The need to leave one congregation and choose another is a sign of our times – of our weakness and fragmentation, of our inability and unwillingness to resolve problems biblically, of our constant search for the perfect situation, and of our general rootlessness, whether geographically, doctrinally, or interpersonally. Leaving a church is almost always painful – the loss of a comfortable situation and beloved friends, starting relationships over again, the questions. Then, after the honeymoon, I find that my new perfect church, the best thing in town, has problems, maybe worse than my last perfect church – or, is it that in spreading myself around, I am infecting other bodies with my sins? I increasingly warm to the old adage: there are only three legitimate reasons to leave a local congregation: death, physical relocation, or a church’s loss of the “signs of a true church.”
Of course, it is ludicrous to suggest a return to this, for almost everyone picks and chooses a church according to the canons of personal fulfillment. What does it offer? Is it “child friendly?” Do I feel “right” while I am there? Does the music inspire me? Does it recognize that I am on a unique spiritual quest and need a church that allows me room to pursue God on my own terms? In the barren wasteland of Western religious consumerism, church membership is treated as every other commodity and connection: not very deep, not very lasting. If one church no longer meets my needs, I move to another. Distracted, jaded, and discontent with so many offerings, I cannot focus upon the good I have, of opportunities within my current body. I want more and new. I think about leaving. There must be a better congregation out there.
We need to ask ourselves a few hard questions, to practice a little self-criticism on the subject of leaving a church. What are my real reasons for leaving a particular body, one in which I have enjoyed the fellowship of the saints, the ministry of the word and sacraments, the worship of the living God, and, assumedly, the oversight and encouragement of a pastor? Will my reasons survive the scrutiny of Scripture? If I conclude that I am justified in my departure, is the way I am leaving this body consistent with my vows to maintain its peace and purity? What am I communicating to my friends in the church when they ask about my decision? Are the reasons I share with them the same as I communicate to church leaders? Am I creating unnecessary and sinful suspicion and discontent among the remaining members? Have I sincerely and patiently endeavored to resolve interpersonal problems, with church members or leaders, in recognition that my own life is so filled with sins, known and hidden, that my judgment may be horribly skewed and that the problem may be with me and not with the church at all? Or, have I simply concluded, before ever speaking to the pastor, that I simply need to leave as quietly as possible? If I profess that the Bible is the Word of God, our all-sufficient standard of faith and life, I must labor under the conviction that it alone provides the only infallible criteria for leaving a church.
Virtually none of the reasons today’s believers give for leaving a church are legitimate. Issues of style, programs, music, personal satisfaction – all of the criteria by which most of us choose churches – have no warrant from Scripture. Thus, since they are utterly irrelevant to choosing a church, they have no bearing on the decision to leave it. I assume, of course, that we have wisely rejected the “church is all about my needs” mentality of spiritual infancy. I do not choose or leave a church because it caters to me, agrees with me, and promises to support me no matter what I do. In fact, one of the fundamental reasons I need to participate in a local congregation of the body of Christ is that I have problems; I need to be changed, challenged, and encouraged, not in my personal, self-directed quest for God but in pursuing him as he has revealed himself in his word, a pursuit that is not believer-specific, as if we are authorized or able to find our own way to God or version of Christianity. Our Father has revealed the way – his word. I am unable in my own strength and wisdom to find this way on my own. I need the body of Christ – its authority, ministry, gifts, and accountability. I need the church exactly because I am insufficient in myself. My life goals, priorities, and doctrine may be very, very wrong, and often are. Hence, a humble sense of my need for the shepherding of Jesus Christ is the tie that binds me to the body of Christ, as well as gratitude, for my heavenly Father has not left me alone in the world to find my own way but has given me helps to my faith, a community of believers.
