Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Monday, August 20, 2007

When To Leave a Church

I have been addressing questions about church membership, particularly the key questions pertaining to joining and leaving a church.

In the last post, I offered my thoughts concerning the reasons why a Christian should NOT leave a church. I would like to say I appreciate the comments some readers left. A couple of pastors provided some good insight from their perspective.

With this post I wish to offer my thoughts regarding the reasons why a Christian should leave a church. I would like to divide my reasons into a couple of categories. First is what I believe are definite reasons for leaving a church, and then second, possible reasons for leaving a church.

I will begin with the definite reasons.

The Word of God is not held high. By that I mean the Bible is not the focus of how the church functions, why the church exists, or what the church considers important to the development of the people. The leadership doesn't consider doctrine essential, nor evangelism important, or general discipleship crucial for the spiritual health of the members. If the church has a mediocre view of scripture, then it is inevitable that the people will have a mediocre view of God, which in turn will leave the people open to being led astray by false doctrine, or not being led by any doctrine at all.

Churches demonstrating this level of rejection toward the authority of scripture tend to be liberal. The main denomination more than likely denies the inspiration of scripture and the leadership encourages political correct ideology like the ordination of homosexuals to key church positions. However, churches that claim to be conservative are in danger of promoting a low view of scripture when they shift from an emphasis on teaching, biblical discipleship, and gospel evangelism, to allow entertainment style programs to be the focus of the church's ministry.

The leadership tolerates false teaching in the church. This is a church that allows individuals who believe contrary to sound, biblical doctrine to have influence over the people.

Let me give a practical illustration of what I mean. I once knew of a church were there was a single, older woman who didn't believe the people in the church were "spiritual" enough, so she set up unofficial "Bible" studies in which she invited selected, like-minded people who felt the same way she did about the church's "spirituality."

I was invited to attend a few of these gatherings, and even as a young believer, I quickly discerned these so-called "Bible" studies were hardly true Bible studies, but merely a gathering of disgruntled church members who allowed themselves to come under the influence of this woman. The "studies," if we can even call them that, were attempts by this lady to promote her radical health and wealth, charismatic teaching, with a heavy emphasis upon the false doctrine of sinless perfectionism.

The sad thing is that the pastors of this church kind of knew she was conducting these meetings outside of church, but they never really did anything to confront her or the people being led astray. The lady managed to sow discord among the members in this church and made the people who were disgruntled even more disgruntled. When the pastors finally got around to addressing her heresy, she had turned the hearts of many of the people away from that church. Several folks separated themselves from the main body of believers and began driving 2 hours on Sunday mornings to attend an extreme charismatic church in another city.

Let me tell you, any church that allows a person or persons to spout unbiblical doctrine, or promote the false teachings of some bizarre teacher, and is allowed to get away with it by the church leadership with out being confronted and corrected, is a church that is asking for some serious trouble. The leadership is basically allowing instability to exist among the members. People cannot have confidence in the pastors or deacons when this happens.

The leadership tolerates sin in the church. If there are members involved with scandalous sin, and I mean sin on the level of a husband having an affair, or a wife divorcing her husband on no biblical grounds, or a person involved with behavior the Bible clearly indicates is sinful; and the leadership of the church refuses to deal with the sin and allow the persons involved to remain in their state without being called to repentance, then it is time to start looking for another church.

Probably the one practical church issue people ask me of my opinion deals with serious sin in a church and the pastor and leadership making no effort, or maybe a half-hearted effort, to confront and discipline the parties involved with the sin.

I had an acquaintance tell me of a situation where a woman left her husband, but she kept coming to church on Sunday mornings; she merely moved to the back row of pews. I had another person tell me of how a prominent business man attended their church who had an affair and left his wife. Once he was remarried to the "new" woman, they both began attending the church where the ex-wife was still present. None of the pastors did any thing to confront the situation, and the ex-wife, who was truly the innocent party in the situation, eventually moved on to another church to be away from the heart-ache.

These examples all involve sexual immorality, but tolerating sin could come in the form of allowing a trouble maker to spread gossip in the church or teens in the youth group to remain unconfronted about their weekend keg parties.

Now, those are three definite reasons when a person should leave a church, but what about some possible reasons to leave a church? I have three to consider.

If a church tolerates factious teaching. By factious teaching I don't mean heretical teaching that denies essential biblical doctrine like the Deity of Christ or the authority of scripture. What I have in mind is teaching that is not necessarily erroneous, but may produce sharply divided opinions among Christians that could potentially create needless division among members of a church.

For instance: My college church had a large group of folks who were big fans of Bill Gothard and his youth conflict material. They attended his conference and promoted his material at our church. I never cared for the guy because I thought many of his principles were not supported biblically. His so-called "principles" were really a reflection of his personal preferences as to how he thought an issue should be dealt with.

There were a handful of Gothard fans at our church who embraced his material as being near infallible and taught a necessary, unyielding allegiance to following it to the very letter. Anyone, like myself, who questioned the soundness of Gothard's material at certain points was looked upon with derision by these "fans." People like me were thought of as being a spiritual dullard. The group was small, but vocal, and could stir up strife at times among the other members.

