Is It A Sin to Change Churches?
Written by Paul Race
The short answer is “almost never.”
This may sound like a silly question to some people, but I have been in at least three churches where people felt that way and one in which it was preached from the pulpit, with dire consequences if you disobeyed. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re facing some of the same control mechanisms that have been used on me over the years. One of these is the false teaching that it is a sin to voluntarily leave a church that you voluntarily joined at some point in the past.
The newest flavor of this teaching is that you’re “allowed” to leave a church if it has “bad doctrine,” but if the doctrine coming from the pulpit is “Biblical,” you are bound to that church ‘till death do you part, no matter how many other problems it has, and no matter if your family really would be better off someplace else. Before we address that particular false doctrine, though, I’m going to take a glance at its history.
Personally, I hate church-shopping so much that I have kept my family in churches decades after we should have left, so I’m not one of those people who prefers to “float around” and never commit. I’m just pointing out up-front that the whole “it’s a sin to change churches” claim is one-sided, self-serving, and unBiblical. Conversely, I know by experience that it is possible to sin against your family by staying in a church too long (even a church that, technically, preaches Biblical doctrines).
UnBiblical Teaching about Submission is Nothing New.
Yes, the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands, but it also tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. It tells servants to submit to their masters, but it also tells masters to treat their servants as brothers and sisters in Christ. It tells church members to submit to spiritual leaders, but also says that those leaders should be prayerfully committed to your spiritual welfare. And to round it all off, the Bible also says “submit ye one to another,” with no exceptions, even for husbands or senior pastors.
Of course, people who were already in positions of authority have always emphasized the parts of the Bible that seem to favor them and ignore the rest. Slaveowners in the South used to read the verses about slaves obeying their masters, and conveniently overlook the verses about how to treat servants. Some hyperconservative churches overemphasize a wife’s responsibility to her husband, while underemphasizing the husband’s responsibility to his wife. And some denominations believe that their ministers deserve something close to reverence, because they “speak for God,” yet fail utterly to hold them accountable for the standards of pastoral care spelled out by the Bible.
In other words, it’s a longstanding tradtion in many churches to look, literally, at every other verse in the Bible (especially Eph. 5:21-6:9) when defining the relationships between people in positions of authority and the people they’re supposed to be laying their lives down for. In every case, this unbalanced teaching assigns more authority and latitude to the people who already have it and diminishes the worth and choices of those they are supposed be protecting and serving as Christ loved the church. How convenient, if you happen to be a husband or pastor.
In some cases, the teaching has expanded far beyond anything you could ever support in scripture, even with out-of-context proof texts. For example, I’ve known “Christian“ men from widely divergent backgrounds who believe that all women owe all men deference, period. Yes, the world has a long and shameful record of such attitudes in nearly every culture. But that attitude never belonged in the church and is not preached anywhere in the Bible that says “In Christ there is no male or female.” Nor was it practiced in a church that was from the start characterized by female deacons, fellowship leaders, and missionaries.
The Rise of “Shepherding Movement”
You may never have heard of this movement, but it influenced a number of subsequent movements that preached unBiblical kinds of submission to masculine roles and to church leadership, several of which are actually on the uptick today! Here’s some background,
During the growth of the early Charismatic movement, a plethora of “house churches” sprang up, often led by folks who had left (or been asked to leave) established denominations because their contemporary worship style and Pentecostal theology weren’t appreciated. There were no checks and balances to keep bizarre new doctrines and practices burning through the “movement” like wildfire.
A handful of popular Charismatic speakers attempted to address the problem by starting an organization called Christian Growth Ministries that stressed personal accountability to “trustworthy leadership,” which they defined. So children were accountable to parents, wives to husbands, families to elders, and elders to the senior pastor. In this movement, later dubbed the “Shepherding movement,” the “senior pastor” was usually one of the original leaders of CGM, or else “in submission” to one of those men. Who held the leaders of CGM accountable? They claimed to be accountable to each other, and they acted as though they were as long as it was convenient.
What made this submission teaching more onerous than the historical one-sidedness of authority/subordinate relationships described above is that “submission” eventually went way beyond what had been expected previously. I only heard a few dozen of the official CGM tapes on the subject, but I heard lots of CGM-inspired preaching. So I don’t know if I can blame the Shepherding movement for all of the excesses of its disciples. But they certainly supplied the theological framework for all manner of abuses.
