Over the past month, we’ve been studying the characteristics of a good church. If the local church that you attend was acting in a biblical way, loving and caring for its own, building each other up, reaching the lost in the community, and standing firm for the Word of God — well, it’s hard to see why you would ever want to leave!
Of course, as we discussed last week, churches aren’t perfect. (Neither are we, and if a church were perfect, it would stop being perfect as soon as we joined!)
Leaving because we can’t get along with others or won’t submit to biblical leadership isn’t right. But when is it right to leave a church? Can’t things get so bad that we just have to leave?
I can’t find any passage of Scripture that tells me when to leave a church. I found lots of passages that tell the leadership what to do if there is bad teaching in a local church. They’re to get rid of it, if at all possible!
“…contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers,
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Perfect unity in mind and thought is obviously the goal, but Paul also told those same Corinthians,
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.‘
‘Therefore come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.’
‘I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.‘
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
Here are the things I found that are “worth contending for”:
In Acts 15, the apostles met for an historic meeting, and they decided the bare minimum requirements for fellowship among “The Old Guard” of righteous, well-taught, Jewish believers, and their newly saved, Gentile brothers who didn’t know how to live a righteous life.
“You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things” (Acts 15:29).
All of these things are types of idolatry. (Even sexual immorality is listed as idolatry in Ephesians 5:3-14.)
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!'” (Ezekiel 14:6).
“They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Turning to God from idolatry is the heart of what “conversion” means. We don’t think of ourselves as idol-worshiping people, yet we all are. Every single one of us is an idolator. This is our state before coming to God. We must repent of our idolatry, of serving other Gods, and turn around to serve the living and true God.
“We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31).
We need to define what the gospel is, because if we don’t know what the gospel is, we won’t know what the “anti-gospel” is when we see it.
Paul defines the gospel like this:
“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
Peter preached the gospel like this:
“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him… God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:22-24, 32, 38).
So idolatry is diametrically opposed to the gospel of God. That’s fine, we might say, because we aren’t worshiping idols in our churches, right? Well, not so fast! If you’d really like to see the roots of our churches and worship, as practiced almost universally in the 21st century, I encourage you to read Come Out of Her, My People, by C. J. Koster.
Idol worship is rampant, even in churches, mostly because first-century Gentiles probably didn’t take very seriously even the four basic requirements for fellowship listed by the Apostles back in Acts 15. We still don’t.
“Therefore do not be partners with [idolaters]. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:7-11).
The heart of the gospel involves repentance from idolatry, which is why it’s the bare-minimum requirement for fellowship.
A Different Gospel
One very important reason to leave a church is if the gospel is being corrupted.
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. ” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4).
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:6-9).
There are two ways that the gospel of forgiveness of sins, by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, can be corrupted. Just like Moses warned, we tend to “add to” or “take from” the gospel.
- Adding to the Gospel
The original corruption in the first century was by Jews who wanted to require more than just repentance and a turning from idolatry, by faith in the resurrected Messiah. They wanted proof of conversion, in the form of the elaborate process required for Gentiles to convert to Judaism, known in Scripture as “circumcision” (the process, not the simple act).
Things are the same in our day. Churches require more than repentance and faith for proof of salvation. Maybe they require a long conversion process, prayers, good works, penance, gifts and offerings, special foods, or baptism. None of these things are necessarily bad, in and of themselves, but they do nothing to help us merit good favor or grace in God’s eyes!
“Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh… But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:2-11).
The law has two purposes: to show us our sin and point us to our need of a Savior, and to teach us how to live a righteous life after we have come to faith in the Messiah. However, it cannot save. The law is not the gospel.
- Taking from the Gospel
Paul warned that a second corruption would quickly follow the first in first-century times, and history records that it did, indeed!
“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written aboutlong ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 1:3-4).
This corruption takes away from the gospel, saying that grace is all we need and that we don’t need to repent of our sin and idolatry. We can do whatever we want, whatever pleases our flesh, whatever is right in our own eyes. We’re under grace, after all!
“[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:16-18).
Saying that we no longer need the law at all because we’re under grace is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. We are not to continue in sin so that grace may abound (Romans 6:1-4). We are to continue to learn and grow, week by week and year by year, instructed in the Scriptures and obedient.
There are many warnings about both these corruptions, so I thought I’d quickly list some of them for you, in case you wanted to look them up on your own:
- Warnings against adding to: Galatians, Philippians 3:2-11, Colossians 2:9-15, Colossians 2:16-23 (Gnosticism), 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, 1 Timothy 4:3-4
- Warnings against taking from: Colossians 2:8, 2 Peter 2, 2 Peter 3:16-18, Jude 1:3-4
The Bible warns that false teachers will have a certain type of character, which is how you can take note of them:
- 1 Timothy 6:3-11, 20-21, 2 Timothy 2:23-24, 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Titus 1:16, 2 Peter 2, 2 John 1:7-11
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
John wrote an excellent summary,
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them.We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 John 4:1-6).
What to Do
If we lived in the first century, we wouldn’t have had too many options. Inside the church were ferocious wolves, but outside the church was enormous persecution. Each city had only one church, not a different denomination on every corner like we have today.
If you and your husband together feel strongly convicted of the need to move to a more biblical church, first consider how you can do it in a loving and non-divisive manner. Avoid “foolish controversies” and go to the person you’re concerned about. Go a second time! But if they still won’t listen, then maybe it’s time to change, in a gentle and cautious manner.
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Titus 3:9-10).
Sometimes it’s better to stick it out and try to help others see truth, even though this is often a very, v-e-r-y slow process.
“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9).
So pray for wisdom, check that you’re not leaving for the wrong reasons, then leave if you must, as you “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
>> Read the entire blog series on the Church here.