In recent times, I’ve come across a number of articles from Christian websites giving instruction on a sensitive topic. That of course being, “when to leave your church.” The overwhelming majority of them seem to carry a rather unified message, claiming that the primary legitimate reasons to leave a church surround doctrinal matters. Although occasionally something to the effect of, “the church becomes more about politics than Jesus” or “transformation is absent” show up on some lists. Most seem to be against leaving because somebody said or did something unpleasant to you, building their case on a list of stock arguments derived from Biblical instruction on forgiveness and reconciliation.
First, it needs to be acknowledged that the Bible is silent on the subject of exchanging churches. In other words, it doesn’t comment on church “hopping”, “shopping”, or any of the other pejorative terms attached to jumping around from church to church. Usually Christians speak negatively about this because they’re unreasonably concerned that it will quickly become “church stopping”, where you cease going to any church entirely. I’m not convinced this is something which will happen, as it would depend heavily on the determination of the individual to find what they’re looking for in a church and the will power involved in sticking with any church-going. Neither has any real evidence that this is the case been brought to the table.
A certain text in Hebrews, which speaks of “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” [Hebrews 10:25] negatively targets “church stopping.” Although to read this as though we’re bound to one particular church, and if we leave it for another we’re somehow doing something wrong would be a stretch. Verses 26-27 beneath it reference sinning “willfully” after having received the knowledge of the truth, as well as a “certain fearful looking for of judgment.” The Greek meaning of the term “forsaking” seems to mean something more like total desertion, rather than the occasional disappearance. To forsake the “assembling of ourselves together” would then obviously be to avoid any assembly of Christians together, rather than simply switching churches.
From G1722 and G2641; to leave behind in some place, that is, (in a good sense) let remain over, or (in a bad one) to desert: – forsake, leave.
There are a variety of reasons that people are motivated to leave a church. Probably the most Biblical on the list is surrounding doctrinal issues. I can think of scenarios in which churches corporately adopt heretical theories, in which case leaving would be a move that has great value. This would protect you from falling into the same errors, since you’re not invincible and it may not be wise to willfully listen to error sermon-after-sermon. People also leave because some one said something to them which was offensive.
Since there is no perfect church, leaving because of one or two incidents may only cause you to be greeted with disappointment. In such cases, thicker skin is needed on the part of the Christian. This may also be where forgiveness comes into play, as leaving in a fit of rage may suggest that the person is holding a grudge against the church or the person in the church. Scripture obviously speaks of forgiving others and seeking reconciliation with those you’re in conflict with all over the place. So, to the credit of those who online have written against leaving a church because of conflict with a person they certainly have some points in this area.
However, it should also be noted that there are times where hitting the “forgiveness” and “Reconciliation” buttons is just a little bit too simplistic. For instance, Christians often think that forgiving a person and resuming regular association with them are one and the same, and that reconciliation is absolutely required in all circumstances. The assumption seems to be that otherwise you have not truly forgiven the person. The problem with this thought process is that it ignores the potential for a person to simply just want to get away from bad behavior in the church.
As one example I make citation of myself. I have been a Christian for around 7 years now. During that time, when I related to a brother in Christ that I wanted to be an author the person crushed my dreams. They responded by saying, “no one will read your books” and “we have enough literature.” Another person told me, “go get a real job!” These are very discouraging things to say to a person who wants to be an author. In general, I do not allow my memory of this experience to lead to anger towards the individuals. But I recognize I don’t want to be around them or share my dreams with them. Why might this be the case? For the simple fact that I recognize this sort of behavior doesn’t make a person desirable to associate with.
I would not leave a church for such an encounter by itself. But the point I’m attempting to illustrate here is that when some one demonstrates themselves to act in an unpleasant fashion, it is only reasonable to avoid that individual. This prevents you from having further negative experiences with this person. When the Bible speaks of reconciliation, I do not believe it is forbidding these kinds of scenarios — Christians would be bound to experience repeat abuse by very manipulative and hostile people within the church.
With that thought in mind, while one or two comments require thicker skin to deal with what if the person’s behavior persists? People generally have unrealistic pictures of Christians as being inherently good people, when in actual fact they’re sinful and fallen like everyone else. This means that you will find bullies in the church as you would outside of it. Think of some one intentionally harming you every time you attend church. They put you down verbally every time they see you. They use the concept of “reproof” as their weapon to hurt you, over-criticizing everything you say and do. You cannot talk to them on the phone or in person without them finding something to chastise you for. They go out of their way to deliberately crush your ministries, saying things to you like “haven’t you done enough for the Lord!?” They act the naysayer whenever you’re trying to win souls for Christ, telling you that “that person will be too challenging!”