One rule-of-thumb that I heard from multiple CGM-influenced sources in this era was that if someone you’re “in submission to” (such as your husband or pastor) makes a demand that isn’t a sin, you’re supposed to do whatever he asks. If your husband tells you to feed him steak while the kids have peanut butter, do it. If your pastor tells you to attend six services a week, every week, even if you have to take your kids out of band and rob them of homework time, do it. Now I can see that it’s a sin to neglect your family in these ways, but you can see how easily a pastor or husband who bought into this kind of thinking could step “over the line” pretty fast in their demands. And many did.
Worse yet, some of the folks who preached this theology went so far as to claim that you needed to stay “in submission” to your “spiritual leaders” even if they were in sin. You and your family would be judged if you “bailed” on a church that was doing wrong things, and even mistreating you and your family, instead of staying and praying for the Lord to intervene.
Seeping into the Mainstream
The Charismatic movement was influential far beyond the core movement. And many aspects of the movement would be considered positive today. For example, Charismatics were the first to make widespread use of “Contemporary Worship,” which helped lower some of the cultural barriers that were keeping Boomers and X-ers from taking Christianity seriously.
Churches that wanted to be “trendy” often adopted this and other aspects of the movement, even if they weren’t “Charismatic” per se. A few churches that would never have accepted the CGM’s doctrines on tongues and deliverance accepted their teachings on submission because it wasn’t that far afield from what they already believed.
Ironically, CGM-flavored submission teaching was especially attractive to independent churches, in which the senior pastor was “accountable” to no one at all, unless you counted a hand-picked board of sycophants.
Basic Life Principles
CGM-style submission theology got a boost when Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles came on the scene. Gothard started out leading a series of youth meetings in his local church. His approach, which he eventually came to call “Basic Youth Conflicts,” stressed minors’ accountability to their parents. According to multiple sources, his sessions started drawing attention and growing in size until they were eclipsing the church’s other programs. After a disagreement with his pastor, Gothard took his seminars on accountability out of the church and set up his own organization with a hand-picked board. From that point on, Christianity’s foremost promoter of “accountability” was never accountable to anyone else in any meaningful sense again.
As Gothard’s theology spread beyond teen-parent relationships, the name of the organization became Basic Life Principles. I heard tapes of a few of Gothard’s seminars, but I was also in a church where an overly-controlling pastor enthusiastically adopted them. According to the bits I heard firsthand and the versions our pastors presented, God’s blessing flows from God through the pastor to the elders, from the elders to the fathers in the congregation, and from the fathers to the wives and children.
So if you step out of “submission” anywhere in the chain of authority, you cut yourself off from God’s blessing, and you prevented everyone “down the chain” from ever hearing from God again until you got back in line. According to this theology, God would be “breaking the rules” if He blessed you directly. Or blessed your wife and children when you were in “rebellion against authority.”
One implication of such teaching was that if you left your church for any reason that wasn’t approved in advance by its leaders, you were cutting yourself (and your family, if you had one) off from God’s blessing permanently.
Ironically, at least one former churchmate who managed to ”get away clean” from an abusive church we both attended by “going to the mission field,” then coming back without telling anybody, turned around and founded a popular “ministry” that emphasized exactly the same kind of submission teaching that he couldn’t live under himself. And, through speaking engagements and book publications, the ”spin-offs” of that ministry have reached - and many would say damaged - thousands of times as many families as the abusive church he fled by subterfuge all those decades ago.
Many years later, another churchmate who had gone on to become a pastor and kept up the submission teaching for another fifteen years told me he had finally realized how self-serving the whole thing was for pastors. No kidding.
Thirty years after we left that church, we find that nearly every former churchmate we meet from those days is still suffering long-term damage as a result of that pastor’s control mechanisms and dark threats. Residual damage is emotional, financial, marital, spiritual, and even mental.
The worst cases are those who don’t realize how much they were damaged, because they have become blissfully successful in “ministries” that are even more controlling and dangerous than the one they left. (Matt. 23:15 comes to mind.)
In our case, the damage to our family continued long after we were “sent out,” because the attitudes we inadvertently brought with us included an unBiblical fear of anyone we perceived to be in spiritual authority.
It wasn’t until an unprincipled pastor in a subsequent church invoked those same control mechanisms during an unprovoked attack on our family that I realized that if those control mechanisms were wrong for this fellow, they were wrong period. In fact, everything I had been taught about it being a sin to leave a church was wrong, unBiblical, and - above all - self-serving.
But Aren’t you Married to Your Church?
