When twenty or fifty or two hundred people gather together from different walks of life, there are bound to be conflicting opinions about how the church should be run, what programs should be available, and which priorities should be on the agenda.
In the rapidly changing culture in which we live, tension is often generational. A young family is likely to feel frustrated in a church that is led by older men who appear to be set in their ways. On the other hand, a middle-aged couple may feel increasingly uncomfortable in the pews purchased by their forefathers if new leadership shifts the focus to being “relevant.” Whatever the case, most churches have attendees who live in limbo between staying and leaving.
If you are upset, don’t be reactionary. You can afford to wait a few more months.
If you are thinking about leaving your church, take a few steps back. Even if you are upset, don’t be reactionary. While you may have genuine concerns, leaving a church is a serious decision that will have major consequences for you, your family, and the church. If you have been attending a church for over a year, you can afford to wait a few more months. Plan to make your decision after praying, searching Scripture, and seeking godly counsel. Here are a few questions for consideration.
1. Do I Attend a Good, Bible-Believing Church?
There are, of course, Biblical reasons for immediately leaving a church. A church must hold orthodox beliefs about the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and so on. The “matters of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-4) must be upheld; that is, a church must understand and believe the gospel. If your church does not teach the good news that Jesus died and rose for sinners, you should find another church.
Moreover, a church is a sanctifying community and must be serious about holiness. Jesus died to present the church holy and blameless (Eph. 5:25-27). If your church does not uphold Biblical sexual ethics or think it is important to live a righteous life, you should find another church.
Finally, a church is built on the foundation of the apostles recorded in the Bible. Its members are saved and sanctified by the word (Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 1:23). A pastor must “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
If your church holds orthodox beliefs, understands the gospel, values holy living, and preaches the Bible, you should be deeply grateful. Jesus called his generation wicked, perverse, and unbelieving (Mt. 16:4; 17:17); ours is no better. To have a good, Bible-believing church within driving distance of one’s home is a privilege that is not enjoyed by countless Christians around the globe. I gained a better perspective on the petty gripes of many church members when one of my close friends was offered a job in a new region but struggled to locate a single Bible-believing church.
Pause and check your attitude. Are you thankful for what you have? Have you ever expressed appreciation to those in your church who are doing their best to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? A humble, grateful, Christ-like attitude is essential when considering whether or not to leave a church.
2. Do I Love this Church Like Christ Loves this Church?
Christ’s love for the church is a profound and prolific theme in Scripture. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25); he “nourishes and cherishes” the church as a man takes care of his own body (Eph. 5:29).
If you are not seriously invested in the good of those at your church, you are not spiritually mature enough to leave.
One of the main marks of a Christian is that he loves his brothers: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 Jn. 3:14). Ask and answer honestly, “Do I love the brothers and sisters at my church like Christ loves them?” If you are not seriously invested in the good of those at your church, you are probably not spiritually mature enough to leave.
3. Can I Become a Member Here in Good Consciense?
God’s plan for Christians is that they would go all in for their local church, submitting to their flawed elders (Heb. 13:17) and taking responsibility for their broken brothers (Php. 2:4). In most contexts, this means formal church membership.
In 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul assumes that a clear line has been drawn between those who are outside the local body and those who are inside the local body. The Bible describes insiders as members (1 Cor. 12:12-17). Commenting on 1 Corinthians 12:21, Sam Emadi notes, “every believer needs to be incorporated into a body, one member among many. Saying we don’t ‘need’ to join a local church is the very error Paul is correcting in this passage. We ‘need’ to be a ‘member’ of a ‘body’—that’s church membership.”
It is wrong to attend year after year as hands and feet that are functionally detached from the rest of the local body. In most churches, a non-member is, in all practical ways, no more accountable to his leaders than an ordinary visitor. This alone should convince us of the need to become submissive church members.
Non-members are always more likely to struggle with the question of leaving their church. They have never fully bought in to the life of the local body.
Non-members are always more likely to struggle with the question of leaving their church. They have never fully bought in to the life of the local body. Refusing to become a member always leaves the backdoor open for going to another church where the grass looks greener.
If you cannot become a member of your church in good consciense, you should leave. But keep in mind that joining “in good conscience” is not the same as joining “with all my rights intact.”
4. Am I Willing to Sacrifice Some of My Rights for the Sake of the Body?
There may be serious reasons not a join a church (e.g., a major theological disagreement). But it is unlikely that you will ever be in perfect agree with a church’s local traditions.
It is unlikely that you will ever fully agree with a church’s manual.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul highlights the rights that he surrendered for the sake of the gospel. He gave up the companionship of a wife and traveled alone. He forfeited the right to be paid for preaching and worked a part time job. He expressed his willingness to never again eat meat if it caused his brother to stumble. Yet one is hard-pressed to find an American Christian who is willing to give up anything for the sake of his local church. While there is not a perfect parallel between Paul’s sacrifice and that of a potential church member, Paul’s attitude stands in stark contrast to the self-centered mindset that explains why many people refuse to become official church members.
5. Am I Willing to Submit to My Elders on Nonessential Issues?
Hebrews 13:17 commands us to “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” Surely this involves setting aside some of our preferences or opinions to accommodate the differing judgments of local or denominational leaders.
Be careful of ignoring local church traditions as if they are not binding on you.
In his article, “When in Rome: Augustine’s Rule and Its Application Today,” David Fry explains the familiar phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Ambrose, and then Augustine, contended that we should follow the customs of our local church unless those customs contradict Scripture or what is universally known and practiced by all believers. He gives an example and poses a vital question:
Deuteronomy 22:5 requires gender distinct clothing. Gender distinction is the principle; the particular application varies from culture to culture. The Bible doesn’t prescribe a particular application, it only prescribes that the principle must be applied in some way. Who is to say how?
