What are the Biblical grounds for leaving a church? If a church is doctrinally sound but the leadership is corrupt, and if members took steps to correct the situation (but to no avail), is it appropriate for them to leave? How should the ones who remain in the first church treat the Christians who left?
When it comes to leaving a local church, there are two categories of reasons for doing so: legitimate and not-so-legitimate. The legitimate reasons include moving to a different location, doctrinal matters, ministry opportunities, and unusual situations not pertaining to the other three. For example, if someone were excommunicated—whether the church took the correct action or not—that person would need to leave. Or take a situation such as the one my wife and I faced when we began dating: each of us went to a different church. Obviously one of us had to leave a church.
I should point out, too, that situations vary so greatly that even among these legitimate reasons exceptions exist. Take a person who leaves for doctrinal reasons, but the doctrinal issues are so minor that they do not justify the action. Or if a person were offered a ministry opportunity in a nearby church, he should seriously consider the responsibilities he already has in his present place. Even moving could be a wrong reason if the person did so just to get out of having to go to that particular church when the Lord would have him stay and serve—and even learn from a bad or trying situation. The Lord’s will has to be uppermost in these decisions.
Wrong reasons for leaving a church are as numerous as the people who come up with them and carry them out. But basically they boil down to the two sins that other sins stem from—pride and selfishness. It is one thing to leave a church because it has become (or it is becoming) liberal or neoevangelical in doctrine and practice. It is another thing to leave because feelings were hurt in a congregational meeting, because a pastor didn’t call when expected, because the church budget wasn’t adopted as hoped, because the church chose red carpeting instead of blue, because the music was too loud or too traditional, or because the leadership made some mistakes (who doesn’t?). It is astonishing how easily some people forget the purpose and mission of the local church and begin to think that it exists to advance and protect their perceived personal rights.
The problem of “church musical chairs” or “religious bumming” is greater today than ever before because we are not only more mobile as a society but also more urban. Years ago when our country was primarily rural, people didn’t have the option of going someplace else for either legitimate or illegitimate reasons. They had to stay put because they had no other place to go. That limitation had the distinct advantage of requiring people to stick around and work through their problems, differences, and spiritual maturing. Perhaps for this reason the Bible doesn’t address the rationale for people to leave a church so much as it tells us how to deal with our relationships and difficulties. Back in Paul’s time, one was fortunate to have one Bible-believing church within a considerable distance. Today we simply have too many choices in most cases. Besides that, our society has a strong tendency to resist anything unpleasant; we are conditioned to escape rather than to face problems.
In the particular situation you ask about—wrongdoing in leadership—it is important that people ask themselves if the allegations come from mere gossip or hearsay. Leaders in a church are often the butt of accusations, gossip, suspicions, unfair criticism, and outright lies. Disgruntled church members can easily spread false information about the pastor or other leaders in the church whom they disagree with or dislike. So a person must be sure of the facts.
It seems from your question that there might be some certainty to what you say, since you state that steps were taken to correct the situation but to no avail. Therefore, in this type of situation it may be best to leave. I use the word “may” here because I do not know the whole situation. But at this point I would emphasize two important ingredients in making such a decision.
First, I hope you haven’t forgotten the need to pray earnestly to the Lord for wisdom and direction in making the right move. Certainly these types of situations call for much prayer. It always amazes me that what problems one person commits to the Lord in prayer, others will leave a church over!
Second, at times the best move we can make in any situation is to acquiesce. It is never right to stay in a church if we cannot support its leadership—whether we perceive the leaders as right or wrong. This statement doesn’t mean that we must agree with everything leaders say or do. But we need to agree to disagree at times. If we cannot do that, perhaps seeking another place where we can get behind the work is the way to go. If you leave, however, be sure to leave quietly. A believer who makes a big scene out of leaving a church, even to the point of taking others with him, is out of line.
Let me ask you what steps were taken to deal with the situation you mention. Our Lord told us the action we need to take in matters of personal problems. A study of Matthew 18:15–20 reveals our need to confront the believer in love—leaders included—if there seems to be wrongdoing. Often this confrontation takes care of the problem, and the offenders will repent and make things right. If that personal encounter doesn’t work, then the person needs to go to the supposed offender with two or three reliable fellow believers. If he can take along a Christian experienced in handling problems (such as leadership “corruption” in your case), so much the better. If this second step doesn’t work either, then the person will need to get a hearing before the whole church.