The Christian Mafia
Or “Every time I Try to Get Out
“But tyranny is no antidote to anarchy; it just makes a bad situation worse.”
Introduction by Peter Kershaw:
Historically, free-churches in America were also commonly referred to as "voluntary churches." They were voluntary in that unlike the old State-Church system throughout Europe where compulsory membership and attendance was the legally-enforced norm (failure to comply often had onerous consequences), voluntary churches were just that, voluntary. In a voluntary church one can become a member of the church of their choice, and of their own volition, and one can freely leave and join another church of their own volition.
With personal freedom comes personal responsibility, and not everyone is mature enough to deal with such liberties. Abuses of the voluntary church, particularly in our post-Christian culture, have created a couple of generations of "spiritual butterflies" flitting from one church to the next, often with no sense of commitment and dedication at all. Such behavior is only encouraged by the fact that many churches today have no formal membership of any kind.
In an effort to counter such libertine behavior some churches have gone to the opposite extreme, equating church membership with "a covenantal relationship" that is akin to marriage. The ramifications of such "till death do us part" sophistries are troubling and ultimately in many cases result in a church that starts looking an awful lot like a cult.
In my own case I once found myself as a member of a church in which I was subsequently told, "There are three ways that you can leave this church":
Joining that church was remarkably simple, but of course no one ever bothered to explain how difficult they could make it to leave. Indeed they had made it very difficult to leave for a number of families. Transferring membership to another church in town was generally unacceptable to the Elders. About the only acceptable excuse for departure had to include a move out of state for work or family reasons. Thankfully with my knowledge of church polity issues I was able to get my family out, but the entire experience was nothing short of horrific. Others even had it worse than we did.
In one case a family that left our church to join another church without first obtaining permission was "disciplined" by being told that they had been "excommunicated." In reality no excommunication had taken place, but it made for good theatre by intimidating any other members who might have similar ideas. The pastors then ordered the congregation to shun the entire family, including their five children. It's clear that family was used as an example. I was the only member who openly refused to comply with the shun order, and who also demanded to be released from membership because of the Session's tyrannies.
The spiritual and emotional trauma that family suffered is difficult to quantify. The fact that that family came through the trauma with their Christian faith intact, and that today they aren't bitter people, is a testimony to the mercies of our Lord (the same applies to the Kershaw family). The church too suffered tremendously, including having to endure the subsequent discipline of their pastors by the Presbytery for, among other things, ecclesiastical abuse. Thankfully at least those pastors were held accountable, being deposed from office. However, far too many other pastors are able to get away with the very same tyrannies.
I wish that I could say that these problems are rare, but they're not. My advice would be that before joining a church make sure you thoroughly understand their position on membership. Covenant theology can and should be a good thing, but as it applies to church membership covenant theology is sometimes twisted into an abusive system used by power-hungry cultish control freaks who masquerade as pastors.
In the following article Pastor Brian Abshire confronts "The Christian Mafia" view of church membership.
When “Bob” entered my office, I could see that he was visibly anxious, agitated and upset. I had been surprised when he called and asked for an appointment; after all, he was a long time member of the “other” Reformed church in town and I had wondered why he would want to talk to me.
After getting some coffee and making polite conversation “Bob” finally got to the point. “Thank you for seeing me, Pastor,” he began. “I have a serious theological question and I need your help.”
Well, his own pastor had somewhat of a reasonably good reputation on theological issues, so I asked, “Why me and not your own pastor?”
“He’s the problem. You see, I’ve been offered a promotion at work that will mean moving my family to another city. My pastor says that I am not allowed to take the promotion if it means leaving the church. He just warned me that if I do, I will be excommunicated for violating my covenant vows of church membership.”
Sadly, “Bob’s” situation is not as unusual as one might think. Over the last few years, I have run into a recurring mindset amongst certain very conservative churches. Often these churches are sincerely trying to offer a “counter-cultural” model to the “spiritual butterfly” concept of church membership. You know the one I mean, where people feel “free” to flit from one church to the other, sampling all the different options but never really settling down in any one place. So instead, these “conservative” churches tend to err on the other end of the pendulum creating concepts of church membership little different from the Mafia; once you get in you can never get out. The late great Dr. Greg Bahnsen used a different analogy; he called it the “Hell’s Angels” view of church membership. Regardless of what you call them, they summarize their view of church membership as “The ONLY way you can leave OUR church is by death, transfer or excommunication.” I first heard this concept propounded years ago by those on the EXTREME end of “conservative” churches; and by “conservative” I mean the sort of people who think the Deacons task is to cut the pastor’s grass, paint his house and sweep the sanctuary before every service for “bugs.” However, amazingly to my mind, is that otherwise perfectly rational, godly men of good reputation ALSO hold to this view!
