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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Pastors, Don’t Let your People Resign into Thin Air

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Does your church let people resign into thin air?

A church member simply submits a letter or has a conversation with a pastor, and then poof!—they’re gone. And your church couldn’t say whether the person has joined another evangelical church or dropped off the face of the earth.

My brothers, this should not be.

TWO WAYS CHURCHES LET MEMBERS DISAPPEAR INTO THIN AIR

An encouraging number of evangelical churches seem to be regaining meaningful practices of church membership and discipline. But I’m concerned that even some of these churches, however unintentionally, are leaving their back doors wide open.

One way churches do this is procedural. In some churches, an intent to resign, whether submitted verbally or in writing, is regarded as a fait accompli. If someone “resigns” their membership, then they’re gone. After all, the church can’t coerce people into staying, can it? (More on this below.)

Another way churches might do this is situational. Let’s say that to resign from First Baptist Smallville you have to submit a resignation, then the pastor or elders look it over, and then the congregation has to vote to dismiss you from membership. Most of the time, people are moving away and joining a church in another town. Once in a while somebody leaves to go to another nearby church.

But this time, a cranky troublemaker who’s been giving the church headaches for years has finally had enough and decides to throw in the towel and resign. In a huff, this person says he’s just giving up on church—at least for now.

It would be tempting to simply stand aside and allow this troubler to cease troubling your church. The last thing you want is to invite more trouble by detaining him at the back door.

But should the church simply allow this individual to resign into thin air?

WHY YOU CAN’T LET PEOPLE RESIGN INTO THIN AIR

I think the biblical answer is a resounding “No.” Here’s why: When your church made that 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 “member” and “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.

By the way, to cite just one stream of church history, this is something that previous generations of Baptists affirmed repeatedly and emphatically. Consider the Charleston Association’s A Summary of Church Discipline (1774): after criticizing someone who wants to leave an acceptable church for one he likes better further away, the association affirms that, “To dismiss a member to the world at large, would yet be more preposterous, and ought never to be done in any other way than by excommunication” (Mark Dever, ed., Polity, 124). And Samuel Jones, in his 1805 Treatise of Church Discipline, says simply, “It is certain there can be no dismission to the world” (Polity, 153).

A quick way to get a handle on this is to consider church discipline. 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. 

When a church releases a member in good standing, they are repeating their judgment that this person is a brother or sister in Christ. Even as the person is walking out the back door, you’re saying again, to them and the world, “We affirm your profession of faith in Christ.” That’s inherent in dismissing a member because apart from death, the only two ways to leave a church’s membership are being dismissed as a brother or sister in good standing and being excommunicated. If a church does accept a resignation from someone who’s disappearing into thin air, that church is telling the world that Christians are free to drop out of church with no consequences and no questions asked.

Of course a church can’t coerce people to stay. That’s not what I’m saying here. What I am saying is that the church has the responsibility to oversee the lives of its members as long as they are under its watch—which includes their trip out the back door.

The upshot of all this is that a church should not accept a member’s resignation who is not doing what Christians do—in this case, regularly assemble with a church.

FOUR PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

Here are four practical implications of this.

1.The troubler of First Baptist Smallville needs to either reconcile with that church or join another one where he can be more content. He can’t simply resign his membership and sit on his couch on Sundays. If that’s what he intends to do, FBC Smallville’s response should be church discipline, not “See you later!”

2. Churches’ membership procedures should reflect the fact that the church, not the individual member, has authority to accept and dismiss members. A member cannot unilaterally resign. A member can submit their intention to resign to the church, and the church will either accept or reject that intention.

Different polities will work out the procedure differently, but I’d argue that Scripture gives final responsibility over the matter to the whole congregation (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 2 Cor. 2:6). This means that the church as a whole should have the final say in the matter.

3.Churches’ governing documents (constitution, by-laws) should reflect the fact that individual members do not have the unilateral right to terminate their membership. Instead, that prerogative belongs to the church. Therefore, the church has the right to refuse someone’s resignation and pursue discipline instead. It’s important to have this clearly stated in a church’s documents for both pastoral and legal reasons.

Here’s an example of the kind of language I’m talking about, from the constitution of the church I’m a member of (Third Avenue Baptist in Louisville):

“Clause 3. 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 reason the church deems necessary or prudent.”

One important note: Numbers 2 and 3 in this list should probably be well established before a church attempts to resist someone’s resignation, whatever the circumstances.

4. The pastoral specifics of how churches handle individual resignations will vary. For members who have moved out of the area, I’d suggest that a baseline requirement on this front might be something like “they intend to join another evangelical church in the immediate future.”

I’m using slightly squishy language like this because churches’ membership practices vary. Some churches only take in new members once a year, for example. And some metro areas have a number of solid evangelical churches, and it might take a while for a family to settle on one. And it doesn’t always help to keep a church that’s 3,000 miles away on the line that whole time.  

For members who intend to go to another church within the same metro area, the standard should probably be a little bit tighter. This will help to ensure that the member doesn’t fall through the cracks before they’re safely tucked into another sheepfold.

