Leaving a church can be one of the most difficult decisions a Christian has to make. The church is supposed to be our spiritual family and home. But what do you do when you feel God leading you to leave? This is a complex issue with no easy answers, but here are some key principles to consider.
Churches are made up of imperfect people, so no church will be perfect. However, there are times when the issues in a particular church become too serious for a believer to ignore. Christians should not leave a church over minor issues or personal offenses. But when doctrinal compromise, spiritual abuse, or unrepentant sin take root and leadership refuses to address the problems biblically, it may be time to leave.
Here are some key takeaways:
- Pray and seek godly counsel when considering leaving a church.
- Do not make the decision lightly or in haste.
- Be sure the reasons align with clear biblical principles.
- Handle the departure graciously and without gossip or slander.
- Be prepared for some relationships to change or end after leaving.
- Seek a new church fellowship where the Word is preached and lived out.
- Understand that no church is perfect, so do not develop an overly critical spirit.
Leaving a church should not be done for selfish or consumeristic reasons. But when there are violations of clear biblical standards, a believer’s allegiance to Christ should take priority over loyalty to any church or pastor. With much prayer and counsel, it may become clear that leaving is the wisest choice.
Biblical Reasons to Leave a Church
Scripture does not explicitly tell believers under what circumstances to leave a church. So this decision requires much wisdom, discernment, and counsel from godly believers. However, there are some biblical principles that can guide our thinking:
1. Pervasive doctrinal compromise
The New Testament warns of false teachers who secretly introduce heretical doctrines into the church (2 Peter 2:1). Elders are responsible for protecting the flock from deception by teaching sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). If church leadership begins to embrace and teach beliefs and practices that clearly violate biblical orthodoxy, this constitutes grounds for leaving that church.
For example, if a church denies foundational doctrines like the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the gospel of grace, or the authority of Scripture, Christians should separate from that fellowship (2 John 1:9-11). Standing for biblical truth may also require leaving churches that embrace sexual immorality, occult practices, or prosperity teaching as well.
2. Church discipline is neglected
Jesus gave instructions for addressing public sin in the church and exercising church discipline if a sinning member remains unrepentant (Matthew 18:15-17). When discipline is neglected, sin can spread like leaven through the whole church (1 Corinthians 5:6-7). Unchecked immorality and false teaching can easily lead a church astray (Revelation 2:14-16, 20-22).
If church leaders refuse to discipline those engaging in serious doctrinal or moral error, this indicates a lack of stewardship that calls their spiritual authority into question. Faithful believers may determine it is time to leave that church and seek one that upholds biblical standards of purity and accountability.
3. Spiritual abuse
Scripture sternly warns leaders against domineering over those under their care (1 Peter 5:3; Ezekiel 34:1-10). A pattern of coercive, controlling, or exploitative leadership constitutes spiritual abuse. So does a legalistic environment of manipulation and fear.
If you find yourself under spiritually abusive leadership, it may be wise to leave that church, especially if speaking to the leaders directly has failed to bring repentance and change. Seeking help from others with discernment can help confirm if the situation aligns with the biblical definition of spiritual abuse.
4. You and the church are going separate directions
Sometimes a believer’s season of life changes or their convictions begin to crystallize around new doctrinal understandings. This growth may put you at odds with church leadership in areas like styles of worship music, Bible translations used, strictness of clothing standards, or openness to working with other churches. Pushing for change could cause unnecessary conflict.
If your spiritual trajectory diverges significantly from your church, it may be time to find one that aligns more closely with your biblical convictions. But beware of leaving over personal preferences rather than issues of biblical truth and wise practice. Petty disagreements should not tear Christians apart (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
How Do You Know It’s Time to Leave?
Even with sound biblical reasons, the decision to leave a church can be agonizing. You may question if you really heard God correctly. Here are some principles to consider when evaluating if it is time to move on:
- Pray and Seek Counsel – Ask God for wisdom and discernment regarding His will (James 1:5). Share your concerns with several mature spiritual advisors to get their perspective. Their godly counsel can help confirm the Spirit’s leading.
- Have Patience – God’s timing is rarely fast, so avoid acting in haste without clear direction from the Spirit. But do not procrastinate once the way forward becomes clear.
- Examine Your Motives – Church memberships end for many reasons like relocation, discrepancies in doctrine or philosophy, changes in the church’s leadership, or even sinful attitudes like selfishness or fickleness. Examine your heart before God to confirm your reasons align with Scripture.
- Attempt Reconciliation – Have you discussed your concerns graciously with church leaders? Have you allowed time for change? Unless dealing with harmful spiritual abuse or heresy, it is wise to try addressing issues first before deciding to leave.
