When to Leave a Church?

For whoever either disregards the holy assemblies, or separates himself from brethren, and takes little interest in the cultivation of unity, by this alone makes it evident that he sets no value on the presence of Christ[1]-Calvin

The question comes up sometimes, “should I leave my church?”

When to leave a church is a question that has several answers, and without the proper information, I can’t answer it specifically.

It’s not a question that can’t be answered though. There are reasons, Biblical reasons that would indicate whether you should either stay or leave the church you’re attending.

Obviously though, if you’re ever left asking this question, then there’s some kind of problem. It may not be a significant problem, but there must be some circumstance or situation that has left you wondering, should I leave.

There have been several podcasts and articles that I’ve seen or heard lately that entertain that question. One great one was one of my favorites, Theology Unplugged from the Credo House in Edmond, OK.

This particular podcast wasn’t originally to deal with this question specifically. It was dealing with a subject that lead to it though. It was a podcast on authority, in particular Biblical authority in the local church. Interestingly, one problem with authority in the local church seems to be that people don’t recognize the Bible as the authority that it should be and therefore, they do not submit to it as it is preached and taught by local church leaders.

One of the problems that they dealt with on this particular podcast was too many people leave church without going through the Biblical process. This process, as they saw it, was one of discipline. One should submit to authority, placing themselves under the teaching of the local church and if there is conflict, it should be dealt with under Matthew 18.

On the other hand, if a person who is a member (in covenant) of a local church and leaves without resolving the conflict, then the church leadership should seek reconciliation under the mandate of Matthew 18.

So first, a church must have two-way discipline.

“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. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”” (Matthew 18:15–20, ESV)

The point of all of that is that people should be held accountable as members of a covenant and churches are doing a bad job at requiring that kind of accountability.

In all of that though, the accountability of 2 Timothy 5:19-22 was barely given a mention. It was as if the laity is almost always at fault when there is conflict and the leadership needs to be obeyed.

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.” (1 Timothy 5:19–21, ESV)

I agree with their assessment of accountability as far as leaving a church flippantly. There needs to be more accountability between the church and its members and people shouldn’t just come and go as they please, leaving those left behind wondering “what happened”!

What I may be somewhat critical of is the perception that this is the prevailing issue in the local church as far as discipline or accountability is concerned.

It seems to me that although the laity does not normally submit to authority as they should, and they are not held as accountable as they ought to be, both of these failures are not necessarily failures of the laity. Rather, these failures are failures of church leadership. Biblical leadership ought to teach proper submission first by their own understanding of ministry (service), and then by teaching the truth of the Word of God about accountability and submission, finally by practicing healthy church discipline.

On top of that, a greater issue is one of lack of accountability of church leaders.

Church leaders, especially elders (pastors, elders, bishops) are rarely held accountable for their public sin.

When was the last time you went to church and heard a public confession of sin from the pulpit and a plea for forgiveness from a authentically contrite pastor?

When was the last time you saw church leaders being held accountable by the laity for their public sins?

When was the last time that you witnessed church leaders submitting to the authority of the church when that authority comes in the form of people in the pews?

1 Timothy 5:19 mandates that!

When was the last time that you heard that passage expounded as the whole counsel of God?

That brings me to the first reason you might leave a church.

No discipline!

If your church is not practicing proper church discipline, and I mean in both directions, then it is not a Biblical church.

This is not automatically an excuse to leave though. By leaving, you are practicing the same omission that they are and you are just a guilty as they may be.

Pray a great deal. Go to your leaders. Ask them the tough questions. Make sure that they know your concern. Give them a chance to do what the Bible requires. Then, only after you have gone to them and they have refused to follow proper Biblical discipline, leave.

In this case is the exception to leaving “wrong”. If they will not practice church discipline then I don’t see how you can leave correctly. You can’t hold them to a Biblical standard and they wont hold you to one. In that case, your only choice is to give your reasons (preferably in writing) and walk away.

The other two reasons to leave a church are pretty much universally accepted and ought to be common sense for most of us.

A favorite quote from Calvin about church is:

Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence[2]

Sacraments can be rightly administered. That would indicate that they can be wrongly administered. If the sacraments are being wrongly administered in your church, you should go to the leadership for clarification. Beware! There is little that gets collars so ruffled as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Approach these subjects with leadership humbly, asking for clarity, and willing to listen.

Assuming that you will do those things and providing for the possibility that their answers may not satisfy the Biblical standards for what is proper in the administration of the sacraments, discipline may be pursued.

It is likely that discipline will end at the first step, going to the elders. In that case, if you remain convinced that the sacraments are being administered improperly, or not at all, leave. Pray for those left and leave. You should not be at this church.

Finally, the Word of God must be preached. But Calvin does not merely say that it must be preached, his assertion is that it must be sincerely preached.

I have written some on this already. I may take a harder stand on preaching than you, so walk carefully as you criticize the preaching of your pastor. Do not think that you may never do so though.

Preaching is what it is. It is a basic exposition of Scripture that must be short enough to keep your attention, meaty enough to preach to the learned, and simple enough to give the Gospel to sinners. It is not meant to be a theological treatise nor is it supposed to be purely evangelical. It is preaching.

That being said, preaching must be the exposition of God’s Word. Nothing else will do. Stories and illustrations are not preaching, although they may be used in preaching. Lectures are not preaching, although their subjects may be found in the Word to be preached. Preaching is God’s Word, given by God’s man, to God’s people, under the power of God’s Spirit.

It may be something else where you go to church. If it is once, then it may be overlooked as a mistake. If it is regularly, then something is wrong. If it is, then you may follow the disciplinary procedure outlined in Scripture.

Once again, it is unlikely that you will be allowed to move further than your initial questions. At that point, you have every reason to leave that church after explaining your concern and receiving no satisfactory Biblical response.

None of these things should ever be taken lightly. One problem with the American Church is that we do not take church seriously. Church is one of the things that matter most.

Always do a great deal of self-inspection before you enter into any criticism of your local church. Repent of your own shortcomings when considering your responsibility to your covenant relationship to your church. Leaving church is a serious thing. Many times it becomes necessary because you didn’t take joining that same church as serious as you should have.

When it becomes necessary to leave, always do so well informed by God’s Word, informing those you leave as you go (not gossiping but lovingly instructing), praying for God’s forgiveness and his Spirit’s leading along the way.

[1] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, pp. 361–362). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[2] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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