Reasons to Leave a Church, part 2

This is part two of a 3-part series of posts addressing the question, “what constitutes a good reason for leaving a church”.  Yesterday’s post dealt with issues relating to the leadership of the church, today’s post will deal with disagreements with the church’s theology and/or methodology.  Tomorrow’s third and final post in this series will adress conflict within the church.

So, here are a couple more “good” and “bad” reasons for leaving the church:

Good Reason #3 – theological disagreement on essential doctrines – If you find that the stated doctrine of the church (and/or the doctrine being taught at the church) is unBiblical, then it is also time to leave.  Now, to determine a doctrine as “unBiblical” is sometimes difficult.  There are a great variety of theological persuasions that provide ample evidence of Biblical support for their position; nevertheless, church members must do the hard work of determining whether the doctrines held by their church are informed from the Scriptures or not.  That being said, I would suggest that the “doctrines which divide” (iow, those that require members to disassociate themselves from the church upon disagreement), be limited to essential doctrines.  There is a vast difference between leaving a church over a disagreement on the authority of Scriptures versus leaving over a disagreement about the exact nature of end time events.  For an excellent discussion on what might constitute essential doctrines, I would encourage you to read Al Mohler’s 2004 article on theological triage.  I would suggest that the essential doctrines of a local church are those that Mohler describes in his article a “first-order and second order issues”.  In the case of NewBranch Community Church, our essential doctrines are listed in black and white in our Statement of Faith. I would argue that leaving over essential doctrines should be fairly rare, since new members should know the essential doctrines of the church they are joining, and determine in advance if they are going to be a problem for them.

Bad Reason #3 – theological disagreement on unessential doctrines – You probably saw this coming.  It stands to reason that although leaving a church may be justified when there is disagreement over essential doctrines, disagreement over unessential doctrines should not justify leaving a church.  Now, just because I call them unessential does not at all mean they are unimportant.  Unessential doctrines can be very important to us individually, but they are “unessential”  in maintaining unity in the church.  We believe that there can be diversity in the unessential doctrines and still have unity among the body of believers in a local fellowship.  In keeping with Mohler’s article above, these unessential doctrines are what he would describe as “third-order issues” (or “tertiary issues”).  For us at NewBranch, we like to say that the essential doctrines  are those that we hold with a “closed hand”, while the unessential doctrines are those that we hold with an “open hand”.   The issues we hold with a “closed hand” are those clearly articulated in our Statement of Faith, while those issues we hold with an “open hand” are those which are not discussed in our Statement of Faith.  Based on this framework, I would argue that leaving over “open-handed” issues is both wrong and hurtful to the unity of the local church.

Good Reason #4 – unbiblical methodology – If the methodology of the church is inconsistent with Biblical theology, and all efforts to address the issue have been exhausted without any indication of a willingness to change, then a person would be justified in leaving the church.  However, since one’s methodology follows from one’s theology, these issues should be addressed as theological disagreements (see good and bad reason #3 above).  If the theological disagreement is over essential doctrine, then I would argue that their decision to leave the church (while not a necessity) would be justified.  For example, if we (as a baptistic church) began to baptize infants, then the disagreement would be over our theology of baptism.  Now, just because someone disagrees with us about infant baptism doesn’t mean they cannot be a member of the church; however, that theological difference may be too much for the individual to overlook, and they may decide they need to leave the church.

Bad Reason #4 – disagreements about methodology – With that being said (above about unbiblical methodology), it must be noted that most of the time folks who leave a church do so because the church is doing something they don’t like or don’t agree with.  I believe this to be the biggest component of the “consumer mindset” towards church membership.  In years past, it was almost proverbial for folks to leave the church because of a disagreement over thinks like “the color of the carpet”.  Today, folks leave their church because it doesn’t offer enough programs (children’s activities, etc.), or because the music doesn’t meet their needs (too loud, not loud enough, too many hymns, not enough hymns, etc.).  In addition, disagreements over methodology can be centered on things like:

  • How we do evangelism
  • How we serve communion
  • Whether we do Sunday School or small groups
  • Whether we have a Sunday night service or not
  • Whether we take up the offering before or after the sermon

These are not issues to leave the church over.  Take “how we do evangelism” as an example.  There are a variety of evangelism methodologies (friendship evangelism, street preaching, attractional outreach, incarnational outreach, etc.), most of which are all Biblical.  There are some that I would argue are not Biblical (like telling folks they will “have their best life now” if they pray the sinner’s prayer), but it all goes back to the theological underpinnings of the practice.   If your church has an evangelism methodology with which you disagree, make the issue about the theological underpinnings of that methodology, not the methodology itself.   If the theological disagreement (about a methodology) is over an unessential doctrine, then leaving the church is not a wise option and is ultimately hurtful to the Body.

Tomorrow will be the final post in this series, and will deal with conflict in the church.

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2 thoughts on “Reasons to Leave a Church, part 2

  1. Well said Ken. The distinction between ‘important’ and ‘essential’ needs to be made. All truth is important because it’s God’s truth. That doesn’t mean that all doctrine is equally important though. To be honest if we did a better job listening to those we disagree with, we might actually learn something from them. I think one of the major flaws of those who take the church and doctrine seriously is the ability to disagree well. (most of that was directed to me before everyone else).

  2. Well said, Kris. It is a sign of maturity and a deepening of one’s own convictions to be able to have a healthy and gracious discussion with those both inside the church and outside the church who disagree with us.

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