I begin with truth, for this the defining mark of a true and faithful church. If a church never or no longer preaches the gospel, encourages man-centered, non-biblical worship, or is nothing more than a religious club dedicated to the improvement of my religious psychology, i.e., feelings about myself and God, it is not a true church. Hence, I should leave it. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15); its main purpose in the world is to bear witness to the truth of God’s word – not the truth as a particular guru sees it, or thinks he has found a way to make it marketable and attractive to the world – but the truth as God has once for all given it to the saints in his word (Jude 3). Every sketch of the Jerusalem church under the oversight of the apostles emphasizes sound doctrine (e.g. Acts 2:42). All of Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus for the planting and organizing of new churches focus upon fidelity to God’s once-given and all-sufficient truth (1 Tim. 1:3,10; 4:6; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). While God’s truth is relevant to every age, its relevance does not lie in conformity to my tastes. When God’s word is handled as a repair manual for my consumerist-induced psychoses and sense of emptiness – how to fix my sex life, my checkbook, my children – it is being manipulated, turned into a man-centered book to make me feel better, more in control, rather than challenging my basic assumptions about life, myself, and about God, who does not exist for me but I for him. Once a church rejects a biblical approach to truth, a paradigm shift will manifest itself in its views of preaching, worship, and outreach. I need to make plans to leave and find a true church.
This does not mean, of course, that true churches are defined by two hour sermons or that body life revolves around the preacher. Nor does it mean that a certain style of preaching defines a true church. It means that a true church sees itself as self-consciously built and focused upon the Bible. There is a hunger and thirst in a true church, wherever it may corporately be upon the path of Christian discipleship, for the word of God. This hunger will manifest itself, for example, in a willingness to address sins in the congregation from a pointedly biblical perspective, even when they manifest themselves at the level of church leadership. There will be a desire to worship God as biblically as possible. There will be a commitment to bring God’s truth to bear upon the hearts and lives of lost and dying men. There may be errors of doctrine and life, but these are not institutionalized but scrutinized, when God brings them to light, with repentance ensuing. And there will be humility before the truth of God’s word, for there is not a church on earth that perfectly understands or fully upholds the incredible riches of Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture. There will not be a demand for instant perfection in a true church, for all live under the conviction of need for progressive sanctification and greater illumination by God’s Spirit. Hence, more mature believers are present who by their example and words are constantly encouraging the congregation, its leaders and members, to deeper devotion and consistency. They do not leave if all is not to their liking; this is not evidence of holiness but of pride, impatience, and possibly perfectionist traits that are utterly incompatible with the humility enjoined upon us by our Savior.
Comparatively few believers leave churches over issues of truth. God’s word is simply not that important to us. And it shows: in everything from lack of the fear of God, which is everywhere taught in Scripture and is the prerequisite for purity of worship, the infrequency with which many of us observe the Lord’s Supper, and our utter unwillingness to practice biblical church discipline, all of which are inseparable from a commitment to the truth of God’s word. This commitment comes from personal saturation with God’s word. The neglect and ignorance of God’s word in American Protestant churches is shameful. It is treacherous. It has left us unguarded and impotent against Satan’s insidious and mounting attacks against our civil liberties, which are inseparable from our religious ones. While we have slept, the enemy has entered and sown the seeds of our destruction, all while we were singing the latest pop Christian tunes and blissfully clapping for our gurus of spirituality. Men who love truth do not love pop, and they do not follow gurus. They fear God and keep his commandments, and they seek out churches that share their commitment to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. If they are in such a church, however imperfect, they do not leave it.
But we do. Ours is an age of spiritual infancy; I feel my immaturity. Wonderful doctrinal systems and legitimate body life cannot always protect me from my own stupidity and willfulness. Sometimes, believers simply cannot get along. Certain “intangibles” creep in and undermine unity, the commitment to work through difficult seasons of life. Maybe I feel stifled, underused, or that I have outgrown my local congregation. I grow discontent, an indefinable sense that I simply need to move on. I need to face something about myself and the environment in which I live. Individualism is in the air I breathe, as are unbiblical assumptions about authority, my right to believe and do as I please, the legitimacy of making important decisions without ever consulting my God-given leaders in the home and church. I must address these. For example, it is wrong to conclude that it is time for me to leave a church before I consult my pastor, elders, or other ordained leadership. This can never be justified, for I am under the authority of God’s word to obey my leaders and to submit to their shepherding. I need their guidance when leaving as much as when choosing a church. If my issue is with them, this is all the more reason to consult them, for it may be that private conference and mutual admonition will bring reconciliation and clarity. I often make decisions based upon perception, flawed assessments of people, motives, and events, assuming that our perception is reality. At the least, I have a duty as a believer to confront humbly in the Lord, to keep short accounts with others and to live at peace, as much as lies within me.
