Can church members simply resign their membership in order to avoid church discipline?

Sometimes church members who are in the process of discipline will attempt to resign their membership in order to avoid the church’s disciplinary action. Is this something that churches should allow?

Definitely not. Churches shouldn’t allow members to simply resign their membership in order to avoid discipline because:

  1. Jesus gave the church—the local congregation as a whole—the authority to determine who does and does not belong (see Matt. 16:19, 18:17-19). This means that an individual simply lacks the authority to remove himself from the church without the consent of the entire congregation.
  2. Jesus gave the church this authority to “bind and loose” people to itself in order that the church would representatively declare to the world who does and does not belong to him. When a person is baptized and joins the church, the church is saying to the world, “This person belongs to Jesus.” When a professing Christian lives in serious, unrepentant sin, it is the church’s responsibility to declare to the world that a person who lives this way does not belong to Christ, which the church does by excluding a person from membership. Thus, an individual who attempts to evade the church’s discipline is compounding his guilt by resisting the authority Christ has invested in the local church for this very purpose.

Yet this doesn’t mean that a church can simply reject a person’s resignation regardless of what they’ve been teaching, what they communicate to new members regarding church discipline, and what their official documents say regarding church discipline. In order for a church to legally protect itself in such matters, it must clearly teach these things to incoming members. It must also clearly describe the church’s practice of discipline in its governing documents. In both of these ways, churches need to be clear that an individual does not have the unilateral ability to resign his or her church membership. For more on this see Ken Sande’s article on legal protection for church discipline.

(This material has been adapted from Jonathan Leeman’s article, “The Preemptive Resignation—A Get Out of Jail Free Card?”)