When to leave your church

HOLT, Mich. (BP)–Last year our church focused on the Bible's instruction to love harmony and unity. As the Bible says in Philippians 2:2, "Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose." We tried to teach our church members that the laissez-faire commitment to church membership which characterizes our times is not God's way of thinking.

In response, I occasionally heard a question like this, "OK, I get it that we shouldn't just up and leave our church, but is there ever a time to leave?" The answer is "yes, there are times one should leave a church."

Let me suggest some cases in which a person should change churches:

–- False teaching. In Jude 3b, the Bible says "... I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints." God's people must "contend" for the faith clearly revealed in the Bible. When God's church ceases to teach/preach faithfully the Bible, it loses the anointing of God and all spiritual authority. It's expected that well-meaning believers may have minor points of difference in interpreting God's Word. That's not the point. When the pastor and Sunday School teachers distort the obvious meaning of the Word for some preferred idea, they must be confronted. If they will not repent and return to God's Word, get out (2 John 9-11).

-– Unaddressed sin. If there is open sin, especially among the pastors, the church is in danger. If the pastors are the offenders, then deacons or other mature leaders in the church must confront them and call them to repentance (1 Timothy 5:19-20). When others are the offenders, those same leaders must join the pastors in confronting offenders (Matthew 18:15-17). God's blessing will not last for long on the church that will not confront open, unrepentant sin. If the church leaders will not confront the sin, you should shake the dust off your shoes as you go out the door.

-– Dysfunctional church life. As with families, churches can become dysfunctional. Sadly, the landscape of American church life is littered with people meeting in church-type buildings that long ago ceased to be church. When the vision dies, the agenda degrades to how we pay the bills, what we need to do to keep people happy, or arguing over who's in charge of the operation. In this state, God's church usually divides into little "fiefdoms" with people fighting over control and power. It's ugly. A church almost never recovers from this point. One must be cautious in calling a church "dysfunctional," as only God ultimately knows when He's done with a church. But when a believer finds himself/herself in that kind of church, he/she should move on to a church in which God is working. One cannot expect a perfect church but one can expect a church with evidence of God's presence (1 Corinthians 1:10-11).

In addition to these negative reasons a believer might need to leave his/her church, there are other circumstances that may lead a believer to do so that are not negative. For instance:

-– Moving. If the will of God leads one to move too far away to have meaningful involvement in one's church, he/she must move on to another church (Hebrews 11:25). Believers need to think twice about how leaving a good church might affect their walks with God when considering a move. Some should choose not to move so as to remain in the fellowship of one's church. At other times, God's leading is clear and the commute would be unwise or impossible.

There's a related application to this point: When a church member marries a believer from another church, one of them must leave his/her church and move to the spouse's church. Though the Bible doesn't specifically address this scenario, my experience points toward holding the wedding service with the woman's church. She then leaves her church to join his since he is responsible as the spiritual leader of the home. On occasion, God will direct the new family to stay in the woman's church.

–- Mission. Sometimes God calls a believer to a mission that will mean he/she must leave the church (Acts 17:2). Our church is working to plant a church, and we expect God will call believers from our church to join in that mission. We shall give our blessing to those going to serve in the planting of a new church.

There may be other reasons to leave one's church. If so, I think they would fall into one of these broader categories. The point is, many American believers who change churches do so for the wrong reasons.

When people leave churches often it is over relationship issues -- too often it's with the pastor. We need to work through any brokenness in relationships so they may be healed. We cannot forsake truth or morality just to "keep the peace" but we surely can lay aside grudges, bitterness or lack of forgiveness.

As Paul admonished Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2, "Live in harmony in the Lord." May it be so in your church!

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Bob Carpenter is pastor of Cedar Street Church in Holt, Mich., and a member of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.

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