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.