How to Leave Your Church:
The Pragmatic Side of Resigning a Church Membership
|Copyright © 2007 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
Introduction -- the Questions and Self Doubts
At some point in every believerís life, they will find it necessary to resign from a church of which they have been a member. What an emotionally trying time that can be. Questions can plague such a person: Is it biblically allowable for me to leave this church? When is a person allowed to resign? Do I tell others I am going? What am I allowed to say and what things must I keep secret?
Even after a person has left multiple churches, these questions always seem to come up anew. Yet, there is biblical guidance, and a way does exist to end the self-doubting, or possibly, the guilt associated with such a move.
Reasons to Leave--Ending the Doubt and Guilt
Scripture never defines for us a law, a rule, or a commandment, by which we are obligated to stay in attendance at one particular home church, one community church, one city church, or even to remain in any one denomination. Choosing a church at which to serve and worship (assuming one attempts to differentiate between service and worship--Romans 12) is made by applying wisdom, intelligence, personal goals, biblical principles, demographic logistics, and even (to a far lesser degree) aesthetic appeal. So, whichever church we select in which to give our Christian service, there is tremendous freedom to make that choice (Romans 4:15, 5:13). Similarly, there is freedom to remove ourselves from one church governance and to place ourselves under another (Acts 11:19, 18:24). Such is the liberty granted us by Godís Word when it intentionally does not regulate church membership.
Some church members, by misunderstanding Hebrews 13:17, may be intimidated into remaining within a church that they otherwise might have been led out of by guidance from the Holy Spirit.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)
Yet, the wording, "obey your leaders and submit to them" is best understood in the Greek as, "be convinced [by the theology] of your leaders and surrender [to their teaching]." It would be inappropriate to use this passage to attempt to argue that pastors can command obedience in all matters of life, such as who to marry or which church to attend. They are Bible teachers and spiritual counselors, not governors, police officers, or legislators. As they convince us of godly living from the pages of Godís Word, so we submit to Christís written commandments that we may live holy and productive lives.
Such freedom, to choose an appropriate church at which to fellowship, is not meant to be a cause for avoiding church attendance, service, giving, or any other of the many commandments Jesus has placed on us as part of the Law of Grace (Hebrews 10:25). Rather, we are to be in regular fellowship with other Christians, offering and receiving encouragement, reproof, and exhortations (Hebrews 3:13).
Yet, circumstances do arise which can cause us to want or need to worship with an entirely different set of believers. Such circumstances might include:
Without a doubt, there are many other legitimate reasons for which to exit one church and seek membership at another. Of course, there are some illegitimate reasons as well.
Examples of improper reasons for which to leave a church include:
When leaving, it is best to evaluate oneís circumstances and motives (heart attitude). Running away from having to give a properly due apology is wrong on so many levels. Similarly, leaving over petty differences of opinion about inconsequential things can be evidence that one has become arrogant, demanding, and a bully.
How to Leave Your Church
This is perhaps the most stress inducing aspect of resigning from church membership. Never yet have I found a church which defines the manner in which one may leave a church. Most churches define in their constitution what it takes to break membership, but not whether the new ex-member may tell others, or what they may or may not say.
Step one in leaving a church of which one is a member (after evaluating oneís heart and reasons), is to read the constitution and find out how to officially sever membership. Follow those rules to the letter so as to avoid unnecessary offense and complications; do so in such a way that you purposely maintain the peace (Romans 12:18).
Step two probably consists of composing a resignation letter (though some constitutions may make this unnecessary). It is always my recommendation to make this letter simple, unambiguous, non-accusatory, and utterly lacking in negative tone or angry emotion (Titus 3:2). If the parting is for neutral causes (e.g. work relocation) or positive reasons (e.g. going onto the mission field), feel free to insert as many compliments, blessings, and statements of appreciation as you desire.
If the parting is on an unhappy note (e.g. doctrinal differences with the leadership, or a desire to escape legalism), then this is where a brief, straight-forward, and uncritical statement of resignation is best (Proverbs 10:19). Though you think of it as a resignation, a removing of yourself from membership, the pastors may think of it more personally and abstractly, specifically, they may see your resignation as a form of your firing them from being your shepherd. For this reason, emotions are likely to be at their zenith, so keep your resignation letter short, factual, and dispassionate.
Sample resignation note based on unhappy circumstances:
When the parting is on tense terms, the resignation letter is the last place to detail the reasons for leaving. Such explanations should already be well known because of the polite but honest discussions that have gone before, as both parties attempted to resolve their differences through mutual Bible study and dialogue (Romans 15:14). If the pastors do not know why you are leaving before getting the resignation letter, then you have not done enough to try to civilly work out your disagreements in an open and honest manner.
