Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The church is key to the Christian life. However, sometimes we find ourselves in a position to consider leaving a church for reasons other than relocation. This is a decision which should never be taken lightly since as family in Christ we are called to live in a close community. Nor should we ever leave a church without instantly seeking to join another – too many people fall between the cracks.
The Bible is silent on how and when to leave a church; at the time the New Testament was written most settlements probably only had one church. There probably wasn’t even an option to leave a church for false teaching – instead, the churches in Revelation chapters 2-3 were charged to reform it from the inside. By contrast, many of us in the UK have a choice of good churches within driving distance. So, if we are dissatisfied, how can we identify whether we are at an unhealthy church, or whether our expectations are unreasonable?
The only explicit identifier of a ”bad” church in the Bible is one which defends or promotes false teaching. The Bible stresses the importance of accurately and fully teaching the Word of God, with the awareness of the gravity and responsibility of the task: ”if anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11). As church members, we share responsibility with leaders to identify and exclude false teaching and teachers. The challenge is that this is rarely black and white: preaching can be true, but imbalanced, it can omit key truths, or be shallow – and sometimes it’s just too full of ego. We need the Spirit’s discernment – and to know our Bibles.
For those with same-sex attraction (SSA), there’s an extra dynamic to consider. Does the church hold clearly to biblical teaching on sexual relationships? Does it walk the TFT-tightrope between ”everything-goes” liberalism and the ”God hates gays” faction on the other? If the former; it’s worth honestly considering whether this is a safe place to pursue a godly lifestyle without being led astray. If the latter; consider whether fear of being ”found-out” or judged just for having SSA is preventing deeper relationships from forming.
Other (good and bad) reasons for leaving
My intention is to encourage you to stay in your church wherever possible! However, there may be valid reasons for leaving, other than false teaching, although the following should not be read as a justification to leave in every scenario. Leaving a church should always be distressing – a sign that we have genuinely invested.
Since the church is intended to be family, if we experience persistent loneliness and friendlessness despite actively trying to build relationships, leaving may be a wise choice since ”it is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It is also possible to be neglected by a church. James writes:
”Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ”Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (James 2: 15-16)
The New Testament writers were passionate in their concern for their readers – and in particular for their spiritual welfare (e.g. 1 Thess 2:17 – 3:13). Friendship and discipleship relationships (e.g. Titus 2:3-8) are also key to Christian growth, but perhaps particularly for those who have ”left home or brothers or sisters …” including due to same-sex attraction. Rosaria Butterfield urges Christian communities to be hospitable and support those who might be tempted to return to affirming gay communities.
A common reason for leaving a church is due to conflict. We should be careful to not leave as a way of punishing the church (in terms of withdrawing presence, service or finances). Wherever possible, we should seek to be reconciled, practise biblical conflict management (e.g. Matthew 18: 15-20) and forgive our brother or sister. Leaving can be discouraging and confusing to the people left behind, and can cause significant damage to a church. It’s easy to believe the grass is greener on the other side and that the people or programmes are ”cooler” or ”a better fit” at another church, but they are probably just as weird and difficult in reality! It takes years really to get to know people, and will also take time to be entrusted with areas of ministry.
An additional relational issue may be finding ourselves constantly attracted to someone at church and thus distracted from church and worship. Alternatively, we may be inappropriately pursued by someone. Pray about it, and if possible talk to the leaders. Ultimately the safest option may be to leave that church and join another.
Often people leave churches due to issues with leadership. Indeed, God does set a very high standard for the teaching, behaviour and lifestyle of leaders (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-7ff, Titus 1:5-9), which few fully live up to. Regardless, the New Testament calls us to:
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
To our modern ears, quick to take offence at the slightest sign of overbearing behaviour, submission to authority has little appeal. But so long as our leaders are shepherding, teaching faithfully, discipling and being hospitable, however imperfectly, we should seek to submit humbly. If there is a clear issue with an area of ministry, or the leader has a clear blind-spot, we should humbly present it to them, but in a way that reinforces their leadership. God’s plan may be to use us to influence the church and bring about godly change, rather than running away. If we are in conflict with them, we should present our concerns and seek to be reconciled, since we may discover common ground or a misunderstanding! But if the reconciliation fails, we should consider whether we can remain and not be divisive, since we are called to unity.
Few of us find ourselves in churches where the minister knows more about same-sex issues than we do(!). Still, we should at least expect leaders to understand some of the nuances of the biblical position, and not make idle judgemental or homophobic comments. In a perfect situation, we should have leaders who we feel safe to discuss our SSA with and who can give good advice. But it’s good to remember that there are always people we can talk to in TFT if our church can’t provide support.
Obviously, we should never leave a church to indulge in a sinful lifestyle! Hebrews 10:26-31 is clear that no sacrifice for sins is left for the one who deliberately, persistently and unrepentantly disobeys God. We are more likely to indulge in a sinful lifestyle if we surround ourselves with people who reinforce the ”rightness” of our wrong behaviour, rather than those in the church who could encourage and rebuke us. Similarly, if we are under church discipline for sinful behaviour, we should submit to it, even if it means being expelled in order that we come to our senses (1 Corinthians 5).
Service and Evangelism
Peter writes that ”each one of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10). Our gifts are not things we should force on people – ”I am going to use my gift of tea-making at all costs!” (á la Mrs Doyle) – and different gifts will be applied at different times in our lives, and not always the ones we want. But we should always humbly serve in some capacity.
We should search ourselves for signs of consumerism; for example, leaving a church due to a dislike of music, liturgy or style of service without justification (such as consistently unbiblical lyrics). Church attendance and church family is a commitment and is not something we should treat lightly.
Healthy churches should have an evangelistic focus since we are commissioned with making disciples of all nations. Consider whether you would be comfortable bringing unbelieving friends along. Are you confident that they would hear, and be rightfully challenged, by the gospel and is the teaching accessible and clear for the uninitiated?
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, consider: are you growing? Are there signs of fruit in your life? We should take responsibility for our relationship with God, and engage in meaningful Bible study and prayer times, but a bad church experience may impact our faith or even lead to doubt in God’s goodness. Talk to God about how you feel, ask for clarity in how to relate to people at church and ask for His leading.
Leaving a church should never be a quick or casual decision – and our motives should be weighed to see if they are valid. Seek the counsel of a few friends who are ideally not members of your church, so as to prevent gossip and the spread of dissatisfaction. We should always ensure we talk to the leaders before leaving, rather than just disappearing, and work together to try to find a way to stay. Since, in almost all circumstances, it is better to have a less-than-ideal church than no church at all, ensure there is a suitable local alternative before taking the leap, and seek to put down roots as swiftly as possible.
A big temptation in leaving a church is to vent to all who will listen and try to justify leaving. Instead, we should say some quiet goodbyes, strive for peace, and show respect and humility. Walk with God as you make the transition, listen to him and take the positive learnings into your new church.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Summer 2020 edition of Ascend