When Should I Leave My Church

Posted: March 26, 2011 in Church Discipline, doctrine, life, Theology
Tags: , ,

challies.com Is where I read this a few weeks ago. Little did I know I would be referring back to it for my own situation.

Occasionally I attempt to think back to all of the questions I receive from readers of this site. I try to think of things I have been asked many times but have never written about. One that came to mind recently is rather a simple question: Under what circumstances may I leave my church? Quite often I receive emails from readers who are concerned that their church no longer preaches sound doctrine or perhaps no longer offers skillful teaching. And they want to know if the Bible allows them or even compels them to move on.

We live in an age of consumerism and this leaves us accustomed to prioritizing our needs and, even more so, our desires, above all else. We march out of stores that do not carry the products we want at the prices we demand; we customize our lives, from the clothes we wear to the cell phones we carry. In all things we are sovereign, we are discerning consumers who demand that things be done our way.

But church is an area where consumerism ought to be the furthest thing from our minds. At church we are part of an involuntary community which is pieced together by God. We are placed under spiritual authorities and are to be subject to them. We need to be very careful, then, to examine our hearts and examine our motives before withdrawing membership from a church. Sadly, though, there are certain situations in which this becomes a necessity.

There are good reasons to leave a church and there are bad reasons to leave a church. I dare say that there are far more bad reasons than good reasons. There are times where you must leave and times when you may leave. In this brief article I want to point to a few of those good reasons. Perhaps another time I can focus more on the really bad ones.

You Must Leave
Most of the reasons you must leave relate to leadership. If the leaders of a church show contempt and disregard for the Bible and for sound doctrine, you are called to separate yourself from them. And it may well be that the only way to do this is to leave your church (though in some circumstances you may be able to have the leaders removed).

Here are four situations in which the Bible tells you that you must leave a church.

If the teaching is heretical (Galatians 1:7-9). If the leaders of a church are teaching what is outright heresy, you must separate yourself from that church. Staying to fight the battle is likely to make less of a statement than separating yourself from the church and its leaders, declaring them the heretics they are. The Bible declares that they are accursed, that they are anathema. Of course before you do this, be sure that what they are teaching truly is heresy and not merely something you disagree with.

If the leaders tolerate error from those who teach (Romans 16:17). We are called to separate ourselves from leaders who tolerate unbiblical alternatives to the doctrines that are most fundamental to the faith. These people, in allowing such teaching to stand, cause division. God demands that you remove yourself from such a church.

If there is utter disregard for biblical church discipline (1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14). If a church refuses to call its people to the Bible’s standard of holy living and if it refuses to exercise church discipline, you must remove yourself from that church. A church that tolerates blatant sin is no true church at all. My wife and I once had to leave a church for this very reason—the church refused to discipline a man and woman who were living together as husband and wife even though they were not married.

If the church is marked by utter hypocrisy (2 Timothy 3:5). This passage refers to a particular kind of hypocrisy in which the church has the appearance of being marked by godliness and yet denies that the Holy Spirit is the true sources of this godliness. It is happy to look like it is Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered and yet it is actually a mockery of God in that the leaders deny his power and presence.

Reformed churches have typically spoken of three marks of a true church: the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments and church discipline. We can find each of these represented above. If these marks are missing, if there is gross hypocrisy or heresy, if there is no demand for holiness among the leaders or membership, if there is error being tolerated by those who preach, the Bible tells you to separate yourself from that church.

You May Leave
There are also reasons for which we may choose to leave. Though they are not the kinds of reasons that will force you to leave a church, they may well still be reasons that are good and wise. In all cases, a decision will require great care and much prayer.

If you desire better teaching. The Bible does not forbid you from leaving one church to go to another one that offers better teaching. In general this should be done not merely because a particular pastor is a better teacher but because another church has a more sound understanding of what comprises good teaching.

If you desire to use your gifts. If you have sought to use your God-given gifts and talents within your current church and have found no place to use them, you may wish to find a church where those gifts will be useful and where they will be appreciated.

If you desire a more convenient location. A decision may simply come down to convenience, where attending one church may save you a lot of time or allow you to serve in a local community instead of a distant one.

If it better serves your family. It may be that your children are the only ones within a church. Moving to another church may give open up many opportunities for them to grow in the faith or to serve within the church.

And we could go on all day. There are few reasons for which you must leave a church and many for which you may. As a general rule of thumb, be very slow to withdraw your membership and leave a church only with the greatest of care and the utmost humility.

(Some of the first section was drawn from a Q&A session with John MacArthur)

  1. Angel says:

    I think this answers ALOT of questions:)……I wish people could see you for who you really are and not assume and speculate. You had me confused for a long time,
    but all I see now is a man passionate about Gods Word and one who will defend it. I have the upmost respect for you. I thank you for continuing to leading me to the truth through Gods Word. Keep your head up Bill all this is suposed to happen. Don’t let flesh get in the way of God will. love ya!