KEEP AN EYE ON THE BACK DOOR

So pastors, just as you pay careful attention to the front door of your church, keep a close eye on the back door, too. Make sure that the sheep can’t simply open the gate themselves and disappear from sight. Refuse to allow people to resign into thin air, both for the sake of your church’s witness to the gospel and for the good of every single sheep—especially those who tend to wander off. 

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The comments I am reading against this article seem to assume that Church Discipline is not done in love or with gentleness. It is a shame that American religianity has so warped our view of the Bible that most Churches demand peace at all cost and take the easy way out rather than deal with open sin. Further, if anyone dares to suggest that we hold each other accountable for how we live our lives, then we are being cult like and abusive. You can think that if you wish, but it is not a Biblical idea. For the one who is leaving a Church because they are being spiritually abused, I say leave and accept their discipline as a badge of honor and freedom. There will be other Churches out there who will love you as Christ loves you. To those who are living in open sin and rebellion to God and His Word, expect for a Church who loves and cares about you to exercise discipline and not just proclaim "Good riddance to bad rubbish" when you storm out in a huff like a spiritual 2 year old. The former type of Church truly loves you and cares about God's Word. The latter does not.

Excellent and mature comment. Thank you for it. It deserves consideration and shows genuine love for the people of the church.

The author is "in the cloud" of religious ideology, and not living in the reality of a fallen world with people - including Xinas - who are accountable for their own actions.

If [when] a member of a church says they want to withdraw their membership, one simple question needs to be asked: "Are you convinced this is God's will for you." If their answer is ."Yes, it is." Whom am I to stand in their way? I usuall then respond, "How can I help you to leave asap? I want to help you obey the Lord's will." End of story!
We cannot force someone to live our convictions or to serve God. This must be a personal and willing choice if they are to be 'Do it as to the Lord and not to man."

“Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14.4 NAS95)

Whether you agree or disagree with Bobby’s conclusion, I think the issue Bobby has raised is very important and needs proper, godly discussion, not snide comments.

Today, people are treating churches much like dating relationships. They attend a church for a year or two and then leave because they weren’t satisfied with the dynamic level of preaching, or the weakness of their missions outreach, or their style of music, etc, etc. Then they attend a new church that has one or more of these areas “improved.” And then, after some time, they become discontent with that church and continue to move on.

If you lived in Ephesus in the first century, you didn’t have a 2nd Baptist Ephesus option if you were tired of 1st Baptist Ephesus. You had to deal with the church family that was there and eventually work out your problems and submit to the leadership of the church. But unfortunately today, with so many church options, we pack up and move to the next one, usually with no accountability (as Bobby points out).

So how can we (as a church or as pastors) help to slow down this process of dating? I think it’s fairly clear that many (most?) of these exoduses by people are not regarding heretical teaching or job relocations, but are often disgruntled members who either have had disputes with other members or the pastor (which should be resolved) or are looking for a more perfect church that has their favorite church ministry. In other words, there are a number of good churches out there with wonderful God-fearing pastors who are not exercising or intending to exercise unbiblical control, but are very concerned at the constant flow of people.

If discipline is not the answer, then let’s present some other options or some helpful biblical feedback, men.

I think it would be instructive for us to remember that this "covenant-breaking" phenomenon is NOT a one way street. What would result if the congregation simply would not "accept" a Pastor's resignation?

I have heard angry denouncements from the pulpit, over carnal sheep whom "disobey" God, by leaving the very flock that a Sovereign Creator lead them to,....BUT, somehow it's "different" when God's Annointed experiences The Call of the Holy $pirit, to accept a Pastorate at another A$$embly.

Are we yearning to repeat the heresies of the Dark Ages in Roman Catholicism, In which the uninformed masses (dismissed as mere "Laity"), are prohibited from having access to God's Word, and must rely upon the Clergy to "properly translate" the will of God?

Can one purchase an "Indulgence" to allow a gracious departure from this non-profit (prophet?) Corporation?

Please have the courtesy to realise that it is, thankfully, not just men commenting on this issue Jason.

Imagining yourself living in different times makes me hold my faith even stronger.

As is often the case with 9 Marks articles, the author assume a hierarchical, clergy-centric, top down model of traditional church gatherings. For example:

"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."

Which assumes that the author of the book of Hebrews had "going to church", as we understand it, in mind. Just the opposite seems true from an examination of Scripture. The church assembled on a regular basis to break bread, edify and encourage one another, stir one another up to good works. Conversely there is not a hint of gathering once or twice a week to sing a few songs on command, listen to a cleric intone a few prayers and attentively observe a sermon. On and on, we see a defense of a shadow of what the church ought to be.

When "pastors" see the church as a family to serve rather than "members" to corral and control, we will see Biblical leadership in the church rather than a blend of corporate leadership and Roman Catholic clericalism. If you are in a church where a pastor thinks that you going elsewhere to serve and be served is a sin deserving of discipline, that should be all the more encouragement to leave.

