Leaving a local congregation can be a tremendously difficult thing to do for many people. Many people are members of unhealthy congregations and have a desire to help those congregations be healthier. But unhealthy congregations often get that way because the leadership and membership wants them that way, and desires for improving the health of such congregations usually result in disappointment.
A question I've heard leaders in unhealthy congregations ask is, "Give me a Scriptural reason for leaving this congregation." Such a challenge suggests that the burden of proof is upon the member. Is that really true? Is a member obligated to come up with a "good enough reason" to leave a local congregation? This question merits some serious discussion.
There are plenty of examples in the New Testament of Christians legitimately and faithfully leaving a particular congregation or even a family of congregations to move to another congregation or family of congregations.
It seems almost silly to have to mention this reason, but in the face of control-based leadership that often denies individual Christians' their choices, this must be mentioned. Christians are free to associate with other believers-- whoever they like, wherever they like, whenever they like.
The New Testament is loaded with examples of Christians who came and went at their pleasure, on their own initiative and choosing. There is no evidence of "permission" necessary from any other person. For example, Aquila moved from Rome to Corinth (Acts 18:1-2), then went to Ephesus with Paul (Acts 18:18). Later he is found in Rome again (Romans 16:3) and Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19). Apollos was asked to go to Corinth from Ephesus, and clearly was free to decide if and when he would make such a move (1 Corinthians 16:12). Even Paul wanted to visit Rome simply because he ran out of places to preach in his immediate area and wanted to visit Rome (Romans 15:23).
Christians today may wish to be in a congregation with their friends in the faith. There is nothing wrong with this, and there is Scriptural precedent for it. As Aquila had traveled with Paul to Ephesus (see above), the desire to be with certain brothers in the faith was a reason why early Christians chose to leave a congregation at various times.Paul once visited Troas to further the gospel, and yet chose to depart because he was wanting to be with Titus who was not there at the time (2 Corinthians 2:13). Barnabas had earlier introduced Paul to the apostles (Acts 9:27) and later sought him out to be together in Antioch (Acts 11:25).
Quite often, we see early Christians going to their ancestral or native lands. Already, we have seen Aquila returning to Rome (Acts 18:2, Romans 16:3). We have seen John Mark return to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).
A particularly noteworthy example of this is Barnabas returning to Cyprus, his native land (Acts 4:36). After many years of service in Jerusalem, Antioch, and the mission fields of Eastern Europe, he returned with his relative John Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15:39).
Similarly, the apostle Paul returned to Tarsus for many years after his initial ministry in Damascus (Acts 9:30, 11:25).
In James 4:13, James makes reference to Christians who might plan to go to this or that city for business. James does not oppose the idea of traveling to another city for business. He takes issue with the boasting and leaving God's will out of the picture, a passage that gives all of us pause about planning for the future as though we know what it holds. Clearly, James has no problem with anybody making plans or traveling to another place for business purposes--provided it is the will of God and the people consider God in their choice.
Sometimes first-century Christians went to congregations where they were able to heal from hardships. For example, John Mark went on a mission journey and decided to return to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Later on we learn that John Mark was considered a "deserter" (Acts 15:38). The fact remains, he was still faithful in the Lord throughout all of this and that he decided to leave a mission trip on his own. While this may have cast questions upon his suitability for future work of that sort (Paul and Barnabas were divided on the matter, and clearly there was legitimate basis for each position), it had no effect on his faithfulness in the Lord. Later on in life, Paul had kind words for Mark (2 Timothy 4:11), as did Peter (1 Peter 5:13). The same apostles who abandoned Jesus in the Garden knew that sometimes, everybody needs a break or a second chance.
We must recognize that our picture of the early church may be idealized to the point where we might think that these early congregations had no problems. The fact is, every congregation of the church in the first century had its problems. The letters to the flawed congregations in Revelation (Revelation 2-3) show us that even in unhealthy situations, individual faithful Christians can shine (e.g. Revelation 3:4).
Yet, Jesus clearly gave instructions about staying out of bad situations spiritually. For example, he urged his followers not to follow the "blind" Pharisees (Luke 6:39, Matthew 15:1-14). It is clear that Jesus commanded his followers to watch out against any and all forms of Phariseeism (ref. Matthew 16:12). At least, this certainly relates to circumstances where the words of men supplant or distort the words of the Lord (ref. Matthew 15:3), where a hypocritical, powerful caste of leaders oppresses the followers and uses them for their own benefit, and where appearances count for more than substance (e.g. Matthew 23). Sadly, such traits in spiritual leadership were not destroyed along with the temple in 70 AD; they have continued to live on in churches throughout the ages. Hence, Jesus' warnings need to be heeded today as well.
The scriptures command Christians to watch out for themselves. Proverbs 3:5 speaks of guarding one's heart, 1 Timothy 4:16 tells us to watch our lives closely. Christians need to watch out for what is helping or hurting them and sometimes take action in the interest of preserving their own faith as part of their call heavenward (Philippians 3:12-16).
