Most pastors want to protect their flock. But for some pastors, this doesn’t mean protecting them from outside attack or spiritual harm. It means protecting them from leaving, and going to the church on the other side of town. But aren’t there some times when it’s okay, even necessary and right, to leave a church? How do you know?
The decision to leave a church is a tough one, in part because it’s hard to get pastoral counsel on the issue. Additionally, it becomes complicated by other issues—perceived disloyalty, disunity, and mistrust. In most cases, there is no such thing as an easy way to know whether or not to leave your church. With that in mind, however, there are a few telltale signs that it’s time to consider.
- Leave when your church teaches wrong doctrine. This one is pretty basic. If your church teaches something that is contrary to God’s Word, get out of there. Even though this one is basic, it can be hard to spot. Few pastors will come right out and declare that they’re denying the Bible, or some key doctrine. When dealing with this issue, be careful to make a distinction in your mind between true “doctrine” and your own preference.
- Leave when your church tolerates or covers up sin. There are some churches that may have impeccable doctrine, but have horrendous sin problems. The two issues are equally deplorable; both are a compelling reason to leave. Some churches fester with a cult-like adoration of their leadership. When the person at the top falls into sin, the people’s willingness to forgive him goes beyond all justifiable boundaries. Instead, it turns into a big, ugly coverup. Sometimes, the sinful lifestyles of significant church members, big givers, or venerated elders are winked at, too. This is not a healthy atmosphere. The transgression may be as heinous as child molestation, or as ‘innocent’ as filching a few bucks from the offering. Regardless, no church should tolerate and cover up such behavior. It needs to be confronted, confessed, and dealt with.
- Leave when your church refuses to reach out. Read your Bible, and find out what the church is supposed to be doing. If your church has degenerated into a social club, it has ceased to be a church. Living out and proclaiming the gospel is at the core of a church’s identity. The church ought to be a source of light in the community, not merely a weekly gathering of likeminded people. Action is an imperative. Mission is the church’s mandate (Matthew 28:18-20). If your church has stultified into a dead-end of inactive religiosity, you may rightfully leave.
- Leave when your church doesn’t answer your questions, or discourages you from asking questions. When a church is not a safe place to ask questions, it has become a dangerous place. The local church does not exist to squash questions about the faith and demand blind, unquestioning, unblinking, unfaltering adherence. (If that’s what you’re looking for, there is probably a cult you can find that would better suit your desires.) Of course, the Bible is a source of authority that requires our faith and submission. But does this mean you can never search, learn, query, wonder, and seek answers? Absolutely not. The local church exists to provide a supportive environment where people can and should get answers to their questions about life, God, and relationships. If your church discourages productive inquiry, or shushes your honest questions, you should probably find a church that is willing to help you.
- Leave your church if you have concerns of conscience. There are some issues in life that you just can’t put a finger on, but you know your conscience is bothering you. For example, when a Christian is raised in a different church tradition, say Lutheran, and then attends a church of a different tradition, say Southern Baptist, they may have some initial discomforts. Where are the kneeling benches? Why aren’t we following the Lectionary? Don’t these people celebrate Advent? Many people easily adjust to such situations, but for others, it becomes very difficult. If the issue is difficult to the point that you feel like you’re sinning against your conscience, you should probably look for an assembly that is more in keeping with your tradition. Conscience concerns, of course, can arise from more than just issues of tradition. Some people have conscience issues with things such as musical style, Bible translations, dress standards, and even the use of media in church. Allow your conscience to be shaped by the Bible, while at the same time refusing to sin against your conscience (see 1 Corinthians 8; Romans 14).
- Leave your church if you can’t build relationships. Some churches are nothing more family circles or cliques. The culture is very much “family-like,” but is restricted to a select in-crowd. This is not a healthy church. Christianity is about relationships. If you can’t build relationships in your church, then you are not able to practice a vibrant, authentic faith. Of course, you must make sure that you are making an effort to build friendships, but don’t bang your head against an impentrable wall of anti-relationships. A church that does not encourage and allow relationships is a church that is on the decline. (See 1 Hebrews 13: 1; 1 Peter 3:8.)
- Leave when you have significant disagreements over significant issues. This is an issue which can be subjective. “Significant,” after all, is a slippery word. “Disagreements” are relative. “Issues” is nondescript. It needs to be addressed, however. It can become a hindrance to your spiritual condition when you persist in a place where disagreement with others is the norm, where you constantly feel like you’re at odds over some method or practice, and where there is constant concern over big issues. It’s probably time to move on.
The question of when to leave a church (let alone how to leave) defies easy answers. Obviously, the seven points listed above won’t answer all your questions and solve your quandary. Besides, the list is incomplete. The decision to leave a church is one that you must make in good conscience before God, who loves you and wants the best for you. Make the decision with integrity, with prayer, and with the steadfast hope that He will guide you in the best path.