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.