Love Jesus, Love His Church (1 John 2:19)

Is it ever okay to leave your church?

When my father pastored a church in the 1970s and 80s, he calculated that 25-30% of the church left it every year. It had nothing to do with his preaching, which was excellent. Instead, the area in which he ministered was full of young, upwardly mobile families, whose jobs moved them around quite a bit. The other churches in the area had a similar rate of turnover.

Recently, an email correspondent of mine shared the story of why she left her mainline Protestant church. Although she had a long history in the church and loved the people there, its pastor had begun to teach doctrinal and ethical positions that contradicted the plain meaning of the Bible. She simply reached a point where she could no longer support the church’s ministry with her time, talent, and treasure.

One final story about leaving church: In the early 1990s, I enrolled in an evangelical theological seminary just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. While there, I began attending a church with a fantastic pulpit ministry, wonderful fellowship, and strong commitment to the community. Unfortunately, the choir attempted to bite off more Bach than it could chew every week, especially one male member whose pitch-challenged voice could be heard above all the others. After a few weeks of enduring this weekly musical train wreck, I left the church.

There are, it seems to me, legitimate and illegitimate reasons for leaving a church. Leaving a church because your job is moving you across the country is legitimate. Leaving for principled doctrinal and ethical reasons is (or at least can be) legitimate. But what about leaving due to matters of taste? I don’t know. I’ve always felt guilty about leaving that church in Massachusetts. So what that the choir—that one guy in particular—didn’t sing well! I’m sure the guy in the pew in front of me thought exactly the same about my weekly rendition of the hymns. (I too sing loud and not always in key.)

First John 2:19 talks about a group of people who left the church.

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

In verse 18, John refers to these people as “antichrists.” That sounds uncharitable, but it was an accurate label, for as verse 22 makes clear, they denied that Jesus is the Christ. They weren’t really Christians at all. After all, it’s pretty hard—downright impossible, really—to be a Christian without Christ. Unfortunately, they still considered themselves Christians in some weirdly attenuated sense. Even more unfortunately, they were trying to convert the real Christians to their errant religion.

For John, however, belonging is a key aspect of believing. If you believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll stick with his church. So, is it ever okay to leave your church? Yes, in certain circumstances, but here’s the basic rule of thumb: if you love Jesus, you’ll love the people he loves too.

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