A resignation letter will be put on permanent record, and should never contain anything that can be brought up later as having been legitimately offensive, where "offensive" means "sinful" (1 Corinthians 10:32, 2 Corinthians 6:3). Never put accusations in a resignation letter (remember, accusations against pastors must be made in person, with the cooperation of two or three confirming witnesses--1 Timothy 5:19). Offensive resignation letters, especially ones that contain unproven accusations, can (and probably will) come back to be used against you, and may cause the unpleasantness to continue. It will not "open the eyes" of anyone else, rather, it will polarize those who remain at the church, causing them to consider you entirely sinful in your conduct.
Step three is a non-step. After the resignation has been submitted, meeting with the pastor is not often a good idea if the circumstances are due to a conflict with the pastoral staff. So do not conduct a post-resignation meeting, make it a non-step, if the departure is grounded in conflict. By this point in time the pastor already fully knows why you are leaving. A final resignation meeting can become little more than an opportunity for both parties to "vent." This is not needed or welcome. Again, if the pastor really does not know why you are leaving, then you are obligated to go back and try again to resolve the disagreement openly and with integrity. Further, the post-resignation meeting is unneeded because the only reason you left is that you became convinced that it was unlikely that the conflict could ever be resolved favorably, and there is no reason to believe that a "departure meeting" is a forum by which that change of mind can be brought about.
Step four involves telling your friends. In spite of dire warnings to the contrary in other articles on other web sites, there is nothing improper, slanderous, or sinful about telling your friends you have decided to resign from the church, so long as your "telling" is merely factual, does not involve accusations, lies, or denigration of others. Informing oneís friends can be as simple as saying, "Weíve decided to seek membership at another church." Or, it can be as involved as saying, "We were unable to work through a disagreement over XYZ doctrine with the pastors, so we feel it is best for us to find a church in which we can be better biblically aligned." No, it is not a sin to actually name the doctrine which is at the basis of disagreement, for this is what Paul often did (Colossians 2:18, 1 Corinthians 11:27, 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8). Again, keep such notices short, unambiguous, polite, and non-accusatory.
Step five is more than just not returning to the church, but it is also the beginning of the search for a new church. This last part is critical. It is never enough just to leave a bad situation, but it is essential to find a new fellowship at which to serve, learn, and to offer encouragement to others.
Bringing Out Others
Is it ever right to try to split off others from the church and take them with you? If by others, one means his immediate family (i.e. wife and children), then yes, by all means. Very little fractures a marriage more easily than to have husband and wife attending disparate churches (1 Peter 3:1).
If "others" means convincing other parishioners (who are not family members) to take up sides on the disagreement and to leave with you, then numerous warnings and flags must be issued to the one resigning. It is never wrong to discuss doctrine in public or in private, nor even to persuade someone else about the rightness or the flaws of publicly preached theologies (Acts 17:11). Yet, it can be wrong to intentionally divide a church over doctrine (Galatians 5:20). Factions begin when someone feels they have a new doctrine, or, a new way to view an old doctrine, and calls people to embrace their private version of such doctrines (2 Peter 1:20). Faction building is simply wrong. We all belong first to Christ and not to men or doctrines (1 Corinthians 1:11-31).
Should one discover that his "church" is not even a Christian institution (according to the orthodox understanding of that term), then calling upon others to leave so as to find a genuine Christian church is not improper. All believers are under obligation to call the unsaved out of their pagan communities and into the light of Christís body (Mark 16:15).
Suggestion for Churches
Churches would do their congregations a tremendous service and blessing by amending their constitutions to include two procedures. First, a conflict resolution procedure outlining how a congregation member would bring forward and resolve a dispute (over doctrine or something less significant), would forestall many disagreements and keep differences of understanding from becoming all out fights. Second, a church resignation policy, explaining why to leave that church, how to leave, and what can and cannot be said officially, would alleviate many undue concerns from congregants who are already under immense emotional pressures.
This may seem like an invitation for people just to walk away from the church, yet, it will not be perceived as such by most. Rather, it will give back to the church member his God-given liberties, dignity, and will protect the church body from chaos, all at the same time.
Be slow to speak, slow to accuse, and slow to leave. Yet, should you find it necessary to leave a church, be sure to attempt reconciliation before resigning. Though it may not seem like it, it is far more beneficial to productively resolve a conflict than to walk away from it. But when that becomes impossible, follow Godís principles, leave peaceably, and move forward in your service to Christ.
My strongest recommendation goes to read Ken Sandeís book on conflict resolution, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Before resigning from any church, or upon entering any congregational conflict, it will benefit everyone to have read this book and to follow its biblical guidance.