I detest church hopping. Yet I accept the fact that there are times when Christians transfer church membership. But there is a proper time and way to leave a church.
What are the legitimate reasons for leaving a church? When is the right time to leave a church? How should one leave a church to join another?
Red Lights: Wrong Reasons for Leaving a Church
Here are seven wrongs reasons for leaving a church.
Sin. Someone has sinned. Maybe it was a leader. Is this a good reason to leave? No. It is not promote holiness to leave because of sin. There was gross sin in the church of Corinth. But Paul commanded the church to deal with the sinning member, not leave the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). When Paul bids the saints to “come out from among them,” he was talking about the world, not the church (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). We should respond to sinning brothers with restoration, not amputation (Galatians 6:1-5).
Disagreements over secondary doctrinal issues. Biblical convictions matter. But don’t be willing to die on every hill. Contend earnestly for the faith (Jude). But don’t break fellowship over every disagreement about scripture. Paul advised Timothy, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness…” (2 Timothy 2:14-16)
Disunity. God hates those who sow discord among brothers (Proverbs 6:16-19). But evidence of salvation is love for your brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:14). And this love is demonstrated by preserving the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3). Don’t jump ship because you can’t get along with others. You will only have the same problem at the next church. “Do nothing from selfish ambition of conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourself” (Philippians 2:3).
Personal offenses. There will be times when Christians sin against one another. What then? Leaving is not the answer. Moving every time you are (or feel) wronged will only lead multiple church transitions. Or you will remain at the fringes of the church, which is just as bad. Jesus gives the answer: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). These simple instructions could jumpstart revival in many churches. But what if he doesn’t listen? Turn up the pressure (18:16-20).
Unwillingness to submit to authority. Aaron was more spiritual than Moses. And Joshua was a better leader. But the rod was in Moses’ hand. Don’t fight those the Lord puts in leadership over you. Of course, you should not sit under unbiblical, immoral, or abusive leadership. But there is a way to deal with disqualified leaders (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Without a doubt, you should hold your pastors accountable. But don’t handcuff the spiritual leaders of the church to personal preferences, empty traditions, or unbiblical priorities. Let the leaders lead. And be willing to follow (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
A low view of the church. There is no chapter and verse that commands you to be a church member. But scripture teaches by what it assumes, just as much as it teaches by what is commands. There is no biblical category for an “unchurched Christian.” The apostles would have asked, “Why are you calling her a Christian if he is not a part of the church? Christ is the head of the church. And he does not have out-of-body experiences. You cannot be connected to the head and disconnected from the body. Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25-27). And to love Christ is to love what he loves.
Disregard for truth. Paul charged Timothy to preach the word (2 Timothy 4:2). He then warned that faithfulness to the charge would cause some to flee: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) Faithful preaching will drive some away from the church. But they will not go home. They will find a church where the preacher will tickle their ears. Don’t let that be you. If you are under sound teaching and faithful preaching, for God’s sake, stay put!
Green Lights: When it’s Time to Leave a Church
Here are three basic and acceptable reasons for leaving a church.
A gospel reason. If the church you are a member of does not believe or teach the biblical gospel, you need to leave. Now. Sinners are saved by grace through faith in Christ, plus or minus nothing. Nothing we do saves us. Salvation is God’s free gift to those who trust in the righteousness of Christ who died for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification. Anyone who teaches any other “gospel” is accursed (Galatians 1:6-9). And any church that embraces a false gospel is not a Christian church. Run for your life!
A doctrinal reason. Here’s the bottom line: You must leave a church when a church requires you to deny what you believe or believe what you deny. You have three responsibilities when it comes to faith: (1) the duty to live by faith (Romans 14:23); (2) the guarding of your conscience against sin (James 4:17); and (3) the command to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21-21). Don’t treat doctrinal matters lightly. Truth and peace must be protected. But to ignore truth in the name of people only produces a pseudo-peace.
A personal reason. There are many personal reasons for leaving a church. The most common is relocation. If you have moved to a different city, you need put yourself under the authority of a local church where you live. That was Phoebe’s situation (Romans 16:1-2). Or your church can be so far from your where you live in the city that skipping church becomes a convenient excuse. These and other similar personal reasons are acceptable, sometimes necessary, reasons for leaving a church.
Yellow Lights: How to Leave a Church
How can you leave a local church in a Christ-honoring way?
Pray. Important decisions should only be made after diligent prayer. Leaving a church is one such decision. Pray about your motives, duty, and relationships. Pray to guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23). Pray for wisdom (James 1:5). Pray for submissiveness to God’s will (Colossians 1:9). Pray quietly. That is, pray about it. Don’t talk about it. Loose talk about your unprocessed thoughts and feelings can sow discord.
Examine your motives. Why do you want to leave? I am not talking about the politically correct reasons you tell others. I’m talking about the true motivations of your heart. Do you even know them? Ask God to search you (Psalms 139:23-24). Then be honest with yourself. And be honest with God. Be careful not to move for the wrong reasons.
Review the commitments you have made to serve. Do you serve in the church? Are you a leader? Will your move disrupt the ministry? Answer these questions prayerfully before you leave. If you have made commitments, do everything within your power to honor them. Put the honor of Christ ahead of yours. Push past unworthy quitting points (1 Corinthians 15:58). You do not want to be found AWOL from an assignment God has given you.
Make sure you have no unresolved interpersonal conflicts. Don’t leave a church because you are mad about something. Don’t leave because someone has offended you. Be ready to forgive and eager for reconciliation. Jesus said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Broken fellowship suspends true worship.
Consider how your transfer will affect others. Christianity is not about you. It’s about Christ and others. If your heart is right, you will feel the weight of how your potential move will injure or influence others. If you can leave without affecting anyone, you were not a good member. If your presence matters, consider how your absence will move others. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests,” instructs Paul, “but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Determine where you will transfer your membership before you leave. It’s not the Father’s will for his children to be spiritually homeless. Paul says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). The Lord typically leads to a place, not just away from a place. You should be able to leave a spiritual forwarding address when you leave a church. And you should be able to go to your new church with a recommendation from your old church.
Have an exit-interview with your pastor. It is right for you to talk to your pastor before you leave a church. Is he the reason you want to leave? That is all the more reason why you should schedule a conversation. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
H.B. Charles, Jr.