It is a sad reality of the world in which we live that sometimes people leave churches. In my experience, the vast majority of times people leave over ‘issues’ in the church, they are not usually well grounded. People leave over all sorts of differences of opinion and they are very rarely credible, Biblical reasons to leave the church. But that reality doesn’t change the fact that it is, sometimes, necessary to find somewhere else to worship. So what are legitimate grounds to leave a church?
Departure from the gospel
If your church departs from the gospel, it may well be time to find somewhere else. You may be thinking, ‘it’s a bit more obvious and definite than that isn’t it?’ I’d say, not exactly. If your pastor, for example, begins to reject core gospel truths – on my understanding of congregational polity – that is not the point at which you up and leave. That is the point at which you first raise it with your elders – even with the wider church at large – and look to remove the now unqualified brother from post. Departure from the gospel is a matter that effects that whole church and is an issue with which every member should be concerned (and ought to fight).
But let’s say you raise the matter of departure from the gospel and neither the elders nor the majority of church members agree with you? Maybe they just don’t see that denial of the trinity as all that important or they cannot see why rejecting penal substitutionary atonement amounts to a rejection of the gospel. This is not just the case that the pastor has denied the gospel, but the church has now done so. Denial of the gospel means that they now no longer constitute a church. Under those circumstances, it is right to leave and find another place to worship.
Submission equating to sin
Perhaps the church hasn’t departed the gospel. Nobody is openly and clearly denying the faith. But it may be that the church has decided to take a direction that is not Biblical. Perhaps they even do something that – whilst not a first-order gospel issue – is something that for you to go along with would amount to personal sin.
There are any number of ways such things could work their way out. But if you are in a church that is asking you to submit to what is evidently sinful, whilst it may not be a denial of the gospel itself, it would be a matter of unfaithfulness to the Lord to remain in the church and submit to whatever the issue is. If remaining in the church would amount to unfaithfulness to Christ, or to participate in sin, then it is right to leave.
This bracket is obviously extremely broad. It would include submitting to disqualified elders, agreeing to do what is sinful, willingly sitting under what is evidently sinful. But all of this would amount to submitting to, or participating in, what might be deemed sinful.
In reality, these are the only two legitimate reasons to leave a church over a specific issue. Either the church is denying the gospel and a majority of the members are not prepared to do anything about it or submission to the elders would amount to unfaithfulness to Christ or participation in sin. Any other ‘issue’ you might attempt to leave over is not a credible or legitimate reason to leave.
There are a whole variety of circumstantial reasons that could move you on from a church that do not cause you to leave under a cloud. These are the things that cause you to move on without any ill will toward the church and under which circumstances they are happy to send you on with their blessing. To be clear, I am specifically not speaking about these circumstances above. I am speaking to when it is right – for reasons entirely within our own control – to leave a church because of issues you perceive with the church itself.