Pastors, Don’t Let Your People Resign Into Thin Air, Part 2


Thank you to those who have taken time to respond to Bobby Jamieson’s blog. Bobby has clearly provoked a robust discussion; so much so, that I thought it might be worth offering a few comments that, I hope, will promote shared understanding.

The main bone of contention around Bobby’s blog is around the idea of authority, and whether or not churches have the authority to say “no” to anyone who says, “I want to resign now.” The default assumption of most evangelicals is that the church—institutionally speaking—is a voluntary organization, which means that you can come and go as you please.  So no, a church doesn’t have the authority to say “no.” And to say “no” when someone tries to leave would be to abuse your position.

In the vast majority of cases, of course, a church should let a person resign and go to another church, even for unwise and immature reasons. I have discussed this here. People often leave my own church for other local evangelical churches, and occasionally they do this when a pastor privately does not think it’s best. The question which Bobby’s post poses is, can a church ever say no, especially when someone has no plans of joining another church.

The difficulty of discussing these types of things in a blog is that they rely on massive background almost-worldview-like assumptions. If you don’t share those assumptions, then the argument will seem irrational, which is why some of the reactions to Bobby’s blog are as strong as they are, especially the deleted ones. Yet it’s difficult in the space of a blog to re-explain all those assumptions, qualifications, and so forth. I spent more than a few pages here trying to explain them, and a few more here and here doing the same.

Still, let me offer a few more nuggets for thought, knowing that doing so might further frustrate some readers. Of course, I pray that it doesn’t, but that conversations like these help us all move a little closer to understanding God’s Word. Five questions and answers:

1) What authority does a local church have? God has authorized the state with the power of the sword (Rom. 13:1-6), while he has authorized the local church with the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). (You might disagree with my interpretation of these passages which is at least implicit in everything that follows, but I’d suggest that this is where the conversation needs to occur. Tomorrow I will post my interpretation of Matthew 16 and 18. UPDATE: posted here.) The power of the sword is a coercive power over the body for restraining injustice. The power of the keys is a “declarative” or “ministerial” power (to use the language of 16th and 17th century Protestants) for saying who does and who does not belong to the kingdom of Christ. A church cannot make someone a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, any more than the U.S. embassy in London can make an American tourist in London a U.S. citizen. The church, through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, only has the power to declare who is and who is not a citizen–again, just like the U.S. embassy has the authority to publicly affirm that you are a U.S. citizen when you show up at their door saying that you have lost your passport.

Contrary to what many evangelicals assume, the Bible nowhere authorizes individual Christians (I would argue) to baptize themselves or give themselves the Lord’s Supper. These are public acts reserved for wherever two or three are gathered “in the name of Christ”—that is, gatherings of a church. To be baptized is to be publicly identified with the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (a “name” is a public identifier). To take the Lord’s Supper is to publicly declare his death. It’s true that Christ saves us as individuals, but then he unites us to his body, and he gives the church this power of declaration (“Repent and be baptized [by the church in Jerusalem],” Peter said in Acts 2). It’s almost like saying that the football team owner does the hiring, but then he tells you to report to the coach for practice. You might say that you don’t need the coach because it’s the owner who does the hiring, but you’ll find that such comments don’t go very well with the owner.

2) What is church membership? When you join a church, the church is placing its public seal of approval on your profession of faith through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. At its heart, church membership is this act of public affirmation of a person’s profession of faith, just like Jesus did with Peter in Matthew 16.

I’ve heard Christians say that they don’t need any church saying whether or not they are Christians. Well, in one sense that’s true. If you’re an American tourist in London who has lost his passport, you’re still a citizen even if the embassy’s computer is broken, and the embassy cannot formally affirm your citizenship.  Still, you’re in an awkward position, because that’s the embassy’s job. Likewise, it’s the local church’s job to make these public declarations. That’s what Jesus told churches to do. He gave the church those office keys.  And that’s what membership is—such a declaration/affirmation. Just as your righteousness in Christ gets “put on” in acts of righteousness, so your membership in his universal church gets “put on” in a local church through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

3) Isn’t the church a voluntary society? From the state’s standpoint, yes, because Jesus has not authorized the state to exercise the power of the keys, which is to say, the power of declaring what is a legitimate gospel confession and who is a legitimate gospel confessor. He has not given the state the power of church membership. So, yes, the state must treat the church as a voluntary society.