Paul also addressed this preference for appearance over substance ("a form of godliness but denying its power") and commanded Timothy to not have anything to do with it (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Paul gave a similar command to the Ephesians to have nothing to do with deeds of darkness, but rather to expose them (Ephesians 5:11). Paul told Titus to have nothing to do with divisive individuals who persist in false teachings or advancing foolish controversies after attempts to bring about a correction (Titus 3:9-10).
Even Paul himself chose to avoid an unhealthy situation in refusing to make "another painful visit" to Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4). When unhealthy situations develop, there should at least be attempts to rectify these things. But sometimes the wiser and more appropriate move is to step back from painful and unhealthy circumstances, rather than feeling compelled to insist that such situations be "resolved" immediately. Time and space can bring about quite a bit of perspective and healing; they can also minimize the amount of damage these situations cause. Sometimes the person who sees the problem, or the person at the core of the problem, isn't the one to "fix" it.
Certainly no leadership or church is flawless today. Our collective sinfulness should show us that grace is a necessary component of any fellowship. Yet, there are some instances where congregations or leadership have such serious spiritual problems that leaving for a healthier situation is indeed authorized by the Scriptures.
The early church had some "sharp disagreements" of their own. In the conflict between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, both brothers had legitimate positions on an issue and yet clearly the positions were mutually exclusive. It was not possible to remain "together" and show respect for each legitimate position. In this case, a parting was necessary and served to benefit all involved. Two mission teams went out instead of one; in the end more people were impacted as a result.
Christians often left areas as persecution scattered the church. The most prominent example of this is discussed in Acts 8:1. This appears to be in direct response to the command of Jesus: "But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes" (Matthew 10:23).
Is it possible for a Christian to be persecuted in his own congregation? My Webster's dictionary defines persecute as: "1. to harass in a manner designed to injure, grieve or afflict 2: to annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, or importunities): PESTER." Sadly, yes-- Christians can be persecuted in their own congregations. Paul certainly endured a good bit of this and discussed it in his letters to the Corinthians. Fleeing or distancing one's self from such persecution is a legitimate Scriptural option. (It is astonishing that Christians persecute other Christians and then criticize them for leaving.)
The sad history of the Christian church over the last 2000 years shows numerous examples of Christians persecuting other Christians. Often, it is the larger, more established church opposing remnants that seek to bring change or revival to the church. It is utterly hypocritical that any Protestant group, whose very existence has been created by separating from another group and promoting revival, would then turn around and persecute a group of its own seeking to do the very same thing. It is the worst advertisement for Christianity in the world today.
One might consider that Christians often left places to go on "mission trips." This is part of the Great Commission and more or less goes without saying. Interestingly, when Christians leave a congregation for whatever reason, they basically embark on another "mission trip." The world is a big place, and every place is a place to do God's will.
Even in the examples cited throughout this article, there are many ways to look at these situations. For example, did Paul go to Antioch to be with a friend (Barnabas), or to help strengthen the ministry in Antioch? Did he go to deliberately prepare for future missionary journeys? Was he leaving a situation in Tarsus that had perhaps become unhealthy or stagnant? Or did God work through the situation so that his will might be accomplished in numerous ways? Only God knows the answer for certain. But no wonder Paul could later say, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him (2 Corinthians 2:14)."
Often, congregations relocate ministers to congregations in other cities for many of the reasons I've discussed here, to provide a "new start" or a sense of healing after difficult circumstances. Yet, this is not a practical solution for most members-- especially those with families and secular jobs. Someone in a large metropolitan area shouldn't have to leave town in order to "move" to a healthier situation. It is a double-standard to allow leaders to move for many of these reasons discussed in this article (and to even pay them to do it!), but to deny members that same benefit, freedom and opportunity.
That fact that certain leaders today might challenge the freedom of Christians to move for numerous reasons does not speak well for them. Such leaders may feel that people leaving their congregation says something about their congregation that they don't like, or with which they don't agree. This indicates a greater concern for how they appear or for their power base than for the advancement of the gospel or the benefit of the sheep who have legitimate, Scriptural reasons to leave. It is an illustration of the unhealthy, Pharisaical leadership that Jesus spoke against.
Such leadership also seems to forget that God has been known to use things beyond human control, intentions or understanding-- even evil things-- for his future plans (e.g. Genesis 50:20). Does the leadership really know better than God? Isn't it absurd to even pose the question? Instead, shouldn't leaders simply "send them on their way in a manner worthy of God (3 Jn 1:6)?" And if their parting illustrates areas where a congregation needs to improve and change, why not work towards those changes instead of deflecting attention from those issues by accusing those who leave of "slander," "quitting" or "falling away?" Sadly, sometimes these sort of actions confirm that those who leave to get out of an unhealthy situation made the right choice.
We have seen numerous Scriptural reasons why Christians moved from one congregation to another in the first century church. Certainly there should be no more questioning about whether there are ever Scriptural reasons to leave a congregation and join another.