The sad thing is you probably don't understand that your individualistic, consumeristic view of the church -- that it exists to serve the customers -- is totally anti-Christian. This is why this post strikes so today as so shocking. Because it's real discipleship and, probably for the first time in your life, real church membership.

Wow John, you have diagnosed a serious malady in my mental state based on a comment. Impressive!

What you ought to consider is that this notion of "membership" has no basis in Scripture, certainly nothing explicit, something even advocates of membership admit if they are being honest. Membership as understood, taught and practiced in so much of the church is simply a pragmatic modification of Roman Catholic ecclesiology..

John, if you need a membership covenant and names on a list to know who is part of the church, I am afraid that you don't really understand the church at all.

Bobby Jamieson (in his blog article) said: “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."

Hold on a second, Mr. Jamieson. Let us take a closer look at what Hebrews 10:25 says.

Hebrews 10:25 [NIV 1984]
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing ...”

In Hebrews 10:25, the Greek word for “meeting together” [NIV 1984] is επισυναγωγην [NA27][Strong’s #1997]. επισυναγωγην [NA27][Strong’s #1997] means

a complete collection; especially a Christian meeting (for worship):--assembling (gathering) together” [Strong’s Dictionary].

[Emphasis mine.]

In conjunction with this, one should note that επισυναγογε is used only two times in Biblical Scripture—once in Hebrews 10:25 as the term for the meetings of believers in Mashiyach Yehoshua and once in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 as the term describing the universal gathering of all believers in Mashiyach Yehoshua to Mashiyach Yehoshua himself right before the Day of the Lord.

In light of this, the usage of the word επισυναγωγην [NA27] in Hebrews 10:25 is significant. It means that when the Apostle Saul speaks about meeting together and not abandoning doing so, he assumes that all believers in Mashiyach Yehoshua in a certain area are coming together to meet with each other.

This raises some important questions for churchgoers who use Hebrews 10:25 as a tool for pressuring individual Christians to go to a church. If Hebrews 10:25 admonishes believers in Mashiyach Yehoshua to not abandon the complete assembling together of all believers in Mashiyach Yehoshua in a certain area, then are Christian churches who refuse to hold joint meetings with other Christian churches in their area not violating the Apostle Saul’s said admonition in Hebrews 10:25? And by refusing to hold joint meetings with other Christian churches in their area, are Christian churches not dooming all Christians to involuntarily violate the Apostle Saul’s said admonition in Hebrews 10:25, regardless of if they go to a church or not?

BTW, my apologies for the broken RefTagger pop-ups. They automatically inserted themselves into my post against my wishes.

eahaddix,

Interesting observations, I hadn't considered this. The underlying sociological foundation continuously targeted here, is this well-worn cliche; "individualistic, consumeristic" mindset. I cannot help but roll my eyes in amusement over the IRONY of such sentiments.

The area I have lived in for over ten years, has a population of approximately 230,000. At last count, some five years ago, there were over 500 churches in our area. New churches CONTINUE to sprout up all around the region.

The "religious market" is flooded with a glut of "merchants" competing for the "consumer's business".

Stationary Billboards, Television commercials, Radio spots, Mobile billboard trucks, Newspaper advertisements and Mail outs are all used to court the "consumer". Even the local theatre featured a "silver screen" promo to check out their "wares".

Seemingly, NO AVENUE in contemporary (worldly) methodology appealing to the population to "patronise" their establishment has been neglected. YET,...I am STILL hearing some on this forum relentlessly "beat their drum" about shameless "consumeristic" attitudes!

Appalling. You cannot have it BOTH ways! So, in summary, when the laity wishes to leave one church, and attend another,...this is a grave matter indicating "sin", and warrants pastoral intervention and the disciplinary process.

In contrast, when a pastor is "led" to build ANOTHER church (amongst the existing 500 plus), we are to simply accept that at face value as obedience to divine directive.

Similarly, when the pastor whom (ostensibly) answered the sovereign call to start the church here, ...subsequently leaves, this TOO, is by divine directive, and could "never" be interpreted as born out of "individualistic, consumeristic" motive.

Jason said" I think it’s fairly clear that many (most?) of these exoduses by people are not regarding heretical teaching or job relocations, but are often disgruntled members who either have had disputes with other members or the pastor (which should be resolved) or are looking for a more perfect church that has their favorite church ministry."

I say you are wrong. Fairly clear-by who? Studies please? A few pastors chit chatting at a conference do not a study make. In fact, there are many people who have been hurt by overzealous churches which believe that a simple question such as "How much does the pastor make?" is tantamount to sinful rebellion. One only has to read a survivor's site of a certain "family" of churches to begin to understand the enormity of this issue.

Once again this post offers flawed advice that, if followed, could find a church defending itself in a court of law.

However, this post gives due warning to those looking at churches that extoll these virtues. Thank you for opening the windows into the ministry associated with 9Marks.

I think someone step on a whole bunch of toes of those who are caughtup in the false religion of American Christianity. It is the cult than that teaches us to live for ourselves and never submit to any authority established by God.

