Observations Concerning Resignation Of Church Membership
It may seem at first sight hard doctrine, but according to our judgment, a member of a gospel church cannot Scripturally resign his church membership except upon two grounds:
First, that he may, if so compelled by being removed to a distance in providence, join himself to another church of the same faith and order; and, secondly, if the church of which he is a member fall from its position as a witness for Christ, either by embracing error, sanctioning ungodly conduct, or walking in irremediable disorder.
But as we wish never to pronounce any opinion in the things of God without assigning our reasons, as drawn from the Scriptures of truth, we shall, with as much brevity as is consistent with clearness, attempt to prove this from the Word of God.
It is necessary, however, to lay down at the very outset, that unless we have a clear and Scriptural view of what a gospel church is, we are not prepared to understand the question.
Indeed, it is only from entertaining false or confused ideas on the subject that a doubt could ever arise on the point.
What, then, is a gospel church?
It is not a club, nor an association, nor a joint-stock company, nor any society of worldly men banded together by worldly interests, and organized and maintained for worldly purposes.
It is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus, a representation of His mystical body; and therefore no rules or regulations, manners, maxims or customs taken from earthly and carnal associations, have any place in the Church of God.
By examining, then, the nature of a gospel church and its constitution, we shall see that a member cannot, except under Scriptural grounds, such as we have already alluded to, resign his connection with it.
1) A gospel church is a visible and imperfect representation of “the Church of the First-born, whose names are written in heaven”(Hebrews 12:23) that mystical body of which the Lord Jesus is the glorious Head. But though necessarily imperfect, yet, as being a representation of the invisible Church, the Scripture identifies them and speaks of them as one. If our readers will carefully examine I Corinthians 12:12-31 they will readily see that the whole argument is based upon this ground, that the church at Corinth (and by analogy every other similarly constituted gospel church) represented the mystical body of Christ; and that, there fore, what is applicable to the body itself is applicable to the representation of that body in other words, that that which is wholly and fully true of the perfect invisible Church is, in measure, true of the imperfect visible Church.
Now, can a member of Christ’s mystical body, an elect vessel of mercy, take himself out of Christ and resign, so to speak, membership with the Church of the First-born?
A man may, indeed, apostatize from a profession who has been all along destitute of grace, but no living member of Christ can perish through assaults from without, much less from his own act of abandonment from within.
A man’s arm may sooner voluntarily take itself out of his body, or his hand willingly drop from the wrist, than a member of Christ resign union with the Lord Jesus.
By analogy, therefore, a member of a gospel church cannot voluntarily resign his church membership.
2) We are led to the same conclusion by the same figures which the blessed Spirit employs to set forth the nature and constitution of a gospel church.
A gospel church is:
(1) spoken of as a family. “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” (Ephesians 3:15) It is therefore called a spiritual house, the house of Christ, and the house of God (Ephesians 3:15; I Peter 2;5; Hebrews 3;6; I Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 10:21; I Peter 4:17). The word house here means not only the abode of Christ, His earthly temple and residence, but the household, or inhabitants of the house, as distinct from the house itself in which they dwell. It is therefore called the household of God, and the household of faith (Ephesians 2:19; Galatians 6:10).
Now can a brother or sister resign his or her membership with the rest of the family?
Can they from any personal pique or domestic broil or family jar, say: “I dis-brother or un-sister myself; I will no longer be a brother to Thomas or a sister to Mary, because Thomas and I have quarrelled, or Mary and I cannot agree?”
Were they to say and act so, they would un-child themselves as well as dis-brother themselves, and the same act by which they cast off their connection with the members would cut off their connection with the head of the family they virtually disavowing the parent in disavowing the offspring.
If a church, therefore, be the household of God, it would seem that to renounce a union with it is, in a certain degree and to a certain extent, to renounce union with
2) Again, as a church is a representation of Christ’s mystical body, the general assembly and church of the First-born, it is compared to the human body. “Not holding the Head, from which the whole body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God” (Colossians 2:19). The same heavenly truth is set forth in Ephesians 4 and Corinthians 12.
Now, can a limb of our natural body voluntarily resign its connection with its fellow members?
It may be cut off by accident, be removed by operation, or drop off by disease; but a sound healthy limb or organ cannot, as an act of its own will, renounce its connection with the rest of the body. The eye cannot say: “I will no longer see for the body. I have worked long enough for the ungrateful members. I have kept myself open all day and sometimes half the night, watching for their benefit, and they have grudged me a moment’s sleep. Let them look out for themselves. I resign my trying post; for I have often had dust thrown at me and have wept floods of tears at their unkind conduct; so that I mean for the future to keep my lids down, or go where I shall be better treated and my important services valued. I shall certainly take myself out of the body.”
The ear might next use similar language and say: “I will resign too. Brother eye has been shamefully treated. I have heard the unkindest things said about him, and as we live so near each other and occupy a higher position than the other members, we sometimes compare notes, and mean on this occasion to act together. And as they have treated me badly too, and I am continually hearing their bitter speeches and taunting remarks, which give me inward pain continually, I shall certainly send in my letter of resignation at the same time.”
Brother hand might next take offence, and holding himself up or stretching himself forth as if he were another Paul, answer for himself:
“I have made myself hard and horny working for the ungrateful members, and I have opened myself so widely and given so much to the poor of the church, that I shall beggar my family if I go on any longer with them. I shall resign too.”
And why should not brother foot, though from his position last and least, next take the same step, and speaking out of the dust, add, “Why, I think I shall resign too! How I have slaved in the mud and mire to support the minister and the cause; how for many years I have borne the burdens of the church, and how I have been trod and trampled on! But I will work and walk no more on the church’s errands, but lay myself up for the rest of my days on the sofa and rest like a gentleman!”
