We all know intuitively that there is a line between giving your child a smack and physically abusing him. While we may draw our lines in slightly different places, all decent people understand that there is a line and crossing it is evil.
Church discipline is similar, but when it comes to church discipline, where is the line between loving confrontation and abusive harassment?
Recent decades have seen a resurgence in the practice of biblical church discipline within many conservative churches. This is good. But in recent years, I have noted a trend which I believe is dangerous both in the damage it does to individuals and in the damage it will do to the church as the state steps in to protect individuals from further damage.
One author promotes abusive discipline in this way:
If someone tries to resign mid-process in order to escape discipline, should the church just let them go? Of course not. That would defeat the whole point of church discipline. Instead, the church must retain the right to refuse someone’s resignation and send them out another way—through excommunication.
A second author says that one of the mistakes churches make in practicing church discipline is that “they fail to teach new members as they enter the church about the possibility of church discipline, and that preemptive resignations don’t work.” In other words, once you’re a member, you cannot resign church membership without the permission of the church/pastor.
Of course we might not be too surprised to find such thinking in the extreme backwaters of Fundamentalism, but neither of the above comments come from Fundamentalism. Rather, both were published by 9Marks, a ministry connected with Mark Dever who is a mainstream conservative evangelical and has been a catalyst in the resurgence of the practice of church discipline (first and second quotation source, emphases added). A closer look at Dever reveals that the constitution of the church he pastors contains the following statement:
The church shall have authority to refuse a member’s voluntary resignation or transfer of membership to another church, either for the purpose of proceeding with a process of church discipline, or for any other biblical reason.
Raising the alarm
I appreciate Mark Dever’s ministry in general and have no desire to attack him or the ministry he is connected with. However, I believe this 9Marks-promoted teaching on church discipline is dangerous and needs to be addressed. I am, therefore, raising the alarm. Brothers, we must not mar the purity of Christ’s church either by refusing to exercise church discipline or by exercising it abusively. Doing so will damage individual believers, churches, and the reputation of Jesus Christ in the eyes of the world.
I’ll argue my case in a moment, but first, I want you to step into the shoes of Adam and Adele’s pastor.
Adele the adulteress
Adam and Adele were saved three years ago soon after their marriage. The first two years were full of spiritual growth and heavy involvement in the ministry of the church. More recently, things had been cooling off a bit. They still attended church regularly, but the excitement had drained away. Christianity had become somewhat routine.
Then a few months ago, you got a phone call from Adam late one night. He could hardly even get the words out: “She’s gone… she left me for a guy at work…” The following weeks were full of tears and talks, confessions and confrontations. Adele’s position was simple: “I love Jon. He treats me right. I’m not coming back.” Still, she thought of herself as a Christian and sometimes brought Jon to church of a Sunday night.
The morning after that first phone call from Adam, you had gone with him to confront his wife and urge her to change her mind. She felt sorry for Adam but was firm in her decision to stay with Jon. Over the following weeks, there had been many meetings involving many within the church body begging Adele to turn things around. Finally, after many weeks of tears and prayers and visits, the elders sent an email to Adele notifying her that as the matter has been addressed many times privately and she has refused to listen, on the following Sunday evening she would be brought before the church to involve the whole congregation in seeking to draw her to repentance. Within an hour of sending the email, the elders got a response.
To whom it may concern:
I hereby tender my resignation from the membership of the church. Please stop trying to contact me. I have made my decision and I’m not changing my mind.
As you read the closing lines of the email, your heart sinks. After all the tears and discussions and prayers, you had desperately hoped it wouldn’t end like this. Now it has… or has it?
Five reasons “denying” resignations is wrong
Let me be clear. Church discipline is not abuse. Scripture clearly spells out the obligation that a church has to hold her members accountable. I am referring here to an abuse of church discipline that goes far beyond both the commands of Scripture and the purpose of church discipline.
In the first paragraph, I compared church discipline to disciplining a child. The parallel I intend to draw is not between disciplining children versus disciplining church members. That would be to misunderstand the relationship of church members to the church. Rather, I intend to contrast discipline with abuse. The first is loving, healthy, and wholesome. The second is sinful, destructive, and heinous.
Let me give you five reasons it is wrong to deny voluntary resignation.
1) The Bible gives no authority for denying a resignation.
Let’s be frank. The Bible says nothing explicitly about the procedures for membership in a local body. Membership in the Universal Body is clearly taught (Ephesians 4:4-6) and membership with a local assembly is assumed and implied. But nothing is said about the procedures, if any, for such membership. Typically, Baptists conclude (as do I) that there was some sort of formal membership in the early local church. We even tend to follow the practice of offering letters of “transfer” for members who are moving from one church to another. This seems to be based on a few passages in which Paul, a man with apostolic authority, commends a Christian leader to a church (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8:23-24, Philippians 2:29, Colossians 4:10, etc.). Still, the instruction on church procedures of this nature are non-existent. Any “instructions” must be inferred from comments in the epistles and even then we must assume that such comments in the New Testament are prescriptive (what we must do), not merely descriptive (what they did).