This is excellent. Thank you for it very much. It's a needed correction to the worldly idea, proposed here by others earlier, that the local church simply has to accept the resignation of members no matter the reason.

Some suggestions to my fellow commentors:
1) Read the article before disagreeing with its thesis
2) Believe Bobby when he says things like, "Of course a church can’t coerce people to stay. That’s not what I’m saying here. What I am saying is that the church has the responsibility to oversee the lives of its members as long as they are under its watch—which includes their trip out the back door."
3) When he says this is the responsibility of the congregation, by congregation, he means congregation.
4) Do not read this in isolation and presume that this describes in toto Bobby and 9Marks' view regarding the functioning of the church. View this as a part of the whole.
5) Show some charity.
6) Realize that this article is assuming that pastors and elders love their people, and desire their people's spiritual growth. If your assumption is that pastors and elders are just power-grabbing, and as figures of authority should be granted zero authority, please examine your own heart. Also, I pray that God would bless you with the experience of sitting under and submitting to godly authority.
7) Gathering together with other believers is commanded by scriptures. Anyone who is not faithfully doing so does make themselves suspect, and need to be lovingly pursued and rebuked.

Mr. Pentecost with all due respect I understanding the underpinning message here is to not allow people to simply drift from a church and faith without first having something or someone in place to try to reconcile them back into the church before they leave.

As far as Bobby’s supporting argument, 1 Corinthians 5 is Paul’s response to man’s highly unusual sexual conduct with his step-mother and that the church should remove him. The context here is that the church was not acknowledging it or acting upon it and Paul is drawing their eye to the sin calling them proud when they should be mourning. It is a stretch to say Paul was empowering them with the corporate responsibility to act as judge in each and every case of discipline and resignation. This is taking a mile out of an inch.

Understanding that elders, deacons, pastors and such usually want to provide care and reconcile their brethren back into the body without ill will and hurt feelings, I would put to you that it is naive to think that this is always the case. Sometimes discipline can and does become punitive in nature, especially when members are expressing frustrations about the way in which pastors are dealing with them.

I understand the our hope is that we all are tightly tethered to the Gospels and we all operate in a spirit of mutual respect and love towards each other... and in that light Bobby's idea seems reasonable on its face.

But I believe it is naive to think pastors and elders are always operating in such a manner and this opens the door to spiritual abuse from which people are far less likely to return to full engagement and fellowship in any church than they would if they walk out the door without feeling coerced or judged.

Both Bobby and you are stating that a church can’t coerce people to stay, but what is it if a person cannot decide for themselves if they are going to leave? Allowing members to vote on someone’s resignation, especially in cases of discipline where a sinful act may have been involved, would not be lovingly reconciling someone back into the body. It would be from the perspective of the parishioner, a humiliating and degrading experience to have other’s deciding whether or not they are ALLOWED to leave.

Ultimately 1st amendment laws of this nation do not provide protection of separation to churches where civil rights are being infringed and attendance and membership in a church in America is by law and precedent considered 100% consensual. This consent to association means a persons consents to allowing themselves to be governed by the tenets of a church. If a person removes their consent either verbally or in writing that they no longer wish to congregate, consent or associate themselves with a church, the covenant, membership or other contract is null and void. Confidentiality regarding church matters would still be in effect but a membership contract holds no effect of law beyond mutual consent.

If a church sought to implement this method of voting on resignations they would be operating in violation of a person’s civil rights.

I am not trying to excoriate or attack, I got a little aggravated when I first saw it because there have been multiple claims of spiritual abuse coming to the surface on the web over the last few weeks and the overstepping of churches in manners of discipline was largely the claim of the victims.

I would say that instead of formalizing a governing rule to keep people from leaving, pastors should focus on engaging their parishioners seeking to counsel, care and love on them. This tenet of love in the church seems to be getting lost in the ever more formalized corporate structure of the Western Church.

"A member cannot unilaterally resign."

This would be scary if it were true. The church leadership is at least as accountable to the membership as the individual member is to the church. If a member decides it is time to resign, they can do so. If the leadership maintains a servant attitude they won't be inclined to padlock (metaphorically speaking, of course) the back door

A member cannot unilaterally resign."

This would be scary if it were true. The church leadership is at least as accountable to the membership as the individual member is to the church. If a member decides it is time to resign, they can do so. If the leadership maintains a servant attitude they won't be inclined to padlock (metaphorically speaking, of course) the back door.

That's very modern, individualistic, consumeristic, and totally unBiblical. Try Hebrews 13:17.

Doesn't matter if it;s individualistic, it's a persons right to associate themselves or not associate themselves with a given church. Anything else is authoritarian on its face in a nation where liberty and freedom are held above the rights of a religious establishment.

If you'd prefer another outcome look to the religious states of the middle east. That's what church states look like in the modern age.

Jacob, It does matter a great deal if you are professing that Jesus is your Lord. He established the church and gave it authority; He established the leaders in the church and delegated some authority to them, especially to disciple the members of the church. If you don't want to follow this and prefer to be an American individualists, then stop pretending to be a Christian. That's the choice you need to make -- or, more precisely, understand the choice you've apparently already made. You cannot serve the Lord and American individualism.

