Thursday, 13 March 2008

Leaving church

I posted a comment on the Pyromaniacs blog on the subject of leaving church, and I thought I'd reproduce it here. The blog suggested as a rule of thumb, "you should not leave your church." My comment:

People do leave churches for all sorts of reasons, some of them good.

So far I've been a member of many congregations over the last thirty three years [over on the Pyro blog I said ten, but I realized I missed counting a few—some were different congregations in the same church, one I checked out for six months before moving, etc.] and been encouraged by the leaders of five of them to leave. In no particular order, the reasons included

1. To go to theological college.
2. To become an assistant minister.
3. One never gave a reason.
4. At another it related to a sermon I preached on 1 Timothy 2 on women's ministry (my view is theologically complementarian).
5. At another the reason was that it would be 'good for me and good for the gospel' (in the sovereignty of God, it was. There may have been other reasons, but they were not made public).

We're blissfully happy at the church God has led our family to, and where we've been for four years now. And I'm starting to feel less paranoid about being encouraged to leave again. ;-)

My basic test for joining and staying in a church (and sometimes, for leaving) is 3-fold.

1. Is the gospel preached (including the bits people don't like to hear) with some evidence that people are attempting to put it into practice? (The faintest scintilla of response in the hearts of some will do)

2. Am I being encouraged and finding opportunity to 'speak the truth in love' (especially including the gospel, and especially including the bits people don't like to hear).

3. Would I feel comfortable inviting my non-Christian friends to come and hear the teaching?

If the answer to those 3 questions is yes, I should stay. If the answer to any of the questions is no, I should stay and work to do something about the problems until it becomes clear that what I am trying to do is undercutting or opposing what the leadership is trying to do (being invited to leave might be one indication of this).

I admit my three-pronged test is nowhere near as succinct as the rule "You should not leave your church", but I think it may potentially end up being more biblically faithful and effective for the growth of the gospel.


Anonymous said...

I think you are have this right, rather than the pyromanics.
Can i suggest one further criterion? If you are leaving a church, apply your three criteria, plus seek a place close to where you live.
Its really is a subset of your number 3. It will be easier to invite people to a place that is close, or to provide ministries to them.
John Sandeman

Anonymous said...


Would you include a change-of-life-situation in the valid reasons for moving church?

Something like:
* familial illness making a non-local church too hard to attend
* a work relocation interstate
. . forced, or
. . a move of choice (say a promotion)
* getting married and choosing a third church to attend as a couple

If not, why not, and if so, what would you say are the boundaries in the decision-making process?

Good post, by the way,

Wally G

Anonymous said...

A blanket statement like "You shouldn't leave your church" doesn't do much to allow the Spirit to prompt an individual to consider new service opportunities in different areas of the world. Methinks that every missionary taking the Gospel to those overseas who don't know Jesus would fervently, yet respectfully, take umbrage at the suggestion.

Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Wally,

the things you mention are important, but not the most important. That means you could argue it either way, depending on the reasons you are appealing to.

So, for example, The Bible says to look after your family, but then also says to let the dead bury their own dead. Both are true and mean that you have to work out the particular situation—whether family or something else— according to different priorities than what most people operate by.

In such a situation I would pray for wisdom, act according to what I decide, and trust that God would over-rule any silly mistakes I made for his glory and my good, with a tendency to staying put unless forced out.

Gordon Cheng said...

Justin, yes, fair enough.

michael jensen said...

Interestingly: what about asking someone to leave. What's a good reason for doing that?

michael jensen said...

I asked someone to leave once because they were stalking a female member of our congregation... I thought that was legit.

Gordon Cheng said...

Yes, MPJ, that's a good one. Also last Sunday I preached on 1 Cor 5, and there's another case. Unrepentant and flagrant sin, in which case the man gets handed over to Satan by the whole congregation. Which I read as excommunication.

michael jensen said...

So: it seems that asking you to leave was a bit flimsy on at least 3 of the occassions... true?

Gordon Cheng said...

I suppose MJ you could read it charitably and say that the presenting reasons and the actual reasons were not the same! Or that the overlap between them was incomplete. Life is often like that.