Revisiting church membership and excommunication
Dealing with withdrawals is one of those difficult issues that eventually every consistory faces. All the more vexing is the fact that our church order appears not to address it at all. How do we account for this and what procedure should be followed? I hope to give some guidance on these matters in what follows.
A brief historical overview
Reformed history in cases of withdrawal shows that two points are of importance. It comes down to:
- How we understand the character of church membership – is it something that a member may take up and put down, or is it the responsibility of the consistory to bestow and take away?
- How we understand the function of the church order’s procedure for excommunication – is the procedure of excommunication intended to be used in cases where a member wants to leave?
In the 16th and 17th centuries the procedure for excommunication in the church order was applied to those who withdrew for no good reason – it was even applied to those who declared that they were joining another church. It was understood that a church member did not have the right to terminate his membership.1
This same excommunication procedure was also followed by the churches of the secession (1834), except when members left for another Reformed church. For those members the consistory instead made a declaration that their membership in their original church was terminated.
It wasn’t until the 1860s that synods received proposals to acquiesce in a withdrawal. The idea was that the consistory, rather than exercise discipline on a member who withdrew, would instead simply let him withdraw. After heated debate, spread out over three synods, it was decided that in cases where a member withdrew consistories would be allowed to choose between the procedure of excommunication or to read off a simple declaration of withdrawal.
The entire faculty of the Theological School at Kampen sharply objected to the introduction of this second option – they didn’t believe a member should be allowed to withdraw.
The churches of the Doleantie (1886) gave in to withdrawals from the beginning. This had to do with Abraham Kuyper’s view of church membership, which, as he taught, begins and ends by an act of the free will of the individual. This contrasted with the historical position that the responsibility for church membership rests with the consistory, not the individual. But Kuyper’s view prevailed, and church discipline after withdrawal was therefore considered incorrect. This issue was raised again at several synods rather soon after the union of 1892 and the decisions favored Kuyper’s ideas – especially because of the strong influence of his colleague Prof. F. L. Rutgers.
After the Liberation (1944), not a single general synod has dealt with the issue of withdrawal. It would appear that in practice the customs existing before the war were generally followed, with the exception of inferring withdrawals from circumstantial evidence. Previously this had been forbidden, but the practice has become widespread within the Liberated churches. Some in the Liberated churches even defended Kuyper’s view that it is a church member’s self-determination which ends his membership.
It looked as though the triumph of Kuyper over traditional Reformed polity on the character of church membership was complete. However, the 1990’s saw a reversal of this trend. In this respect, advice given by Professor M. Te Velde on June 14, 1997 to the Reformed Churches of New Zealand is very interesting. Te Velde defends the premise…
…that to belong to the church is not a matter of man’s absolute free will and free choice. He who withdraws himself from the church ought to receive a response from that church. And (unlike with various other societal relationships) not a response that is neatly neutral and bureaucratic or perhaps with regret and in impotence concludes and records what the departing individual is doing, but appends to it an authoritative judgment and explicitly declares that, for that person, entitlement to the privileges and promises, bound up with church membership, has ended. Brother “N” cuts the bond with the congregation. The church affirms this (after admonition and appeal) by declaring from its perspective that Brother “N” no longer belongs to the congregation.
We are not used to referring to this declaration by the church as “censure” or “discipline.” But it is related. After all, it pronounces judgment, it has a judicial character.2
Here the perspective is no longer that of Kuyper and his colleague Rutgers, but that of the Reformed Churches from the time of the Reformation. Only the practical implementation is different. Te Velde believes that church membership
The one area where Te Velde and Kuyper’s colleague Rutgers both agree is that the disciplinary procedure we find in our church order is intended for those who must be evicted from the church despite the fact that they themselves are determined to remain – it is not meant for those who want to leave.
The form for excommunication in the liturgical forms is derived entirely from the discipline procedure prescribed in the church order. Where that procedure is not followed – where the steps of church discipline have not occurred – the form for excommunication clearly cannot be used. However, in cases of voluntary withdrawals – cases where the formal steps of discipline are not involved – Te Velde does make the suggestion that, several weeks prior to the final declaration, the congregation can be notified of the brother’s desire to withdraw and asked to admonish and pray for him.
The character of church membership
A key question to understanding how we should treat withdrawals concerns where the ultimate responsibility for entering into and being removed from membership in the church of Christ belongs. Can a church member of his own free will terminate his membership? In what follows I mention a number of considerations which show, in my opinion, that the responsibility for church membership rests with the consistory. There is, of course, a correlative. A consistory cannot use force to compel someone to remain a member of Christ’s church.
We begin with the much quoted text of 1 Corinthians 5:12.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?