Now, think with me a moment by analogy. Say you went down to your local bank intending to close out your account. The bank hasn’t necessarily done anything wrong-but perhaps you don’t like some of their policies or maybe you believe you could find a better deal somewhere else. OK, for pragmatic reasons, you would probably not close out your account at the “First Fractional Reserve Bank of Usury” until you opened another account some place else; but for our purposes of illustration, you want all your assets in hand. You walk up to the teller and politely ask to close out your account.
However, rather than giving you your money, instead she smiles sweetly at you and says, “I’m sorry; you are not allowed to close your account. Once you decide to do business with our bank, the only way to end your association is if you die, transfer to another approved branch, or if we decide we don’t want you as a customer any longer.”
Outraged, you respond, “But that’s ridiculous; I would never have put my money into this bank in the first place if I thought that I could never take it out.”
She again smiles sweetly and replies, “The conditions are in the contract you signed when you first opened your account with us.”
Now you just happen to be one of THOSE sorts of people; you know the ones who actually READ a contract before signing it; so you KNOW that there is no such condition in the contract and say so.
Non-plussed, the teller again sweetly says, “Oh, that provision is assumed by everyone on the board of directors, even if they didn’t exactly spell it out in the contract. Why, everyone knows that once you join our bank you can never do business with anyone else unless we say so! Have a NICE day!”
Since we have already used the terms “Mafia” and “Hell’s Angels” I am forced to find another term to describe a situation where people take unwarranted power and force you to do business according to THEIR rules; rules, which they can interpret any way it suits them. I think we call such systems, “fascism.”
Now, I know that some are going to be offended by my analogy here; doing business with a bank is NOT the same thing as joining a church, right? Really? Well, let us examine this assumption in a bit more detail.
The Christian Mafia usually attempts to justify their position on church membership by “theologizing” it, using the word “covenant.” Now, the word “covenant” is a great word, a Biblical word and has a definite theological meaning. The “Mafia” then will often compare their “covenant” concept of church membership to other covenants in the Bible such as God’s covenant with us, or marriage or something. Therefore, membership in THEIR church is a “lasting, binding relationship.”
The problem is that like a prestidigitator pulling a rabbit out of his hat; they are pulling a little intellectual misdirection here; making you look in one place while they covertly do something else, over there. Where do these brothers ever get the Biblical justification for calling your membership in a local congregation a “covenant?”
OK, one meaning of a “covenant” is simply a “contract” or an agreement between two parties. A contract stipulates the duties and responsibilities of each party, the sanctions if either party defaults and the conditions under which they can dissolve the contract. In that sense then, our banking analogy above is not as outrageous as it first appeared, is it? You contract with a bank to keep your money in their institution and they have the right to loan it out to others at exorbitant interest rates while paying you pathetic interest rates (now remind me again why we do business with banks?). You also obtain some services from them for your own convenience such as a checking account. Hence, you have a “covenant” with them.
What; you think this definition of “covenant” demeans the serious nature of the Biblical term, especially as it refers to belonging to a local part of the body of Christ? Well, think with me here; when we join a local church, we establish a “contract” with them. The conditions are usually that the elders will watch over our souls, teach us the word, administer the sacraments, organize weekly worship, etc. We in turn agree that we will respect the elders, live in harmony with one another, and take their correction (or discipline) as necessary; you know that sort of thing. Usually, but not always, these conditions are spelled out in detail in the church’s constitution. So both sides, the church and the individual, make a “covenant” with each other with their mutual duties and responsibilities made clear.
Furthermore, generally speaking, most church constitutions also contain within them the conditions under which the “covenant” is no longer binding. For the average American evangelical church, those conditions include death, excommunication and transfer; but they also allow resignation without penalty or recrimination. It is this last condition that so outrages the Christian Mafia.
OK, some you of are sniggering here thinking, “Gotcha Abshire! You are ALWAYS criticizing the evangelical church for its adoption of cultural values in place of Biblical ones. What about the BIBLICAL, concept of church membership as a solemn, BINDING and LASTING covenant!” I can almost see the “high-fives” as people congratulate themselves on scoring one on the fat-man!
Now let’s look at the above assumption for a moment; where in Scripture does it EVER teach that membership in the local church is a “solemn, lasting covenant?” Remember that magician we mentioned earlier-well watch carefully because he is about to pull that rabbit out of his hat while you are busy watching his pretty assistant. True, the Bible talks about our solemn, lasting covenant with God and our solemn lasting membership in His universal church-but that has NOTHING to do with membership in a local congregation!
