you will be healthy and wealthy. The Bible teaches in this life believers will have troubles of many kinds, trials, sufferings and hardships, and nonbelievers will hate us.

If the aforementioned unbiblical things are taught at your church, you need to pray. A lot. And then you need to approach the leadership in humility and love and tell them you’re concerned. You need to have an open dialogue with them, using scriptures to support your grievances (like Romans 3 and John 15, for example). And then you need to pray some more, asking the Holy Spirit to convict them of any wrongdoing and empower them to teach the entire scope of the Bible, not just the bits and pieces they like.

And after a good long while, if nothing changes, you must leave. To remain a part of a “church” that doesn’t preach the Gospel is to perpetuate a lie, namely that Jesus might be a nice guy, but He isn’t necessary. Your mere presence makes you an accomplice to and responsible for the falsehoods being taught as truth. If you know that any seeker who comes to your church will be misled, deceived into thinking they are hearing the Bible when they aren’t, and you keep attending and tithing, you are giving your church the two things they need to keep teaching falsehoods: people and money.

A second biblical reason to leave your church is like the first: the leaders (main decision makers: pastors, elders, deacons, etc.) are living in ways that the Bible explicitly says not to.

What I’m not saying is you should leave your church if you think the pastor’s house is too big or the elders’ aren’t spending money the way you would if you were in charge or the leaders sometimes make mistakes or they occasionally sin or they have hurt your feelings or they have weaknesses. Your leaders are human. They aren’t perfect, and you shouldn’t expect them to be.

What I am saying is you should leave your church if leaders are stealing money or having affairs and refusing to repent or are sexually abusing children or are physically abusing their spouses or have drug or alcohol addictions that are going untreated or are consumed with arrogance and pride and refuse accountability – lifestyle choices that go against scripture and for which they are wholly unrepentant.

If your church leaders are acting in these unbiblical ways, you need to pray. A lot. And then you need to approach the leadership in humility and love and tell them you’re concerned. You need to have an open dialogue with them, using scriptures to support your grievances (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, for instance). And then you need to pray some more, asking the Holy Spirit to convict them of any wrongdoing and empower them to repent and make the necessary changes to their lifestyles in order to live and lead biblically.

And after a good long while, if nothing changes, you must leave. To remain a part of a “church” that allows leaders to consciously and consistently live lives that are opposed to scripture is to perpetuate a harmful and untrue version of Christianity, namely that we can expect Jesus to be our Savior without having to submit to His lordship. Your mere presence makes you an accomplice to and responsible for the falsehoods being taught as truth, maybe not from the pulpit, but by the behavior your leaders are modeling. If you know that any seeker who comes to your church will be misled, deceived into thinking they can live anyway they want to and still expect a ticket into Heaven, and you keep attending and tithing, you are giving your church the two things they need to keep perpetuating falsehoods: people and money.

A third biblical reason to leave your church: there is no opportunity for your personal growth in your relationship with Christ through the study of scripture.

Here’s what I am not saying: you can leave your church if the pastor doesn’t “feed you” on Sunday mornings. In other words, if you aren’t “getting” anything out of the message, I’m not saying you have biblical freedom to leave. You don’t. If you only ate one meal a week, you’d die, and it’d be your fault. The same is true of our spiritual lives. You are responsible for feeding yourself, and you need to eat daily.

What I am saying is your church should help you find food. They should encourage personal Bible reading, whether that’s providing a reading plan or Bible study material, they should be doing something to point you toward personally acquiring more Bible knowledge. They should also encourage mentoring/discipling relationships where someone older in the faith teaches someone younger in the faith. These are biblical concepts, and churches of any size can and should help their congregants grow in these ways. 

If there are no opportunities like this at your church – and I mean none, not just none that you like or none that “fit your schedule” – you need to pray. A lot. And then you need to approach the leadership in humility and love and tell them you’re concerned. You need to have an open dialogue with them, using scriptures to support your grievances (Romans 12, 2 Timothy 3, and Titus 2, for example). And then you need to pray some more, asking the Holy Spirit to convict them of any wrongdoing and empower them to develop ways to encourage congregants to grow in their personal relationships with God.

And after a good long while, if nothing changes, you can leave with a clear conscience. But you don’t have to. You could take the initiative and go find your own Bible study resources… You could take the lead, find an older believer, and ask them to disciple you… And you could stay at your church.

The last reason leaving your church could be a biblical decision: God is calling you to serve somewhere else. 

What I am not saying is if you’re unhappy at your current church, and you’re pretty sure God would want you to be happy, and you think you can make that happen by switching churches, then God must be in that decision. God is more concerned with your spiritual growth than with your personal happiness, and he likes to use uncomfortable situations to encourage such growth, including, but not limited to, less-than-satisfying church experiences.

That being said, I believe there are times God legitimately calls people to leave their churches to go serve elsewhere. It may be to go plant a new church in an under-churched area (read: not 1 mile down the road from your current church). It may be to go on the mission field. It may be as a result of moving out of town. It may be because another church has a legitimate need for someone with your gifts and talents to come use your gifts and talents to serve their body. 

