Frank Turk over at Pyromaniacs has stirred up a very interesting dust storm. He talks about people leaving a church because, "things aren't right." I have been ruminating on this subject for some time as it goes along with my previous posts on the nature of the church.
Let me first say that while I don't want to bash fundamentalism, this is a huge problem in the movement. See, we started out historically coming out of bad, compromising churches. Now that is not a bad thing. Throughout history God has led some to be puritans and some to be pilgrims. If you disagree, I suppose you are still a member of the Roman or Greek Churches! Otherwise it is disingenuous to believe that is was right for Luther to split with the Pope but it is no longer right for us to separate from apostates. Unfortunately this is one of those areas where there is no black and white so we must rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit. However, too many people leave a church over things like, "I'm not being fed"; "I don't like the way the preacher is preaching"; or a hundred other non-essential, non-biblical things. Here in upstate South Carolina the problem is compounded by there being hundreds of churches.
So, when should you leave a church? I disagree with Turk's comments in the meta–a pastor that no longer believes in a literal hell and a need for repentance is in apostasy. If he will not repent and other church leaders will not support removing him from the pastorate then the church is in apostasy and there is a clear scriptural command to separate from that church. I think that is a cut and dried issue. The danger is calling things apostasy that aren't. For instance, if you believe that there is one inspired english translation of the Word and your church doesn't that is not heresy. Really, it's not. If your soteriology is not lined up with your pastor that is not cause to leave as long as you are both within the pale of orthodoxy. I think there is a huge struggle with a lot of peripheral issues like music, preaching styles, service schedules, organizational methodologies. I think all these things fall under the following principle: if it was like this when God led you there then you should submit to it and stay. The thornier question comes when these things change. Your church used to sing only hymns, now you are mixing in some more modern songs. The church used to meet Sunday morning and night and Wednesday evening, now you are meeting in small groups. The last pastor preached expositionally and the new one preaches more topically. You had a great youth pastor, now he left and the new guy just isn't connecting. These are hard questions. This, I think, is where a lot of conservative evangelicals start church hopping. But if you cannot tie your leaving to some principle of scripture then you shouldn't leave.
My last principle ties into my question, "How should you leave a church?" I firmly believe that you should never sever any relationship by just walking out the door. Would you leave a job by just walking out and never saying a word? But, people do this every week in churches all over the country. We have had good friends, people we loved and were close to, leave our church and never even tell us goodbye. We are to be family. How would you feel if one of your siblings just moved away with no explanation, no farewell, no forwarding address? If you are committed to building up the body of Christ in the church where God placed you, and if you must leave, it seems only reasonable that you should be able to stand up or write an open letter and explain to every one of your beloved brothers and sisters why you are leaving. If you don't feel like you can articulate publicly why you are leaving and severing your relationship with that particular body of believers then you probably shouldn't leave.
To recap: you have valid reason to leave a church if you are moving away from the immediate vicinity; if you are called to minister in another body that is more in need of your giftedness than your current church; or if your church leadership is in apostacy. The main principle in play is our commitment to building up the body of Christ. We should be able to articulate that God led us to join a particular body and that God is leading us away from that body. We should be able to do this within the bounds of "speaking the truth in love." Even if faced with apostasy we should be able to sever our relationship with a tearful admonition to the entire body to turn away from error and submit to the Word of God.
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. (Eph. 4: 14-19)