A few weeks ago, I wrote about the response I’d received from my article in Tabletalk - “Not So Fast” - which basically encourages most people to stay with their congregation during a difficult church situation rather than flee. Based on the notes I’ve gotten, some have misunderstood my suggestion not to be hasty in leaving a church (hence the title “Not So Fast”) as a hard, fast rule against ever leaving a church, no matter what happens.

Are there times when a Christian should not submit to their church’s leadership? Yes. Jonathan Leeman, in his excellent little book Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesuslays out some of those times. He writes:

“All of us, at times, will be called to endure humbly a leader’s mistakes and sins.”

Most of us fit this category, I believe. Called to be patient with other people just as other people are called to be patient with us. He goes on:

“Nonetheless, should you find yourself in a church where the leadership is characteristically abusive, I would, in most cases, encourage you to flee.”

The key word here is “characteristically.” No one should immediately leave a church simply because something or someone in leadership has offended them. But when abuse is taking place, one ought to flee for the following reasons:

“Flee to protect your discipleship, to protect your family, to set a good example for the members left behind, and to serve non-Christian neighbors by not lending credibility to the church’s ministry.”

Then Jonathan helpfully points out some examples of abusive leadership:

How do you recognize abusive leadership? Paul requires two witnesses for a charge to be leveled against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19), probably because he knows that leaders will be charged with infelicities more than others, often unfairly. That said, abusive churches and Christian leaders characteristically

  • Make dogmatic prescriptions in places where Scripture is silent.
  • Rely on intelligence, humor, charm, guilt, emotions, or threats rather than on God’s Word and prayer (see Acts 6:4).
  • Play favorites.
  • Punish those who disagree.
  • Employ extreme forms of communication (tempers, silent treatment).
  • Recommend courses of action that always, somehow, improve the leader’s own situation, even at the expense of others.
  • Speak often and quickly.
  • Seldom do good deeds in secret.
  • Seldom encourage.
  • Seldom give the benefit of the doubt.
  • Emphasize outward conformity, rather than repentance of heart.
  • Preach, counsel, disciple, and oversee the church with lips that fail to ground everything in what Christ has done in the gospel and to give glory to God.