The previous post was re-posting of some advice from Kevin DeYoung concerning how to leave the church, and how to engage in a new church. A very important issue that post doesn’t address is “what constitutes a legitimate reason to leave a church”. I’d like to address that question in a 3-part series of posts in this blog. Two caveats before we begin. First, my list of good and bad reasons for leaving a church is not meant to be exhaustive, but representative. Second, I am not posting this in response to anything going on at our church. These reasons are not meant to describe anyone who has either joined our church or left our church, but are reasons I’ve heard and seen in over 10 years of pastoral ministry.
So, “what constitutes a good reason to leave a church?” As a pastor, I’m tempted to answer that question with… “nothing”! Shepherds don’t like to see sheep leave the flock; however, there are times when it is best or even necessary for someone to leave their local church and find a new church home. Sometimes this decision is made for us. Involuntary reasons include things like moving out of town. It’s always best to connect with a faith family that is relatively close to your home. Driving an hour and a half may very well preclude you from having genuine community with others in your church, which I would suggest is a mandatory element of church membership (wherever you are). This may have application to some mega-church congregations where people are drawn from great distances from the church. Another involuntary reason is church discipline, but that’s a post for another time.
What we most often encounter are the voluntary reasons for leaving a church. Admittedly there are good reasons for leaving a church, and there are bad reasons for leaving a church. The “how” of leaving a church is handled well in the previous post mentioned above, but let me take a quick stab at noting some of these reasons. Today’s post will cover reasons dealing with the leadership. Tomorrow’s post will address disagreement with the church’s theology and methodology, and the third post will deal with conflict in the church. Oddly enough, the good reasons for leaving can easily be warped into bad reasons, as you’ll see in this list:
Good Reason #1 – abusive leadership – When a pastor or elder steps over the line and abuses his position
of leadership in order to exert power, influence, or control, then it is time to leave. Sometimes when our own emotions are at play, it is difficult to determine if a leader is abusing his authority. Trevin Wax provides some helpful guidelines to follow in a recent blog post. Many people have been deeply hurt be leaders who are characterized by abusing their authority. This is unacceptable from a church leader, and if it is left unaddressed, then it is time to leave.
Bad Reason #1 – when leaders exert authority – Although the pastors/elders of a church should never abuse authority, they are required to “use” authority. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that church leaders must one day be held accountable for how they exercise their authority:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17, ESV
When writing to Timothy about the leadership of the local church, Paul makes an assumption that the elders must “rule”,
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17
We shouldn’t get all bent out of shape when leaders lead. The congregation holds the elder board accountable to never become abusive (above), or sinful (next), but leaders must lead. Especially as men, sometimes our sinful pride gets in the way of humble submission to authority. When we fail to submit to authority (and remain in that place), only one of two options remain. Either the leadership must alter its convictions in order to acquiesce to the dissenting voice (which is an unacceptable outcome), or the dissenter will become bitter and resentful, and end up leaving the church. Leaders should never become abusive, but they must be allowed to lead.
Good Reason #2 – when a leader falls into or remains in sin – I want to be very careful how this is worded. We should not hold leaders to a higher standard than Scripture, and we should extend grace to leaders and not oust them whenever they sin (see bad reason #2 next); however, there is a difference between a leader who loses his temper, recognizes his sin, confesses it, and seeks to fight his sin with the help of the church community, and a leader who falls into sin, fails to respond to church discipline about the sin, and remains in a position of authority in direct defiance of church discipline. In some cases, a pastor remains in authority because those in the church who are charged with exercising authority over the pastor do not perform their responsibility. In these cases where a leader is allowed to remain in a position of authority despite his ongoing sinful rebellion, after all efforts of addressing the issue have been exhausted, it may be necessary for people to leave that church.
Bad Reason #2 – when a leader sins – Our church knows full well that if everyone were to leave when a leader sinned, then we would have had a worship attendance of “zero” by the 2nd week of our existence as a church. No leader is perfect, and pastors like myself provide ample evidence of that fact. The example of pastors and elders who run to the Cross and cling to the grace of Jesus Christ in their moments of struggle with sin, can bring a greater depth of understanding of Gospel-centered living to the remainder of the congregation. Are there times when a leader’s sin is such that they should be excused from leadership? Absolutely, and those are serious times to be handled with much prayer and wisdom; however, I would argue that these are not the times to leave a church, but times to dig in with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and help the church heal through that process. If a leader is not excused from their position of authority when they should be (because of sin), then I would argue that you’re within the bounds of “Good Reason #1” above (abusive leadership)
Tomorrow’s post will address issues relating to disagreements with the church’s theology and/or methodology.