I received this question a couple of days ago from a pastor (and it's a question we get quite regularly). As I typically do before posting, I asked him if I could post the question so that he might benefit from several of you. Thoughts?
As we [move toward] church discipline, we find that people [preemptively] leave the church--obviously. They ask for their membership to be removed. So their name will come before the members at a congregational meeting with them asking to be removed. Now the reason they are asking to be removed is we [the leaders] have called them to account for something. So we aren't excommunicating them, they are excommunicating themselves. How much of this do we [the leaders] lay before the congregation, if any?by Aaron Menikoff
Accountability is—or should—be one of the great advantages of church membership. This usually takes place in one-on-one relationships. I had a great lunch, today, with a brother in Christ. We asked about each other’s lives, wrestled with Scripture, and generally sharpened each other. This is positive church discipline. But there is another kind of discipline, a corporate discipline, which Christians should recognize and practice.
The individual who resigns his membership to avoid being held accountable by the congregation is cutting himself off from the very means God ordained for his own sanctification and, possibly, his salvation (see 1 Cor. 5). This is why I think it is unwise for a church to accept that resignation. Instead, a church ought to lovingly refuse the resignation, proceed with the discipline, and hope that the formal action has its intended effect. The public condemnation of sin (where the leaders give the church the necessary information—no more) plus the action of removing the individual from the membership of the church may be what the Lord uses to save that individual if that lack of repentance points to an unregenerate heart. It may not be, but it may be, which is why the church must act.There is a silver lining in this trend of people trying to leave churches to avoid discipline. Praise God, it serves as a wonderful reminder for all of us of the importance of making the beauty of membership and the reality of discipline as clear as we can when individuals join our churches.
I agree with Aaron---in a situation like that, the church ought to refuse to accept the resignation and continue with the process of discipline.
You have to be careful, though. Churches have been sued over that---and lost. The law is still somewhat in flux, but all the legal experts I have read seem to think that the way to be safe is to make it absolutely clear up-front that the church has the right to refuse a resignation. In other words, you need to have a clause in the constitution that explicitly says so, you need to have prospective members read that document and perhaps even sign a statement saying they understand it, and you need to make it clear verbally in a membership interview that merely tendering a resignation does not dissolve one's membership. The church has the right to refuse that resignation in favor of discipline.
At Third Avenue, we ask every prospective member to sign a statement that says something like, "I have read and understood the church's constitution, especially section blah blah blah," which includes that statement about the church's right to refuse a resignation.
The brother who commented on "nuancing these scenarios to death" is correct. Please take what I'm about to write as a general response to a general question. Here are a couple things we've done at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington (a body of believers that understands and embraces church discipline as a means for our own good):
- We would almost certianly NOT allow a man to resign his membership in a preemptive fashion in order to avoid discipline if the case involved public, heinous sin.
- We have had some scenarios where we allowed a person to resign his/her membership...with comment. In other words, the elders encouraged the congragation to accept the resignation, but warned the congregation that the former member was in sin or almost certainly going that direction.
- If the member is resigning because the leaders of that local church have talked to him about non-attendance, then by all means let the member resign; they are responding to the challenge.
- If the member is resigning because the leaders of that local church have talked to the person about the lack of evidence of salvation in the person's life, then let the member resign; it is clarifying for the community to see a distinct, holy church that is set apart from the world around it.
We often say that church discipline is practiced for the benefit of three groups: 1) Those in unrepentant sin; 2) The younger believers in the church who would be confused if unrepentant sin went unchallenged and 3) The unbelieving community around the local church looking in.
When done well, the unrepentant person is biblically called back to a right relationship with Christ and his church, the young believers are rightly taught about the dangers and deceptiveness of sin and the unbelieving community looking in sees a difference between those in the church and those out.