Paul has admonished the congregation of Corinth to excommunicate a particular sinner. He then tries to clear up a misunderstanding. In verses 9-13 he writes that he had told them “not to keep company with sexually immoral people,” but he did not mean immoral people in the world. It was never the intention that church members would not be allowed to associate with notorious sinners among the general public – for then they would have to go and live on another planet. No, he says, only brothers who remain in their sins (and for that reason are placed outside the fellowship of the church) must be avoided. The distinction Paul makes between “the people of this world” and a so-called “brother” is not between actual members of the Christian congregation and non-members, but between those who once were part of the fellowship in Christ and those who never had any connection with that fellowship. In our form for excommunication we also continue to call someone who has been expelled a brother. And this is appropriate, for the evicted person remains a brother – although a brother who is excluded from the benefits in Christ because of hardening in a certain sin. In this regard we can see that it is impossible to break the bonds of fellowship once joined – even though membership in the church is terminated. However, this text gives no answer to the question as to whether a church member can terminate his own membership.
Lord’s Day 31 of the catechism can provide some clarification. Someone who has left the church remains a brother, but he is a brother of whom it is publicly stated that he is no longer admitted to the sacraments and that he has so hardened himself in sin that the consistory can no longer bear official responsibility for him. This is the second key of church discipline.
In the highest sense, the final responsibility for the taking up and laying down of membership in the church of Christ rests, of course, with Christ himself. That perspective leads directly to the premise that here on earth the shepherds of the church, appointed by Christ, would bear that responsibility in his name. According to Hebrews 13:17 they will be held to account on judgment day for their rule. The keys of the kingdom of heaven are given to the office bearers to bind and loosen from sins (cf. Matt.16:19 with John 20:23). For that reason this binding and loosening is restated after the procedure for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-18.
The responsibility for making a pronouncement regarding this does not belong to the church member, but to the office bearers who have charge over his soul.
There is a direct parallel between defection from the church and admission to church membership. As we confess in Lord’s Day 21, Christ gathers his church throughout the ages. He establishes faith in people’s hearts by his Holy Spirit. Because of that faith there is a desire to follow Christ and join his church. People who have come to faith are admitted to Christ’s church by means of profession of faith and baptism (cf. Acts 2:41). This baptism is administered by office bearers of the church, ruling in the name of Christ. Someone who joins the Christ’s church does this voluntarily and may never be coerced. For its part the church has that liberty as well and can never be forced into baptizing people indiscriminately. The final responsibility for baptism rests with the consistory.
A person who by faith and the administration of baptism is admitted to Christ’s church also shares in his promises, including the promise that God includes his children in his covenant. Hence infant baptism. If having reached adulthood, these children do not want to accept this baptism and rebel against the church of God, they are to be admonished and (if unrepentant) must be excommunicated. As the form puts it, adult children, who obstinately deny communion with Christ, are excluded from his fellowship. They are declared to have no share in his benefits as long as they do not repent.
In summary, Scripture continues to view those, who have been put out of the church in some sense, as “brothers” who are not to be equated with those who have never been a member. A different ethic applies to excommunicants than applies to those outside the church. Furthermore, Scripture makes clear that determination of membership is a matter for those whom Christ has placed as shepherds over his flock. If a sheep strays, this does not automatically release the shepherds from their duty to go after that sheep!
The use of the steps for excommunication
Although the Reformed churches originally intended that the procedure of church discipline (based on Matthew 18) be used in all cases of church defection (i.e., for those who wished to remain a member as well as those who wanted to leave the church) there are sufficient reasons for holding to Rutgers’ premise, that the steps for excommunication in the church order are more suited to people who must against their will be placed outside the church.
In such cases the safety valve provided by the scrutiny of a classis make sense. Indiscriminate expulsion of people from the church, against their own intentions, must be guarded against.
We must also ask whether it is appropriate to undertake a lengthy disciplinary procedure against someone who no longer wishes to remain a member. Although we do not concede to him the right, nor the authority, to discontinue his own membership, his case is in its nature different from that of someone who despite hardening in sin, desires to retain membership. Paul says in Titus 3:10-11 “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.” It would therefore be a mistake to apply Matthew 18 to all cases of church discipline. The church order rightly states that public sins are not intended here. When our Lord gave his disciples guidelines on how to deal with sin within their circle, He did not give them a detailed church order. The object of Matthew 18 is a private sinner from within the circle of the disciples. Essentially this case has little in common with someone who openly declares that he no longer wants to belong to that circle (i.e., the church). Therefore to propose an approach other than the one prescribed here does not have to be unbiblical.