But from the standpoint of Christ’s kingdom, no, it is not a voluntary society. A Christian must join a church. Sure, you can choose which church you want to join if there’s more than one church in town, but you must join a church. Again, the team owner says to you, “Report to the coach!” Further, when you join a church, you are asking them to make a public declaration on your behalf. You are asking them to send a press release to the nations which says, “Here is a Jesus Representative.”

4) Can a church say “no” to a resignation? No and yes. No, a church cannot exercise the power of the sword and force a person to do anything. It doesn’t have that authority. Yes, it can and must exercise the power of the keys in a manner that’s faithful to the mandate Jesus has given it, even when the state wants to interfere with that authority by criminalizing what Jesus has told the church to do.

Think about what happens when a person joins a church. Not just anyone can join a church, of course. If you try to join a church saying, “Buddha is Lord,” the church has been given an authority from Jesus to say, “Uh, sorry, that’s not in keeping with the gospel. We will not let you join us.” If, however, you say, “Jesus is Lord,” the church, again, has been authorized to give you a passport and send a press release to the nations saying, “Dear nations, here is a Jesus Representative and Kingdom Citizen.”

Now, suppose you try to leave a church while living in unrepentant sin, whether that’s a “big” unrepentant sin like the one we see in 1 Corinthians 5, or a more subtle unrepentant sin like refusing to attend a church (see Heb. 10:25). In both cases, the church has an authorized responsibility to love you, love Jesus, and love the onlooking nations by setting the record straight: “Uh, we would prefer for you not to go on these terms, and if you do, we’re going to ask for our passport back, please.”

You can say, “You have no right to keep me as a member!” Well, that’s sort of missing the point. In fact, the church has a Jesus-given-job of setting the public record straight, not just for your sake, but for the church’s sake, Jesus’ sake, and the nations’ sake. This is what it does by saying, “Hold on. Are you leaving because you plan to pursue sin unrepentantly? If so, then we need to excommunicate you. We’ve been publicly vouching that you’re a Christian. We’ve been putting our name and Christ’s name on the line for you. But now we need to withdraw that affirmation.”

In other words, when you leave a church on bad terms, you’re not making a decision that affects just you and your reputation. You’re making a decision that involves the reputation—the “name”—of your whole family: your church and its covenant Lord.

This, I think, might bring us to the heart of the disagreement between Bobby and his commenters: To say “no” to a tendered resignation (or, relatedly, to excommunicate someone) isn’t about holding them physically, or spiritually, or mystically hostage. It’s about being responsible and following through with a formal public statement that a church has already made on your behalf by making you a member. In fact, as long as you are a member, the church exists in an ongoing state of make a formal public statement on your behalf, like a radio signal that continues to transmit. Your membership is an ongoing radio signal saying, “Kingdom citizen here!” You’ve made the church reponsible for that statement by joining it. Do you see? That means that churches must be careful about how its members leave the church (somewhat similar to how parents must be careful in how their children leave for college).

5) Can churches abuse their authority? Yes, sadly, tragically, please-pay-attention, yes! And this is why we must pray and fight and instruct against such abuses! There are few things worse than authority abused among God’s people. We degrade the name of Christ when we do, whether in our homes or churches. We make belief that much harder, both for the abused and for anyone witnessing the abuse.

But that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus, knowing the depravity of the heart, still authorized parents, and churches, and states to act in particular capacities.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for persevering. I hope this is somewhat illuminating for the conversation concerning where we are coming from. I’ve gotten into the weeds some. Authority is a tough topic, and Bobby and I both are anxious to learn how to understand it better, and how to talk about it better, particularly in a fallen world where so much authority gets abused. I pray that all of us would use any authority that God has given to build, empower, bless, and authorize others to act for the sake of his name (see 2 Sam. 23:1-4; Ps. 72).

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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