In that past couple of weeks, I’ve encountered various stories of individuals whose churches have failed them. We might think of the public case of Bishop Bill Love of the Albany Diocese of the Episcopal Church. He was pronounced guilty for believing and acting on the idea that marriage, according to Scripture, involves one biological man and one biological woman, and now awaits his denomination’s verdict. In addition, I’ve received correspondence this week from a Christian brother in England whose church has regularly disregarded Scripture for the sake of cultural acceptance. Like the first matter, this brother can no longer remain in his particular church. What does a Christian do when they can no longer remain in their congregation/denomination?
We are entering into tumultuous waters when we begin to discuss these sorts of matters. However, as we are less than a month away from Reformation Sunday (a day when Protestants remember the revolutionary work of Martin Luther in 1517), it seems appropriate to consider when a Christian has valid reasons for leaving a church/denomination.
There are of course invalid reasons for leaving a church, but that is not the aim of this discussion (at least for today). As will be mentioned, there are times when leaving the church is a necessity for the spiritual good of yourself and your family. There are other times where leaving is not necessary, but may be a wise choice. Let’s begin with a non-negotiable situation.
First, when a church/denomination has abandoned the Scriptures as their final authority, it is right and good to leave. Here, we think back to Bishop Love. When you can no longer believe that the leadership of a particular congregation (or even a denomination) is concerned with the teachings of Scripture, you have a problem.
Building again on the history of Protestantism, we believe that Scripture gave birth to the Church; not the other way around. If we say we love Christ, and desire to honor God, yet gag Him when it seems most convenient, we betray the very Name and covenant into which we’ve been baptized. To reject the words of Scripture is to establish another authority over God. If your church/denomination has betrayed Scripture, that is a valid reason to leave.
Second, if you can no longer support the direction or vision of the Church, it is right and good to leave that church. I wish space allowed for my own experience in a former church. The people loved God. The pastor loved God. However, there were preoccupations with various “ministries” that did not encompass the Gospel. It was more about entertainment than evangelism. There was also a regular preoccupation with certain pet-topics and buzz words. The situation made it difficult to invite others to the church because I was never sure if the Gospel was going to be proclaimed from the pulpit or something submissive to the particular socio-political mood of the minister. A gospel church has to be committed to the ordinary means of grace (Scripture, sacraments, and prayer) above satiating personalities and self-interests.
Third, if you are geographically too far away, perhaps it is right to leave a church. I lived 45 minutes from my church in high school and it made inviting friends and co-workers a nightmare. There are pragmatic issues that have to be weighed when deciding what church to unite yourself with. Can you genuinely commit yourself to public worship?
Fourth, if your ministry gifts are not utilized or celebrated, perhaps you have a valid reason to leave one congregation for another. The church is comprised of members who are called to contribute towards the mutual well-being of one another. The Apostle Paul highlights the importance of this “one-another” concern as an ordinary feature of the Christian life. God has not called His church to be spectators of a show or performance, but to commit ourselves to one another with the gifts God has given to us.
Lastly, if your leadership has proven themselves untrustworthy with the treasures of your heart and life, perhaps you have a valid reason to leave one congregation for another. If you are in a ministry context where you don’t trust your pastors or elders there is a concern. The shepherds of your heart need to help foster spiritual growth and will be held accountable before God for you. If you don’t trust them, you need to lovingly, yet honestly, talk to them. If nothing changes, then perhaps you’ve hit a crossroads and need to move on.
I know that this list is rather short and far more can and should be said. However, I do know something about the danger of bitterness that inevitably takes root in the hearts of those whose church/denomination contexts are anything but healthy. I pray that Christ might confront your heart in order to comfort it, because the Church is still God’s means to saving the world, and every believer is commanded to participate in public worship.
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