Thankfully, they were not too divisive, because they could be generally ignored, but I have heard tell of many other churches who had similar folks aligned to a particular teacher or program that caused the whole church non-ending grief. Certainly, there may be Christians who will have high opinions concerning a particular teacher who is orthodox, yet have some quirky notions with his teaching. However, if those Christians are taking what they are learning and creating a biblical imbalance concerning a certain point of theology that it causes a serious breach among the members of a church and the leadership doesn't address it, that could be a possible warning sign to think about leaving the church. A pastor should not let this kind of divisiveness go unanswered and its his duty to shepherd the various parties concerning the importance of unity regardless of preferential opinion over some point of theological application.

A change of convictions regarding a theological issue. Just so I am clear: A change of conviction regarding a theological issue does not mean a slide into apostasy. I know among the emergent types and the neo-Unitarian youth, the idea of questioning, or even out right rejecting, the full Deity of Jesus Christ is considered a "change" of conviction. It is a change of conviction alright, but it is defined in the Bible as unbelief and the denial of the truth. The rejection of the eternality of hell or the embracing of open theism is not the "change" I have in mind here.

What I mean is along the lines of a Presbyterian coming to realize the truthfulness of believer's baptism over infant baptism. Or perhaps a person seeing the problems with amillennial hermeneutics as opposed to premillennialism. Or, a Southern Baptist who, after an exhaustive study of scripture, embraces the doctrines of Grace. These sorts of shifts in one's theology may cause difficulty serving in your church, especially if the former theological point plays a significant role in defining the doctrine of the church, like infant baptism does for Presbyterianism.

A personal change in one's theology doesn't mean you can no longer have fellowship with those folks who may believe differently, but it does mean it may become hard to represent what the church officially believes. It can be particularly challenging if you are a place of leadership. Think about it. If you attend a church that teaches the sign gifts of tongues and prophecy are still active today, and after thorough personal study, you no longer hold that conviction, you are potentially causing confusion and disrespect to your pastors when you come to 1 Corinthians 12-14 in your Sunday school class and present a lesson disagreeing with their understanding of the passage.

The leadership enforce draconian-style rules. These are churches where the pastors shepherd with a heavy-hand insisting the members implement lists of rules to help govern their spiritual growth. The list of rules, however, really amount to being the personal preferences and opinions of the pastors as to how THEY believe members should behave themselves in their personal lives.

They may insist the female members wear dresses all the time and never cut their hair or style it in any way. Members may be told not to have a television in their home, or never to attend secular sporting events. Parents may be told they must homeschool their children, and that they have to use a specific curriculum published by a specific Christian college when they do.

If the members do not follow the rules to the letter, then they are either shamed by the pastor and the other members until they do, or in extreme cases, are dismissed from the church as members.

Now, the word "draconian" can be subjective. What one Christian may think is spiritually stifling leadership, another may believe is helpful for him. But, Christians must beware of governing their lives with long lists of do-and-don't rules that go beyond what scripture teaches. And they certainly must be alert to submitting themselves to a spiritual leadership who shepherd only according to rules built around personal preferences.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi...I've been reading for a while, but I don't remember ever commenting.

I left my Nazarene church when I became convinced of Calvinistic sorierology (my entire family is still Arminian so I;m the "black sheep").

I went to a CRC, which went in a rather strange direction and the day I made the choice to leave that church was the day that an apostle and prophet with non-trinitarian affiliations gave prophecies from the pulpit...

I blogged that saga...

2:29 PM, August 20, 2007  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

I think you commented here on a previous post of mine.

Yep, that sounds like a big reason to leave. Anyone claiming to speak new revelation from the Lord and is not shut down by the church leadership raises red flags in my mind. Interesting that they were a husband wife team.


2:35 PM, August 20, 2007  
Blogger pilgrim said...

The one reason-that is always valid-to leave a Church is when they stop preaching the Gospel. I'm not talking peripheral gospel issues--but the essentials--including the nature of God, Christ, man and sin.

Of course most of your reasons above would be included in this.

1:03 PM, August 22, 2007  
Blogger Mike-e said...

I really appreciate this post Fred because i'm going through a tough situation. I've been attending a church for the past 3 years that claims to hold the Bible as the ultimate authority, but refuses to teach Bible doctrine. 99 percent of all sermons are psychology driven. The church is, of course, arminian and seeker-sensitive as well.

I didn't come to the reformed faith until about a year ago and have been heavily struggling with my church ever since. I don't believe in church hopping, but I feel that the Lord might be leading me elsewhere.

These might be among some of the "possible" reasons, but if there is any advice you could offer I would greatly appreciate it.

I'm currently visiting a reformed baptist church that has a very high view of doctrine, which makes it very tempting to leave my church for. But I want to do what's right.

5:41 PM, August 22, 2007  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

It does sound, at least from your comment here, that your new found convictions are conflicting with the general views of the church and leadership.

I am obviously a long way away from you to offer any objective and informed counsel, but if your convictions are coming into conflict with pastors and leaders at your church, you may certainly want to speak with them about your change of direction. The last thing you will want to do is be a problem member for them.

If this church is a place where you were saved and the folks have had a major impact in your life as a Christian, it may be wise to sit down with some of the key figures who played a role like that and explain to them your feelings about the church, where it is headed and why you believe you may be headed elsewhere.

Just some thoughts.

8:02 AM, August 23, 2007  
Blogger The Vegas Art Guy said...

Great post. I especially like your reasoning about allowing sinful behaviors to flourish. There is indeed a time to take your ball and go home.

And I'll be adding your blog to my blogroll.

4:46 PM, August 23, 2007  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home