July 02, 2020

When Should I Leave a Church?

Nathan W. Bingham & Burk Parsons
When Should I Leave a Church?

Christians must take church membership seriously. But there are times when leaving a church is an appropriate decision. Today, Burk Parsons navigates the complex questions involved in parting ways with a church congregation.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Well, I'm here on the Ligonier campus with one of our teaching fellows and the senior pastor at Saint Andrew's Chapel, Dr. Burk Parsons. Dr. Parsons, when is it appropriate to leave a church?

DR. BURK PARSONS: That's a great question. In our day of consumerism, we have many church shoppers and church hoppers and families or individuals that go from church to church. I've found that many change churches almost like buying a new car every few years. It's not because the old car is particularly bad, but they just like the new smell and the new look of a new car. But church membership really should be more akin to marriage than buying a new car every few years. Because when it comes to church membership, as we know, we take vows, and we're taking vows not only to our church"that is, to the congregation, to the elders of the church"but to the Lord. And the Lord takes our vows seriously, even though we sometimes, unfortunately, do not.

And so, this whole matter of when is it right or appropriate to leave a church is a very important question in our day. And there are many bad reasons that people leave churches. And some of the reasons that I've heard over the years are reasons such as "I just don't feel fed anymore; I just don't feel like we're being fed anymore," people might say. And the reality of it is there are pastors who are not feeding God's people with the Word of God, not shepherding God's people, tending to the flock of God as they should, not preaching the whole counsel of God.

But oftentimes I have found when people make that claim that they don't feel fed but their pastors are preaching the Word of God faithfully, the reality of it is in many cases that people just are not eating, if you will. They're not listening. They are not sitting under the ministry of the Word of God and humbling themselves and growing as humble and mature disciples of Jesus Christ. That's one reason we've all heard, I'm sure.

And another reason that people often give for leaving a church is the church has become perhaps too small or "The church hasn't grown to my liking." And sometimes we even hear the church is too big. And when I hear that complaint, people will say, "Our church is too big" or "I'm looking for a smaller church." I'll sometimes ask them the question, carefully and hopefully lovingly, and I'll ask them, "If you go to that church and you begin to tell your friends and neighbors about that church, and you begin to evangelize, and people come to that church and come to Christ through the ministry of that church and your own evangelistic efforts, and that church grows and it gets too big, are you going to leave that church as well?"

And so, people leave their churches for all sorts of reasons. A lot of times they leave because they want a church that has better activities for kids or they have a better youth ministry or program. And that's not altogether wrong or inappropriate, but that can't be the primary reason that people leave their church. Sometimes people leave because they didn't get their way in a particular matter. Sometimes people leave because the pastor said something in one of his sermons that they just didn't quite like. Sometimes they'll leave a church because they haven't yet been able to use the gifts that they think they have and to use those gifts in the church at the time in the particular ways that they believe they should be able to use them. And so, people get their noses bent out of joint for all sorts of reasons, and a lot of those reasons are not good or appropriate reasons for leaving a church.

Nevertheless, there are good biblical and theological reasons for leaving a church. And people need to be very patient, very thoughtful, and gain counsel from elders when it comes time to ask the question as to whether or not they should leave the church. And really, it all centers on the ordinary means of grace and whether those ordinary means of grace are active in the church.

John Calvin said this: "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments""that is, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper""wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists." Now these ordinary means of grace of the Word, prayer, and sacraments have subsumed within them church discipline. And so, a church that fails to discipline"that is to say, a church that fails to call people to repentance and to call individuals with their individual particular sins to repentance"and a church that fails to apply the gospel and the Word of God to their lives, a church that fails to bar people from the Lord's Table, and a church that fails to excommunicate the unrepentant and hard-hearted, is not really a true church. And so, if the church that you're attending does not have the ordinary means of grace active consistently within the church, then the question needs to be asked: "Should I leave?" And that question should only be asked with counselors. That doesn't mean going throughout the church and gossiping and slandering and backbiting and dealing with all of your issues that you have in the church. But rather, going to your elder, going to a pastor, and saying: "Here are my concerns. Please help me." Because ultimately, you have vowed to seek the peace, purity, and unity of that church in particular and of the church globally, and you are part of the church. And so, if you must leave, if the church is not administering the means of grace consistently and actively in the church, if a pastor perhaps claims to be orthodox biblically and doctrinally but in reality is leaving his theology at the door or not preaching the gospel plainly and purely, or if he is confounding the gospel message, or if he is adding works to salvation, then it is time to run"but to run as peacefully as possible, because it is our call to be at peace with all men as much as it depends on us.

But if we have to run, if we have to leave, let us strive to do all that we can to leave wisely and peacefully, remembering that the gospel of God and the Word of God and the ordinary means that God has instituted for us as His people to grow and to be nourished and to be strengthened by, that these things are vital for our lives as Christians as we strive to live by faith.