When Should You Leave Your Church?

When Should You Leave Your Church? July 21, 2021



Yesterday’s post was about the problem of factionalism in congregations.  We looked at St. Paul’s warnings against rallying behind one congregational leader or another, which leads to conflicts and splits.   Rather, he appeals to the Corinthians “that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10).

That discussion raises a further question:  When, if ever, should a person leave a congregation or a denomination?

Some Christians say that one should never leave, that a member should preserve unity at all costs.  If you don’t like the pastor, stick it out.  If you don’t agree with what the congregation or the larger denomination is teaching, stay there and fight for what you believe.

Other Christians migrate from congregation to congregation, denomination to denomination, shopping for one that they can agree with.

I see problems with both extremes.  We need to remember, though, that the pastor, by virtue of his call, has authority.  He is not just our employee.  We are there to learn from him, not to insist that he learn from us.  I think that “If you don’t like the pastor, stick it out” is good advice.  But sometimes the problem is more than just “not liking” the person or what he does. A pastor might start teaching false doctrine or do things in such a way that puts the member’s spiritual life in jeopardy.

But “stay and fight” is not a good mindset either.  That fighting causes the strife and divisions that St. Paul warns against. And it jeopardizes not just the dissatisfied member’s spiritual condition but that of everyone else in the congregation.  Or in the church body, as in the case when pastors or seminary profs stop believing in the denomination’s doctrinal commitments and so agitate to change them.

It seems to me that discreetly leaving the congregation or the denomination is a much better, more peaceful solution.  Paradoxically, even a congregational or denominational split—such as the Methodists are planning–can be unifying, since there is more net unity in two separate entities in which everyone agrees with each other than in one entity torn by constant disagreement and fighting.

But at what point should someone leave?  How bad do things have to get?  Or, put more positively, what might you see in another congregation or church body that would outweigh your obligation to stay where you are?

These are hard questions, and I realize that such a point will vary from person to person.  This is on my mind because the magazine Interest Time–a publication of the Lutheran Extension Fund that has been featuring some very substantive articles—has published a piece on people who have left other kinds of churches to become Lutherans.

The article, What It Means to be Lutheran, is based on interviews with four individuals who did not grow up as Lutherans but left the tradition they did grow up in and, for various reasons, became Lutherans.  These include Chris Neuendorf, who left the Greek Orthodox Church and is now a Lutheran pastor; Julie Ledford, who was Reformed before discovering Lutheranism; Rev. William Weedon, whose family was essentially unchurched but he started going to a Lutheran church on his own as a child, later flirting with other alternatives before fully appreciating Lutheranism; and yours truly, who grew up in mainline liberal Protestantism.

The article tells our stories well.  None of us were “church shopping” in that consumeristic approach to Christianity. Rather, we were on different spiritual pilgrimages that led to where we are now.

English professor that I am, I think of what Milton wrote in Lycidas, an elegy that the great poet wrote as a Cambridge University student upon the death of a friend, Edward King, who had been studying for the ministry.  Already, the young poet was critical of what he saw as the corruption of the Church of England, so he takes the occasion in this “pastoral poem” about shepherds to excoriate bad shepherds, a.k.a. “pastors.”  He is convinced that his friend would have been a good pastor and shepherd and struggles with why he had to die, while all these hirelings get to live.  I’ll spare you my exposition of these passages, extremely interesting though they are (maybe later), but what stays in my mind the most is the sympathy Milton expresses for the sheep:

“The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed” (Lycidas, l. 125)

I know that Lutheran churches have a policy against what they call, continuing Milton’s Biblical metaphor, “sheep stealing.”  Pastors are not to try to take members from one congregation to theirs.  Apparently, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, that extends to members of other denominations, as well.  But if the sheep are hungry and are not being fed, it seems to me that it is quite fitting for them to look for a shepherd and a meadow where they will be fed with the Word of God.

I know, I know.  Milton is not the best example.  When he grew up, in his great learning and stubbornness, he felt that none of the available pastors or church bodies were feeding him, so he didn’t go to any of them, becoming, in effect, a church of one.  Milton’s radical Protestantism has parallels today in the unchurched Christians and the Nones, with their extreme individualism that makes themselves their supreme spiritual authority.

So help me out here.  I suspect that many of you readers are like me, having experience with this sort of thing.  I’d like to hear from laypeople who have chosen to stay in bad situations and those who have chosen to leave.  I’d also like to hear from pastors who have had to deal with some of those bad situations.

I’m also curious about the rationale against “sheep stealing” from other denominations, some of whom perhaps are not teaching the gospel at all, and how that differs from testifying against false doctrine and welcoming those whom you have convinced.


Photo from MaxPixel, CC0

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