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Some Counsel for Christians Leaving Toxic Church Environments

toxic church

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 toxic 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 that may have been a toxic 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 of people who dealt with a toxic church. 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.