If you feel like God might be calling you to go to another church, you need to pray. A lot. And ask the Lord to search your heart and reveal to you what’s really inside. Be honest with yourself. If you are genuinely being called away from your church, your motivation should be one of spreading the Gospel and serving others. There should be no trace of bitterness and/or entitlement. In your heart of hearts, your incentives for going to a new church should not include any selfish reasons – “I am more fulfilled there”, “the pastor really connects with me”, “I like the music better”, “I really get into the worship”, etc.

If you check your heart and you still feel called to a different church, pray some more. Ask the Lord to prepare your current church for your departure, because, even if you leave for biblical reasons, your leaving will leave a hole in your current church. That body will be changed.

If you leave for unbiblical reasons, your leaving will cause disunity. Some people will feel angry you left. Some people will start to wonder if they should leave, too.  Seeds of division will be planted (or watered and harvested if seeds were already there).

But if you leave for biblical reasons, although people will be sad to see you go, they will remain unified. In fact, they will be strengthened because they know you’re leaving to further the Gospel elsewhere while they stay and continue to spread the Gospel where they are. Paul calls this being partners in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5), and it is an encouraging thing to stop and think about people you love who no longer go to church with you but in whom you have total confidence that they are laboring for the Kingdom somewhere else just as hard as you are where you are. It bonds us, this Kingdom work.

If you’re considering leaving your church, make sure you’re doing so for a biblical reason – an others focused reason – and not just because of a personal preference. The biblical reality is there are very few situations in which God wants believers to change churches and a whole host of reasons Satan wants us to change churches. Discern wisely, friends.

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Prayer: Conflict Resolution with God

Unable to sleep despite needing to sleep, I went downstairs for the next best thing – coffee. I paced the length of my kitchen as the machine sputtered. The coffee maker struggled to brew as I struggled to order my thoughts.

I began speaking aloud to the Lord, using Him as a sounding board for my broken logic and heightened emotions. He listened patiently. He gave me all the time I needed to verbally rearrange the pieces of the puzzle… in vain.

Sometimes prayer goes like that. It isn’t so much a laundry list of “Please do these things for me, Lord,” as it is a wrestling match to align my heart with His on matters.

image via wikipedia/Jason M. Carter

His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:9). Sometimes we have to fight for understanding. Sometimes we have to settle for peace without clarity, but even that doesn’t always come without an altercation with God.

Our broken minds are inclined to believe a lot of things that aren’t true, especially about ourselves and about God (see Jacob – Genesis 32). So it’s no wonder we have to spend a lot of time with God – the Spirit of Truth – to sort out our right thinking from our wrong thinking (John 16:13). Part of “fight[ing] the good fight of the faith” is mentally fighting the inclination to believe falsehoods (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:5).

He doesn’t take offense to our (respectfully) arguing with Him (see Moses – Exodus 3-4). He knows that’s part of the process. He delights that we’re speaking honestly with Him, seeking to reconcile our perceptions of reality with who He is and what His Word says. And He knows it is hard and exhausting at times (see Jesus – Luke 22:44).

He never expects us to will ourselves to believe things we struggle to comprehend. Mostly because He knows we can’t. And He certainly doesn’t expect us to pretend we trust Him when we don’t.

Instead, He invites us to come to Him in conversation and work things out. He knows that it is through this wrestling process that our hearts will learn to value what He values and trust His character.

If your heart is overwhelmed, put on your singlet, pop in your mouthpiece, and get on the mat with the Lord.

(Dis)Unity

Our church is entering a time of transition.  A couple of weeks ago, our senior pastor of almost 9 years announced that he and his family are headed to the mission field full-time.  They leave in less than 3 months.  And so the process of finding an interim senior pastor and, eventually, a permanent senior pastor is beginning.

Our church is led by a group of elected elders.  They vote on things to make the decisions for our church (1 Timothy 5:17).  Members can speak freely to the elders at any time, but, ultimately, members do not decide the direction of the church.  The elders do.

In any type of government, ecclesiastical or secular, there is potential for disunity among the governed.  And during times of transition, that potential is even greater.

And I fear the church-fracturing effects of possible dissension within our body at a time like this.

Dave Ramsey has a rule in his corporation.  If you have a problem, a gripe, a complaint of any kind, you can voice it up the chain of command without fear of penalty.  But if you voice it to an employee under you or equal to you in authority, you are fired on the spot.  Why?  Because Dave understands the crippling potential of unhealthy criticism within a body of people.

I fear that members of our church will begin to voice their negative opinions to one another on how they feel the pastoral search is going, spreading disunity like gangrene, focusing our body on lesser things than spreading the Gospel (Romans 15:5-6).

(I fear this not because our church is especially disgruntled but because our church is made up of humans, and humans, as we all know, are bent toward discontent.  So, while this particular post is about my fear for my church, I also fear for your church and the Church at large.)

