In his last post Ben George held up the church as a part and foretaste of God’s ultimate community. In this post he considers the question of when we might need to leave a church.
One of the difficult questions Christians have to face is when is the right time to leave a particular church? If we attend churches where the fundamentals are done well—where the Bible is taught faithfully; where people strive to love one another; where Christ is honoured and people seek to grow closer to him—then we might never have to consider this question. But this is not something we can take for granted.
If we attend churches where the fundamentals are done well, we might never have to consider this question. But this is not something we can take for granted.
In my experience ministering to, and alongside, Christians from subcontinental backgrounds, the decision of when to leave a church needs to be carefully thought through (though, of course, these are always important considerations). Here are some thoughts that will hopefully stimulate further thinking. From the outset, may I add the caveat to all of the below by saying that it is absolutely vital when applying these principles to a specific context, to wrap our decisions in prayer and to speak with godly Christian friends and mentors in order to check blind spots and appropriately acknowledge grievances.
Nevertheless, with those qualifications stated, here are some red flags to watch out for:
I think a primary reason to leave a church is due to false teaching. Inaccurate teaching of the Bible which effectively denies the sufficiency of our Lord Jesus and leads to destructive heresy is deeply problematic. You don’t have to search far in Scripture to realise that not only are such things warned against (for they cause significant damage), but that anyone who leads people away from sound teaching will face a harsh judgement (c.f. Matt 18:6ff; Gal 1:6-9; 2 Pt 2:1-22). This means we need to be on our guard against a lackadaisical approach to Scripture and hold our leaders accountable.
But we also ought to be clear that false teaching is not at stake in every disagreement, nor can we expect every sermon and Bible study to be without any error. To expect such things would be an over-realised eschatology. What is expected is a settled position of teaching that is faithful to Scripture and clothed in transparency, accountability, and daily repentance.
No Investment in Maturity
If such churches put the Bible first they might find that people would stop leaving.
Scripture urges us to seek maturity in Christ—both for ourselves and others. It is one of the outcomes of good teaching, fellowship with other believers, and exercising godliness as we daily navigate adorning the gospel of Christ. In some churches, however (and I am thinking of some traditional subcontinental churches in particular), this maturity is seen as something that threatens the leadership. In such churches, questions, exploration, and curiosity are quashed and met with calls to trust the church leadership.
This resistance often comes from deep-seated insecurity—insecurity that fears irrelevance, and thinks the only hope is to make culture and tradition sacrosanct. Ironically, if such churches put the Bible first they might find that people would stop leaving. It is only the Word of God that can make us relevant.
Lack of Mutual Encouragement
One of the beautiful things about brothers and sisters in Christ meeting and fellowshipping in church is the benefit of mutual encouragement. I am always taken aback by the apostle Paul’s eagerness to visit churches and his expectation to receive (as well as give) encouragement (e.g. Rom 1:11-12).
But not all churches have this expectation. They waste the gifts of the Spirit by discouraging the members from exercising their gifts. We should see this as a grievance—a grievance like losing a part of the body (cf. Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:12-31). Scripture tells us that there shouldn’t be any passive members of the church family. Certainly, we have different roles which necessarily mean that some are more up-front than others. But church is supposed to be a place where your contribution matters—where people invest deeply in your life, and you invest deeply in theirs.
No Safe Place to Explore the Gospel
Finally, above all, church should be a place where you can safely invite your not-yet-believing friends. Is our church one that proclaims the gospel accurately? Will it help people to explore the Jesus of the Bible? Will it be an encouraging community where new Christians will be welcomed and nurtured in their faith?
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
This list of considerations is by no means exhaustive (see Peter Adam’s discussion of the same topic here). And again, I want to caution that these considerations are to be complemented by prayer, godly Christian advice, and much application of wisdom to your specific context. I also want to make it clear that in these considerations, I have tried to focus on principles rather than the particular flavour of how a church might do something. Nonetheless, it drives me to tears when I come into contact with people who have been injured by churches that clearly neglect good teaching; which fail to build people up and neglect mutual encouragement.
As hard as it might seem, sometimes it might just be the case that leaving your current church is the only option. That was the case for me many years ago.