John, simply writing "individualistic" over and over without even the pretense of engaging the argument is not a terribly persuasive method. Your statement that implies that one either submit to a manmade tradition called "church membership" or renounce Christ is so over the top, silly and unbiblical that making it is far more dangerous and sinful than someone recognizing that the New Testament makes no command and provides no example of formal church membership in one local church to the exclusion of any other.

Arthur,

Wedding vows are also "man-made" traditions. Should we not keep them either. If a Christian makes a commitment, he is supposed to keep it. That's a clear, emphatic, and repeated Biblical theme. It's only an individualistic and consumeristic culture that tells people that if they're feelings have changed, they can drift off somewhere else, without bother checking with their supposed spiritual leaders whether their individual feelings are a good guide.

9 Marks has a great deal of material on church membership. I'd recommend that to you.

Jon Pentecost
You said "I pray that God would bless you with the experience of sitting under and submitting to godly authority."

I am terribly confused. Would you please explain what authority is? I know the police have authority to enforce certain laws. I know the Congress has authority to declare war. But what, precisely, is involved with spiritual authority? What are the actions of those who possess it? Why do they have it and not anyone who is given the Holy Spirit? Do you need to go to seminary and then you "get authority?" Who decides when you get authority?

And why must I sit "under" authority? I thought the only authority I needed was given to me when the Temple curtain tore in two.God now dwells with His people? Isn't he the authority? Did God then set up another priest between me and God?So, do we have a new curtain between the priesthood of the believer and God?Is that the "authority" person?

Hear the Word of the Lord: "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you." (Hebrews 13:17.)

Jason wrote: If discipline is not the answer, then let’s present some other options or some helpful biblical feedback, men.
I see some helpful biblical feedback here, such as that from Arthur and Selah, so let me suggest one other option, which I've been guilty of ignoring plenty of times. Most regular churchgoers develop friends there, sometimes very close. When they leave that organized gathering, often they're leaving their friends, even without official shunning. So may I suggest that friends keeping in contact may be more effective toward the welfare of the "resigner" than official pastoral efforts? Adding to this is fact that sometimes the pastor will not know the person so well. Also, many pastors have their livelihood from donations, and we're putting the pastor into a conflict of interest in asking him to not "let people go". So.. Are we to interpret "the church" as "the pastor"

The Lord Jesus gave the church the power to "bind and loose." Contrary to modern individualism and the consumeristic assumptions that drive many members away, the church the Lord Jesus founded has authority on earth. The church does have authority to tell someone leaving for a bad reason that their doing so is covenant-breaking, unfaithfulness and therefore sinful and that the church doesn't just have to accept their resignation. If a church is careful about admitting members and clearly holds that entering into membership is a covenant-commitment, then to walk away from that is sinful and the church can't just go along with their choice. Further, that there are other churches around was something they should have considered before becoming a member (like that the way a man should consider that there are other women before marrying) and that fact is a product of modernity. The early Baptists understood this authority and thus required a "letter" to be transferred for members to change churches and understood that the original church could refuse to allow the transfer of membership. Today that practice, rooted in Christian discipleship, has fallen by the way-side, not because it was found unBiblical, but because so many modern Christians have drunken so deeply of the consumerism and individualism of modern American culture that they can't comprehend the idea that their individual autonomy can be checked by the authority of Christ's church.

The Lord gave the apostles the authority to bind and loose, but since we are protestants we don't recognize anyone today as having apostolic authority. The Lord told these same apostles that the leader would be as one who serves (Luke 22: 24-27). Furthermore, Philippians 2: 1-4 applies to all believers, including leaders. Finally, you assume a "consumer" or "individualistic" motive in defending a member's right to voluntarily resign, but my question is who gets to decide the resigning members motive? Who besides the person resigning and the Lord knows what their motivation is? Each believer has a responsibility to be discerning and wise concerning the decisions they make: Colossians 2: 8-10, 20-23. Hopefully you do not assert that without your permission a church member never again has the freedom to resign and become a member of another church where they feel better able to grow and serve. That would seems both unrealistic and overreaching.

Hi Mike,
No, the Lord gave "the church" (Matthew 18:15ff) the authority to bind and loose. There are no apostles mentioned in this passage. And since we are Protestants, we put the authority of scripture over the authority of American individualism and consumerism. Some individualists here have even quoted case-law over scripture! Further, the leaders serve by correcting error, just as the Lord Jesus did. Jesus did not humble Himself and become incarnate in order to enable every sinful inclination that rebellious individualists want. That you call someone breaking their covenant a "right" shows how steeped in American consumerism you are. Hebrews 13:17 is clear as is the several commands in scripture to be faithful to our commitments. Frankly, you're just worldly and twisting scripture to bolster than worldliness.

Greetings, John.

