Leaving a Church to the Glory of God
“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) The word “all” in that verse does mean all, and that includes the manner in which Christians leave local churches. This article is intended to help those who are contemplating such a weighty decision.
It may seem counter-intuitive for a pastor to offer such an article, but I have personally watched many leave their local church in a manner that brings no glory to the Head of the church and no good to the members that remain. We can do better and should, so here is a ten-point checklist for all to follow:
Step 1: Engage in Self-Examination
So, you finally made the decision and even announced it in the car on your way home from worship, “That’s it, honey. It’s time... we need to find another church.” Stop. Think. Pray. Fast. Engage in a season of that oft-neglected spiritual discipline called self-examination.
You are obviously unhappy with your church, but what is the cause? What if you are part of the problem? What if you actually are the problem? These are admittedly difficult questions to consider, but Christ and his Apostles do invite us to begin there. (Matt. 7:1-5, 1 Cor. 11:27-32)
Step 2: Determine the Reason
As you complete your season of prayerful self-examination, you will probably begin to see matters more clearly. Emotional clouds will part and the light of clear reason will enable you to identify the main reason you want to leave your church.
There are many scriptural reasons to leave a church (e.g., false doctrine, corrupt worship, worldly influence, etc.), but there are also unbiblical reasons. One of the most common is unresolved interpersonal offenses, so I would suggest leaving the enigmatic example of Paul and Barnabas out of your decision. (Acts 15:36-41) Far too many have used this unclear incident as an excuse for unlawful breaking of Christian fellowship.
Step 3: Seek Godly Counsel
While being careful not to spread gossip or slander, and while being especially careful not to “recruit” other members to leave with you, it is always good to speak with a few trusted friends about your concerns before making a final decision.
This always proves beneficial because while every way of a man seems right in his own eyes, there is a wonderful spiritual safety which comes to those who seek a multitude of counselors and carefully weigh their advice. (Prov. 11:14, 12:15, 15:22, 21:2, 24:6)
Step 4: Honor Your Elders
This is every Christian’s spiritual duty (1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:7-19), but it becomes especially important when the fellowship of the local church is about to be shaken through the departure of a member.
Having identified the main reason for your desire to leave, schedule a face-to-face meeting with your elders and explain it to them. They will listen, pray with you, and may also offer advice. This is part of their responsibility as elders and another source of the spiritual safety previously mentioned.
Step 5: Follow Due Process
Most churches have a constitution or by-laws that establish specific processes for the reception and removal of church members. Such procedures are not arbitrary, but essential for the maintenance of ecclesiastical decency and good order. (1 Cor. 14:40)
This will take some time, so please do not be impatient. Remember, by joining the church, you agreed to submit in the Lord to its government. Ask your Pastor, “What are the proper steps?” and then take them together one step at a time.
Step 6: Find Your Next Church
Far too many decide to leave their church before finding a new one to join. No member of Christ’s spiritual body should be found unattached for long. This is unnatural and potentially dangerous.
Research all the churches within driving distance, visit the ones which seem like viable options, and be honest with yourself as you perhaps discover that the grass is not much greener elsewhere. If the word “settle” comes to mind, you should probably just stay at your church.
This process will probably take a few months. Remember that you are still a member of your church during this time, so please continue to send your tithe and occasional updates to your elders.
Step 7: Transfer Your Membership
This is, by far, the safest and most dignified manner of changing membership.
It is the safest because outside of the visible church there is ordinarily no possibility for salvation. Therefore, make sure that your name is immediately recorded on the rolls of the receiving church. (Psalm 87, Acts 2:47, cf., WCF 25.2)
It is also most dignified as it honors both your former and future elders who will give an account for your soul on the last day. (Heb. 13:17)
Step 8: Watch Your Tongue
There is a grave temptation that you will face as you begin the next chapter of your ecclesiastical life: seeking to justify your departure by speaking ill of your former church, its leaders, or its members.
Not everyone (and especially not the entire internet!) is entitled to know your reasons for leaving. In fact, not everyone will be edified by that information. “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” (Eph. 4:29)
One way to minister grace to your new brothers and sisters is to speak graciously about your former church. You joined it for a reason and remained in it for a reason. Remember those reasons and speak of them often.
Step 9: Say Your Goodbyes
Nearly every member who has left our local church has said something like, “We want to stay in touch… we will also visit on occasion.” Sometimes they try for a while, but it is simply not possible to stay involved with two different churches.
A local church is very much like a family. Within that family many joys are shared like marriages, childbirth, graduations, etc. Likewise, when family members depart, hearts are broken and relationships are permanently altered.
By all means, stay in touch with old friends if you can, but do not expect that your departure will leave such relationships unchanged. This is one of the many costs which needs to be counted while considering the question, “Should I leave my church?”
Step 10: Remain a Member
As previously acknowledged, there are sound biblical reasons for leaving a church. At the same time, no Christian should make a habit of it. Assuming that you followed the steps above, you chose your new church very carefully, so stay there.
I promise that it will be just as imperfect as your previously church (albeit in different ways) and the consumerist mindset of modern Americans has been trained to keep shopping for the perfect product, but remember: people that are “given to change” are neither healthy nor holy. (Prov. 24:21).
Leaving a local church is a decision which should not be made lightly. It requires careful thought and fervent prayer. It also requires a measure of calm ecclesiastical process. If you follow the steps enumerated above, you may reasonably rest assured that you have indeed left your church to the glory of God.
Christian McShaffrey is Pastor of Five Solas Church (OPC) in Reedsburg, WI and stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Midwest.
"How to Delight in Serving Your Church: Read the OT" by Megan Hill
"Where Jesus Is" by Terry Johnson
"How’s Your Church Brand?" by Justin Poythress
What Is the Church? with Michael Horton, Greg Gilbert, and Robert Norris [ Download ]
The Church: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic by Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, & Mark Dever