When to Leave a Church

Although King’s Evangelical Divinity School is an academic institution, we believe that theological studies have practical impact. One of the ways we encourage students to engage in applied theology is to raise questions in our e-campus discussions. I asked students to explain when a member may be morally justified to break fellowship with his/her church. The ensuing discussion was both spirited and insightful.

To help the students think more deeply about the subject, I told them that heresy was not one of the options. We all agree that Christians should not participate in churches that espouse heretical doctrine or encourage evil behavior. The discussions revealed the students’ deep concern for the splintering of the church. Additionally, all the parties quickly realized that easy answers are not had from scripture. You just can’t point to a verse and say, that justifies my departure from my church.

What did we discover in our conversations? First, Christians should not leave a church without mature reflection.  When asked, “Is one’s lack of ministry opportunities justification to leave a church?” The students said, probably not.  They noted that sometimes ministers block ministry opportunities to members because the person really can’t sing, or he/she needs more maturity, or can’t teach. On the other hand, students were aware that ministers sometimes block ministry because of their own insecurity, i.e. maybe this member’s teaching will make them more popular than me.

I raised the stakes by asking, if a member was qualified (i.e. could sing, could teach etc.) how long should he/she wait to be used before being justified to leave the church? We didn’t come to a hard conclusion. Clearly the students thought that ultimately, the choice was the member’s but they wanted the member to carefully assess why God would allow their ministry opportunities to be hindered. One student keenly observed that no church can stop a member’s ministry, noting that the church can’t stop one-on-one ministry to fellow believers or non-Christians. True enough. Lovely community that allows to write an essay for me to take institute dissertation.

I would love to hear your thoughts about justified reasons for leaving a church. Given the amount of member shifting between churches, we need to develop a theology that incorporates Christian principles of love, patience, and tolerance.

Stephen M.  Vantassel is a tutor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School

Stephen M. Vantassel, Copyright 2009

  1. A great topic.
    I would suggest that a lot of the reasons for people moving around (or church hopping) come down to people reacting to what they feel, rather than what, or more accurately whom, they know.

    I am also wary of Christians who have “done the rounds” and turn up at our church, so much so that I speak to them quite early about commitment. I will challenge them to either spend six months with us getting to become part of the family and then get more deeply involved in using their gifts as mutually recognised, or to go and find a fellowship where they can do that.

    This makes for surprising outcomes, most will stay, and note that they’ve never been challenged about it before, but realise their need to settle, be fed and get serving, and two or three have left feeling that we’re a bit demanding…

  2. Hi Stephen
    Just thought I’d mention a post I wrote in January this year which is related to this discussion: http://collegeblog.midbible.ac.uk/2009/01/leaving-a-church/#more-528

    Chris

  3. Hello Stephen, The long time between your request and this response does not mean I have not thought about it.

    I have twice in my life simply quit going to church. These were occasions when my faith was so severely strained that I did not want to continue. Sometimes for me it may be necessary to separate myself and consider where I stand. Perhaps, others may have had similar experiences.

    In addition, I think there are two reasons for leaving a particular denomination or parish for another.

    First, one should not stay with a congregation whose theology is exclusively dogmatic. You know the kind of thing, ‘You are no true Christian if you don’t believe in miracles or the assumption of the BVM’ or whatever. Christianity is like a journey and none should be persecuted in this way, especially those who continue in a sincere search for faith and understanding.

    Second, one should go elsewhere if ‘style’ of worship becomes offensive. For example, some have experienced a change from ‘traditional’ worship to one which includes people waving their arms around or singing banal modern ‘songs’. Some people can’t worship in these circumstances and they should try to find a place which suits them.

    I hope this is useful.

    Peter

  4. Thanks for your comment Peter. I am a bit perplexed by your statement regarding dogmatism. so if a church said you must believe that Jesus rose again from the Grave to be saved, then that is grounds for leaving the church? I trust you would agree that resurrection is a miracle. If you have a problem with that, then how do you deal with 1 Cor 15?

    As for worship style, that is often more a cultural issue. In fact, as the Episcopals have taught us, doctrine rarely causes splits (otherwise their denomination should have split long ago), polity (i.e. changes in worship) does cause splits. I would tend to agree with you on this point. But I would hope that Christians would learn to be tolerant of other worship styles as part of the call to bear one another’s burdens. But then again, I am probably being too dogmatic here. 😉

  5. Hello Stephen, Thank-you for this.

    I think a church should welcome even those who cannot believe its core doctrines. In time, such people may change. They can’t come to any harm and may may be converted.

    Yes, I have trouble with the resurrection when it is declared to be a literal event. I suspect it was not.

