I’m a fan of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church and how it operates in the lives of God’s people. Good ecclesiology in a local church helps it to fulfill its scriptural mandate to be a place of comfort and compassion (2 Corinthians 1:3-7), a place where encouragement (1 Thessalonians 5:11) helps God’s people grow in knowledge and faith (1 Corinthians 14:3, 31), all for the glory of God.
As an individual member of God’s family, he has given you responsibilities within the church as well. You are to gather with other believers for mutual edification and encouragement. (Hebrews 10:24-25.) Every member of the church is a royal priest (1 Peter 2:9), and you are commended for discerning whether those who teach are staying true to Scripture. (Acts 17:11.) As a member of the Church, you are responsible for looking into the origin of everything you encounter to see whether it is of God or not:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1.)
Sadly, some local church leaders bury the purposes of the church and responsibilities of its members beneath rules that have nothing to do with the church’s mission.
When Arrogance Replaces Ecclesiology
One example of this mistaken ecclesiology is found in a set of rules posted by a church in Texas: Reconciliation and Church Discipline Policy – Resolving conflict, addressing sin, maintaining unity and how to leave a church. It’s the part concerning when a member is allowed to stop attending this church that concern me most, as they usurp the responsibility of church members and arrogate all power to the leaders.
TO LEAVE … IN GOOD STANDING
It is our hope that anyone that would leave [this] Church would do so in good standing with both our people and leadership and that they would be a benefit to another church. Therefore, we provide the following to help a departing member to leave in good standing.
Going to an approved church:
1. Members are always welcome to leave for either one of our church plants or another like-minded church plant where there is a called, qualified and competent pastor or an established and qualified plurality of elders. This assumes they are leaving with no unreconciled relationships, unconfessed sins – which includes gossip, defamation and divisive practices.
Once a member has made their intentions known through our departing member form and the form is clear of any “red flags”, we will gladly release a withdrawing member of any [church] commitments and consider them departed in good standing.
This option essentially says that if you are going to one of the pre-approved churches that they set up, you’re good to go as long as you’re not doing it for the wrong reasons. But make sure you fill out the paperwork first or you not only won’t be gladly released but you will still be under obligation to the original church.
Going because you’re moving away:
2. [This church] also recognizes that in an area as transient as the DFW metroplex, people will move in and out as a matter of practice due to jobs, family, etc. Assuming a good record of membership, commitment and relational unity, we will almost always gladly bless anyone that’s moving to be released of their … commitments.
Again, we will still go through the process of leveraging our departing – member form. [Emphasis added.]
This second criteria is particularly troubling for its arbitrariness. If you are leaving for legitimate reasons and without any unresolved issues, the church leadership will “almost always” let you go. What would keep them from letting a person in good standing go? They don’t say, and that means there is no way to tell whether they have exercised their leadership according to their own rules.
And in any case, once again don’t forget to fill out the paperwork before you leave.
Going because of conflict:
3. Leaving [our church] as a way to avoid conflict or avoid a sin-issue is not simply a matter of leaving …, but a living, breathing picture of abandoning the Gospel – because that same Gospel has the promise of power in addressing sin and healing damaged relationships. If someone were to leave … without addressing a relational conflict or a sin-issue, we could not give our blessing to such a departure until the conflict or sin-issue were settled. In such a situation, an individual or family would NOT be considered departed in good standing.
… At the minimum we hope to have the opportunity to have all former members complete a withdrawing member form.
Of course, some people do leave a congregation rather than confront and deal with their own issues. It may be, though, that God is leading them to a congregation that is better suited to help them with their issues. Who knows? But this leadership refuses to bless the person who leaves, and thus presumes to pass judgment on the person.
And again, even if you are leaving for all the wrong reasons you still need to hand in your paperwork first.
Going because of legitimate (but still leadership-approved) disagreement:
4. Absent of a clear abandonment of the Scriptures or doctrinal purity, leaving [this church] due to a disagreement on a secondary matter, matter of conscience or philosophy/approach of ministry (including personal preferences) without a clear, written or verbal explanation (and possible follow-up) will not be considered a departure in good standing.
Again, such a departure is actually an abandonment of the Gospel … not simply leaving a church. Failing to engage in difficult conversations or failing to place ourselves in the humble and vulnerable position of allowing our views to be challenged (and possibly changed) is a terrible testimony to what God has done for us in Jesus. The pastors of [this church] will make every effort to be patient, gentle and clear in any teaching that might be needed AND repentant when we’ve failed in our duties as shepherds and leaders.
If after difficult conversations, challenge and teaching, it still seems clear that there is an unworkable impasse and everyone is relationally good, the … pastors will gladly release a member from their obligations on a case by case basis so that they can serve with a clear conscience in another church. Again, we will use our member withdrawal form to help guide us through these types of matters.
The leadership promises that if they are the ones at fault doctrinally or relationally they will humbly change their ways. And if they don’t agree to change, they promise to let you go with their blessing as long as everyone is in a good relationship with one another. And as long as you fill out the paperwork.
But this rule, like the others, is stacked against the member. It is up to the leadership to decide who has the right doctrine. It is up to the leadership to determine if you are in a right relationship with them or not. And if you leave without their approval, they insist you are not only rejecting their leadership but the very gospel of Christ itself.
You are not Subject to Anyone’s Judgment but God’s
Don’t let them judge you. Remember the position God has put you in as a priest and the responsibility he has given you to test whether something is of God or not. That includes determining whether a particular church is spiritually healthy and nourishing.
As you carry out that responsibility, remember the words of Paul, whose commitment to the Church is without blemish and whose example we would do well to follow:
Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Corinthians 4:2-5.)
As Paul said, don’t rely on a clear conscience but on God. After all, it is the finished work of Christ that places us in a right relationship with God and his people. Notice too that Paul does not say that your decisions will be judged and condemned. He says you will be judged and receive praise from God. (This doesn’t mean God will praise your bad decisions, of course, but you are certainly free from God’s condemnation for them according to Romans 8:1.)
Don’t subject yourself to anyone else’s judgment but God’s. Others – including some in church leadership, apparently – will condemn you, but God’s judgment leads to praise.