When Is It OK to Leave a Church?
As we examine the subject of church renewal in these pages the question will inevitably arise: When is it right to leave a local church? What are the legitimate reasons to separate myself from a local expression of the body of Christ? How can I avoid a schismatic spirit that disdains the unity of Christ's church?
Before answering these questions it is important that we acknowledge the unique temptations that we face in our day. Ours is a time when Christians have a lesser sense of commitment and loyalty to the local church than perhaps at any time in history; and this is a serious problem.
It is a problem because the church is precious to our Lord and it ought to be precious to the Lord's people. He died to create the church. He rules from heaven on behalf of his church. He prayed for the unity of his church.
Yet Christians flit about from church to church as if they were trying on shoes. We have developed a consumer mentality when it comes to participation in a local fellowship, visiting one and then another, looking for the perfect fit. In the process we avoid any sense of commitment to a body of believers and deny the very principle of unity which is fundamental to the very nature of Christ's body.
It is part of a neurosis that afflicts most of our society today. Everyone is looking for perfection and in the process discarding whatever falls short of that standard. Men seek the perfect mate and so enter into what amounts to serial marriage through divorce. They seek the perfect job and so transfer from one company to another. They seek the perfect home and community and so move on average every three to five years. They seek the perfect church and so hop from Bible Fellowship this to Christian Center that.
But, of course, the search is a vain one. We will never find perfection in our spouse, our job, our community, or our church. The result is that we simply end up disconnected and frustrated.
The affliction of denominationalism is a large part of the problem as there is such a variety of churches from which to choose. And the fervor of the anti-denominationalists only adds to the confusion as the options are multiplied by an infinite variety of independent churches, each likewise trumpeting their uniqueness.
Whatever the causes, however, we must acknowledge the tragedy of the low level of commitment of most believers to a local assembly. For this reason it is especially important that we deal carefully with the question of leaving a church.
Bad Reasons for Leaving a Church
In answer to our question let us first set aside some reasons which are not a legitimate basis for leaving a fellowship of believers. First, based on what has already been written we conclude that a lack of perfection is not a reason to leave a church. Any church will have problems and no one is going to have his needs totally met in any fellowship. Let us not be surprised that things are not as we would like them to be. That is the nature of life in this sinful world, and we are part of the problem. Our presence in the church may be part of what keeps it from being a perfect place from someone else's point of view! Leaving because things are not perfect simply reveals our low level of faithfulness.
Second, it is not right to leave a church simply to run away from problems. If we are having trouble in our relationships with certain people, for example, then we need to draw on the grace of God to overcome those difficulties. We may need to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, gaining more patience, kindness and love. Running away short-circuits the very process God may want to use to conform us more nearly to the image of Christ.
Third, we should never leave a church because we are being challenged about our doctrine or pattern of life and find it uncomfortable. We ought always to be ready to examine what we believe and what we do by the standard of the Word of God, and we should not feel threatened by someone challenging our cherished notions. How else can we grow? It is sad how immature so many Christians are, how unable to enter into discussion about important questions of life and doctrine. It is precisely because there is one Truth which is revealed in Scripture that believers need to be able to deliberate and learn from one another so that they can be faithful to Christ and his Word alone.
Christians need to be committed to the church! Lack of commitment to other Christians can never be the reason for departing. Actually, the only reason for leaving a church should be, in reality, a desire for more commitment to the body of Christ. What, then, are the legitimate reasons to make one's departure?
The first reason one may choose to leave a church is that it's leaders do not teach the Bible's doctrines faithfully. Paul could say after his three-year ministry in Ephesus, "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God" (Acts 20:27). Church leaders must not hesitate to teach whatever the Bible teaches, whether people like to hear it or not. Nor should they add anything to the Bible's message by way of new revelation or faddish interpretation.
A father must decide if a church's teaching is faithful to the Scriptures. If he believes it deviates at some point, he then has to decide if it is a matter of sufficient weight to justify breaking fellowship. The doctrine of the deity of Christ is fundamental. So is the doctrine of Bible inspiration. Failure in regard to these issues would present clear reasons for separation. However, doctrines related to tithing or the nature of the millennium probably do not constitute a basis for departure.