Avoiding them and simply not talking to them seem like viable options. But what if you can’t? What if it happens during gatherings where this individual is present? What if you cannot even be in the same public place with this person with it happening? Much to the dismay of those who believe there are few legitimate reasons to leave a church, I personally wouldn’t stick around in that kind of a situation. In this context, simply “forgiving them” and seeking to be “reconciled” are simplistic responses. There is no confronting such a person, as you would be placing yourself in a situation to receive further abuse. You cannot avoid the person either for reasons previously dwelt upon. Thus in such circumstances I would see this as a valid reason to leave a church, or to jump from church to church, until one finds a safer environment.
Other reasons I would consider pretty good stem on the overall behavior of the Church. What if the Church is acting in a manner which comes off like a cult? Christians who believe their particular churches to be orthodox in all of their doctrines would find such a thing unthinkable! How could their Church ever act the way cults act? The problem here is that generally when Christians think of cults, the picture they have is the one fed to them by the counter-cult movement within Christian Apologetics. Due to the work of this movement, people tend to think of the term “cult” as applying primarily to groups that are unorthodox in their doctrinal views. The theological sense of the term might constitute a solid reason to leave a church, but this is hardly different from leaving for doctrinal reasons.
When I think of cults I think of Jim Jones. We’re talking about a man who killed his followers with poisoned Kool-Aid. It should be noted that groups like his maintain control over their followers through manipulation, coercion, mind control techniques, and other unsavory means. Such groups also do not like critical thinking of any kind. It should be noted that any attack on critical thinking within a Church is questionable, as Christians should be free to research something from the Bible for themselves. They should be just as free to understand the foundations of why the Bible and Christianity is true, especially in a world filled with a myriad of religions and ideas. Attempting to stifle any investigation into these questions because you think it isn’t faith comes off an awful lot like you’re attempting to hide something, and you don’t want other Christians thinking critically about what you say.
Stifling investigation into the truthfulness of doctrinal questions is a cult-like behavior. If your church is actively doing this, than I would say it is time to leave. I recently have left my own local church and have begun searching for another because I felt like critical thinking regarding doctrinal issues was unwelcome. It was typically branded as “looking for excuses”, as if there was no legitimate reason to be asking questions. I have not left the Christian faith, neither have I changed positions on anything I’ve written about on this blog. But I felt like I needed to get away from the boot of those who would not allow me to critically examine the truthfulness of some of the things I had been taught. Especially since they could not abide adopting an alternative viewpoint on issues which were not questions related to the salvation of Christians. They actively made these questions of salvation, and branded the alternative views as those which would cause Christians to be lost.
Coercion also comes to mind. I am aware of one particular Church that had taken the issue of Vegetarianism to such an extreme that it was made essential for the Christian’s salvation. There are a number of Biblical texts which this thought would contradict, in addition to an overwhelming lack of evidence that becoming a vegetarian is explicitly commanded in the Bible. If a Christian wants to be a vegetarian or a vegan, there is nothing wrong with that choice. But they should not be running around turning it into an issue of morality when it isn’t. It is unfortunate that at least four members of this Church attempted to coerce a close friend of mine into becoming a vegetarian based on this false doctrinal premise. How they arrived at such extreme conclusions is something which I still have failed to grasp, especially with the lack of Scriptural support. With that thought in mind, if a Church is using coercion you really should consider using the ‘exit’ door.
Questionable beliefs that lead to rash behavior also come to mind. “Fanaticism” might be a better term in this instance. I am thinking specifically of people who believe that a visit to the hospital or doctor constitutes a denial of faith and is somehow displeasing to God. This furnishes a pretty sound example. This kind of thinking is typically termed “tempting God” in the Biblical record. The best example of which is found in Matthew 4:5-7, where Jesus is taken to the top of the temple by Satan and told to jump off of it on the grounds that God’s angels would hold him up. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” was Christ’s response. If a Church decides that common sense should be thrown in the garbage and therefore they shouldn’t see a doctor, have medical insurance, or go to the hospital in times of medical emergency than perhaps its time to leave that Church. Extreme beliefs like this that are outright fanatical and rash can be very dangerous and it isn’t safe for a Christian to associate with those who hold to such thinking.
Beyond what I’ve listed, if you start to observe mind-control techniques used in your local church, manipulation, or anything akin to Jim Jones-style behavior you need to get out of there. There is no legitimate reason to suggest that a Christian should stick around in such a situation. I feel that these constitute valid reasons to leave which do not seem to receive as much attention as the doctrinal side of things and are worth consideration.