thinking about leaving a church?

note: I use a lot of curse words today.
Also, content note for discussions of spiritual abuse.

I mentioned in a comment a little bit ago that Handsome and I decided to leave the church we’d been attending for the past few years. It was an extremely difficult decision that took us a very long time to make, and someday I’ll talk about the reasons why. It was a little heart-breaking for me– I had been so hopeful that I’d finally found a church I could make a home in, and when I couldn’t … well, it was hard and still leaves me feeling despondent on Sunday mornings.

And then, yesterday, I read “If You’re Thinking about Leaving a Church” (DoNotLink), an excerpt from Mark Dever’s book What is a Healthy Church? At first I was just frustrated– his list of questions for church members to ask themselves before leaving was … just so profoundly unhelpful. I walked away agitated and triggered, my initial reaction focused on how this list could affect someone in a spiritually abusive environment. After chewing over the list for a while, though, I think his list of questions is spiritually abusive in and of themselves. You’re free to disagree with me, but let me explain why.

“Let your current pastor know about your thinking before you move to another church or make your decision to relocate to another city. Ask for his counsel.”

This ‘suggestion,’ I believe, assumes that your pastor has the authority to advise you on the church you attend or the city you live in, and that assumption is undergirded by an attitude of spiritual totalitarianism. Heads up: your pastor does not deserve to know about any of this. If you have the patience and time and desire to talk to him or her about your reasons for leaving you can, but you are not obligated to do this. The idea that your pastor has any business telling you where you could or should live is fucking ridiculous. If you want to ask him about this, again, you can, but the mindset behind this list isn’t one of “if you want to,” it’s you should or you’re a bad Christian.

In the case that your pastor has been spiritually abusive, this is not just unwise advice, it’s dangerous. If your pastor has been abusive to you, your family, or another church member, you have every right to get the hell out of Dodge without notifying anybody.

“Weigh your motives. Is your desire to leave because of sinful, personal conflict or disappointment? If it’s because of doctrinal reasons, are these doctrinal issues significant?”

First: the second half of this one is meaningless. If you’re thinking about leaving a church because you disagree on doctrinal issues, of course those issues are significant. I wish I had the entire context of What is a Healthy Church? in front of me so I could know what he thinks a “significant doctrinal issue” is, but I don’t think it would really matter. In our case, we left over doctrinal issues, and while those disagreements weren’t over anything having to do with salvation, they were pretty damn important to me. Would anyone else think they were “significant”? Well, it would depend on who you asked– you all, my twitter followers, etc. would agree that they were significant. Most of the evangelical church, though? Absolutely not.

The line about “sinful, personal conflict or disappointment,” though, pisses me off. The phrasing implies that “sinful, personal conflict or disappointment” are not good enough reasons to leave a church, and oh are they ever good enough. Y’know what’s a good enough reason to leave a church? Because you want to. Seriously. You do not need any other justification whatsoever to go. In this case, it’s a bit like dating relationships– “I don’t want to date you” is the only reason you need not to date someone.

The problem with this line is that “personal conflict and disappointment” are ways of minimizing abuse. Your pastor is an abusive son of a gun that targets you from the pulpit in their sermons? The entire deacon board is disgustingly homophobic? Personal conflict. Disappointment. Not a good enough reason to leave.

“Be sure to consider all the ‘evidences of grace’ you’ve seen in the church’s life– places where God’s work is evident. If you cannot see any evidences of God’s grace, you might want to examine your own heart once more.”

This is the spot where I got triggered. Because my abusive cult had “evidences of grace.” We led people to the lord all of the time. We stayed “faithful” to the Scriptures in a million ways that no other church in our city did. Walk into church on a Wednesday night and you’d see a crowd full of people seeking God at the altar. We’d have jam-packed revival services. Evidences of grace were everywhere.

It was still an abusive cult.

His last bit about “if you can’t see them, you need to look at your own heart again” and tacking on Matthew 7:3-5 (beam and moat verses) is … ARG GABLARG. That is abusive. That is gaslighting, pure and simple. Just because a church might do something good sometimes has nothing to do with whether or not you belong there. In fact, your church doesn’t even have to be an abusive, unhealthy place for you not to want to be there– our recently-left church certainly wasn’t. That church has “evidences of grace” up to the ceiling rafters. Doesn’t mean I should sit through a church service, wanting to throw something at the stage because the pastor had done something infuriating again.

“If you go … Take the utmost care not to sow discontent even among your closest friends. Remember, you don’t want anything to hinder their growth in grace in this church.”

That’s where my triggered-feelings blew up into a full-blown panic attack and I could hear touch not the Lord’s anointed echoing in my head. I started crying– heavens, I’m crying now– because that line all by itself is the biggest fucking reason why my family stayed in that Goddamn cult.

We were at that church for almost eleven years. We were loyal. We were there “every time the church doors were open.” We supported the pastor and his family in ways no one else in the church did or even could. In a lot of ways, we kept that church afloat. My father spent years trying to gently encourage and edify the cult-leader into being a less abusive narcissistic control freak (not that we thought of it that way at the time) because he honestly believed that it was the spiritually mature and right thing to do.

Over those years, dozens upon dozens of families left the church. We sat down and counted one day and the number of people who had come and gone numbered in the hundreds– at a church that was usually at most 70 people.

No one ever said a word about why they were leaving– they didn’t want to be “divisive” or to “sow discord.” They thought they were doing the spiritually mature and right thing to just quietly disappear. After we eventually left and were summarily “churched” (fundamentalist parlance for excommunication), we joined a church where many of those families attended after leaving. In the following months, we finally found out why they’d left– and if we had known, if we had heard any of that before? We would have left faster than greased lightening. We would have been gone in a heartbeat because those stories were fucking crazy. That man was evil, and if any of these families had been vocal about what he’d done to them? I think that church wouldn’t still exist today.

But Mark Dever thinks those families were right for staying silent.

I’m not talking about why Handsome and I left right now– we’re still in the process of telling the pastoral staff what our reasons are, and I think it’s fair to give that to them privately before talking about it on the internet (not that I’ll ever name the church or even publicly reveal where I live), but I will be talking about it because those reasons are important. And I have talked about these reasons with my small group– some of them a long time before we’d ever decided to leave, because pastors are not untouchable. Pastors and their staff are our spiritual leaders, and they must be criticized. They must be held accountable– by us, the lay folk. If they do something wrong, we should tell them and each other about it.

That is not “sowing discontent.” That is being, in Scriptural terms, a Berean. It is your obligation to let other church members know if there’s a problem. Granted “I don’t like the music service” — while a perfectly acceptable reason, like any other, for leaving– might not warrant talking about with other members, “the pastor misapplied X scripture” or “that sermon was homophobic” or “they never talk about abuse” or “they believe that mental illness is just sin” is.

TL;DR: you don’t have to have a “good enough” reason to leave a church, and you can talk about your reasons for going with anyone you want to.

Photo by Mike Tewkesbury
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