There’s a teaching in some circles now that once you commit to a church, it’s like a marriage. Funny, I don’t remember any pastor of any church I ever joined taking a vow alongside me to provide me with the kind of care and commitment I vowed to provide to my wife and vice versa. Frankly, he’d be wrong to make such a vow, because he couldn’t keep it if he did. The potential needs of any congregation are too diverse and too many for one church to always fulfill them all. You don’t marry churches, and any church that needs to use such exaggerated comparisons and unBiblical rhetoric to keep you there has other issues already.
When Might it Be a Sin, Then?
If you got mad and made a really big mess for someone else to clean up after you left, that would be wrong. For example, what if you were the choir director and you went away in a snit right before the Christmas cantata because someone criticized your hair? On the other hand, if you’ve taken all the real abuse you can, but you stick around long enough to do the Christmas cantata and then you leave, your leaving is not a sin.
In other words, leaving a church isn’t a sin. Leaving a mess behind that you could have cleaned up might be - but even that isn’t always true. If other folks are continuously tearing down whatever you’re trying to build up, you could stay ‘till doomsday, and never have things “in order.”
In fact, I’ve seen that dynamic used as a control mechanism, too. They say, “But you promised to [fill in the blank].” And you try to get things to where you feel good about leaving them but there’s always one bit that isn’t satisfactory, or one more thing they think you ought to have taken care of.
Sometimes you just have to let folks deal with the consequences of the way they treat other people. Or, to put it even more bluntly, “let the dead bury the dead.”
But Shouldn’t You Try to Work it Out?
In my experience, devout Christians who change churches almost never go away without first saying something about their concerns to leadership. Usually they try to meet with the staff member in charge of whatever’s bothering them. He (usually it’s a he) nods his head and says he’ll take their concerns seriously, but never actually does anything about it. Sometimes when they realize that nothing is going to change, the members then go to the senior pastor. Some pastors say up front that they have to trust the judgment of their staff and they’re not going to do anything. Some pastors say they’ll look into it, but nothing ever changes. Very few pastors are forthcoming enough to say that they won’t do anything about it because responding to the members’ concerns would interfere with some personal priority, but that’s often the case.
I’ve known dedicated families who’ve gone back to otherwise good leaders multiple times with valid concerns and been brushed off every time, because the leaders had other priorities and didn’t know how to admit it. Then, when those families finally gave up on a church that they had been supporting all along, where most of their friends still attended, the church leadership blamed a “consumer mentality” or “lack of commitment” or some such.
But What About Your “Covenant” with the Church?
This brings me to so-called “Covenant” theology, as it pertains to church membership. This has its roots in the very Biblical concept that members should support the church and its ministries (by meaningful giving and by volunteering) and should respect and pray for its leaders. In turn, the leaders should show concern for members’ families, through prayers, by providing programs to support spiritual growth (such as Christian education), through well-planned Biblical teaching, and through personal interaction when appropriate.
Unfortunately the relationship ceases to be Biblical when either party breaks its trust, such as when the member is unjustifiably antagonistic toward leadership or stops supporting the church and its programs, or when the leaders make unBiblical demands or egregiously neglect the spiritual needs of members’ families.
What if a family has legitimate spiritual needs that the church has no intention of addressing, even after the members beg them to? Frankly every church does not meet every need of every family, and to imagine that your church is the perfect home church for every possible attendee is hubris. Claiming that Christians who were once committed to your fellowship and who only left after you ignored valid concerns have “broken the covenant” (or “have a consumer mentality”) is libel, and you may be in more spiritual danger than they are.
Instead, try admitting that your church isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Everybody in the church knows it already, as does everybody who’s ever had any “doings” with your church. By being “up front” about it, you just might come off as a more authentic person.
But What If Your Church “Teaches Sound Doctrine”?
Back to a recent version of this teaching. According to several sources, it’s a sin to leave any church that teaches “sound doctrine.” But the doctrines of the haughty, legalistic Pharisees were generally sound. So were the doctrines of the witch-hanging Puritans. So were the doctrines of the brutal Southern slaveowners.
In fact, I can think of a number of contemporary spiritual leaders who would probably die for any point in the “Apostles’ Creed” or their own denomination’s doctrinal statement, whose churches I would nevertheless be literally afraid to attend.
Some churches with “sound doctrine” are downright toxic, and it might not even be the pastor’s fault - an influential family or clique may be calling the shots or diverting resources from programs that your family needs and theirs doesn’t. Yes, you could make the claim that if the pastor “really” taught sound doctrine, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen. But I would wonder what planet you were born on.
Frankly, the doctrine that you can’t leave a church that teaches sound doctrine invites people who need to leave to demonize your church the same way divorcing spouses have to demonize their partners in court, even if they don’t want to. You shouldn’t be surprised if folks who need to leave for some reason you think invalid start accusing you of not being “pre-trib” enough or invoking some other shibboleth.