But let us say that I am convinced that a “Barnabas-Paul” division has occurred – I have the same commitments to Jesus Christ and biblical truth as the local congregation of which I am a part, but I also have an irresolvable “directional” difference. Simply recognizing the need to part ways does not terminate foundational love duties and authority ties, for the Bible teaches that church membership is a covenanted relationship. First, under no circumstances, should I communicate with church members without first having fully disclosed my intentions and specific reasons for leaving to church leaders, seeking counsel, and submitting to those who are over me in the Lord. The reason for this is obvious. Both parties need to be protected: the leaders of the church from being blind-sided with accusations from hurt church members and departing church members from character assassination at the hands of church leaders. As a church member, I must understand that if church leaders have integrity, they are not talking about me behind my back. Yet, if I feel free to talk about them and share my criticisms with willing ears, they are in an awkward position. They need to protect and shepherd the flock; this may require them to address issues that should have been kept private and would have been if I had practiced tongue-control. Church leaders can also sin here, and part of their cross-bearing is responding meekly and or not responding at all to personal criticisms. In such a situation, there is no need for either party, church leaders or departing members, to air their dirty laundry before the rest of the body. This can only create division and suspicion within the church. As a departing church member, it must be my goal to leave the congregation as strong as or stronger than when I joined it. If this is not my goal, and if my goal does not direct my steps, I am leaving sinfully, even if I am justified in leaving.
Second, as a potentially departing church member, I need to be willing to have my reasons for leaving scrutinized. Even if I afterwards conclude that my reasons for leaving are legitimate, my attitude needs to be, “Maybe they are not.” Am I giving church leaders the opportunity to address my particular concerns? Critique them biblically? Am I manifesting a fundamental submission to the leadership the Lord Jesus has raised up in a particular body, or, does my commitment to the leadership of a particular church only extend so far as their agreement with me or my warm feelings toward them? We have all seriously sinned in the area of submission. This stems from a general failure to appreciate the real authority entrusted to the church’s pastors and elders, and from our specific failure to maintain good and close relationships within the body of Christ – leaders with the flock and the flock with its leaders. Submission is not submission if I am submitting only when I want to do so. Even with this attitude, resolution may not be possible, for I am a sinner and tenaciously hold to my own perspective, often out of a sense of self-preservation and self-justification. If, however, an attitude of humble submission is evident on both sides, at least I can depart in peace, with recognition of God’s particular providences in our lives, and a sincere “God be with you, brother” that promotes the greater peace and unity of the church and makes future fellowship in other contexts possible.
Third, I need to reject the idea that the church is a consumer-driven institution. Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church, and he alone gives her life, defines her existence, and sets her agenda. Too often, I want a particular church to be like me, look like me, to be a reflection of my tastes and priorities, to state every doctrine and pursue every practice in conformity with my superior wisdom. I forget that one of the greatest practical benefits I have received from being a member of Christ’s church is that it has changed me. The fellowship of other godly men challenges me. I need the gifts of others, however different they may be from my own. My perspective needs to be enhanced, broadened. One thing I do not need is for the church to entrench my own tastes and preferences as if they are the epitome of perfection, as if “I am who I am.” I am not. I am not God. I am a sheep, and being a sheep means waywardness, stubbornness, and incredible selfishness. My local congregation does not exist to gratify me; I should serve it. I should take the lowest seat at the feast, learn, and be challenged. Recovering and practicing this one conviction would re-enthrone the Word of God among us and dethrone the word of man. It would lead to patience in correcting one another’s faults and rejection of one of the most pernicious ideas by which Satan has deceived and weakened me: that the church should cater to me and that its leaders should strive to do so. They should not. The church serves Jesus Christ alone. In serving him, it changes me, for her ministry of word and sacrament, her fellowship of accountability, and her upholding of the King’s word through discipline unite to restrain my stubbornness.