Jesus' words in Matthew 18:18 are directed to the disciples (Matt 18:1, 18:21). Matthew 18:18 is a repeat of an earlier statement to Peter in Matthew 16:19. I would argue that what the disciples have bound and loosed is recorded in the New Testament and if you want to extend the authority to bind and loose from the apostles to every isolated local assembly today then that authority extends to the entire congregation as a unit (not just the pastor or a leadership committee) and only insofar as the local gathering comforms to Biblical teaching. I see extra-Biblical commands such as requiring a pastor's permission to resign from church A to move to church B as falling in the category of Colossians 2: 8 and 2: 20-23. Have you considered that your interpretation of Matt 18:18 has been used historically by the Roman Catholics to grant indulgences and by the Word-Faith charismatics to "name it and claim it"?

"...comforms"...sorry, typo. Conforms.

Hi Mike,

The Lord Jesus' words in Matthew 18:15ff are directed to "the church". That's plain from the context as this is one of only two occasions when Jesus is quoted as using the word "church." For more on the exegesis of this passage, see Jonathan Leeman's book "The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love". You're attempt to so narrowly target the audience of this passage and so render the teaching irrelevant and inapplicable to us today, is errant.

Secondly, it certainly is not a "vain philosophy" to call on Christians to keep their commitments. God's Word is abundantly clear on that point. Again, you are twisting scripture to bolster a worldly individualism and consumerism. I've listed several scriptures that require believers to be faithful, to keep their word even to their hurt (e.g. Ps. 15), elsewhere here.

The 9th chapter of Dever's book "The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church" talks about how church leaders lead and serve -- serve by leading. 1 Tim. 5:17 says that the elders "rule" or "lead" the church. Heb. 13:17 tells us to submit to them -- because they are keeping watch over our souls. In congregational polity the congregation may have accountability over the leaders but they are still to submit to and follow their leaders unless they are clearly sinful. The spirit that we don't need any leaders but only "servants" to do our will, is not in any way Christian. The church is the "household of God" with the elders being the "stewards" (Titus 1); not the restaurant of God with the staff being your waiters.

The obedience and submission of Heb. 13:17 is voluntary and conditional upon good leadership. Absolute obedience is never to be rendered to anyone but God.

When men are wrong, we must obey God rather than man. We are never commanded to follow a bad example, only good examples which are patterned after Christ and his apostles.

Leaders and teachers must be evaluated by God's word and held accountable to it. This is part of our individual and corporate responsibility as God's people.

Here are some good comments on Heb. 13:17 by John Piper:

What then does "Obey your leaders and submit to them" mean? The word for "obey" (peith) is a very broad word and means "be persuaded by" (Hebrews 6:9), "trust" (Hebrews 2:13), "rely on" (Luke 11:22), and comes to mean "obey" because that is what you do when you trust somebody. So you might say it is a "soft" word for obey. It encourages a good relationship of trust, but still calls for the people to be swayed by leaders.

The word for "submit" (hupeik) occurs only here in the New Testament. It's the more narrow word, and means "make room for by retiring from a seat," or "yield to" or "submit to."

So with all this background, what I would try to distill as the meaning would be something like this: Hebrews 13:17 means that a church should have a bent toward trusting its leaders; you should have a disposition to be supportive in your attitudes and actions toward their goals and directions; you should want to imitate their faith; and you should have a happy inclination to comply with their instructions.

Now you can hear that these are all soft expressions: "a bent toward trusting," "a disposition to support," "a wanting to imitate," "an inclination to comply." What those phrases are meant to do is capture both sides of the Biblical truth, namely, 1) that elders are fallible and should not lord it over the flock, and 2) the flock should follow good leadership.

Where these two truths are working, it is a beautiful thing. We have tasted it and we should pray with all our hearts that God preserve it and deepen it among us for the good of the people and the glory of his name in this city and around the world.

From http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper97/10-12-97.htm

HI Rick,

This is true and you've made good comments. However, warning against too much authority in America today is about like warning Americans to get enough fat and sugar in their diet. Are there some Americans who need more fat and sugar in their diet? Probably. Is that a widespread problem? No. The opposite is the problem. Just so, warning against too much respect for leaders is true but not a widespread problem. Simply notice the firestorm that the author has caused by proposing what is only responsible pastoring: correcting a straying sheep for being an unfaithful covenant-breaker. The individualism and consumerism has sunk so deep into American culture that even many subscribers to the 9 Marks assume the church is "the restaurant of God" (where they can come and go as they please) not the "household of God" (where they are supposed to be faithfully attached.)

Hi John,

With all due respect to you, I believe in rendering due respect to church leaders. My first response to Bobby's article was not meant as an expression of resistance to legitimate authority. John Piper's exegesis of Heb. 13:17 which I shared was meant to affirm biblical respect, obedience and submission to church leaders.

My concern with Bobby's article, as others have also expressed, is what appears to be an instance of making church polity a biblical doctrine. You appear to be doing the same. Where, for instance, does the NT talk about believers 'in covenant' with a local church or becoming a "covenant-breaker" if they choose to leave it without the elders' (or church's) 'permission?' All believers are members of the New Covenant, but there is no such thing, that I have yet been shown or found in the NT, as a 'church covenant.'

