The great majority of evangelicals in our day see church membership as something akin to membership in the PTA, or a local sewing circle. They seem to believe that a church is a voluntary association that can be entered at will, and exited at will. This, however, is not the biblical model that we are given. When we join a church we are publicly professing our faith. We are also publicly submitting ourselves to those, as Hebrews puts it, who watch out for our souls (13:17). That we don’t take this seriously is no reason not to take it seriously. Does this mean we can never leave a church? No. There are several different circumstances where leaving a church is permissible, or even necessary.
First, suppose your church isn’t a church. The Reformers faced a difficult challenge in light of the break up of the Roman church, and the rise of the extremist radical Reformation. How, they wondered, could a person recognize a true church? They argued for a three-fold test. The church is where the gospel is preached, where the sacraments are administered and where church discipline is practiced. Of course no church does any of these things perfectly. But true churches actually do them. Mormons consider themselves to be a “church.” But there the gospel is assuredly not preached. There the most basic fundamentals are denied, including the deity of Christ. A person not only may, but must leave such a “church.” Walk out the door, and do not look back.
Second, there are many “churches” that fail to exercise discipline in the face of damnable heresy. Many mainline churches are untroubled by clergy who deny the virgin birth, who deny the deity of Christ, who deny the resurrection of Christ. That they ordain practicing perverts is a relatively small matter. Their building may say “Presbyterian” but that doesn’t make them a church. Now some people are in churches where the pastor is relatively sound, but where the denomination is out to lunch. These good folks want to stay to turn the ship around. While I appreciate the motive, the strategy is unwise. Such a church is unsafe for our souls, and the souls of our families. Even if your local church is relatively “conservative” your presbytery will not uphold any discipline. An institution which will not discipline a pastor for having a boyfriend will not discipline you for having a girlfriend. And if you think you don’t need the grace of discipline to help you fight such temptations, you have as good as given up to that temptation. My counsel here, as above is, get out now.
Third, there are churches that do in fact, however frailly, exhibit the marks of the church. But they have their weaknesses. Those weaknesses don’t mean you are required to leave, but may mean that you are permitted to leave. Now we enter into issues of wisdom. Questions that need to be asked include, “How bad is it?” Do you want out because the church has ten thousand people each Sunday singing inane praise choruses while be led by women dressed like strumpets? Or, is it a solidly Reformed church that faithfully preaches sound doctrine, but has a youth group where attendance is optional?
The next question is, what are your other options? If you are in the mega-happy-clappy church, is the next best choice a different mega-happy-clappy church? Maybe you should stay put. If you are at the Reformed church with the youth group, and the next best choice is snake handlers, definitely stay put.
If you are at a very good church, but you think there is a better one nearby, you might be wiser to stay put. It is a joy indeed when brothers dwell together in unity. It’s also a blessing when iron sharpens iron. The differences you have with the church you are in may be ones where you are right, and the church wrong. But perhaps it is more important for you to love the ones you’re with than it is to find the perfect church.
If you are in a position where leaving is not required, but is an option, and if you have a choice nearby that is clearly superior, here is how you leave a church. You go to your elders, and ask if you may leave. Ask them if you can transfer your membership to this other church. It is rather likely that they will agree to let you go. Here at Saint Peter Presbyterian we’ve had any number of families ask permission to transfer to other churches. Sometimes they didn’t agree with us on a matter of some significance, such as baptism. We were more than happy to transfer these good folks to a solid, baptistic church. Sometimes they disagreed on what we considered to be a minor matter. But, they wanted to go to a solid Reformed church in the area, and so we sent them with our blessing. Our goal isn’t to keep everyone on our rolls. Instead we want those under our care to, if they desire to leave, come under the care of other faithful shepherds. It’s likely your elders are the same.
There is still, however, one important step left. When you come into the new church, please remember that the previous church probably isn’t as bad as you think, and the new one probably isn’t as good as you think. Do not tear down your old church. Do not idealize your new church. And try your best not to bring your weaknesses with you.