Fourth, I will go through seasons of discontent, but does this necessitate leaving my church? Perhaps I have grown so frustrated with my personal circumstances that I simply want to make a clean sweep. I do not feel that my gifts are being used. I am stagnating. Is this more a reflection of the influence of my culture upon me than upon any problem with my church? I suspect that it is. I should go to my church leaders and request opportunities for ministry. I should also recognize that the Lord may bring me through a wilderness season of my life, my time in the desert of quiet learning, sifting, repentance, and humbling; he will lift me up in his time. It is exactly in seasons of discontent that I need my local body, for it is in these seasons that I am especially prone to foolish decisions that I will later regret. If my local church has legitimate reasons for my discontent, am I contributing to congregational improvement, healthier body life, greater sanctification? Who knows but what my departure will not leave a serious hole in the congregation? A little patience and perseverance and the whole body might benefit from my struggles and godly influence. I must reject the jaundice of my culture, a discontent produced by too much exposure to triviality, novelty, and excitement. Piety, after all, is not found at a circus or in a spiritual laboratory of constant experimentation but in a quiet, persistent, simple life of service to my God and to my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I never want to leave my church until they carry me through her doors in a pine box. This is not because I am its pastor; if I am proven too sinful or ignorant to serve her as I do now, or should his unanticipated and clear providences make relocation necessary, I will leave. Until then, I want nothing to sever me from this body. I have learned too much from her members. They have challenged my commitments and priorities. Her prayer meetings and group studies are too precious. Her fellowship has protected me from Satan’s schemes more often than I know. The accountability I have received from faithful elders has restrained willfulness and unwise zeal. Are there areas for improvement? Without a doubt, but these leave room for the pursuit of patient sanctification, my own and the congregation’s. They remind me daily that this body, like every other, belongs to the Lord Jesus, not to me. It is a work in my progress, and I am only a bit-player in the unfolding drama of his transforming grace. Yes, the grass sometimes seems greener in other pastures, but it may turn brown if I unwisely enter, for the Lord has placed me here, not there. Other corners of his vineyard require other hands and gifts. I need to be here, for my growth depends upon brothers and sisters who know me, confront me, and inspire me with their gifts and graces. After all, life in the body of Jesus Christ is not about me remaking a church in my image. It is about the Lord sifting and refining me in his image.
The issue of leaving a church is unavoidable. However undesirable, even painful, there is a way to do so that maintains our Christian commitments, the peace and purity of our former congregation, and the authority structures the Lord Jesus has ordained for our protection and edification. It requires humility, far greater humility than we have formerly displayed. Each of us, from the highest to the lowest, must seek the heart of John: “He must increase; I must decrease.” Is my congregation weak? So am I. Its weakness, however, is mine. Am I praying for my present body, its members and leaders? Am I fostering relationships of love that allow for non-rupturing confrontation? Do I demand that “my issues” become the church’s, and then leave when they do not? Am I looking for a church that looks like me? God forbid. I need a church that will help me look more like my Savior, in which I can serve, even in the lowest place, from which my departure will be an entrance into the church victorious, a joyful reunion with brothers and sisters with whom I served the Lord Jesus on earth, in good times and bad. There, we will not compare notes on who was right and who was wrong; we will celebrate God’s grace and mercy to the weak and stubborn. We will see far more clearly than we can now that our perfection lies not in our circumstances or associations but in our glorious Savior. Let us do nothing on earth that illegitimately breaks the ties that bind, the providences that have put us together, the communion of the saints in the local body that will bring us to heaven.