Biblical Reasons For Leaving A Fellowship
by James R Buchan

In these days of deception in the church, the Christian is faced with problems, not only without, but also within, the church. As Christians, we have a responsibility to meet the brethren and work with other members of the body of Christ. However, in these dark times, heresy is on the increase as deceivers and the deceived enter the "church". Believers now face difficult choices: Do they leave the fellowship? Do they stay and try to rescue the situation? The reason for studying this topic is that Vanguard magazine received a letter on this very subject. When and for what reasons should we leave a fellowship? [See letters page in Vanguard 5] 

The church is, as I am sure many have noticed, being attacked by all manner of false teaching, from "health and wealth" to "Celtic Christianity", from "Kingdom Now" through to "Positive Confession". Many of the false teachings have been refuted by Vanguard's regular contributors such as Tony Pearce, Philip Foster, Philip Powell and Neil Richardson. The false teachings and their apologists seem to have infiltrated a great many churches, and this must sadden the hearts of all believers. Given these facts, the problem arises for many Christians nowadays: "When and why should I leave a church?" 

Now, as an ex-economist, I studied both the applied and theoretical sides of economics (very badly I must say!) and I noticed how both overlapped. So it should be with Christianity. James, in his epistle, points this out many times. I shall content myself with noting one instance - 

James 1:22-27.

"Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

(Paul also points out the necessity for love in 1 Cor. 13.) 

The theory-application model fits well into a Christian context. The theory being doctrine, the application being practice, both church and personal. We must, therefore, study all these areas to get an idea of examples and principles for our lives. 

Now, I must put a warning here for the "divisive" Christian. "Christ loved the church and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5:25b). We are not to leave churches lightly or for selfish reasons. We must be careful to make sure we do not leave for "advancement" in any area, from leading worship to preaching. We must also seek not to be spiritual thrill-seekers always looking for the new thing. If we find a church which teaches Biblical truth and find we can only do a supposedly "menial" task, we must not plot our own glory or seek a more "glamourous" role. I hope anybody reading this does not get the idea that I advocate a totally separatist viewpoint. I do believe we have a duty to love, encourage, edify, rebuke and entreat those who might be mistaken. However, this must be done "in love" seeking their benefit and conscious of our dependence on the Lord to understand, live and work in His truth. I must say that many in the charismatic/new evangelical movement have used the "unloving" accusation unfairly but I feel that the Bible shows that if we do seek the benefit of others and their growth, then we are actually really working in the "love of Christ". With this warning I now wish to go on. 

We shall study doctrine first. It must first be admitted that the Bible is relatively short on examples of leaving a fellowship. The circumstances in New Testament times are fairly unique in that, not only was the church united spiritually, but also physically. They were guided by the apostles, not just by letter but in person. This lead to a problem for church leavers. Where did they go? The Bible really did not have much consideration for "denominations" etc. as they got the teaching from the apostles so they pretty much all agreed. If you left the church in Galatia during Paul's stay, over an issue, it was pretty reasonable to say that the apostle was right. There would have been no long running theological disputes etc. In these circumstances, we would expect the vast majority of the New Testament to be silent about leaving a fellowship. There was not lots of churches believing different things. Today, we most certainly do not have this situation. Pentecostal, Baptist, Anglican, Brethren, Presbyterian, Methodist, Evangelical, Free and Charismatic fellowships compete for our attention alongside others. This is the situation we find ourselves in today. However, whilst the situation is not exactly the same, God has not left us anchorless and adrift. We need to look instead to principles found in the scriptures for related situations. 

In 2 John 9-11, the apostle specifically condemns the sin of blessing the person who does not hold the doctrine of Christ. 

"Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds."

These verses suggest that these is a body of doctrine (the doctrine of Christ) which is foundational. Paul also speaks, in a similar vein, in Galatians 1: 7-9. 

"Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."

Again, these verses suggest a foundation which constitutes the gospel. Step outside this and you have something different which, rather than saving you, actually curses you! 