Apply this reasoning to the question before us. If a gospel church be, as the apostle most clearly lays down, “the body of Christ and members in particular” (I Corinthians 12); if there be in it spiritually, as in the body naturally, the eye, the ear, the hand, the foot, these spiritual members can no more resign their union with, and thus leave and come out of, the spiritual body, than the natural members can abandon their place and office in the natural body.
3) The blessed Spirit compares a gospel church to a building of which Jesus Christ is the chief corner stone (Ephesians 2:19-22). But though compared to a building, there is one point in which a church differs from all other buildings that it consists of living stones: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men but chosen of God and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:4-5).
Now every stone in a building has a part to sustain and a weight to bear in the edifice. The same holds good in the spiritual building. Whilst there, occupying the placed designed for it by the heavenly Architect, every living stone adds to the strength of the whole edifice.
As, then, in the literal and natural building no stone can resign its place in the edifice without injuring the stability of the whole structure and the more important a situation it occupies, the more weight it sustains, the more it is constrained to abide its position so in the spiritual building a living stone may not voluntarily cast itself out of its place because it has to bear burdens, or because the adjoining stones inconveniently and somewhat too heavily press upon it.
And yet there are members of churches who immediately that any trouble arises in the church, are for resigning, not considering that when the storm blows, that is the very season when the stone should keep most firmly in its place.
There are others who cannot bear a word of reproof, however affectionately administered, or however much deserved and required, but in a huff take themselves out of the church, as if a stone which has become somewhat loose did not sometimes need a smart tap of the trowel before a little fresh mortar is put into the joint.
There are others who, having been guilty of misconduct, instead of repenting and confessing their fault, choose rather to withdraw to avoid an investigation and possible church censure or the disgrace of being turned out.
On these grounds we believe that voluntary resignation of church membership, except in two cases which we shall now state, is not admissible, and that it is contrary to the Word of God. It is a practice borrowed from worldly clubs and societies, and if not forbidden by any positive precept, yet is in opposition to the spirit of the gospel and the analogy of faith.
3) In the perfect Church, consisting wholly and only of the elect of God, there is no resignation nor dismissal nor separation.
But in the imperfect church there may be, and from its very constitution necessarily is. Yet in our judgment there are but two cases in which voluntary resignation is admissible.
1. To join another church of the same faith and order when necessitated to do so in the leadings of God’s providence. Take the following case: A member of a gospel church in London is in the providence of God moved to Manchester. He finds there a minister whom he can hear, a people with whom he feels a union, and a church of the same faith and order as his own.
Why may he not, with the consent and permission of his own church, unite himself with them?
If he do not, he must live in neglect of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper; and as
both churches are representations of Christ’s mystical body, he is not guilty of making any schism in the body by transferring himself from one church to the other.
2. The other case is much more difficult and delicate, and depends much on the spiritual judgment and, we may add, still more on the spiritual conscience of the person who feels compelled to renounce his connection with the church of which he
is a member.
A church is a witness for Christ; but if it sanction error, countenance ungodliness, or fall into irremedial disorder, it abandons that position, forfeits its trust and, so to speak, unchurches itself. It is, therefore, no schism and no sin, after repeated and ineffectual affectionate remonstrance, to separate from such a church, because it is, in fact, no longer a church of Christ, the presence, the power, and the Spirit of God having left it.
We, of course, here merely lay down a general principle The individual acting upon it is a different matter, and he requires perhaps more than on any other point, much prayer and consideration, much anxious self-examination, much waiting upon the Lord to know His mind and will, much distrust of self, and a conviction amounting to little short of complete certainty, before the final step is taken. Nor is it one or two solitary instances which might occur through ignorance or infirmity that would justify such a decisive step, but a continued wilful course of conduct, evidently proving that the Spirit of God was not in the people.
4) If, as we believe, it is an unscriptural act to resign, it follows that the church acts unscripturally if it accept the resignation; for thus it countenances and sanctions a wrong deed, and becomes a partaker of other men’s sins.
It should, therefore, appoint either the minister and deacons, or two approved members of the church, to visit the individual and affectionately remonstrate with him on the subject, and treating him as a friend and brother, use every argument to induce him to remain.
But suppose he will not listen to their affectionate remonstrances, and still perseveres in his resignation, how shall the church act then?
Shall it now accept it to prevent further trouble?
We still say, no.
Because he perseveres in wrong doing, that is no reason why the church should act wrongly too. Let the church consider the resignation null and void and not accept it.
But suppose the member act on his own letter, and considering himself no longer a member,cease to attend the Lord’s Supper?
Then the church has a case of another kind against him, and if he persevere in his conduct, without repentance, may separate him as walking disorderly and disobediently to his Lord’s precepts.
When a member sends in his resignation to avoid an investigation of alleged misconduct, the church should not receive it but consider the letter as unwritten, proceed to investigate the matter, and should the charges be proved true, separate him just as they would have done had he not resigned. If such person seeks admission into another church, the whole proceedings should be laid before it, and the full circumstances stated without reserve.
We have, of course, here laid down only general principles, feeling at the same time that much wisdom and firmness are needed to carry them out in particular cases. Nor can we forbear adding that as cases of this kind are generally most painful and afflicting, so there are none in which greater kindness and gentleness, long-suffering and tenderness are required, and that a church called to act in these distressing cases is not a bench of judges, a box of jurymen, or a bar of lawyers, but a company of pardoned criminals.
By J.C. Philpot – 1854