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If you’re reading this and you’re a Christian, I hope you’re either a member of a local church or actively seeking one. God’s Word is filled with promises to Christ’s church regarding Christ’s church. As believers in Christ, we’ve been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3) and have received a divine inheritance in Christ (v. 11). This heavenly estate comes with heavenly benefits, not the least of which are “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (v. 18). United to Christ, we get full access to the Savior and those whom He saves. Christ has given Himself fully to His church, and He has given His church fully to His church. It’s not Jesus or the church; rather, these are mutually inclusive relationships ordained for your good and for His glory. By God’s design, the members of God’s family—including its pastors, elders, deacons, and members—bring glory to Him by serving, loving, and blessing the other members of the family. For all these reasons and more, leaving your local church should never be done in silence, isolation, or ambiguity.

It’s been my experience that discussions related to leaving a church are most often around questions of why and when. For example, church members often ask questions such as “Should I leave my church if I don’t agree with this or that?” and “Does God give me the freedom to leave my church for any reason or only certain reasons?” To be clear, the answers to those questions are important, requiring careful consideration, study of Scripture, counsel, and prayer. But, I’ve had many fewer conversations related to how to leave a church when extenuating circumstances were dictating a change—for example, when taking a new position with a new company in another city, or, in the case of a newly wedded couple, when each spouse attended a different church before marriage, or when an elderly member changes residence for health reasons. Situations like these are common in the church.

So, how should we leave our church? First, we must continue to do everything, whether in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17). Everything means everything. This includes how we leave a local church. When we leave a local church in the name of Jesus Christ, we are in no small way recognizing His lordship over all things, not only in our lives but in all matters related to the church. Ultimately, it’s Christ Jesus who is the Head of His body, the church (Col. 1:18). By seeking to root in Christ and relate to Christ how we leave a church, we testify to the reality of our identity in Christ. We testify to the reality that He died for us that we might no longer live for ourselves but for Him (2 Cor. 5:15).

Continue faithfully obeying and submitting to our pastors and elders.

Second, we must continue faithfully obeying and submitting to our pastors and elders (Heb. 13:17). I assume that when you considered joining your church, you sat down with an elder or pastor to make yourself known to the church. In response, presumably they asked you to share your testimony in Christ, explained their statement of faith, discussed the membership process, and so forth. In like manner, the same should be true in your departure. When you notify your pastors and elders about your situation, you provide them with an opportunity to encourage you, pray for you, and give you counsel even while they consider what your departure could mean for the rest of the church. By inviting your pastors and elders into the process, you invite the participation of those who are keeping watch over your soul (Heb. 13:17), those who have been called to eagerly, willingly, and honorably care for you (1 Peter 5:2–5).

Third, we must continue faithfully submitting to the other members of our church out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). Through mutual and loving submission to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, we embody the promise that God is building a spiritual house made of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). As living stones, we should open our lives to others in the church for mutual edification. Leaving a church is not simply a material reality but a spiritual reality that affects other members of the church. Members of your Sunday school, small group, Bible study, and other relational spheres can and should be invited to pray for your departure even as you continue to pray for them. In a way, these seemingly small, submissive acts testify to the great love and kindness Christ has shown us in the church, further equipping us to bear one another’s burdens in love (Eph. 4:2).

Finally, it’s important that we remember that how we leave a church is not first about an itemized list of steps but is an extension of our identity in Christ and an extension of our heart, soul, and mind. We live in an age of individualism in the West and an age of collectivism in the East. Both ideologies claim to have authoritative wisdom for humanity, but Christians know it’s only through the foolishness of the cross that true, life-giving wisdom is found (1 Cor. 1:18). Though Scripture provides no specific list of steps to follow for leaving a church, we can take comfort that God has redeemed a people unto Himself and created the institution of the local church with Christ as its Head. Through the clarity of its structure—its pastors, teachers, deacons, and members—and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can apply its pattern for authority and relationships to develop a wise and reliable outline for steps to take. In so doing, we and those around us can continue to taste and see that the Lord is good. May we continue to discover the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints. And above all, may God be glorified in His saints.

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From the January 2020 Issue
Jan 2020 Issue