A Biblical Pattern of Life
A second reason for leaving a church is that its leaders do not teach, model and promote a biblical pattern of life. The Bible not only teaches a set of ideas we are to believe; it also teaches a pattern of life we are to follow. Paul wrote, "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (Phil. 3:17). Church leaders are supposed to be "examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3), demonstrating what a godly lifestyle looks like.
Liberals in the apostate mainline denominations are likely to fail the doctrinal test. They will tend to hold views which are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, like a denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus or the assertion that women can be elders in the church. Evangelicals, on the other hand, those of us who take the Bible very seriously when it comes to fundamental doctrines, are apt to fail the lifestyle test. We often do not take the Bible seriously as a guide for our pattern of life.
Evangelicals will affirm the bodily resurrection but deny in practice that gossip is an abomination to God and destructive of the peace of the church. They will affirm the virgin birth but deny in practice that God requires them to protect their children from evil influences that militate against the faith. They will affirm the substitutionary atonement but deny in practice that debt is slavery and to be avoided at all costs. They will affirm the verbal inspiration of Scripture but deny in practice that God hates divorce and that it is tantamount to adultery. They will affirm justification by grace through faith but deny in practice that men are to lead and women to submit in the home and church. In short, they tend to affirm Bible doctrines while disobeying the Bible's pattern for life.
Neither the liberal nor the evangelical way of denying the authority of Scripture is acceptable. God means for his Word to be believed (doctrine) and he means for his Word to be obeyed (life).
So church leaders must not only teach Bible doctrine; they must also model biblical ways of living. Imagine a leader who is obese because of gluttony and lack of self-control; he sends his children to the anti-Christian government schools; he teaches the importance of limiting family size; his wife works for another man; his children are not under control; he lives beyond his means on credit; and he has been divorced*but his doctrine is impeccable. Can I remain under the authority of someone who so denies the Bible by his life? Can my family continue to maintain fellowship in a church whose leaders so disregard the clear teachings of God's Word?
A specific area in which many homeschooling families find themselves at odds with their church is the matter of how they are trying to train their children within the context of the church structure. The parents may want their children with them in worship and they do not want them in age-segregated, peer-oriented groupings like Sunday School and youth groups. They have rightly concluded that the course they have chosen is more in keeping with biblical precepts and examples and that the church is simply borrowing failed methods from the world. But the pressure on them to conform to the accepted arrangements is intense; they may be made to feel as if they are being poor parents and uncooperative church members. This failure of the church to teach the principle of parental responsibility for child training and to reinforce it in the church's programs may well be a reason to leave. The church should be promoting biblical patterns of living, not hindering those who are trying to follow these patterns themselves.
Discipleship and Discipline
A third reason for leaving a church is its failure to practice discipleship and discipline. These words are closely related in form and meaning. Discipleship is the process of training someone to live the Christian life. Discipline refers to the correction and sanctions that are imposed on one who professes faith in Christ but who fails to live the Christian life.
Jesus' last instruction to his followers was to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19). This was to be accomplished by "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (v. 20). A church is failing in its fundamental task if it is not making disciples, if it is not teaching its members how to live a life of obedience, if it is not equipping people to live according the pattern of life set forth in Scripture.
A man should expect his church to provide training in both Bible doctrine and biblical patterns of life. He should be instructed in the fundamentals of the faith so that he can become a good workman (2 Tim. 2:15) and can teach his own family the truths of Scripture. He should also be trained in biblical lifestyle: how to handle finances in a godly way, how to teach his own children, how to be the spiritual leader of his family, how to deal with temptation, how to meditate on Scripture.
Jesus also instructed his disciples how to deal with professing believers who refuse to repent when confronted with sin in their lives (Matt. 18:15-17; cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-5). Such persons are to be rebuked and eventually excommunicated, cut off from the fellowship of the body. If a man teaches false doctrine or practices a sinful lifestyle, he is to be confronted and called to repentance. Lacking repentance, he is to be removed from the body of Christ.