If church members wish to enter into such an agreement (like a 'church covenant') voluntarily, as a man-made convention, they are free to do so. But the NT does not prescribe this nor require this of any believer in Christ.

Jesus taught his disciples to reject the authority patterns of the world and the egotistical attitudes and abusive practices within Judaism -- "let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves" (Matt. 20:25-28; 23; Mark 9:33-37; 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27).

A subsequent response to Bobby' article which I posted shared a two-part video on elder-led congregational consensus. This video presentation talks more about authority in the church and the whole body learning to submit to Christ's authority in unity. I believe this is a biblical approach which stands apart in a unique, appealing and Christ-honoring way from the usual ideas about authority.

Hi Rick,

The New Testament compares the church to a "household" (i.e. a family), a Body, and a temple. All of these emphasis the connectedness of the members. In none of these metaphors can members easily go from one to another. To understand who is part of one household/Body/temple is the role of church membership. (9 Marks has a lot of useful stuff on this.) The church covenant formalizes the commitment that is plainly part of a household/Body/temple relationship, just as a marriage covenant is formalized in the vows of a wedding. By the way, scripture doesn't tell people to have weddings either. Weddings are a human way of formalizing the covenant relationship of a marriage. It's true that scripture doesn't overtly tell us to have a church covenant. (The 9Marks discussions of church membership are relevant here.) But neither does it tell us to have a wedding. If we want to enter a marriage covenant, we have a wedding with vows; if we want to have a church-relationship, we enter into a church covenant. If we break that commitment lightly, we're covenant breakers and acting contrary to the character of our covenant keeping God.

I realize all this is a shock to the modern American who assumes the church is like a restaurant and the pastor is merely a waiter. When the modern American individualist, consumeristic "Christian" cites the passages on servant leadership, that's what he means: "give me what I want or I'll take my business elsewhere!" It is impossible to accomplish discipleship with that attitude.

Hi John,

NT metaphors for the church describe a spiritual reality created by God, not by man through personal promises, oaths or covenants. Equating the two makes the mistake of turning the traditions of man into commandments of God.

There should be a high level of respect and sacrificial commitment by any believer to other believers, whether they are in the same local church or not, based upon our union in Christ and shared identity as one Body. But this is not the same as saying, nor does it lead of necessity to the conclusion Bobby advocates in his article: that believers must 'get permission' from or be 'dismissed' by the elders or the church to leave a local assembly.

Neither American individualism nor a consumer mindset has anything to do with maintaining Scripture's view of believers as both individuals and members of Christ's body.

BTW, my own view of relationships and commitments between believers in Christ's body is based on a higher standard than the 9Marks' model or most conventional churches. You can click on my name and go to my site to see what I mean. Reformation is needed in the church today, but 'guarding the back door' is not on the NT list of priorities.

Hi Rick,

With all due respect, your view is nothing other than an expression of modernistic individualism. It is contrary to the principles of scripture in which the church is a body -- can an eye just individually decide it wants to be transplanted into another body? Or to a "household" -- can a child decide abruptly he wants to be adopted by another family or a wife/husband easily walk out and join another family? Or a temple -- can a stone just decide it wants to be cemented into another temple? Or a flock -- can a sheep just individually decide it wants to wander off to another flock? These are metaphors that teach out what the church is and from which we gather principles that guide us. And those principles are directly contrary to the individualism and many today think gives them the right to drift from church to church without accountability.

John, methinks you taketh these metaphors too far. Human beings are far too complex for such minimally dimensional comparisons.

Scriptural metaphors for the church are in scripture to be taken seriously, not simply dismissed because the individualistic, consumerist society that we were raised in can't imagine that we're actually connected to other members of a body, or members with others in God's household, or connected to other stones in the temple, or sheep in need of shepherds. One other commenter remarked that the modern American thinks the church is like a dating relationship: when they feel like breaking up, they just hit the road. I think the dominant paradigm for worldly American Christians is the restaurant: they think they are the customers and the "staff" is there to cater to their needs; if they don't get the service they like, they'll skimp on the tip and take their business elsewhere next time. The discipleship that the church is supposed to be for, is impossible in that kind of environment. That's why the original author's comments are so important and needed.

Elder-led congregational consensus seems to be the biblical model for the church. This two-part video does a good job of explaining this:

Part 1 - http://vimeo.com/13901983

Part 2 - http://vimeo.com/13907514

Individuality did not begin with American culture, nor was it lost in Christianity. In the church, the believer is able to enjoy both personal diversity, as a unique, individually-gifted member of Christ's body, as well as corporate unity (community), because he or she is joined together with other members as one body.

Paul spoke of himself and other believers as individuals with personal convictions and personal practices which should be regarded with due respect by fellow believers (Rom. 14).

Even in our union with Christ, as Lloyd-Jones used to say, the individual person -- the "I" -- remains intact in Paul's discussion of his spiritual transformation (Gal. 2:19-20).

