Church Hurt: A Christian’s Response

Church hurt. This phrase has exploded in recent use. I often see Facebook posts headlined with “Trigger warning: Church hurt.” Underneath, stories emerge of disappointment, betrayal, exclusion…the examples go on and on, as varied as the individuals who share them.

To be honest, I don’t love the term church hurt simply because the experiences behind this phrase are so varied. It feels more straightforward to just talk about the specific experience. People within churches have hurt and disappointed me. Many Christians could say the same. Though we’re perhaps the generation to have coined the phrase, we’re not the first generation to feel the sting. Read through Scripture and you’ll discover nearly every New Testament letter includes some form of correction to churches. Consider Paul in 2 Corinthians who talks about “affliction and anguish of heart” (2 Corinthians 2:4)1 and describes one who “has caused grief” (2 Corinthians 2:5) as he exhorts and corrects a church that, honestly, had a lot of issues.

People within churches have been messing up and causing problems from its inception. This can be readily acknowledged. But because our goal should be to look at everything through the lens of Scripture, that has to be our starting place, above even the situations and stories prompting our search. What is the Church? Why and how does pain within local churches happen? Is this pain a valid argument for taking a break from church or breaking cleanly altogether? To arrive at biblical responses for church hurt, we need to answer these questions first.

What is the Church?2
Church has morphed throughout the generations. Unfortunately, much of what we call church today looks little like the church outlined in Acts and the rest of the Epistles. Imagine Paul or Peter walking into most church buildings. Would they recognize it? Because of this evolved nature, many church-goers don’t fully understand what they’re supposed to be a part of. For starters, church primarily isn’t something to go to at all. It’s something to be joined to.

Let’s start with a concise definition: The Church is Christ’s body (Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:12–27) and Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:23), purchased by Christ’s blood (Acts 20:28). This body and bride is composed of members, aka people (1 Corinthians 12:27), who regularly gather together (Hebrews 10:25) under the headship of shepherds, aka elders and teachers (1 Peter 5:1–4), to learn God’s Word, exhort and encourage one another, and do life alongside each other (Acts 2:41–47).

Church is the gathering of Christ’s redeemed people. Those who are saved by Christ belong to the Church. Those who belong to the Church gather together as a local congregation. The two go hand in hand. Church, biblically defined, is a far cry from the experience many have where “church” is simply a weekly or bi-weekly event on their schedules. The Church is also not a social club or an organization created and led by people. It’s the only institution entirely distinct and set apart from every other institution in our society.

Church is the gathering of Christ’s redeemed people. Those who are saved by Christ belong to the Church

There are four key takeaways from this definition:

1. The Church belongs to Christ.
2. Members of the Church belong to Christ.
3. Christ alone has the authority to decree both how the Church and its members function.
4. Not everything labeled “Church” or everyone inside a local gathering abides by Christ’s commands.

Why and How Does Church Hurt Happen?

1. When the Church Is Unbiblical

God has clear commands in his Word of how churches should operate. The Church is not a man-made idea, nor an organization people can run however they wish. Christ has both created the Church and designated its function. Practically, these commands comprise things like:

When these commands are disregarded, local churches become unhealthy and people within are inevitably hurt. People who are part of an unbiblical church don’t have an accurate representation of what a church gathering is supposed to be. Yet, sadly, these experiences are often used as a reason to keep their distance from churches, even though what was experienced was never supposed to be how they operated in the first place.

For example, we’ve all heard of stories of pastors stepping down from their role because of sin being exposed in their life. Countless individuals feel betrayed and shocked when this happens, and from this experience, they leave the church. This is first a sin in the individual’s life, but we also need to ask: Did this pastor hold the qualifications for eldership or was he selected for other, more superficial reasons? Was he rigorously tested to see if he was qualified for the role? Did he have a proven lifestyle of faithfulness? Did he have biblical accountability from other qualified elders or was he an island unto himself? Was sin being regularly dealt with and confronted or was it hidden from view?

If we dug deep into these situations, we would almost always find these biblical requirements were not being followed. A situation like this results in genuine pain and shock. This is not how God desired the Church and those leading it to operate. That’s why he put safeguards in place.

2. Because There Are Sinners in the Church
Much hurt isn’t on a larger scale like the example above, but on a one-to-one level. Disagreements, exclusion, insensitivity…basically whatever happens when people get together.

These are not specifically Church problems, but rather human problems. That they take place within a local church doesn’t reflect the universal Church, it reflects that whenever we gather with other “still being sanctified” individuals, we’re going to sin against each other. Whether it’s between members or leaders, both have the capacity to sin against one another. Large-scale or small-scale, it all goes back to the root of sin. There also may be “wolves in sheep’s clothing” wreaking havoc, trying to bring division and dissension. This is why church leaders are told to “take heed to [themselves] and all the flock” (Acts 20:28) to guard against unbelievers leading others astray and hurting the members.