To be clear, I am all for members voicing their negative opinions to senior staff members and elders.  Do it!  Do it in love (1 Corinthians 16:14; Ephesians 4:15).  You have a voice.  If you feel things are going in the wrong direction, speak up.  But speak up to those who have the ability to change things, NOT to your fellow members.   Spreading negativity within the congregation is not fruitful.  In fact, the destructive effect of such speech cannot be overstated.

And it plays right into Satan’s hand.

Satan wants our church to fold.  He wants us to split over whoever the new senior pastor is.  He wants to divide us, pitting members against members, directing our attention to ourselves and our preferences so we will have no energy left to spend on loving people like Jesus did.  Satan wants to stir our pride against our elders to convince us that they are incompetent so we dwell on our anger and bitterness each Sunday instead of worshiping our resurrected Lord together.

Paul understood what was at stake.

In Ephesians Paul wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:3-4).

In Colossians he wrote, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity,” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Part of this unity that we should strive for includes submitting to the elders – and their decisions – even if we disagree with them.  The author of Hebrews puts it succinctly, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you,” (Hebrews 13:17).

We won’t always agree with our leaders.  And that’s okay.  What matters is what we do with our disagreements.  We can handle them rightly by discussing them with those in authority over us, or we can handle them wrongly – sinfully – by discussing them with those around us.  Ultimately, though, Scripture commands us to submit to those in authority over us, whether we like it or not.

If you are in a church where you are unwilling to submit to its leaders, figure out why that is.  The leaders may not be acting in accordance with Scripture.  If that’s the case, leave that church!  Go find a Bible believing church to be a part of.

But if it turns out you are unwilling to submit to the leaders for personal reasons instead of biblical reasons, ask the Lord to work the rebellion out of your heart.  Ask Him to cut out your bitterness and your pride.  Ask Him to help you authentically and properly submit to your church leaders and, more importantly, to Him.

Your church’s unity – THE Church’s unity – depends on it.

Does God Care HOW We Worship Him?

image via westmainbaptist.com
image via westmainbaptist.com

There is a popular idea out there that it doesn’t matter how you choose to worship, as long as you are sincere.  Within this idea is an unspoken conclusion that, somehow, no matter which religion turns out to be right, the god(s) of that religion will honor the valiant efforts of those who believed falsely, as long as they believed with passion and commitment.

(Why a god would reward wrong is beyond me.)

It is true that God cares about the heart.  He is deeply concerned with our motivations, our intentions, and our emotions, especially in worship (Deuteronomy 10:12).

But is God also concerned with the way we worship?  Sure, we need to be sincere, but does the how also matter?

Well, the Old Testament has two entire books – Leviticus and Deuteronomy – dedicated to laying out the means by which Israel was to worship God.  God is painstakingly specific and is serious about the Israelites worshiping Him in just the right way.

Why?

To distinguish the Israelites from the idolators around them (Deuteronomy 12:31).

God wanted the surrounding nations to know that the Israelites were not worshiping just any ole god – they were worshiping the One True God.

But there came a time in Israel’s history when they lost sight of the prescribed ways they were to worship.  Frankly, they just weren’t important to them anymore.

And, as a result, “…everyone did as he saw fit,” (Judges 17:6).

Even Israel’s first king, Saul, decided it’d be okay to come worship God however he wanted to.

In 1 Samuel 15 we read that God commanded Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites and everything that belongs to them (1 Samuel 15:3-4).  But Saul says to himself, “I will kill everyone except the king, and I will kill every animal except the best ones, and then I will sacrifice those best animals to the Lord!  God loves animal sacrifices; surely, He will pleased with me!” (1 Samuel 15:15).

What is Saul doing?  He is justifying disobedience.  He is worshiping God the way he wants to, not the way God told him to.  And he is mistaken that God doesn’t care about how people worship.

As a result, Saul loses the kingdom (1 Samuel 15:23).

And Saul is not the only Israelite to ever lose sight of the importance of the proper way to worship God.

In Numbers 3:4 two of Aaron’s sons – ordained priests – “…fell dead before the Lord when they made an offering with unauthorized fire before him…”

Aaron’s sons knew what the Law said.  They knew the proper way to approach the Lord.  That was their job.  But they made the same mistake Saul did – the same mistake you and I make – and decided to worship on their own terms.  And they paid for that choice with their lives.

What does this mean for us Christians?

God is the same today as He was in Old Testament times.  God cares how we worship Him.  He cares that we call Him Jesus and not any other name (Acts 4:12).  He cares that we believe He is the only God (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 Corinthians 8:4).  He cares that we worship Him only and not any other “gods” (Luke 4:8).  He cares that we worship in truth – not falsehoods – no matter how sincere we might be (John 4:24).

It simply isn’t true that we can worship any god in any way and earn eternal salvation on account of our sincerity.  God has a certain way He wants us to worship, and only that way will do.