Over the months, we’ve had a steady stream of emails — probably over fifty by now — on the question of discerning when it’s time to leave a certain church. So many scenarios factor into this decision, and that makes it very hard to answer the question with much specificity. But maybe you can put some categories out there, Pastor John. What are some general guidelines or broad categories you would introduce for someone asking whether it’s time to leave a church?
One of the reasons that it is difficult is because we don’t find explicit instances of this in the New Testament. And the reason we don’t is because the letters of the New Testament are written to one church in one city, not several churches in the city among which Christians are circulating. It treats the church in Corinth or Thessalonica or Philippians as one church in the city. And the letters that are written to several churches — those churches are in different cities. So, it is not about people moving from one to another unless they are moving within the city. That is the reason the Bible is so silent. The development of the church hadn’t gotten to the point yet where there was an unbelievable multiplicity of local churches to choose from in any locale.
Four Marks of a Healthy Church
The way we go about answering the question, then, is by asking what the church is so that you can test: Is the church being the church here or is it defective to a degree that I should go to another one? Here are four marks of a healthy church:
The church’s leaders, elders, pastors, whatever that church calls them — the New Testament calls them elders or overseers or pastors — they minister the word of God fully and faithfully.
They minister the Lord’s supper and baptism.
They exercise church discipline, excluding from membership those who walk in a way that contradicts the gospel or brings reproach upon the Lord.
They love each other and they love the community and they are seeking to win the lost to reach the nations — in other words, the mission of the church. Any one of those four marks could be missing and serious and therefore lead a person to begin looking for another church.
No Black and White Clarity
The problem is — and I am sure that is why we have gotten all these emails — is that it is never that black and white. “Here is a church with only three of its four traits. Leave it.” It is just never ever that easy, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the church and the ministry of preaching.
Preaching can be defective in many ways. It can be unclear. It can be disorganized. It can be incomplete. It can be imbalanced. It can be unfaithful to the text. It can be shallow. It can be mingled with too much self and on and on and on. And it is just never nice, clear, black and white, “Oh, that was bad; I have a warrant to leave.” It is not that crystal clear.
Combination of Pitfalls
As I have tried to think of something helpful to say to people that have asked me this frequently over the years, here is what I have come up with. When the weaknesses or the errors or the sins of the preacher or the preaching and the teaching reach a kind of combined extent — in other words, all those different ways of possible defects combine to the extent that mature Christians that you consult (not worldly ones, but mature brothers and sisters) think your faith and obedience would be damaged if you stayed and your usefulness there doesn’t outweigh the pitfalls — you are free to go. And I want to say, free to go to a church. You are not free to go nowhere. Not being in a church is not a New Testament option. To belong to Christ is to belong to a body of believers, defective or perfect. There aren’t any perfect ones.
If you live in a little town and you are going to a church and you feel like they have left the gospel, what do you do? Well, you don’t say, “Church doesn’t matter.” You seek out a few other believers and you do your best to gather as a church, win other people to Christ, and seek the blessing from a distance of the churches that you know.
But you never leave hastily. You never leave without serious prayer or consulting with other believers — mature, spiritual believers. You never leave without talking to the leaders about why you are considering leaving and taking your time and praying about it with them. And you always strive for peace, even when you must go.