Are Christians free to leave a faithful church?


Sad to say, many people flit from one congregation to another as if they are free to leave one church and join another at the slightest whim – perhaps they don’t like something the pastor said in a sermon, or they find a church doctrine or practice too restrictive. It might even be that the church holds too closely to a literal interpretation and application of the Bible’s teaching. And, it often happens when a pastor rebukes a sin in their life that they just leave and go somewhere else where their sins and evil are tolerated and accepted.

Perhaps even more shameful is the fact that other churches welcome them and take them in without rebuking their sins or even enquiring of their previous congregations in regard to their reasons for leaving.

This sad state of affairs calls for a reminder of the truth from God’s Word. And, in cases where people leave churches that are faithfully preaching and teaching God’s Word and rightly administering the Sacraments, a rebuke and call for repentance.

Christians are called upon by Scripture to leave congregations and church bodies that are unfaithful to the Bible in doctrine or practice, but resignation from a church that faithfully teaches and preaches God’s Word and practices according to it, unless it is to join another orthodox and faithful congregation, is in itself sinful. It is separating one’s self from the body of Christ in that place!

If one’s church errs in doctrine or practice, the first duty of a member is to point out the sin or error and seek to restore the church to the truth of God’s Word, leaving only after all such attempts fail (Gal. 6:1-2; Eph. 4:1-16; Matt. 18:15-18; Acts 18:24-26).

To leave an orthodox church to join a heterodox church is sinful because it is disobedient to God’s Word, which tells us to beware of false prophets and teachers and withdraw from them (Matt. 7:15ff.; 1 Tim. 6:3-5). And, to leave a church to escape being held accountable for sin is impenitence and leads to eternal destruction.

The Bible teaches that the Church is to be subject to Christ “in everything,” and Jesus commanded that we teach “all things” He has commanded (Eph. 5:23-24; Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42).

This means that we, as Christ’s Church in this place, are commanded to teach all that the Bible teaches, neither adding to God’s Word nor taking anything from it (cf. Deut. 4:2). We are not permitted to add our own views or the prevailing views of the world to God’s Word, nor are we permitted to soften or take away from that which God’s Word teaches. To be anything less than faithful to Christ and His Word would make us heterodox and unfaithful.

As a reminder that this is nothing new, I cite some questions and answers from “A Short Exposition of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism” (prepared by the Synodical Conference and published by Concordia Publishing House in1912):

192. Who do we call the true visible Church? The whole number of those who have, teach, and confess the entire doctrine of the Word of God in all its purity, and among whom the Sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s institution.

366) Matt. 28:20. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.

193. When do we properly use this doctrine of the Church? When we take heed to be and remain members of the invisible Church; when we, to this end, adhere to the Church of the pure Word and confession, contribute toward its maintenance and extension according to our ability, and avoid all false churches.

367) 2 Cor. 13:5. Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.

368) John 8:31-32. If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

369) 1 Cor. 9:14. The Lord hath ordained that they which preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel.

370) Matt. 28:19. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

371) Matt. 7:15. Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

372) 1 John 4:1. Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

373) Rom. 16:17. Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

2 Cor. 6:14-18. Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their Cod, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

For those using “A Short Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism” (published by CPH in 1943), see Qu. 186.

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