Few prominent religious figures have been more admired, or hated, than Billy Graham. Mr. Graham said on one occasion that, during his active ministry, he would receive about one hundred death threats a year. I can believe it.
Growing up in the cultural religious environment known as Fundamentalism, Mr. Graham was vilified, and demonized, incessantly for promoting New Evangelicalism, and for his Ecumenical spirit. One particular concern that many Fundamentalist pastors had with Mr. Graham was that at the end of his Crusades, he would exhort the multitudes to, “Go to the church of your choice.” This phraseology drove many Fundamentalist ministers almost to the point of despair.
While I am not a Premillennial, Dispensational, Fundamentalist, while I admire, and esteem Billy Graham, I am conservative in my theology. I can appreciate the concern that some Christians have about sending individuals back to “the church of their choice.” I think a better exhortation would have been to encourage people to go “to the church of God’s choice for you.” God does have a geographical will for His children.
Based on that premise, it is right that a concerned Christian, who wants to be in the geographical will in a local assembly, should ask the Lord, whether or not the church they are attending is Biblically structured, and following a New Testament pattern. If not, consideration should be made to leave the congregation and seek for a church family that is as close to the New Testament pattern as possible. When then, should a concerned Christian leave a congregation? When did the Lord Jesus consider it time to leave a local congregation? The answer is found in the book of the Revelation, with this introduction.
Many years ago, while pastoring a rural church in the hills of Pennsylvania, I was asked to speak to a group of pastors on the topic, “When Should a Pastor Leave a Congregation?” I think about that event, from time to time, because I remember the reaction of the Area Director for the denomination. He was horrified at what I had to say because, if I was correct, he could see pastors leaving local churches throughout the north east. While the Area Director did not appreciate my remarks, the pastors who were present thought the points being made were Biblical, and worthy of consideration, and implementation, where applicable.
What is good for pastors, might also be good for the people. Here, then, are seven indications that it might be spiritually healthy to leave a local congregation, whether you are a pastor, or a parishioner.
It is time to leave a congregation when the people love something more than Jesus, as happened in Ephesus. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. 5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Rev. 2:4). It is possible for people to become enamored with buildings and budgets, programs and personalities, and exalt them over the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is possible for a gospel of works to be preached from the pulpit rather than the gospel of grace. It is possible that the Cross of Calvary is misused to drive people to act in an arbitrary manner, rather than to make the Cross the central focus of worship. When this happens, it is time to leave.
It is time to leave a congregation when there is such a loss of faith the assembly is characterized as a synagogue of Satan. In such an assembly, good works become fleshly works. There is competition, but no cooperation. People grow territorial. There is no room for diversity of, or behavior. Historically, the church in Smyrna was turned into a synagogue of Satan. “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9). A church can be financially rich, but spiritually bankrupt. With money in the bank, God is not needed, or depended upon, to supply the needs of the congregation. Money market accounts, and hedge funds replace faith, and attention is paid to fleshly works.
It is time to leave a congregation when there is a movement towards erroneous doctrine. The church in Pergamos adopted the doctrine of Balaam. “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. 15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. 16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (Rev. 2:14).
A contemporary faith can replace the historic faith of the local church. Once respect for the Confession of Faith of the church is cast aside, and the congregation does not care, it is time to leave. Doctrine is declared to be of no great importance. When this is said from the pulpit, it is time to leave. Of the early church it was said, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
It is time to leave a congregation when strong willed women begin to dominate the assembly, such as happened in the congregation in Thyatira. The people were being led by a woman who refused to repent of the evil she was doing. Not alarmed, the congregation was opened to exploring the depths of Satan by calling that which was wrong, right. “Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. 21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not” (Rev. 2:20-21).
More than one congregation has been corrupted by the sharp tongue of a deacon’s wife, or the pampered position enjoyed by a pastor’s wife. More than one church has been hurt by a small group of strong willed women who took over and ruled the congregation without mercy. It is time to leave.
It is time to leave a congregation that will not embrace normal gospel duties. The church in Sardis had neglected their normal ministries, and had to be warned to be more careful. “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2). The church in Sardis was not doing its duty.
“The time was the 19th of May, 1780. The place was Hartford, Connecticut. The day has gone down in New England history as a terrible foretaste of Judgment Day. For at noon the skies turned from blue to gray, and by mid-afternoon had blackened over so densely that, in that religious age, men fell on their knees and begged a final blessing before the end came. The Connecticut House of Representatives was in session. And as some men fell down and others clamored for an immediate adjournment, the Speaker of the House, one Colonel Davenport, came to his feet. He silenced them and said these words: “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, that candles may be brought” (Robert P. Dugan, Jr., Winning the New Civil War, p. 183.). When the church does not perform its basic gospel duties, given by Jesus in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, it is time to leave.
It is time to leave a congregation when the congregation turns from the historic faith, and does not live out an authentic faith. The Lord romised the church in Philadelphia that he would discipline those “which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie” (Rev. 3:9). A true Jew is one who embraces the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7).
“Some years ago a remarkable picture was exhibited in London. As you looked at it from a distance, you seemed to see a monk engaged in prayer, his hands clasped, his head bowed. As you came nearer, however, and examined the painting more closely, you saw that in reality he was squeezing a lemon into a punch bowl!
What a picture that is of the human heart! Superficially examined, it is thought to be the seat of all that is good and noble and pleasing in a man; whereas in reality, until regenerated by the Holy Ghost, it is the seat of all corruption. “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather that light” (Moody’s Anecdotes, p. 69).
It is time to leave a congregation when the church is indifferent and has no passion for the things of the Lord. “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15).
“In a museum at Greenfield Village, Detroit, Michigan, there is a huge steam locomotive. Beside this complicated piece of machinery is a sign showing boiler pressure, size and number of wheels, horsepower, lengths, weight and more. The bottom line indicates that 96% of the power generated was used to move the locomotive and only 4% was left to pull the load. Some churches are like that” (Source Unknown).
The church must have passion for Christ and for one another. “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:46-47). Do not leave such a church.