In our fast-food culture of leased cars and changing telephone companies, many local churches have not fared well. Church shopping, hopping, and dropping have become normal—so normal that many people reading this probably haven’t thought very much about it. Certainly, this cavalier attitude toward local church membership is common among evangelicals today. But have we paused to consider whether it’s biblical?
Some get bored and wander off to a more exciting church. Some get angry and stomp off, taking several members with them. Some change their minds about a particular doctrinal issue and realign themselves with a church that seems purer. Some people are just in a rut of discontent, staying for a few months or years then straying on to something, well, new. But when we contrast this modern epidemic of forsaking our membership in a local church with the two positive and two negative biblical examples of leaving church and the long history of church commitment, we probably ought to re-think this issue.
First, on the positive side, Christians in the Bible changed churches because of physical relocation. In Acts 18 Aquila and Priscilla changed from one local church to another when they moved to a new city. Second, people left churches for ministry opportunities. Ministers and missionaries departed local churches to serve elsewhere—always with the blessing of the sending churches (Acts 10:23; 15:40; 2 Cor. 8:16–18). On the negative side, the New Testament presents examples of people leaving the church because of discipline (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5:11–13), always with the hope that the disciplined believer would repent and return to fellowship. Also, false teachers and heretics left in apostasy, departing in willful rebellion and often taking followers with them (1 John 2:18–19). [Some have pointed to the surprising skirmish between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:37–40 as an example of separation due to differing ministry strategies. But this incident had nothing to do with leaving a local church—both departed from Antioch with the church’s blessing. And besides, this text described an unfortunate event; it did not prescribe how to handle conflict.]
Relocation . . . ministry . . . discipline . . . apostasy.
These four biblical examples—two positive, two negative—are legitimate departures from local congregations and serve not to weaken, but to strengthen, both the local church and the universal body of Christ. And these examples make one thing clear: the common reasons Christians give for forsaking their covenant with a local church just don’t measure up. If believers take the Bible as the guide and love as the rule, they should never simply stomp out of their churches in anger or slip quietly out the back door.
Of course, we can’t assume that the Bible covers every legitimate reason for leaving a church. Sometimes churches become so corrupt or doctrinally impure that the marks of a true or healthy church are lost. Other times God may want certain believers in certain places to accomplish certain things. However, we must always remember that local church commitment is necessary for spiritual growth (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16). And we must recall that we entered into church membership as a covenant relationship—as serious as marriage. If we keep these facts in mind, we’ll have the right heart for considering a godly decision about whether or not to leave, and how to do it appropriately.
Some practical principles can point us in the right direction as we consider God’s mind about leaving church.
First, communicate and seek counsel. Discuss your options with the church leadership. Ask trusted Christian friends or mentors whether your reasons for leaving are legitimate. The issues leading you out of the church likely can be resolved—to the benefit of everyone. Perhaps your confidants will help you discover that the Lord is, in fact, leading you to another ministry elsewhere. However, simply stomping off in a huff is rude and immature. And keeping your real reasons for leaving a secret is usually a sign that your conscience isn’t clear.
Second, be prudent and discerning. Don’t make an emotional or quick decision. Just as in natural families, people hurt people in churches. You can count on it. But my reaction to a harsh word or other offense reveals as much about my own spiritual immaturity as it does about the immaturity of the offender. Don’t make a decision based on anger, fear, resentment, or pain, but on the principles of God’s Word. And don’t turn everything into a “doctrinal issue.” Everybody disagrees on some interpretations of Scripture, but not every doctrinal disagreement is worth rushing for the door. In fact, I can count the absolutely essential marks of orthodoxy on two hands; if your list of “fundamentals” is much longer, you may have slipped into exaggerated dogmatism. Keep your eye on the center—the gospel of Jesus Christ— and show grace in the dozens of disputable matters.
Finally, seek God’s will. Even though God wants us to be faithful to our local churches and to contribute positively to its ministry, we can’t limit God’s direction in our lives. Though my tone may sound absolute, the truth is that occasionally God may want people elsewhere for his own purposes. However, we must still make transitions cautiously—communicating with leadership, exercising prudence, and seeking counsel. To hop from church to church without earnestly (and honestly) seeking the Lord’s will in the matter shows contempt for the temple he loves and can even result in discipline from God (1 Cor. 3:16–17).
In light of God’s high view of local church commitment and the clear teaching of Scripture (Heb. 10:24–25; Eph. 4:4–16), we should prayerfully consider each decision we make regarding our local churches—from membership and attendance to our level of involvement and decisions regarding departure. If we seek to honor him and demonstrate genuine love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Lord will guide us in wise, prudent, and godly decisions regarding our involvement in the local church.
So, are you thinking about leaving church? Think again.
[This essay is excerpted from chapter 7 of RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). © Michael J. Svigel, 2012. Originally posted March 18, 2012 at www.retrochristianity.com]