There is much in favor of a consistory acquiescing to the wish of someone who no longer wants to be a member. The desire must not be a sudden urge but a well considered position to which someone is clearly committed. In that case the consistory can proceed with making an appropriate announcement about the membership of that brother. The nature of the announcement will depend upon the circumstances of the withdrawal.
Differentiation in withdrawals
It is obvious that withdrawals differ in nature. At least three different circumstances can be considered:
A) Withdrawal for reasons that do not warrant discipline
Someone may withdraw because he is moving to a country where we have no sister churches. This person, however, fully intends to join the church of Christ there. Under those circumstances we would wish that person God’s blessing. We never say that our sister churches are the only true churches of Christ in this world!
The consistory in its announcement will say only that brother “X” is no longer a member of the church. Depending on circumstances something could be added regarding his/her destination.
B) Withdrawal for unclear reasons
There will always be cases which are difficult to assess. For instance, someone moves suddenly without notification and sends a letter of withdrawal. If further contact is impossible, the consistory should not resort to guessing his motivation. No one may have motivations imputed to him. Before a withdrawal is deemed deserving of discipline there must be certainty. The withdrawing member must be given the benefit of the doubt.
In a statement about such cases the consistory must be careful. The statement cannot go beyond an announcement that the brother involved is no longer a member of the church. Any expression of “regret” should not support the suspicion that that person was necessarily deserving of discipline.
C) Withdrawal for reasons which warrant discipline
By far most cases in this category are of people who withdraw themselves during disciplinary procedure. The brother may already have been suspended from the Lord’s Supper. In that case the consistory has already informed the brother that, without repentance, he will end up outside the kingdom of heaven. That message is clearly explained in the form for the Lord’s Supper, which warns members to withhold themselves if they become hardened in certain sins. It states: “we declare to them that they have no part in the Kingdom of Christ.” That pronouncement remains in effect “while they persist in their sins.” The pronouncement is provisional. If the disciplinary procedure does not end in withdrawal then the declaration in the form is simply a public confirmation of this provisional judgment. It was conveyed to the person long ago when he was first suspended. The public declaration that this person stands outside the kingdom of Christ is of significance to both him and the congregation. He must repent and the congregation is exhorted to act in such a manner that this message reaches him.3
What must be done then when someone, while under discipline, withdraws? Such a person says that he does not intend to repent. His act of withdrawal is in this instance a public sin.
In an announcement to the congregation his name and his desire to withdraw can be made public, and the congregation exhorted to admonish the brother. Because of his declared desire to leave the church, the approval of the classis is no longer required before his name can be made public. If, after some weeks, the conclusion must be drawn that he has hardened himself in this desire, the consistory will have to announce that the efforts of the congregation did not turn this brother from his sinful way and a declaration is made that he is no longer a member of the congregation.
The congregation may already know the standing of this brother from the announcement of his name in the second step. The congregation is then exhorted to exert itself on his behalf so that he may come to repentance. In the implementation of the excommunication mention is made of the fact that the elders and congregation have tried everything to bring him to repentance and that their responsibilities – in the ecclesiastical sense – have come to an end. The judgment, however, remains conditional. A person who has been excommunicated can always return if he shows remorse. But until he does, he remains excluded from the office bearers’ care for the church.
For this reason there can be no objection to making an announcement in the final declaration of the consistory by which his membership is terminated and the sinner’s standing with regard to the kingdom of heaven is stated. On the contrary, there is every reason to make clear to the sinner, as well as the congregation, the seriousness of the matter.
In conjunction with the preceding I propose that the following decisions be taken:
- The consistory decides that in all cases of withdrawal a judicial declaration be made by which the membership of the person concerned is terminated and in which the consistory shall give a clear explanation of its responsibility for this.
- The consistory decides in cases of withdrawal for reasons which warrant church discipline to:
- make an announcement to the congregation several weeks before the judicial declaration. In this announcement the desire of the person involved to withdraw shall be made known and the congregation shall be exhorted to pray for him and to admonish him in a brotherly manner.
- announce in the judicial declaration that, if the person involved does not come to repentance, he will remain outside the kingdom of Christ, according to the form for the Lord’s Supper celebration.4
1 For detailed case studies and relevant decisions see my paper “Reformed Church Polity concerning Withdrawal of Church Membership”
2 Professor M. Te Velde’s Advice to The Reformed Churches of New Zealand, June 14, 1997., Par. 8.
3 See my article, “The Sinews Of The Church, Biblical Principles Concerning Church Discipline”
4 p.593 Book of Praise “we declare to them that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ”
Rev. Dr. R. D. Anderson is pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Rockingham, Western Australia. This article is an abbreviated version of a much longer article on his website: “Reformed Church Polity concerning Withdrawal of Church Membership.”