In America today, a significant number of people are switching churches or leaving altogether. I’ve found that unwarranted criticism often plays a significant role.
The following articles are notes from a possible future book: Before You Leave—Ten Biblical Principles to Consider Before Leaving Your Church. Before reading, ask God for guidance, wisdom, and humility. He’s faithful to guide those who will follow.
Do the leaders, and the pastors, view the Scriptures as inerrant—the final authority? This is stating the obvious, but it’s worth stating: If pastors, teachers, or preachers challenge the authority or authenticity of the Word of God, they should step away from leadership. I’m not referring to differences over non-essential issues: I’m referring to those who disregard the clear commands of Scripture. Read Jeremiah 23 to gain a sense of God’s thoughts toward leaders who lead the people astray. If the leadership is not solid in this area, there are biblical grounds to fellowship elsewhere.
Some may ask, but what if the pastor is no longer studying and his teaching reflects it? Or, what if the church is leaning toward legalism or compromise? These are clearly points of prayer. Pray specifically that hearts are changed. Spirit-led teaching is vitally important to spiritual growth, and legalism and compromise drain spiritual life from the church. But be careful not to confuse legalism with wisdom and compromise with change. There is a clear difference. Legalism reflects a self-righteous attitude; wisdom reflects a humble attitude that is committed to God’s Word. Compromise often reflects turning from the truth; whereas, some change or turning from tradition is often necessary. Never underestimate the influence of faithful leaders who value and uphold the Word of God…be thankful for them.
Is God’s Spirit truly leading you to leave? Psalm 32:8 declares, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” Again, God guides those who are willing to follow (John 7:17). If God seems distant, Bible study boring, and church irrelevant, or if legalism, judgmentalism, and dead formalism are setting in, it may be that the work of the Holy Spirit is being suppressed. More change will be seen outwardly as the Holy Spirit is given more power to rule inwardly. Sanctification is God’s job, but obedience is ours.
Brokenness, humility, and full surrender provide fertile ground for the Spirit. But don’t confuse a Spirit-filled life with sheer emotionalism or an emotional experience. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones cautions: “Never interpret Scripture in the light of your experiences, but rather, interpret your experiences in the penetrating light of Scripture.” For instance, we shouldn’t make decisions, such as leaving a church, based on emotions alone. Emotions aren’t necessarily a reflection of a right decision, but a right decision can affect emotions, such as feeling peace once a decision is made. We should thank God for our emotions, but they are the caboose not the engine of the train, so to speak. They follow, but rarely should they lead.
It’s been said that if the influence of the Holy Spirit were removed from the early church, 90 % of the work would have ceased. Unfortunately, it appears that if the Holy Spirit were removed from the church today, 90 % of the work would continue. Sadly, the only thing holding many churches together today is social activity not the activity of the Spirit. When we fail to embrace the Spirit’s power, we become powerless. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be part of a church that suppresses the work of the Spirit whether through compromise, judgmentalism, indifference, or disbelief.
The conviction of the Holy Spirit is a true gift from God. Sadly, many people ignore it, yet they say that God is leading them to do this or that. But all too often, they find that they made a very poor decision. What happened? The Holy Spirit didn’t lead them—human nature, pride, and emotions probably did. For instance, we all know people, perhaps ourselves, who mistakenly jumped into a dating relationship or marriage, spend money frivolously, moved, or left a church believing that God’s Spirit was leading. I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t have a servant’s heart, who don’t read the Word, who don’t spend time in prayer, who don’t display humility, and yet think the Spirit is leading them. Let me be clear: God directs us to make “wise” decisions that correspond with His Word. Disobedience leads to disappointment and removes us temporarily from God’s will. We should not make decisions in this state.
Please understand, I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t lead people to leave their churches, because He does. That’s why it’s important to first ask, “Is God truly guiding me?” before making an important decision. One of the best ways to know if God is truly guiding you is to stay, pray, and obey—stay in His Word; pray for guidance; obey His principles. Again, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is an indispensable gift from God. We must listen to Him.