Jamieson’s argument from Scripture is weak:
When your church made [a] person a member, you were declaring to the world that this person belongs to the kingdom of Jesus (Mt. 16:18-19). By regarding this person as a member, your church affirmed that he is indeed a “brother” in Christ (1 Cor. 5:11-13).
So what’s the problem? Hebrews 10:24-25 commands us not to forsake assembling together. Therefore, any professing Christian who quits going to church is living in habitual, unrepentant sin. And the way a church addresses unrepentant sin is not by merrily sending that person on his way, but by removing their affirmation of a “member” and a “brother” (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). When the player quits showing up on game day, the team has to take back his jersey.
The obvious question is, in what possible way can we construe accepting the fact that someone has resigned and is no longer within the circle of our authority “merrily sending that person on his way”? Especially when the person leaves during the process of discipline!
Let’s look at how this would look in the case of Adele. The Sunday evening following the email from Adele, one of the elders stands before the church announcing that during the process of discipline, Adele has chosen to resign from membership in the church. He explains that the church needs to continue to pray for and reach out to Adele to try to draw her back to obedience to Christ, but sadly, for now, the church has done everything in its power/authority to restore her and the relationship has been severed.
In no possible sense could this be construed as “merrily sending [Adele] on [her] way.” She is no longer counted among the membership. There has been a clear break. As the process was not completed, it is impossible to legitimately affirm as a body that she is not a sister in Christ, but then Scripture never gives authority to do so even after discipline. What Scripture says is that the one who is put out from the church is to be treated as an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17). As the process was not completed with Adele, the outcome is somewhat more ambiguous. Nevertheless, the biblical obligations of the church have been fulfilled and no one is under the illusion that the church is comfortable with where Adele is at spiritually. Even if Adele’s sin had been private and the confrontation limited to a few key people in the church, an announcement of her resignation along with indication that the circumstances of her resignation were not good fulfils the purpose of church discipline by ensuring both the purity of the church and doing everything possible to bring the sinner to repentance.
2) Theology argues against denying resignations.
The most relevant doctrines are the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of man. I will address the former in a moment, but the latter is of crucial importance. If we truly believe the fundamental doctrine of total depravity, we know that every form of human government is highly susceptible to corruption. Even church government. This danger is magnified in circles of Fundamentalism where a “senior pastor” is often given near-absolute authority in the church. Such scenarios consistently and predictably lead to the abuse of authority.
There are many reasons why a person might legitimately need to resign and move to another church and in which it is unlikely that a letter of transfer would be granted. For instance, the church may have weak or false doctrine or an unbiblical leadership structure, there may be irreconcilable doctrinal disagreement, there may be philosophical differences, a church may be in sin (such as not handling a situation biblically), a pastor may go rogue or be in unrepentant sin, etc. Sometimes the reasons are more innocent. For instance, a family wants to help out with a new church plant or a church has been found where the doctrine and philosophy of ministry is more in line with a person’s convictions.
In each of these cases, a person may be refused a letter of transfer by a church/pastor. In many circumstances, we would accept that the person should leave anyway. Should their resignation then be “denied” and church discipline pursued? Surely this places an unacceptable level of authority in the hands of church leaders who are then controlling the lives of the other church members.
This brings us to the doctrine of the church. As we know, the church is not the building and it is not the organisation. The church is the people. And the head of the church is not the pastor or the board or the congregation. The head of the church is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ told us in no uncertain terms (Matthew 13:24ff) that the visible church will have members who are not believers. The solution Jesus gives is not to go on a witch hunt to work out who is a true believer and who is deceived. Jesus specifically warned what will happen if we try this approach: “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” Rather, we are to leave such cases to God.
The church is however obligated to address obvious sin within the church according Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth. The text of 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 says it plainly: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (emphasis added). Once a person has resigned from the membership of the church, they are no longer “inside.” They are “outside.” And it is at that moment that the obligation—and the authority—of the local church stops. To continue to pursue confrontational contact with Adele after her email would be abuse, not obedience.
3) History argues against denying resignations.
Jamieson argues that Baptists have long rejected voluntary resignation. Without entering that argument in depth, it seems odd to argue based on this point since church history is dominated by an almost unending succession of abuses and misuses of disciplinary power. The Roman church used prison, torture, and execution-by-fire among their “discipline” practices. The Protestants did the same at times. It was the Baptists themselves, ironically, who often argued against such abuse of Scripture and the church’s power.