3. When the Church Acts Biblically
Sometimes, people claim to be hurt because the local church and its members were actually acting biblically. For example, what happens when a church stands firm on God’s design for gender, sexuality, and marriage? Or when they confront legitimate sin? Or refuse to soften the message on sin, holiness, doctrine, and theology? People get offended.

Are we genuinely hurt by the sin of others? Or is our sin hurt by biblical love and the conviction of God’s Word?

Being part of a biblical church may not always be a fun experience. Experiencing the accountability and conviction of a truly biblical body of Christ may hurt—a lot. It hurts because our own sin and pride are being exposed. It takes a great deal of love and compassion to gently, but truthfully, confront an area of sin in another’s life. While this is often labeled judgmental or hypocritical, it’s actually exactly what Christians are commanded to do. Iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17). This means friction. And friction hurts. Are we genuinely hurt by the sin of others? Or is our sin hurt by biblical love and the conviction of God’s Word?

How Should We Respond When Church is Hurtful?

Left with disappointment, bitterness, and questions, how should those who have been hurt respond? Every situation is different and requires wisdom, but here are a few key thoughts.

First, don’t leave the Church. When hurt runs deep, it’s tempting to let bitterness grow. Offense is often a tool wielded by our enemy to separate the body of Christ or to cast all Christians in a negative light. This cannot be the response of followers of Jesus. Rather, when hurt runs deep we must cling to truths that run deeper and to our family in Christ Jesus.

A typical response when church hurt happens is to take a break in order to heal. “I’m still a Christian,” someone might say. “I’m not leaving the body of Christ. I just have to take time away from Christians and church.” Humanly speaking, this sounds like a safe option. Biblically speaking, it’s self-detrimental. If Christians are a body, it’s impossible to heal apart from the rest of the body. If your foot is hurt, it won’t heal by separating itself from the leg and clinging just to the head (in this example, Christ). No, it’ll heal by receiving the life-giving support the rest of the body carries to that foot. Every part of the body must remain connected to the rest of the body for the whole being to thrive and function.

Now should you leave a particular, individual church? Maybe. It depends on the situation. If there is clearly unbiblical leadership, teaching, or overall functioning, the answer would be yes. Not all churches are the Church. But that’s not a decision to be made lightly or out of emotion, and your primary objective then is to join yourself to another church. You need Christian community in order to heal more than you need isolation and time by yourself. You need sound teaching and the protection and care of biblical shepherds.

Biblical churches can be hard to find, but being a part of one is essential to the life and growth of a follower of Christ. When we’re hurt by one Christian or one church, being in the presence of other genuine followers of Christ is the balm of healing our souls need. We need the reminder that while Christians are sinners, they are also fellow saints. We need their love, counsel, biblical encouragement, and exhortation. Is finding those people often a risk of vulnerability? Yes. Could vulnerability lead to more potential pain? Of course. But the blessings of finding a body of believers who know, love, and obey the Word of God and love each other in Christ-honoring ways is worth the risk it takes to continue seeking out the Lord’s saints.

We need the reminder that while Christians are sinners, they are also fellow saints. We need their love, counsel, biblical encouragement, and exhortation

If the situation doesn’t warrant breaking away from a church, how should we respond then?

  • Possibly with biblical confrontation. There’s a reason we’re told how to appropriately confront sin. The assumption is we’ll need to. If someone has sinned against you, they may need to be confronted. Pray over the situation, examine it in light of Scripture, and then proceed following the Bible’s guidelines as closely as possible.
  • Always with forgiveness and grace. Forgiveness is not optional for the Christian (Matthew 18:21–35). Whether the offending person repents or not, we must forgive. Forgiveness is not easy, but it’s something God enables us to do through his power, not our own. I’ve wrestled with deep pain and unforgiveness, but I’ve also experienced God’s power overriding my inability to forgive when I asked him for grace to do so.

Our Certain Hope
The Church is Christ’s bride. This is our hope as followers of Jesus. Even though the church we now view with our eyes is broken and sin-riddled, the true Church is precious beyond measure. Christ gave his life for her and he promises to purify her and present her as a glorious Church—spotless, holy, and without blemish (Ephesians 5:26–27). The truth we cling to is that one day the Church will no longer sin against one another and be riddled with sin and error. One day, we’ll worship the Lord together as fully made-holy saints before our completely worthy and holy Savior.

Sara (Barratt) Starkey is the Editor-in-Chief of and the author of Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call to Bold Faith in a Confused Culture. She recently got married to her husband, Matthew, and together they make their home in Michigan. Connect with her on her website: