It’s been commonly said that we don’t choose the people who sit next to us in the pew, but God does. Love requires, in response to the gospel, that we invest in the lives of those who are often most difficult and unattractive to us. It’s one of the saddest things to witness someone throw away their entire local church family for selfish reasons. Is our love sincere and absent of hypocrisy? This is an important question when it comes to church membership.
In recent years I have noticed the growing trend of people who leave their local church without any reflection as to whether their departure is a sinful one. To be sure, there are legitimate reasons to leave a local church. That’s what makes this article difficult to write; it’s not an easy task to get to the motivations of why people do what they do.
As a pastor, I have always believed that people should never feel forced to stay in a church where they are struggling. Departures may come for a variety of different reasons. Church leadership has to guard itself from cult-like behavior in seeking to put straight jackets on their members. I cannot imagine a more oppressing church environment than one that makes its members feel forced to stay in membership because the threat of discipline hangs over their head for departure. This creates a bunch of joyless servants in Christ’s kingdom and has a deadening effect on the whole congregation.
It does happen that even though people leave their local church for foolish reasons, they may flourish well elsewhere.
A wise elder once compared a disgruntled churchgoer to a plant that did not grow in his kitchen window. He cared for that plant, watered that plant, faithfully tended to the plant, but it always looked tattered and wilted. One day the next-door neighbor offered to take the plant with the hope that it would do well, and the man, rather reluctantly, offered the plant to the neighbor. After a short time the neighbor celebrated how well the plant was doing—it was vibrant, green, and producing new leaves. I’ve had to submit to this truth of Christian ministry more than a few times, humbling my own pride and recognizing that sometimes, though people leave for foolish reasons, they may flourish well elsewhere. That’s ultimately what we want for the sheep anyway.
Such a reality, however, does not excuse sinful departures from a local church. Pastors know all too well that when people come into their church sinfully running from their former church, it’s just a matter of time before the same problems resurface. The heart of the matter has not been dealt with. Further, it may be that a former church has neglected disciplining a member for unrepentant sin. As that member jumps to another local church—often unreconciled and bitter—and as this member celebrates the new church as the next best thing since sliced bread, the new church will soon realize how damaging the former church’s neglect is upon their own congregation. But that’s for another article.
In my experience, rarely does anyone sit down with their pastor and express their concerns when they want to leave.
With these things in mind, it’s important to think through what unbiblical departure from the local church looks like. Why do people leave the local church today? It would be one thing if a church is failing to preach the Word of God, is compromised on some point of doctrine, worship, or an article of the Christian faith, or there is some significant spiritual abuse by the leadership that is not properly being dealt with. These are legitimate reasons to speak with church leadership and depart the local church to a more faithful church in an honorable, Christ-like manner. But, sadly, doctrinal conviction and spiritual integrity in the truth are not at the top of the list when it comes to church departures in our day.