Too few churches provide training for the Christian life. Fewer still practice church discipline. Yet both of these are essential to a healthy church. A lack of them is reason to seek another place of fellowship.
We could summarize our three points this way: It is legitimate to leave a church when its leaders dishonor Christ by a failure to apply his Word to themselves and the congregation in matters of doctrine and life. Although separation should always be accomplished with some measure of grief, it is sometimes necessary for the honor of Christ and as an expression of loyalty to his Word to separate from a Christian body.
Separation in History
Separation has a long and esteemed tradition in church history. Even as the Roman church reached the pinnacle of worldliness there were the Waldenses and Albigenses, the Lollards and the Hussites. These small sects sheltered the light of biblical faith in very dark times. During the English Reformation the Separatists broke from the corrupt state church in order to follow pure biblical doctrine and life. These saints became the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth colony and gave our nation its spiritual roots. Even in our own century the drama of separation has unfolded. I was born into a family that was part of a separatist movement; my father was a local church leader in a small denomination that had broken from a liberal mainline Protestant denomination.
The goal of separation is always a more pure church. However, not everyone who becomes convinced that a church needs purification believes that it is best to leave the church. Some become like the Puritans in England who sought to remain and purify (hence the name "Puritan") the church which the Separatists abandoned. Interestingly, the Puritans had to follow the Separatists to Massachusetts a few years later to continue a pure church in a new location. Those who follow the course of the Puritans have not had much success in reforming the churches in which they remained. There are still some conservatives in mainline churches today hoping against hope to reform denominations that have embraced heresy and moral perversion. It appears, however, that their continued presence only serves to add a sense of legitimacy to a clearly apostate group.
When it comes to separating from evangelical churches the choice becomes much more difficult. Again, these churches affirm the right doctrine, and they are often filled with many sincere Christians who love the Lord. But if they deny the Bible when it comes to the teaching and practice of biblical lifestyle, it may be necessary to separate for the sake of Christ and the spiritual health of one's family.
Attitude is Vital
A man ought not normally separate from a church without an attempt to appeal to the church leaders about the perceived problems. After prayer (and fasting) and careful self-examination to deal with selfish motives and divisive attitudes an approach to the leaders should be made. A man must not neglect this step of self-examination. It is all too easy to take the right step (separation) for the wrong reasons (bitterness, rebellion or a factious spirit). Separatists have always had a two-pronged temptation: on the one hand, to a schismatic spirit that denies the unity of the body of Christ; and, on the other hand, to a spirit of pride because they affirm the truth of Scripture and sacrifice for it.
After a man has prepared himself spiritually, made an appeal on the basis of the Word, and received a response from the leaders he must make his decision. If he decides to leave the church he ought to go peacefully and with sorrow, not stirring up a spirit of dissension as he departs.
Get Re-Attached Quickly!
Having left, he must now decide what to do with his family (although he will surely have been considering his options in advance). One thing he should not do is cause his family to become Christian hermits who remain unattached to the body of Christ. It may be necessary for a brief time for a family to worship as their own church until the Lord connects them to a faithful body of his people. But that should be their expectation: that they will become attached to a local body of believers again. Christ wants every Christian to be a committed part of a local assembly of the saints.
If there is no church in his area that is faithful to both Bible doctrine and practice, it may be necessary to begin a new fellowship. Often there are other families who are on the same journey out of compromised churches, and these families can begin meeting together for worship, prayer, fellowship and ministry. If he knows of no such other families, the family head had better pray and ask the Lord to lead him to such so that he can again soon be part of the body of Christ. Surely the Lord will not long leave a family without the opportunity for fellowship with like-minded people.
We live in dangerous and exciting times. Dangerous because of the temptations that accompany the need for separation. Exciting because the Lord is at work calling the remnant of his people out of compromise and into holiness.
May God grant that the result is indeed a purified people who earnestly devote themselves to Christ and his Word.
This article is taken from a website whose editor is reformed in his theology, but has many excellent articles on church covenants, house churches, courtship, etc. As usual, compare with the Scripture. -bc