The Bible commands us to "be subject to the governing authorities," including our church leaders, because they have been instituted by God (Romans 13:1). However, the Bible also tells us to stop following church leaders who do not meet God's standards for shepherding His flock.
In DesiringGod.org's 'Ask the Pastor,' Christian pastor and author John Piper addresses a question about when believers must draw the line between their loyalty to God and their loyalty to their local church—in other words, when they should decide to leave the church.
Piper explains that although the New Testament implies the importance of being a part of a local church, the believers' loyalty to that church "is not absolute like the loyalty to the people of God in general."
"We know this because there are New Testament instructions which imply that a church leadership can be unworthy of being followed, which would imply no longer putting yourself under the ministry of that leadership," he says.
So when is it necessary for Christians to stop following their pastor? Piper gives three compelling reasons taken from the Bible.
1. When the pastor is guilty of sin
Piper cites 1 Corinthians 5:11, which commands God's people not to associate with persons who call themselves followers of Jesus but are found guity of several sins: "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one."
If the pastor is guilty of these sins, then obviously, a believer must not have anything to do with him or her.
Additionally, if there is no structure within the church that allows for the pastor's discipline, or if the elders of the church are either not disciplining the pastor or are complicit with the pastor's wrongdoing, then Christians must dissociate themselves from that pastor's leadership, as God's Word clearly commands.
"The text says you're not supposed to have anything to do with him, so you clearly wouldn't sit under his ministry anymore," Piper says.
2. When the pastor refuses to repent and persists in his or her sin
The Bible explicitly says in 1 Timothy 5 that a charge against an elder must not be considered unless it is verified by two or three witnesses. However, if the charge is proven by two or three witnesses, then the church must take steps to deal with the sinning elder.
"As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear," the passage in chapter 5 continues. At this point, because the pastor has persisted in his or her sin, then that pastor is already disqualifed from being an elder of the church, Piper points out.
"If this principle of handling unqualified elders is not carried out, the people may have no choice but to dissociate from unqualified elders," Piper says. "That's the meaning of unqualified. They can't lead anymore, so they're not going to lead us."
And if the pastor refuses to step down from the leadership despite being unqualified to lead, "then we have to step out from under their leadership in order to be obedient to that text, I think," Piper says.
"I would say this is the case in thousands of churches who have pastors who do not believe in the basic truths of the gospel."
3. When the pastor does not bring the apostolic teaching
Piper refers to the text in 2 John 10-11: "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works."
Simply put, if the pastor does not impart the apostolic teaching or the teaching of Christ, then the believer should not receive him or her.
"What if it's your pastor who's not bringing the apostolic teaching, and the elders are doing nothing about it?" Piper writes. "The text says don't even greet him."
"If you're not supposed to greet him, how much more would you not attend his church?"
While there are instances when it is imperative for a believer to come out of a pastor's authority, such as in the instances mentioned above, it is likewise important to stay connected to the body of believers. The Bible tells believers that "to be united to God in Christ is to be united in principle and in love to the people of God."
Christians do not have the option to choose between loving God and loving His people; the two always go together.
"To have God is to have the family of God," Piper writes. "To have the Father is to have his children as brothers and sisters. There's no escaping it. That's the way it is. To love the Father is to love the children."
Finally, Piper emphasizes that a believer's loyalty to a local church "depends on the leadership fulfilling its moral and spiritual and doctrinal responsibilities."