  2. Bill says:

    Thanks Angel. I thought this post would be helpful to several people that I know.

  3. Ryan says:

    First of all, you are like I use to be… Church brained. Not a bad thing. It’s just you don’t understand life without attending church.

    You don’t have to go. You don’t have to be there. No one is forcing you exept you. Don’t be fooled. People gathering in Acts does not imply that church attendence is manditory for Christians. People gathered in Acts because they “wanted to”, not because someone told them they “had to”. That’s the example but you won’t hear this from a pastor.

    If you really want to go to church to be with other Christian, by all means, go. Church is not a bad place. It is a good place. Just don’t be a slave in your own mind. Jesus didn’t save you to slavery. Being a slave to Christ is something God calls some to do and do willingly out of love,.. not by force.

    If you can keep the faith outside the institutional business of church, great. If not and you need the encouragement of other believers to continue, then so be it, continue to go. You might be more of a people person than me and enjoy the fellowship.

    When I moved to another state by force of job, I chose not to go back. I’ve not lost faith and still keep a heathy personal relationship with Jesus. If I feel I need the encouragement of a church, I’ll go back but for now, I’m free and happy as is. As a more laid back quiet personality, after working all week, I’d rather spend my time alone or with my wife, if she’s not working than a highly charged social atmosphere of church.

  4. Phil says:

    This where I am in my life right now. It’s been a crazy last two years and I feel like I’ve visted every like minded church in Warren County and I’m exhausted mentally, spiritually and, yes, physically too. I have narrowed it down to two churches and both have doctrinal positions I disagree with. If you’ll excuse me, it’s like trying to pick the lessor of two evils. The church I’m leaning toward right now has everything I want and feel is necessary in a church, except for the lack of church discipline. I may join anyway, because I’m at my wits end and, unlike Ryan, I need the social and edifying structure of a local church.

    Bill, May God be with you and the family as you deal with whatever God is laying on your heart. If you ever want to get together for a coffee or soda let me know. Take care my friend. – Phil

  5. Gina says:

    It has taken me a long time to get to this place, and I am not sure I am completely there yet. But, I have long looked at the people that have most influenced me in my walk with Christ. Those people most everytime are the humble “nobodies” that to the world’s view have no prominent place in the church.

    I think back to the man who led the hymns in the church I grew up in. He did nothing but lead the hymns week after week after week for no salary, with no thought of a salary. And later in life, when the church changed, and not for the better, he faithfully gave his tithe as he lay on his hospital bed dying. The pastor of his church was not a good man from my perspective. He did some very bad things at that church. But, as I have experienced pain in the church, God has shown me that he has us there for these very reasons — the impressions we make on other Christians. We may not teach the bible or be the pastor, but we show the way to Christ through our adherence to his principles in a very loud and distinctive way. Our individual walk, inside the church, leads others to him, or away from him. And this is where our individual rewards are made, in this individual walk. Every man or woman is responsible to God for our individual walk.

    Hope this helps. I am a much happier and more productive Christian for having learned it. I hope I can one day be like this great man that nobody knew or thought about much!

  6. Bill says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. That’s kind of what I was looking for. I think I know how Ryan feels because I’ve considered that before, but like Phil, I too desire the fellowship of other believers in a corporate worship setting. (Hebrews 10:25) Phil, we’ll get together soon.

  7. Marilyn says:

    There are no right or wrong answers to leaving a church. Why? Because there was no such thing as attending “church” in the times of Jesus and the apostles. The church in the Bible is the ekklesia, called out ones to the Church of Jesus Christ; the body of Christ. In the Bible there was a local church of all believers in a city, not one on every corner under a denominational name. Denomination means “divided or division.” The first officially organized church was the Roman church. Need I say more. I am a Christian, baptized into the Body of Jesus Christ and I do not belong to or attend any church. I left a month ago and am free at last. God would never command you to leave or stay because He doesn’t command you attend in the first place. Follow Jesus, not man and you’ll be fine. God bless.

  8. Bill says:

    Something to consider…..

    Mark Dever:

    “Many Protestants have begun to think that because the church is not essential to the gospel, it is not important to the gospel. This is an unbiblical, false, and dangerous conclusion. Our churches are the proof of the gospel. In the gatherings of the church, the Christian Scriptures are read. In the ordinances of the church, the work of Christ is depicted. In the life of the church, the character of God himself should be evident. A church seriously compromised in character would seem to make the gospel itself irrelevant.

    The doctrine of the church is important because it is tied to the good news itself. The church is to be the appearance of the gospel. It is what the gospel looks like when played out in the lives of people. Take away the church and you take away the visible manifestation of the gospel in the world. Christians in churches, then, are called to practice ‘display evangelism,’ and the world will witness the reign of God begun in a community of people made in his image and reborn by his Spirit. Christians, not just as individuals but as God’s people bound together in churches, are the clearest picture that the world sees of the invisible God and what his will is for them.”

    Mark E. Dever, ‘The Church” in A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 836.

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