Some Counsel for Christians Leaving Toxic Church Environments

Article
11.15.2019

Sometimes, my church feels like the triage wing of a hospital.

To my right, I see the pain in a visitor’s eyes as he lamented the stain on the gospel his previous church had become. To my left, a few of our members—who themselves had left a large church over their former pastor’s egregious moral failures—are praying over another couple who only now have come to reckon with those same discoveries. I turn yet again to greet some new faces and discover they’re here because they too can no longer attend their previous church. The leaders have become too corrupt. One of them shared a few thoughts, but it was difficult for him to speak. Two others seemed to communicate nonverbally that if they uttered even a few words, they wouldn’t be able to compose their grief.

I wish I could say I’ve not seen this before. But our congregation is rife with these stories. One couple began attending our church so that they could recover from money-hungry, abusive leaders who had convinced the rest of the congregation to shun this family once they had decided to leave. They lost their friends. Another woman left when she discovered her previous church peddled the prosperity gospel. Her own family told her that by coming to our church she was joining a cult. Another was asked by his church to quit his job so that he could lead worship for them at a new church planting effort. He quit his job and packed his boxes for the move. Then the church cut him loose. He was too old, they said.

It agonizes me that so many churches with such great resources and strengths go the way of Samson, doing what’s right in their own eyes. In the process, they leave behind heaps of bleeding Christians, leg upon thigh (Judg. 15:8). Recovery for genuine believers who have been damaged by failed churches is a grueling process.

Perhaps you’ve experienced the loss of a church you love. Perhaps they were absorbed by a larger church entity that has taken it in a radically different direction. Maybe the leadership as a whole has failed in substantial ways and it’s difficult to imagine the church recovering. It may be that structural systems of governance are in place such that wayward leadership cannot be deposed.

Whatever happened, you now find yourself in a place where you no longer recognize the church you have called home—and you feel a little lost as you navigate a whirlwind of emotions. What follows are six pieces of biblical guidance to help you re-establish you bearings.

1. If you leave, leave for the right reasons. 

You don’t want to leave out of spite, and you don’t want to leave simply because working through difficulties is too taxing. In fact, I’ve encouraged some visitors to go back to their former churches to work things out. We want to receive the broken and the hurting but we don’t want to enable those who turn away from good churches simply because they’ve had a disagreement. It takes courage, but you need to have the conversations necessary to make peace with whomever has offended you (Rom. 12:16–18). But if the lampstand is out due to seemingly irreversible doctrinal or moral failure, then leaving might be the best way to protect yourself and your family. Just make sure you have done your part to maintain unity (Ephesians 4:2–3).

2. Leaving a church can be the right move, but dropping church altogether is always the wrong move. 

While legitimate reasons can be found to appropriately leave a given church, it’s never appropriate to drop the local church completely. God has positioned the local church as the place to find healing even when the wound is from another church. Yes, there are unhealthy churches, but there are healthy churches as well.

In Revelation 2–3, we see Jesus threaten and commend local churches. Even while he sternly admonished a church like Sardis, which was virtually dead, he also commended the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia. Some churches—like Pergamum and Thyatira—had issues, but still hoped to work through them. Not every church is a snuffed-out lampstand. Giving up on “organized” church is to give up on the Jesus who has organized it (Ephesians 4:11–16). Let’s not abandon what Jesus himself prescribes (Matthew 18:17). After all, the gathering of believers is where you will find the encouragement you need—and that’s precisely why you must go (Hebrews 10:25). Find a place where the leaders are worthy of remembering and imitating (Hebrews 13:7). I know of many.

3. Talk about it but talk about it wisely. 

Some folks will feel tempted to close up and try to lessen the pain by never mentioning their past difficulties. Perhaps they feel that discussing it with anyone in any fashion amounts to gossip or slander.

Others, however, may give in to the allure of “getting it off one’s chest” by bringing it up in nearly every conversation. These people are airing out their grievances, but often in a way that’s fueled by malice, vengeance, or bitterness.

Neither choice is healthy. Instead, process the pain with mature believers who will listen to you and provide wise counsel with sparing words.

4. Recognize that grief is a process. 

Even if you find a loving, gospel-centered church, it’s okay to take your time getting involved again. Dress your wounds, allow your heart to rebound. It might even be wise to ease in as far as heavy involvement goes. Sometimes, a period of healing and adjustment is the right prescription for preparing to serve again.

5. Be patient with those who decided not to leave.

Some of your friends will remain at your former church. They may have difficulty with your departure. Worse, they may feel automatically judged no matter how graciously you parted. Perhaps they now ignore you or even accuse you of disobeying your leaders.

Be patient with them. Don’t retaliate. You don’t need to convince everyone to see it your way. In fact, many will simply not be convinced regardless of what you say and, sadly, regardless of whatever further disqualifications are revealed about their pastors.

Jesus helps us with this. He distinguished between the impossible-to-convince and those open to truth (Matt. 7:6; Mark 8:11–13). Some of your former church members might simply need time to embrace your departure. Others will forfeit their friendship with you. However they respond, don’t let it torment you; patiently pray for them.

6. Grow in your grief and move forward. 

Be prepared to bear the load of emotions that come with the separation. Over time, you’ll discover that anger can rise unexpectedly and take time to subside. You might feel abandonment when friends fail to contact you. You might feel like you’ve lost a family. Sincere believers at your new church will be sympathetic, but they likely won’t understand your situation fully.

This is all part of the grief process. But, as with the loss of dear loved ones in the Lord, we grieve as those who have hope. God is still orchestrating even the evil intentions of man to produce good results toward us. He uses them to conform us to Christ—and there’s no greater good. When the time is appropriate, rise from the ashes of your mourning and mount the saddle of eager service once again.

By:
Lucas O'Neill

Lucas O'Neill is the senior pastor of Christian Fellowship Church in Itasca, Illinois, and the Clinical Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.