Staying at Your Church When You Have Reason to Leave (Part 1)
In God’s kindness I have the privilege of meeting and talking with a lot of Christians around the world. In those travels, I’m often asked questions about leaving a church. When should one leave? Under what circumstances? In what manner? And so on.
Now, if someone asks you a question about leaving their church, you can be sure at least two things are true. First, they are saddened they have to ask. Christians love their spiritual families and the thought of breaking with them feels horrible. Second, the issues are almost always more complex than the questioner can relay. I mean, you’re a stranger to their situation and you’re only hearing one side. So you feel the peril of giving simple answers with little context.
In all of these conversations I’ve come to recognize one nearly universal truth: the questioner loves their church and wants the best for it. They would like to know if their reasons for leaving are good ones. Or, are they foolish for staying?
What would you say are good reasons for leaving a local church?
People answer that question with a number of responses. Some replies are trivial, some practical, and some more serious. Among the more serious reasons for breaking fellowship with a congregation are (1) the preaching of a false gospel, (2) moral failure in the leadership, and (3) the spiritual abuse of sheep.
Wherever you see one or more of those things, it’s not a bad idea to leave quick, fast, and in a hurry!
But before you grab your personalized Bible and screech out of the church parking lot, I want to suggest that leaving may not be the only way forward—even in those terrible situations. Of course, leaving may be the right thing and no one should feel guilty for abandoning such situations. The best response might be to stay and strengthen the church that you’re in—even when false gospels, moral failure, and spiritual abuse is at play.
In this series of posts, I hope to take each of those issues and offer some encouragement to stay.
Situation 1: False Gospels
Nearly from the beginning of the Christian church there were leaders and teachers who “crept in” and taught “damnable heresies” in place of gospel truth. There’s hardly a New Testament letter or gospel that doesn’t feature truth’s conflict with falsehood.
So, we ought not be surprised that there are churches today that preach things contrary to the true message of Christianity. But the question is: How should members in such churches respond?
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Let’s digest this with a few simple questions.
- According to this text, who should leave the church when there’s a false teacher present?
- According to this text, who has the responsibility for removing the false teacher from the church?
- According to this text, what is the highest authority in the local church?
The apostle Paul doesn’t seem to think the Galatian Christians should simply abandon their congregations to these false leaders. The false leaders should go! They should be “accursed” by the congregation. In calling Christians to pronounce this anathema on the false teachers who distort the gospel of Christ, Paul seems to assume that the members are in charge—not the pastors or teachers.
Furthermore, Paul seems to think that hanging over the heads of the teachers and the congregation is the gospel itself. The gospel holds the highest place. The people are to honor the message far above the messenger. Indeed, they are to judge the messenger by the message.
So, before you leave over false gospels being taught, ask yourself if the congregation understands their responsibility to call their teachers to give an account to them for the message they teach. Do they know that the gospel message is of greater importance than a gifted messenger? If they do, it’s probably good to choose fight instead of flight in that case.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (ESV)