    Thank-you for pointing me at I Corinthians 15. I can’t deal with it. Nor shall I try to do so because my studies are taking me in a different direction at present. I may come back here at some time in the future if I think I have something worthwhile to say.

    I do have some questions which a scholar such as yourself may be able to answer: 1) Can we be sure that I Corinthians was actually written by Paul? 2) If it was written by him, can we be sure it was not doctored? 3) When did Paul die? I thought he was dead before the gospels were written. Without having worked at it at all yet, I am dubious as to the authenticity of this epistle.

    Peter

  6. 5.

    Hello Stephen, The following was written for Chris Lazenby, but it has some bearing on the material above.

    I have been asked to look out some stuff for my church which is named for the great apostle. In the course of doing so, I stumbled upon the poetry and comment below. You probably know it, but I thought you might enjoy it anyway. The verse is John Betjeman. Whomsoever wrote the prose, I’m not quite sure. It was not me.

    The Conversion of St Paul

    What is conversion? Not at all
    For me the experience of St Paul,
    No blinding light, a fitful glow
    Is all the light of faith I know
    Which sometimes goes completely out
    And leaves me plunging into doubt
    Until I will myself to go
    And worship in God’s house below –
    My parish church -and even there
    I find distractions everywhere.

    What is Conversion? Turning round
    To gaze upon a love profound.
    For some of us see Jesus plain
    And never once look back again,
    And some of us have seen and known
    And turned and gone away alone,
    But most of us turn slow to see
    The figure hanging on a tree
    And stumble on and blindly grope
    Upheld by intermittent hope.
    God grant before we die we all
    May see the light as did St Paul.

    I had never read John Betjeman’s poem on the Conversion of St Paul until someone pointed it out to me last week (on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, funnily enough!). As it doesn’t seem to be available online, I have typed out the portion above. It was originally written as a reaction to a radio broadcast in 1955 by the humanist Margaret Knight called Morals without Religion which may be found here on the British Humanist Society website. Her argument was that moral education and religious education could, and should be separated. It appears, from reading her broadcast, that she believes there are two types of Christian: those who pretend without belief for the sake of social conformity but worry about what to teach the children, and those in whom beliefs are “deeply implanted and to whom they mean a great deal”. She notes that nothing she is about to say will make any difference to the second group!

    But the poem, I think, suggests that faith is not something that can be presented in Knight’s polarised terms. There are as many different experiences of faith and conversion as there are Christians. Betjeman cannot identify with St Paul’s “blinding light” and subsequent unshakeable faith. His doubts, worries, distractions and “fitful glow” may well be more familiar to many, they certainly are to me. There are even those who have a moment of conversion and turn away from it. But whatever one’s experience, it is made clear that we must “stumble on” throughout our lives, even if sometimes it means forcing ourselves to church and just going through the motions, to try and establish a faith stronger than a fitful glow. And not everyone will succeed. But, we can’t all be like St Paul, nor should we be, the important thing is to try and keep trying.
    Posted by Agnes at 01:22
    Labels: Conversion, John Betjeman, Poetry, St. Paul…

    Peter

  7. Peter, you said,

    I do have some questions which a scholar such as yourself may be able to answer: 1) Can we be sure that I Corinthians was actually written by Paul?

    My answer. What level of proof are you looking for? I just ask that you require the same level of proof for 1 Cor. as you do for other historical events of the same period. There are various Introductions to the N.T. you can read that will deal with the subject of authorship questions. I suspect your real problem is your adoption of rationalistic historicism which argues that if it can’t happen today, then it didn’t happen then ala Hume.
    Second, Christianity is an apostolic religion. this means that we must believe what was taught by the apostles. Study the word tradition. We either believe their testimony or we don’t.

    2) If it was written by him, can we be sure it was not doctored?

    Answer: See above. And consider this. Christians who suffered brutally in the first few centuries must have been great liars.

    3) When did Paul die? I thought he was dead before the gospels were written. Without having worked at it at all yet, I am dubious as to the authenticity of this epistle.

    Answer. Not sure what your point was. the gospel was around when Jesus preached. When it was written down is a separate question. Paul had ears he could hear the gospel. In fact, he claimed that he knew people who had witnessed Christ’s resurrection body. Paul also was a highly skilled theologian. Once he grasped the reality of Christ, all the pieces fit together like a figured out jig saw puzzle.
    I hope if you are honest about your questions, you will spend the time reading authors from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Dallas theological Seminary, and Trinty Evangelical Divinity School. There are also lots of books on the resurrection defending the reasonableness of its historicity.
    I would focus there. If you don’t think Jesus rose again, then don’t bother believing in him because we are still in our sins. Besides, who wants to follow such a loser?

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