If history teaches us anything about church discipline, it is that human leaders cannot be given absolute power without being corrupted.
Let’s look at Adele’s situation again following the idea that her resignation can/should be “denied.” The elders respond to Adele’s email—against her explicit request—stating that they do not accept her resignation and that they intend to continue with the discipline process as planned. Adele responds demanding that they leave her alone. On Sunday evening, the elders bring her situation before the church. The church members are urged to confront her and urge her to repentance as is Scriptural at the final stage of discipline.
By Tuesday, Adele has received visits from multiple church members as well as phone calls and emails from concerned believers and she has had enough. She writes to the elders again insisting that the visits, calls, and emails stop. The following Sunday, the elders affirm that the church must continue to confront her and so the contacts continue. Within a few days, Adele is frazzled by the barrage of unwelcome confrontations and contacts the police asking what she can do to stop the harassment. She is advised that she will need to contact a solicitor and so reluctantly commences the process of seeking legal protection from the church. As it happens, the church finalises the discipline process before any significant legal action is required, but the damage is done. The church has crossed the line from loving confrontation to harassment and bullying and Adele’s heart is forever closed to that congregation—and any similar congregation—not because of loving confrontation, but because of the harassment and the utter disregard for her dignity, freedom, and privacy. Unfortunately, the damage is broader than that. The police officer who took Adele’s call has mentioned the situation to several other officers as well as his wife. The solicitor and court clerk and judge are also aware of what happened. Furthermore, unbelievers and young believers who have been attending the church become aware of the situation. Adele’s sin was a tragedy. The sin of the church is a greater tragedy.
4) Logic argues against denying resignation.
The Constitution of the church Mark Dever leads outlines the purpose of church discipline:
a) The purpose of such discipline should be for the repentance, reconciliation, and spiritual growth of the individual disciplined;
b) For the instruction in righteousness and good of other Christians, as an example to them;
c) For the purity of the church as a whole;
d) For the good of our corporate witness to non-Christians; and
e) Supremely for the glory of God by reflecting His holy character (p. 3, ll. 21-41).
So let’s look at Adele’s situation. If she resigns, is the purpose of the discipline process accomplished? Well, it hasn’t resulted in repentance or reconciliation, but then neither does church discipline if it gets to the final stage. Still, every attempt to draw Adele to repentance has been made.
Second, do you think it would even be possible to preach about the damage of adultery without every person in that church thinking about the tragedy with Adele?
Third, there was sin in the church. It has been removed. The purity of the church has been protected.
Fourth, the testimony of the church in the community is protected because a clear, public break has occurred. If someone at the local hair salon were sharing the gossip about Adele’s adultery and someone said “Wait, isn’t that the Adele that goes to the church down the road?” the answer would no doubt be “Well, she used to, but they got on her about her relationship with Jon and she left.” In other words, the relationship with the church has been severed one way or another and the purpose has been met.
Finally, points three and five are related as fire is related to smoke. God is glorified in the purity of the church.
So here’s the big point: If resignation meets the purpose of church discipline (and it would be hard to imagine a case in which it didn’t), what right does the church have to deny resignation? Why would it want to or need to?
5) Legal concerns argue against denying resignations.
I want to be clear. Legal concerns are not decisive in such matters. But where Scripture is silent, or leaves room for varying approaches, legal concerns are an essential factor for those who take Scripture seriously (Romans 13).
While Australia does not have a bill of rights (at least not yet), we do subscribe to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states simply “No one may be compelled to belong to an association” [s 20(2)]. This is so obvious and basic that it shouldn’t need to be said. In fact, all the words we associate with keeping someone against his will are negative: Prison, slavery, trapped, snared, cornered, kidnapped, custody, etc. This is not God’s plan for the local church.
But there is another legal issue at stake. If we, as Christian churches, will not restrain our authority and use it in ways which are consistent with freedom and human dignity, the government can, should, and will step in to protect her citizens. In some places, this has already happened. We would be foolish to think that we can badger, harass, intimidate, and/or bully and then expect the government to sit back and do nothing. They should act to stop such abuse. But do we really want to force a parliamentary committee to set out legal guidelines for church discipline? How much better to solve the problem ourselves by careful study of Scripture and firm self-regulation?
There is no excuse for the church to seek to dominate and control the lives of her members. Those who are Christ’s are members of his universal body regardless of our processes and approaches. While the obligation to church discipline is a solemn duty, we must not carry it out in a way that brings dishonour to the name of Jesus Christ, the head of the church, and presents him to the community as a heavy-handed thug.
To put it another way, God is sovereign. He doesn’t need us to be.
Grace to you.