- Consider Your Choice Carefully – The decision to leave will likely impact relationships and alter your spiritual community. So do not leave over minor issues. Yet when core doctrinal or ethical issues are at stake, you ultimately must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
Leaving a church should never be done lightly. It may feel like divorcing family. But just like separating from a spouse, there are times when it is necessary for spiritual survival, especially when abuse or unrepentant sin is at the core of a church.
How to Leave Graciously
Once you have determined it is time to leave, aim to do so gracefully. Your departure has the power to either bring greater integrity to the situation or devolve into gossip, slander, and division. Here is some wise counsel for leaving well:
- Tell the truth, but do not slander – Share your reasons with leaders, but avoid spreading critiques that dishonor Christ’s name and undermine their authority.
- Beware of a critical spirit – Do not foster smugness, judgment, or arrogance toward your former church. You are still susceptible to sin and blindness in areas yourself.
- Do not divide the congregation – It is better to leave quietly than to draw others away and split the church over non-essential issues.
- Express gratitude – Find ways to affirm what you did gain from your time in the fellowship rather than only critiquing the problems.
- Cultivate forgiveness – Let go of bitterness toward those who have wronged you and release them into God’s hands.
- Refrain from hasty reactions – Take time to process your emotions and reasons for leaving before broadcasting your critique of the church’s problems.
- Limit your conversation – Be judicious in how widely and often you vocalize your concerns. Some things are better worked through in private counsel, not public complaints.
- Entrust your cause to God – As you leave, surrender any desire for vindication to the Lord. Refuse to take matters into your own hands or seek vengeance for wrongs endured (Romans 12:19).
Even when leaving is justified and necessary, handle it with patience, wisdom, and care for the impact on others. Your character in a difficult season matters greatly to God.
Finding a New Church Home
Once the decision has been made to leave, you must find a new congregation where you can grow spiritually. Be prayerful and wise in your search. Consider these factors:
- Sound Doctrine – A church’s theology and view of Scripture are paramount. Seek a fellowship grounded in biblical truth.
- Genuine Community – Healthy relationships are key, but beware of places where cliquishness or image rule.
- Godly Leadership – The church should be pastored by servants who meet the biblical qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
- Church Discipline – Members who fall into egregious sin or heresy should be corrected redemptively.
- Missions and Evangelism – There should be concern for fulfilling the Great Commission locally and globally (Matt. 28:19-20).
- Alignment with Your Convictions – Seek a church that shares your core biblical values theologically and philosophically. But beware nitpicking over secondary issues.
- Diversity and Unity – A healthy church embraces people of different ages, cultures, classes, and races united in Christ (Gal. 3:28).
- Biblical Ethics – Does the church uphold moral standards on issues like sexuality, divorce, and sanctity of life?
- Avoid Perfectionism – Remember that no church is flawless, so focus on finding one that is theologically sound and pursues holiness.
Seeking counsel from other mature believers can help identify churches to consider based on these priorities. Take time in your search. It is unwise to drift away from the Body of Christ for an extended time. But with prayer and wisdom, God will lead you to a new congregation to serve and grow.
Moving Forward in a God-Honoring Way
Leaving a toxic church situation can feel like both a relief and a loss. You gain freedom from spiritually unhealthy dynamics. But you also leave behind relationships and community connections that may never be fully restored. It is a painful “wilderness journey” that requires reflection and processing. Here are some final considerations for moving forward well:
- Release bitterness – Continue praying for and forgiving those who contributed to the brokenness at your former church. Ask God to also reveal any bitterness residing in you.
- Grow through assessments – Evaluate your own role in the situation humbly. In what ways did you contribute to any problems? How can you grow in wisdom for the future?
- Refuse gossip – Continue to refuse slander or divisive speech against your former church. Focus conversation on processing your journey rather than critiquing others.
- Cultivate thankfulness – Recall the good things, relationships, and growth you experienced at your previous church. Express gratitude to God for every season of life.
- Learn discernment – Study God’s Word more deeply to develop greater discernment for the future. Seek biblical wisdom in evaluating church health.
- Join a healthy fellowship – Commit to a new church family where you can serve, develop relationships, and continue pursuing spiritual maturity and godliness.
The pain of leaving a church does not have to derail your walk with Christ. With God’s help, it can strengthen discernment, deepen spiritual foundations, and expand understanding of biblical truth. God can also bring greater good out of the loss in ways beyond what you can currently see or imagine. Trust Him to redeem your wilderness journey as you move forward into a new season of life and ministry.
When God leads you to leave a church, it is a weighty decision with many complex dynamics to consider. While every situation has unique variables, following biblical principles and seeking much prayer and counsel are essential. Handling your departure with grace can result in greater good. And fixing your eyes on Christ will sustain you through the wilderness ahead as you eventually find a new church home. With humility and wisdom, seasons of spiritual displacement can deepen reliance on God alone and bring new understanding of His endless faithfulness.