The answer is: the local church you belong to and the elders who lead it. Beware of overriding your elder’s applications on nonessential matters. If something serious is holding you back, express your concerns to them. But be careful of ignoring local church traditions as if they are not binding on you. There is a cost to choosing not to accept a tradition you don’t fully agree with. If you cannot join your church in good consciense, you will need to find a church where you can—even if it means relocating your family home. It is vital that you are fully bought in to the life of a local church.
6. Have I Confronted Problems Biblically?
Even if you are able to join your church (or already have) in good conscience, there may be another issue that is causing you to question your place there. Perhaps you have been hurt by someone in the church or your elders have done something that you disagree with. Whatever has happened, you must ask, “Is it sin?”
If a church member has acted selfishly or an elder has abused his authority, the first course of action is not to tell someone about it or to leave the church. It is to confront the issue Biblically. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus clearly establishes a step-by-step process:
- Talk to your brother privately.
- If he refuses to listen, take one or two others with you.
- If he still refuses to listen, tell it to the church.
If you do not have grounds on which to carry out Biblical due process, it is likely that you do not have a Biblical reason to leave a church.
Since churches are led and represented by elders, I encourage Christians to involve the elders at step 2 (as one of the witnesses) or at step 3 (as an intermediary for telling the members). Sometimes, however, an elder is the offending party. Paul is clear in 1 Timothy 5:19 that accusations against elders should not be made or received lightly: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” If you believe that an elder is guilty of misconduct, be sure that you have solid grounds on which to confront him. Go to the other elders in the church, or, if there are none, discuss the issue with mature church members.
If you do not have grounds on which to carry out Biblical due process, it is likely that you do not have a Biblical reason to leave a church.
7. Do I Have a Sense of Entitlement?
A major purpose for attending a church is to serve others. If our focus is on building up the body and being an example of the believers, we will be far more likely to overlook the faults of others. Christians should have a high level of tolerance for the offenses and shortcomings of their brothers. Ephesians 4:23 tells us, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Proverbs 19:11 teaches, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”
Thom Rainer summarizes the germane research in terms of one main reason why people leave a church: “a sense of some need not being filled.” He acknowledges that “there are many legitimate claims by church members of unfulfilled expectations. It can undoubtedly be the fault of the local congregation and its leaders.” But he points out the major problem revealed by this finding: “probably more than we would like to believe, a church member leaves a local body because he or she has a sense of entitlement. I would therefore suggest that the main reason people leave a church is because they have an entitlement mentality rather than a servant mentality” (emphasis original).
8. Have I Seriously Measured How Leaving Will Affect Others?
Do not underestimate your power to damage the health of the body. While some church members slip away silently, there are usually serious consequences. When someone leaves one church for another, seeds of distrust and doubt are sewn in the minds of younger Christians who are struggling with their faith. Immature teens who are attracted by other churches are likely to ask their parents why they can’t leave too. Those who may have never seriously considered leaving may suddenly see a back door.
You’ve probably heard someone comment, “There’s a lot of people leaving that church.” That’s usually the way things go. Like dominos, one person’s decision to leave decreases morale and increases the likelihood for others to follow suit. Be careful. Your main reason for attending church should be to serve others, and leaving the church may harm them more than you think.
One person’s decision to leave decreases morale and increases the likelihood for others to follow suit.
The local church is much bigger than you. The body is at stake. Leaving a church—especially when there is tension between several church members—may fuel a church split that has generational repercussions. Beware the consequences of damaging “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). History usually looks more favorably on those who stayed and strove to be an example of the believers than those who threw in the towel and went seeking greener pastures.
9. What Are the Long-Term Consequences of Going to Another Church?
If you are thinking about leaving your church, where do you plan to go? Are you so sure that it will be so much better than your current church that it’s worth the turmoil in your family and the church you leave behind? If you are considering a church with looser standards, what will you be giving up that you may regret losing ten years from now when you are older and more mature?
Many parents justify leaving a church by insisting that it does not meet the needs of their children. But leaving a church usually has more serious consequences for a family than staying in a flawed church, teaching children how to love the church in spite of its blemishes, and bearing a little more responsibility for discipleship in the home. After all, discipleship is primarily the parent’s responsibility (Deut. 6:6-9).
10. Have I Sat Down with My Elders or Am I Sowing Discord?
If you are thinking about leaving a church, you need to talk to your elders. If leaving is on your mind, it may be on the mind of others. Beware of feeding an unhealthy undercurrent in the church. Proverbs 6 says that “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him”; one of them is “one who sows discord among brothers” (Pr. 6:19). Titus 3:10 says stirring up division is an offense that warrants excommunication. Our words and actions are to be done for building others up. We must “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Ro. 14:19) and “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11). Whenever possible, Jesus wants us to resolve problems privately (Mt. 18:15) to avoid damaging the morale of the body.
Whenever possible, Jesus wants us to resolve problems privately.
Unless you are used to reporting to a specific elder, choose the one that you are most comfortable talking with and ask if you can buy him coffee or breakfast. Having a respectful but candid conversation will be helpful for all parties. Even if you are determined to leave, sitting down with an elder will force you to clarify your reasons, be sure they are Biblical, and give the church leadership a chance to address your concerns.
Unless your church is so far gone that it no longer qualifies as a biblical church, I would go as far as to say that it is a sin to leave a church without talking to the elders. Even if you are dissatisfied with their leadership, you are accountable to them as they are accountable to God (Heb. 13:17). Pastors are deeply wounded when a parishioner leaves without giving them a serious explanation or opportunity to talk.
There are times when it is necessary for someone to leave a church. But I am convinced that if Biblical principles were followed, it would happen far less often than it does.