Good and Bad Reasons to Leave a Church

“Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying” – Martin Luther (of folks who left a church but not the faith, it is possible that Martin Luther went bigger than anyone else.)

[As a side note, before I get started, let me state for the reader that I recently left my church of 13 years. This is NOT a post about why I left – for that, please see “On Leaving the Cause [Church]“]

A friend recently passed along titled “5 Really Bad Reasons To Leave Your Church“. It was a decent article, but I thought some of the rationale left holes that needed to be addressed, and preferably closed. We’ll try to touch on some of those issues here.

First, a sidebar. I had a conversation with a friend a while back about the subject of tithing (this post is also NOT about tithing). In the conversation I noted that it is quite possible that standard judicial recusal rules may need to apply to discussions on tithing. If a judge or juror finds that there is a reason why their impartiality could be questioned they should recuse themselves from the case. This doesn’t mean that they would be impartial, it simply means that there was a reasonable question of impartiality and they remove themselves from the situation to remain above such accusations (above reproach, if you will). So too with tithing. If you make your living off the tithes of parishioners you must at least admit that you could have a conflict of interests in your discussion of tithing. This doesn’t at all mean that you’re wrong doctrinally, it simply means that an outside observer wouldn’t be off-base at all to at least question your motives. (Better, I think, for a lay person to discuss the notion of tithing.)

I argue that the linked article may fall under the same category as tithing in this sense. An article written by a pastor about why people shouldn’t leave a church should at least raise an eyebrow. Of course a pastor thinks people should only leave church under extreme conditions, but not the ones listed in this article (which I presume are quite common … though none of them are why I left my former church). This doesn’t mean he’s wrong, not at all. It simply means he has a prejudice (and I mean that clinically as “pre-conception”) based on his history as a pastor (which I can only imagine is a difficult job) and his general preference that people not leave (particularly if the “leaving” becomes a personal affront to the pastor himself).

Of course, I do call into question some of his arguments, not so much from the standpoint of disagreeing, but from the standpoint of feeling that his reasoning has drawn conclusions that are too strong. Let’s hit the five, shall we … but first, giving due deference, he does note at the very beginning that there are a lot of good reasons to leave a church (though he doesn’t note what they might be).

“I’m not being fed”

I’ve heard this one before, though I’ve never used it. The pastor in the article has a good point, which I’ll quote:

As a Christian, you shouldn’t require spoon-feeding for the rest of your life. Eventually you need to learn how to feed yourself so that, in time, you can actually feed others. Remember, your call is not just to be a disciple but to make disciples.

Amen. If “not being fed” means “I haven’t read my bible, studied it, or prayed one lick  in the past month – and I’m not getting anything out of your sermons” then it is indeed a cop out. Pick up a Bible man, it’s a dang good read.

Of course, upon reading the Bible we find some interesting stuff. Consider a few scriptures [emphasis added]:

  • “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” – 1 Tim 3:2
  • “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” – 2 Tim 4:2
  • “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Acts 2:42

At this point I’ll stop – you get the picture. Is it part of the pastor’s job to teach? If it is part of his job, and someone who reads and studies daily, who prays daily, who takes great pleasure in searching out scriptural truths comes to the point of “I’m not getting one blessed thing out of your sermons” … well that is something to consider. Granted, that was a long litany of conditionals. My point is simply that it cannot always be taken as a “cop out” that someone would leave a church because of “not being fed”.

Furthermore, I have seen cases where pastors change their preaching over time. For instance, by the end of his ministry D. James Kennedy hardly preached about the gospel of Christ anymore, focusing instead on the Christian history of America. I loved his discussion of history but wouldn’t at all have been offended if one of his members said “I’m not being fed here, I can get all of this out of a history book” and left.

“It’s Getting Too Big”

I have to say, I’ve heard this one too. I never quite understood it. Here the pastor, I think, hits the nail on its head by noting that taking a “we four and no more” attitude toward church is unbiblical. He further rightly notes that “growth is sometimes inevitable for faithful churches.” Of course, let us not confuse growth with faithfulness, and let us not confuse occasional downturns in attendance with faithlessness (Jesus had folks stop following Him too).

That said, the “it’s getting too big” argument may simply be an ill-formed expression of resistance to church pageantry. There was a day when the church was big, growing, and intimate. It was intimate because only so many people could fit in the caves where they met in order to escape persecution for their beliefs. Even today church is intimate in the house churches of Vietnam or China, where our brothers meet in secret to avoid prison. (No, I haven’t started a house church.)

My point here is that church in the opulent west can turn into pageantry very quickly. Flashy lights, impressive bands, rockin’ sound systems .. all of which I think are very cool, but if the purpose for the Sunday service is to put on a big show for the biggest crowd possible, then we are worse than hedonistic rock stars. (At least they know they are self-indulgent and not leading people in the way of truth.)

“I don’t agree with everything that is being preached”

Again, we agree, I think. Just as one will never vote for a politician with whom they agree on everything, one will never find a pastor with whom they agree on everything. It’s not just pastors either, but entire denominations. For instance, I’ve read quite a few of the position papers put out by the Assemblies of God (my denomination) and can say that I love how thoroughly and humbly they are written – but I don’t agree with them on everything. I certainly agree when they take on Word-of-Faith preachers and “Latter Rain” movements. But, I will disagree from time to time. (Though, usually I disagree because their expressions aren’t mathematically satisfying, which is not exactly a doctrinal dissent. For instance, I have mild issues with the AG’s paper on gambling, not because I promote gambling, but rather because a sufficiently vague definition of it could include all investment in stocks, bonds, real estate, etc., and a sufficiently narrow definition could exclude taking a “sure bet” if one existed., which would be better than investing.)