But I don’t think backing people into a spiritual corner this way benefits anybody. Try saying, “We’re sorry we weren’t a better fit. God bless you, and let us know if we can help with anything in the future.” To me that seems like a more “Christian” response than mutual demonization. But what do I know?
Here’s the crowning irony: any church that preaches this doctrine is, by definition, preaching an unsound doctrine. If you attend such a church, you’re free to go. In most cases, you’re better off if you do, before they ramp up the control mechanisms to the next level.
Here’s a litmus test to put all of these potentially dangerous false doctrines into context. Do you know one pastor who thinks it’s a sin when folks leave other churches to come to his?
For all the pastors I’ve known who preached (or at least implied) that it would be a sin to leave their church and go somewhere else, I can’t name one who had a problem with the reverse. (Some pastors justify this behavior by demonizing the church the new member left. “Well, they were right to leave - that other church isn’t “eternal security” enough” - or some other shibboleth. I hope you can see how weak and self-serving that is.)
We all need Christian fellowship, Biblical teaching, and spiritual worship. The ideal is for every Christian to settle in somewhere with good Biblical teaching where he or she can grow in Christ alongside fellow believers whom they can minister to and who will provide mutual encouragement along the way. Unfortunately a Church can promise that at the beginning and not really provide you with that in the long run. It might not even be the church’s fault. Things happen. But either way, it was your choice to come, and it’s your choice whether you stay and make the best of it, or whether you will try again.
You may think that I am recommending changing churches “at the drop of a hat.” But you should know that I tend to the reverse, meaning that I’ve stayed in toxic churches decades longer than was healthy for my family. Twice. In retrospect, that was the sin, not leaving when things finally got so bad we had no choice but to bail.
So I’m not saying you don’t need church. Just that you don’t have to attend some particular church just because the people there need your tithe and your hard work so much that they tell you that you’ll be in sin if you go anywhere else.
God bless and guide you,
Update for 2015
I thought I had covered most of the false or misrepresented dogmas that support the “it’s a sin to change churches” lie. Then I saw an article from a respected Evangelical resource explaining that:
. . . it is okay to say ‘no’ to new job possibilities or education or a bigger home because you don’t want to give up your church.”
That’s true, to a point, but article wasn’t written in a vacuum.
Up ‘till now, even the most legalistic, controlling churches used to “allow” members to leave without condemnation if their career path or or similar forces caused them to change geographic locations. Apparently too many Christians in churches that preached it was a sin to leave have taken advantage of that “loophole.” Don’t laugh; I’ve known people who moved across the country and even gone to “the mission field” because that was the only way to “get away clean” from an abusive church that would have demonized and shunned them if they left for any other “reason.” But now, changing careers, getting more education, or making a geographic change are no longer “get out of jail free” cards.
The article may mean well, from one perspective - borderline Christians, Christians who haven’t been discipled, Christians who can’t tell a good church from a bad one, might be in spiritual danger if they make expensive and difficult life decisions that take them away from the church they happen to belong to at the time they read this article. (Of course, if this describes your average church member, that points to issues bigger than the scope of this article.)
Yes, I’ve seen apparently committed Christians lose focus and eventually spiritual direction when they made the kind of life changes described above. I’ve also seen good people struggle financially all of their lives and give their kids a poor future because it was easier to stay overcommitted to their church than to make hard choices to secure the long-term well-being of their families.
The irony is that churches change. Many families who made the decision to put a specific church ahead of their own family’s future twenty or thirty years ago are in different churches now, anyway, because of an unscriptural doctrinal shift, an abusive new pastor, or some other quite understandable reason to shake the dust off their heels.
The article in question also says that Christians should: “Consider, at some point in your life, committing to a church long-term.” This implies that anyone who would consider a career move, more education, or a geographic relocation more important than membership in his or her present church is a “floater,” who’s never considered committing long-term to a church at all. But the people who are in the most danger from this innocuous-sounding plea to consider putting the present needs of their church ahead of the long-term needs of their family are the ones who are in the most danger of making decisions that will hurt their family in the long run.
Who’s to say what the right decision is for you? You are, hopefully in conjunction with prayer and Godly counsel from someone who is objective enough to give you good advice. If anyone tells you “it’s not your call,” you have your answer. Run, do not walk.
Also, if you want to tell me that I’m preaching false doctrine by saying that God gave husbands and wives, not spiritual leaders with their own agendas, responsibility for their family’s well-being, feel free to contact me and explain my mistake.
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