True. All of that is true and not to be forgotten. But telling Americans that today is like telling them to get enough fat and sugar in their diet.

Whatever Scripture teaches is profitable for God's people. And teaching the whole counsel of God is always good for any culture.

Fortunately, it is not our job as Christ's ambassadors to pick and choose what is 'more important' or 'necessary' over other things. Who would be qualified to do such a thing? Jesus said concerning making disciples that we are to teach people to obey ALL that He commanded.

Regarding both sides of the coin related to leadership and authority, I believe this is still an important teaching to consider (even for Americans) because it is still so misunderstood and poorly practiced in the church and the world. The distinctions our Lord made between authority and leadership in His kingdom versus the world are still important to understand and practice (Matt. 20:25-27).

John
Thank you. You are making my point. You believe in an authoritarian church. I do not. And I do believe in servant leaders as modeled by Jesus. You do not. So long as you are honorable and let people know that they are signing a legal document when they join your church, and that you are a hierarchical leader and they are the sheep, I have no beef.

But, it is still their legal right to disassociate with your church. I have seen one too many pastor give up their pastor card as they play the "I'm in charge and you shut up game." I may join a church and then, 3 years down the line, the polity may change. The pastor may become an egotistical jerk. Egotism and arrogance seem to be allowed, and even admired, sins in today's "serious" churches.

I am grateful that the US affords me the legal right to get away from a church or pastor who has gone bad. And they do and you know it. They are sinners just like the people whose "souls they oversee."

Bobby -
Please don't become discouraged by the negative comments on your blog, “Pastors, Don’t Let your People Resign into Thin Air." As a MDiv student, you may have not had much exposure to the apparent experiential hurt evidenced by some of these comments. For properly functioning, elder-led churches, your article should probably have been entitled, “Elders, Don't Let your People Resign into Thin Air.” After all, the Greek word for pastor occurs only once in the NT, and even then is synonymous with the Greek word for Elder/Teacher, and whose primary function is teaching.

Unfortunately, pastor led churches, which may or may not have elders or deacons partially functioning as elders, or even deacons functioning as deacons, seem to be predominant in the USA. Many of these pastors have charismatic personalities, and usually express a belief that God has “called them” to preach. A real danger exists in such circumstances if the pastor has a narcissistic personality disorder, since such a disorder is difficult to spot unless one is familiar with the characteristics. Often church members seem to know something is not quite right but they are not sure what it is. They simply decide to leave, sometimes slamming the back door on their way out. I believe that in such an instance, the pastor is reaping what he has sewn. Unfortunately, real damage and real hurt have occurred, both to the individual family that leaves and to the remaining church body.

In a properly functioning elder-led church - filled with members who are loving God and loving others, exercising their ministry gifts within the community, sharing the gospel and making disciples of new believers - the body will know when one of its members is out of harmony and will seek to restore it to its proper function for the well being of the member and the unity of the church body. In the event that one member is “practicing” sin of which another member becomes aware, then that member should confront the sinning member in love. If the sinning member is not willing to repent (turning to God and away from the sin), one or two witnesses should arbitrate. If still unresolved, then the matter should be brought before the elders. If the elders are unable to resolve the situation, then as a final attempt to restore the sinning member to fellowship and ensure the purity and unity of the church as the bride of Christ, the sinning member should be put out of the church until such time as they repent and seek to become restored to fellowship.

Clearly, the Scriptures indicate that the purpose of last resort, namely excommunication, is still restoration and unity. Though such an action may seem to those who do not understand the Word of God as a punishment, in reality it is another means of grace. Of course, any of these actions must be bathed in prayer, realizing we all must one day appear before the Judge. Churches whose members, including elders, have not properly exercised the earlier actions aimed at restoration and unity cannot justify “jumping” to the last action of excommunication to cover up their failures to love.

HI Dan,

I don't think the problem demonstrated here by the fire storm raised by the excellent article. The author is only calling for pastoral responsibility. No Biblical Christian who understand that the church exists for discipleship, that it's the household of God, that members are to seriously keep their covenant, and that elders (as pastors are) are called to teach and correct, would find a problem with this article. The problem is that American individualism and consumerism have sunk so deeply into the American church that many American Christians are shocked by the idea of the church when it is presented to them. I'm glad that 9 Marks is willing to address this and that they will continue to do so in the future, even more aggressively taking on the anti-Christian individual autonomy that many take for Christianity.

he standard Baptist church covenant says, "we do now, in the presence of God, angels and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body of Christ. We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love. . . ." As people of integrity, who should strive to live by those words if we say them as part of our church commitment, then when is it not sinful to break that covenant? It seems to me that although that commitment may not be exactly like marriage, it's nearly there. Further, pastors have specific responsibilities from the Lord Jesus Himself to care for the flock and sometimes that means protecting them from their own foolishness, as far as that is possible. It is negligent of pastors to know that someone is doing something bad and say nothing about it; for example, to let them break a covenant without pointing out how grievously serious covenant-breaking is. The two responsibilities of an elder are (1) teach sound doctrine and (2) correct error (Titus 1:9).