Church leaders often ask how they should respond when a person who is being disciplined by the church resigns before the process of discipline is complete. Should they accept the resignation or continue moving toward excommunication?
Suppose a man decides to leave his wife for another woman. Other members of the church ask the man to repent and return to his wife. He doesn’t. They ask again, but this time they also warn him about the possibility of excommunication. So, he resigns his membership. Case closed. He’s now immune. Or at least that’s what the adulterous man is saying. Is that correct?
The case in favour
A civic case for allowing pre-emptive resignations would argue that local churches, in the context of a democratic civic society, are ‘voluntary organisations’, just like the boy scouts or a gardening club. You can choose to join; you can choose to leave. And no one gives a church the right to say otherwise. In a liberal civic context, the individual reigns supreme.
Now add a theological layer to the argument for pre-emptive resignation. Human beings do not ultimately depend on their families, their churches, their nations, or their parish priests for a relationship with God. They must depend on Christ. He alone is the mediator between God and man.
This means that churches must not deny individuals the ability to act according to their consciences, which includes letting them leave church membership whenever they want to leave. Otherwise, the church effectively denies soul competency and wrongly places itself in between the individual and the individual’s Saviour. Right?
The case against
In fact, both the civic and the theological objections depend on a reductionist idea about what the church on earth is. The church on earth does not exist just because a number of individuals have freely decided to associate together in an area of common interest to them, as with the boy scouts. It does not exist just as an aid to our sanctification as believers, as an over-inflated concept of soul competency would have us believe.
Rather, the church exists because Christ came to establish his kingdom, and he means for a marked-off group of people to represent his heavenly rule on earth (see Matthew 3:2; 4:7; 5:3,5). The church exists not simply for its own sanctification’s sake or even finally for the world’s sake. It exists to accomplish the task originally given to Adam and Israel but fulfilled finally in Christ, the task of imaging or representing the glorious rule of God on earth.
The problem is, many hypocrites will claim to belong to the kingdom based on family ties or righteous deeds (e.g. Matthew 3:9; 6; 8:11-12; 13:47–50), and many will come claiming the name of Christ and saying, ‘Lord, Lord’ (Matthew 7:21-23; cf. 24:5).
But the kingdom does not belong to any and all professors; it belongs only to those who produce the fruit of the kingdom in keeping with repentance (Matthew 5:3–12; 7:15–27). ‘Watch out that no one deceives you,’ said Jesus, anticipating such false professors (Matthew 24:4).
As such, Jesus gave local churches, who are outposts of this kingdom, the authority to bind and loose, which includes the ability to excommunicate (Matthew 16:19; 18:17-19). Excommunication, then, is one aspect of the authority that Christ gives to the local church for the sake of guarding Christ’s name and reputation on earth (Matthew 18:15-20).
It’s a way of saying that someone no longer belongs to the kingdom of Christ, but to the kingdom of Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5). Just as baptism functions as a church’s way of publicly affirming an individual’s profession of faith (Matthew 28:19), so excommunication functions as the church’s way of publicly removing its corporate affirmation from an individual’s profession, because that profession appears fraudulent.
Keep in mind what church membership is from the church’s side: it’s the church’s formal affirmation of your profession of faith, together with its commitment to oversee your discipleship. Without discipline, that affirmation and oversight is meaningless, which is to say, membership is meaningless.
If a church cannot withdraw its affirmation, what good is the affirmation? For that affirmation and oversight to mean anything, the church needs to be able to ‘correct the record’. This is what excommunication is: the church saying to the community, ‘We previously affirmed this person’s profession, but we can no longer do that’.
So the individual might not like it, but the church has its own public relations problem to resolve when the individual under discipline tries to resign. In fact, an individual attempting to resign while under discipline is trying to coerce the whole church to make a public statement about the individual that the church doesn’t believe.
Consider this example
With all this in mind, consider again the example of the man who leaves his wife for another woman. The man continues to profess faith in Christ, but his profession now appears fraudulent, because his life does not produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8). He has been asked to repent, but he will not. Given a choice between his sin and the commands of his so-called Lord, he chooses his sin.
Precisely for such occasions, Jesus has given the local church the authority to excommunicate, the authority to remove its public affirmation of the man’s profession.
Once upon a time, the church had publicly affirmed the man’s profession by accepting him into membership and by sharing baptism and the Lord’s Supper with him; it had said to the onlooking world, ‘Yes, we affirm that this man is a Christ-follower’.
But now the church does not want the world to be deceived by the man’s apparently false profession. Therefore, it acts through church discipline to clarify this man’s state for its own members and for the watching world.
In so doing, it effectively says, ‘No, this is not what a Christ-follower looks like. We cannot affirm his profession, and we cannot identify him with us any longer, because to identify him with us is to identify him with our Lord. And our Lord would never abandon his wife’.
Authority to guard
Yes, individuals are ultimately accountable to God and not to their churches. Yes, individuals should choose God’s side rather than the church’s side whenever a church requires its members to go against the Word of God.
Yes, the church is a ‘voluntary organisation’ insofar as the church cannot conscript members as with an army draft, or keep them from leaving as with a slave. We’re justified by faith alone.
Still, Christ has given the corporate gathering of believers an authority he has not given to the lone individual: the authority, we might call it, of guarding the borders of the kingdom by making public statements on behalf of Christ.
It’s the authority of the White House press secretary to speak officially for the President, or of an embassy to speak officially for its government. The individual who attempts to pre-empt this process by resigning before the church enacts formal discipline is guilty of usurping the church’s apostolic authority to speak in this manner. In so doing, he compounds his guilt, like the criminal charged with ‘resisting arrest’.
Does a church put itself at legal risk by denying a pre-emptive resignation and proceeding with discipline? It can, but that risk is ameliorated, if not altogether relieved, by taking two practical steps. First, include a statement concerning church discipline in the official church documents. Second, clearly teach about the possibility of church discipline to all incoming members, and include this teaching in the standard curriculum for prospective members.
Should churches discipline members who explicitly renounce the faith? I don’t believe so. Rather, the church should do what it does when someone dies: acknowledge the fact and delete the name from the church’s membership directory. That’s all it can do. Christ has not given the church authority over the dead or over those who do not name his name.
In each case, the church covenant is simply rendered moot. It’s worth observing that two of the most important passages on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5) both instruct the church in how to respond to someone who claims to be a brother.
To state the argument here in a single paragraph, we can say that ending one’s membership in a church requires the consent of both parties. We join a church by the consent of the church, and we leave a church by the consent of the church, because it’s the local church that has the authority to publicly represent Christ on earth, as an embassy does its home government.
Christ gave the church the authority to bind and loose, not the individual Christian. The man who continues to call himself a Christian and yet attempts to avoid the church’s act of discipline is guilty of usurping the power of the keys. Christ has made the church his proxy on earth exactly for such occasions, lest heretics and hypocrites presume to continue speaking for Christ.
Jonathan Leeman is editorial director of 9Marks, and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. This article was first published by 9marks.org. Republished by kind permission.