I will consider some doctrines, and others will be merely mentioned due to space considerations. As 2 John 9-11 speaks of the "doctrine of Christ", it seems quite sensible to say one of the foundational doctrines is that the church is Trinitarian. [Rom. 9:5; 1 John 5:7-8; John 10:30-33] If a church is not in fact Trinitarian, we must leave it immediately. To stay there is to bring ourselves into enmity with God. I cannot put it more simply than that. The Deity of Christ is vital as without it Jesus could not have succeeded in gaining redemption for the elect. It should be obvious to Christians why we need to go to churches where this is taught. However, this (Unitarianism) is not at present the main danger. 

A much more pressing problem is over the question of Biblical infallibility. Paul gives his view in 2 Timothy 3:16. 

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:"

This would be primarily referring to the Old Testament, although Peter places Paul's letter on a par with the scriptures on the Old Testament. [2 Peter 3:15-16] The Bible is the Word of God and without error. The Creation Narrative in Genesis 1-3 is true. A church which denies the truth of scripture has no basis for what it teaches. If one section is false or, as the modernist attackers assert, "cultural", then God could in fact have lied anywhere. It all stands together. The weasel words of the modernisers are that we must interpret in the light of culture (which is true). The problem is that they use these interpretations to disregard the Biblical commands and counsels. The church which does not view the scriptures as infallible must not be attended by the believer. With the rise of higher criticism, naturalistic approaches and textual criticism, Christianity must expect more "leaders" like John Shelby Spong who deny the infallibility of scripture. The believer must consider the words of Christ, 

"How can the blind lead the blind, will they both not fall into a ditch?"

A problem in these times is the rise of self-centredness which has led to an increase in Pelagian theology and a denial of man's sinfulness. [For a contemporary example, see Neil Richardson's article on Gerald Coates - Vanguard #4-5] If man is capable of spiritual good without God, then Paul has a problem in Romans 7. A church which teaches that man is naturally good is at war with God who declared otherwise and is not to be attended by the believer. 

The Bible teaches only one mediator between God and man. In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul states: 

"For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;"

If a church does not teach this, and also teaches confessions to priests and such like, then it is in direct rebellion against God. It does not take the intelligence of Newton to work out that the prime exponent of such erroneous teachings is the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of Rome must not, surely, be accepted by the believer. In fact, it seems that the church which accepts Catholicism as merely another branch of Christianity must be viewed with great suspicion also and not attended. 
We can briefly list some other doctrines which must be held. I do not claim this list to be exhaustive. I just give them by way of example: 

Salvation by faith in Christ alone

Outside Christ - no salvation

Resurrection of Christ after the third day

The literal virgin birth of Christ

Some other doctrines are not essential to salvation and we have to treat these differently. One of the most obvious is baptism. I am a believer in baptism, by full immersion, for believers only. I make no apologies for this. It is, as far as I am able to grasp, the teaching of scripture - pure and simple. However, I have met others who are convinced of the paedo-baptist argument. I mean no disrespect to them when I say that those who have been christened should obey the command of scripture to repent and be baptised. This is a question of obedience to God's word. If one holds to this doctrine, of believer's baptism by full-immersion, then one should not attend a church which believes or practices otherwise. This is simply a matter of consistency. 

One of the most divisive arguments is over the doctrines of Calvinism versus the doctrines of Arminianism. Theologians have argued, and wise people thought hard. This is an example where both seem contradictory, and yet in some way appear correct from a certain point of view. I certainly believe in pre-destination and God's sovereignty. However, scripture reveals also our responsibility in choosing Christ. This is an example where balance is required, but not in all truth separation because both have aspects of truth but are not in fact the whole truth by themselves. 
Now we can, having surveyed doctrine, move on to practice. The modern church is being attacked for the truths we hold. We are called to be as salt in the world in which we live. The most obvious example of this is in our view of sexuality. God created man and woman to be joined together, and to multiply by reproducing. He ordained that the act of making love was to be confined to marriage. Death was the punishment of the female caught in extra-marital sex. God did not command or ordain sodomy, lesbianism, bestiality or adultery. In fact, He commanded against them. Let us consider sodomy. Romans 1:27-32 read: 

"And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;
Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
Who knowing the judgement of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but have pleasure in them that do them."