Then the pastor makes an interesting (and spot-on) statement: “As long as your pastor isn’t preaching outright heresy, you can afford to disagree on secondary issues.” Agreed. But what if disagreement on secondary issue leads to passive-aggressive retribution of some sort? What if heart-felt disagreement over secondary issues gets you labeled “not a team player” and pushed aside? It’s fair enough to say that “little things shouldn’t separate us” but that has to be a two-way street. Pastors and church leadership are people too, and once you’re labeled, you’re labeled. Yes, leadership should be adults who don’t deal in passive-aggression; but I’ve been a Christian for 25 years and have had five pastors … and have seen some unsavory things go down in the local church. We are all flawed people, including leadership.

Furthermore, what about that note on heresy? And how does one decide when a doctrinal disagreement gets all the way to heresy? May I direct us all to Philippians 2:12 – “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Ultimately, every believer in Christ has to follow the leading of the Spirit, has to work out his own salvation, has to search out those issues of doctrine.

I contend that if someone comes to the point of “I don’t trust what you’re preaching, I’m not sure it’s legitimate, I’m on guard in every sermon looking for where you’re running into error, rather than listening with an open heart” … then perhaps it is best for both parties that a split be made.

“My needs aren’t being met”

Here again, we agree – though with a possible slight disagreement over word usage. He says:

“the Church actually isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. It’s his Church. He came for it. He died for it. He redeemed it. He continues to build it. And one day, he’ll come back for it. It’s his.”

Agreed, and yet we are conflating Church and church. One can easily leave a church and not leave the Church. But yes, if one is leaving a church because selfish needs are going unfulfilled, rather than becoming a servant of others, well that’s a bit silly.

“Unresolved conflict”

Here again I think the pastor has a point and makes an argument beyond what is viable.

“The Church is one big family full of characters and misfits. Sometimes sisters argue. Sometimes brothers fight. Sometimes you want to bury your weird uncle in the backyard. But despite it all, family is supposed to be the place where you stick together. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.”

Fair enough. And yet the Bible also gives us examples of people leaving and going their separate ways. Abraham and Lot parted ways because their herdsmen were fighting – and they parted so there wouldn’t be any quarrel between them. Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways after they had a sharp disagreement over whether to take John Mark with them (hardly a doctrinal issue).

I have four sons and I can attest that sometimes brothers fight. Sometimes, when Daddy (that’s me) comes into the room, he lays down justice and punishes the guilty. But sometimes, when Daddy comes in the room he has no time (or need) to bring justice – instead he simply tells his quarreling children “go be in different rooms, you need to spend some time apart.”

And so too with us. We can still be brothers and be in different rooms. We can still follow Christ and not hang out with one another. I’m not saying that we bail at the first sign of conflict or that we refuse to extend grace to one another, but there comes a point when attempting to resolve a conflict is less productive in the kingdom that simply parting company to go follow the Lord apart from one another.

So, are there good reasons?

What are some good reasons to leave a church? I submit that there are. We’ve already discussed a few, but here are some other obvious ones.

In my 25 years as a Christian I have been a member of three different churches and have now left all three. The first two times I left because I was moving a great distance away; once to go to college (from Conover, NC to Chapel Hill, NC) and once to start a new job (from Raleigh, NC to Columbia, MD). In both cases I didn’t flinch at the prospect of leaving a church. I was moving down a path in life (a path on which I feel the Lord was leading me) and it necessitated departure from the local assembly. I point this out because I have heard preachers lament that people’s migrations as they walk through life were resulting in lost members – as though the purpose of man is to build the local church and movement is prohibited.

There is also the case of abuse. I have seen on more than one occasion people being abused in a church setting. I’m not just talking here about catholic priests abusing choir boys (which I have never observed). There are emotional and psychological abuses that occur when we begin to worship church instead of God, and when the leadership becomes interested in maintaining their role in the hierarchy with good little followers rather than serving others. In such instances we should get out, and fast.

And what if God told you to go? He told Abram to leave everything and go to a different place. What if the Lord God simply pulled his follower aside and said “follow Me, it’s time to go”? The argument is unassailable. If God told you to do something you really had better do it. “But how do you know?” Good question. Work out your own salvation. Search the scriptures. Pray, pray, pray. Repent. Be honest with yourself and with God. Root out any vestiges of pride and self-centeredness. Pour your heart out before God. Seek and you shall find.

We serve a God that is bigger than church. Sometimes He moves people in and out of local assemblies for His purposes. Yes, sometimes those moves strain relationships, and sometimes feelings even get hurt. But, we have to trust the Lord and follow His leading. Further, we have to recognize that His plan for one may not be His plan for another (John 21:21-22). Leaving church shouldn’t be met by leadership with “nobody should ever leave” (because that places the local assembly at the center of worship) – nor should it be met by the departing  with “everybody should leave” (because that places me at the center of worship). But let us rather worship God, and follow Him.

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