When Should You Leave Your Church?

John ArmstrongThe Church


As virtually everyone knows by now Senator Barack Obama has removed himself, and his family, from the membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. This happened following the sermon preached at Trinity by Father Michael Pfleger, a priest who has been a friend to Obama for some time and a man who even had a volunteer role in his campaign for a season. Father Pfleger has been a popular priest inChicago for some years, serving an African-American Catholic parish as a Roman Catholic priest.

All politics aside I am saddened that all of these events came to this place. I can’t help but think that this controversy ended poorly for the Obama and his church. Whereas he once said he could no more deny his friendship with Jeremiah Wright than his relationship with his own family now he runs away from the people he worshiped with for twenty years because there is obvious political fallout to his membership. Whereas he gave such a brave and stirring speech several weeks ago, meant to put all this behind him, now he opts for leaving the church when another explosion occurs.

One thing is certain, leaving a church should never be a decision any of us makes with ease. We should never do it lightly. There are reasons to leave a church, I do not deny, but most of the ones that I have heard over the years fall well short of what I think are truly good reasons.

In Obama’s case he clearly was advised that membership at Trinity was now too politically harmful. The precedent here is that membership in one’s church become an “issue” in presidential politics. This can’t be a good precedent at all. I respected Obama for distancing himself from Wright’s comments, at least those that were generally unacceptable, while at the same time retaining his friendship with Wright and and his membership in his church. I can’t say that I respect this choice to leave in the same manner.

Should you be a member of a church only where the pastor says what you agree with week by week?

I would suggest that membership in a congregation where the pastor now and then troubles you could be quite beneficial if it is handled properly. I do not become a member of a church based on agreement with the pastor

When the media, and the right-wing pundits, went after Obama relentlessly the assumption was that people should be members of churches only where the pastor’s positions on various important issues lined up with their own. If the pastor sounded like a racist then you should not be a member. That is so easy for white media to argue when many of them remained in a church where racism was (and in some cases still is) inherent to the very culture of the church.

But what pastor has not resorted to rhetorical flourishes that he might now wish he could take back? (I believe strongly in extemporaneous speaking in the pulpit so I have clearly failed on this front myself.) And I have also said things that should not be taken quite so literally either. The goal of preaching is that through many human words the living Word of God might be heard. The media has no concept of this idea and the sad fact is that few of us do either.

Scriptural truth is passed along in many ways. A church has an educational ministry, a worship ministry, a prayer ministry, a care ministry, etc. No one pastor, on a single day or through a few sermons, determines the whole ministry of that church. The pastor uses images, stories, and ideas to stir the thoughts and the imagination of listeners. A good minister will handle Holy Scriptures well. Some do not handle them well at all.

The Rev. Jack Cherry, pastor of Clover Hill Reformed Church (RCA) in Hillborough, New Jersey, suggests in this month’s Church Herald magazine, that the better question here might be: “Is there a tipping point?” Is there ever a time when an individual needs to find a different place of worship and ministry for their local church? The answer, of course, is yes. I had people leave my congregation (during my 20 years of pastoral labor) and I felt some of them made the right decision. I had others leave when I felt they quit way too soon, more over not hearing the whole story clearly enough.

At what point do you say, “enough is enough” and then leave a church? There is no simple answer. There is no “one size that fits all” solution to this troubling issue. Certainly heresy or unrepentant sin in the leadership would be good reasons to leave a church. But even here you have to be careful that the right process has been followed. In our modern context one person’s heresy could be historically faithful Christian teaching. I preached, for example, on the Trinity some years ago and several felt I was a heretic when the opposite was really the case. 

I am sure of this much. Good pastors will offend us now and then. They must, in fact, trouble us and they will even trouble those from outside the church who hear their words and do not have a context or a spiritual understanding of them. The church is never to be a political club of the like-minded. It should rather be a diverse and different group of folks who are united by their common commitment to Christ and his kingdom, not to their own agenda. The world cannot understand this at all. What saddens me is that much of the church doesn’t understand it either.