Paul points out that God is not only angry with the behaviour of the sodomite, but also with the person who backs their behaviour. They are under God's judgement. We must be Christ-like in our attitude to these people. They have sinned and need a saviour, just as the person who lusts after a person of the opposite sex, just as the drunkard, just as us in fact. However, the church is regularly compromising the truth for these people. We must not love both the sinner and the sin. Given the severity of Paul's words, it seems that the Bible suggests we must not fellowship where sin is not described as sin, or is condoned. Churches which do not condemn this practice have sold out to the world, and whilst they may have numbers, they will not have God's blessing. A similar example to sodomy is the practice of "living in sin" or as it is now known "co-habitation". This also is an example of an issue the church has compromised God's command on. The point here is that the church must stick to the rules for life laid out in the Bible, and if they do not, the Christian must leave. 

Government of the church is an area where it is easier to comment. This area has lots of different views. Wesley viewed Anglican government to be within the spirit of the Biblical guidelines, whilst also feeling there to be no definite system of government. Calvin, Luther, Darby and others have all advocated different systems of government, and it must be admitted that each studied scripture carefully and have certain aspects of truth. I feel that this is an example where believers can agree to differ as it is very much a side issue and abuses can happen in all systems. 

If we consider certain other practices, such as style or the Toronto Experience, we will get different answers for different practices. Hymns versus Choruses caused one church I know to split, and I think we can see that this is in fact ridiculous. Content is more important than style [- see editorial in this issue]. We must obey the commands laid down for decency and order etc. In these, however, we have a fair degree of Christian liberty. Order and decency do not mean dry and restrictive. Nor must we ignore the excesses found in many churches. Liberty must be Biblical. Areas such as the Toronto Experience, where no satisfactory scriptural basis for the manifestations was offered, are different again. We must be wary of such things. The occult roots of the TE are well documented and need not be discussed here. It suffices for me to observe that we are not to partake in such occult activities. I feel the Bible is so clear on this point that, in fact, leaving such a church is the only consistent scriptural position. Paul asks in a different context "What fellowship does light have with darkness?" We must warn and then, if unheeded, leave. 

Coming to my conclusion, I feel that, first, I would like to remind people that times of trouble invariably accompany leaving a fellowship, not just for the one leaving, but also for those who stay. Sometimes these people can be weak or young in the faith, and a damaging split will hurt them. I would advise that if one has to leave, one should keep these people especially in one's prayers. 

Pray that they might find the truth, that they might be strengthened and blessed. Encourage them in the service of the Lord. These people are often the unwitting victims and their hearts are right, but their "zeal is without knowledge". Try to keep in contact with these little ones. Pray for the church, specifically regarding the area they have erred in. If they have expelled you, remember to pray for those who have despitefully used you. 


In the area of doctrine, I feel the Biblical teaching is that the Christian definitely needs to leave in situations where foundational truth is incorrect or ignored. Staying where a false gospel is preached will do us no good. On certain areas, we find something which appears non-foundational but which can become a leaving matter. Baptism, as shown earlier, is a good example. Baptism does not save, but to obey the command of scripture often means having to leave. The final area of doctrine surveyed is in fact not to be separated over. This includes such areas as Predestination versus Freewill etc. 

The area of practice has similar groups. Foundational practices includes accepting what the Bible calls sin as being sin. The church which comprises these commands is on very thin ice. Immorality has no place in the church. Paul (in 1 Cor. 5:9, 11, 13), in a context of fornication in the Corinthian church, repeatedly tells the believers not to keep company with the immoral person who claims to be a brother. Obviously, if the church you attend does these things, then they are not going to excommunicate themselves. Therefore, to obey the scripture, you must leave. 

Another foundational practice concerns the occult. In a well-known London church, there are regular meetings with psychics, witches and leading new-agers. As Christians, we must echo Paul's cry in 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, and say we can have no fellowship with people who are involved in such things. Christ has no concord with Belial. The temple of God has no agreement with idols. The scriptures discussed above, in 2 John, tell us that to wish God speed to such people means we partake in their evil deeds. Can we in all conscience attend a church in such a situation? Paul immediately answers this question in 2 Corinthians 6:17-18. 

I hope and pray sincerely that these situations never arise in your life, and that your fellowship may be blessed in following the truth. God bless you and keep you. Amen. 

James R. Buchan