Most Christians do not understand that the very concept of local church membership as we have it today is historically recent; essentially unknown until AFTER the Reformation. Think with me here please; when there was only ONE church throughout Christendom, once you were baptized in your local church, then automatically you were a member of EVERY other Christian church in the whole world; which by the way is why it was called the “catholic” or “universal” church.
Biblically speaking, a person is a “member” of Christ’s church IF they have made a confession of faith (Rms 10:9-10) and been baptized (Acts 2:39-39). Thus, all who met these two conditions “belong” to Christ. Yet, in the early church, there was no concept of local membership, as we would understand it today. For example, we know from the Scriptures that there was one “church” in each city. We also know historically, that each such “church” was actually often composed of “many” individual congregations (usually meeting in homes). However, if you had been baptized and confessed Christ, you were a “member” of the “Church” of that city, and by extension the Christian church in general, regardless of which of these small house congregations you attended. * There was ONE church but MANY congregations.
In the first century, when travel was difficult and entire generations never moved from one geographical location, people who confessed Christ and had been baptized (not necessarily in that order), WERE defacto “members” of the local assembly; usually the ONLY such assembly in an entire city. As the church grew, then the number of congregations would have also grown so that in time, in any given city, there might be many different “churches.”
But try as I might when looking through the Church Fathers and other ancient documents, I cannot find any evidence that they saw a particular person as being a formal “member” of a particular congregation in that city. Obviously, one would normally attend the church that was closest to you; and since that probably meant the same church that baptized you, in one sense your name would have been entered on their “rolls.” But this did not necessarily make you in some way MORE of a member of THAT congregation than any other congregation in that city; remember, in those days there was only ONE church. Membership in one local congregation automatically assumed that you were a member of every other congregation! Later on (5th century and beyond) as the church grew more organized, people were often associated with certain “parishes”; but this was an administrative issue; e.g., to determine which priest was responsible for which parishioner.
Then, along came the Reformation, which split the church into Protestant and Catholic. * Kings, princes or parliaments established most Protestant churches as the “state” church. Thus, if you were a citizen of that nation, then you were a member of whatever church was established as the “state” one. The civil magistrates often arrested, imprisoned and sometimes even executed “Dissenters” such as Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, etc., for refusing to acknowledge the authority of the state church. It took several hundred years (and a lot of people immigrating to America) to break the tendency of one church trying to use the power of the civil magistrate to force all the other churches to cry “uncle.”
However, in nations that still have “established” (meaning “state”) churches the attitude is still there. Years ago, when I returned to England for my post-graduate studies I was pleasantly surprised one day to answer my door and see the local Anglican vicar. I welcomed him in and we started chatting. He made a remark that he tried to visit all the new people who moved into the area because they were part of his congregation. Well, I have never been an Anglican-and though I try to be supportive of brother evangelicals in any denomination, (you’re sniggering again!), I was not interested in his church and I certainly did not grant him ANY spiritual authority over my household; and I told him so nicely (and if that sniggering does NOT stop I will take action!).
“Brian” he said, “You don’t understand. The Church of England is a state church and EVERY person, regardless of their personal religious beliefs is a member of MY parish and under MY spiritual oversight!” Now this man was not being a tyrant; just expressing a truth that we Americans thankfully have been able to forget since we broke with England two-centuries ago over just this very issue. The British Crown attempted to establish Anglicanism as the official, state sanctioned church in the colonies; and THAT as much as taxation caused our Scots-Presbyterian ancestors to grab their muskets and start using red coats for target practice!
However, getting back on track, in the American experience, especially during the westward expansion (when Ohio was considered the frontier ), often, in certain communities there might be only ONE church. Sometimes, people of different flavors of Christianity all met in the same church since there were not enough ministers available to meet every one’s particular theological conviction. However, as ministers and individual churches multiplied, then also the number of church choices multiplied. After a while, churches needed to identify who was REALLY a member of THEIR church as opposed to a member of some other congregation. Hence, the concept of “membership” was created.
But today, a person MAY make a profession of faith, be baptized and yet for a variety of legitimate reasons, NOT be a “member” of any local congregation. Everyone recognizes this to be true; even some of those in the Christian Mafia. If you meet someone at work or in some non-religious association and find out they confess Christ, do you not regard them as a Christian brother? Of course you do, even if they may NOT happen to be a member of a particular local assembly. Now, granted, their reasons for not being a member of a local congregation may be good, or may be bad; but the issue of their current church membership is simply irrelevant as to whether or not you regard them as being “saved,” right?
This is the rabbit being pulled out of the hat; some churchmen commit the logical fallacy of “equivocation” by subtly going from one meaning of a word, to another different meaning of the word. They insist that you cannot be “saved” unless you are a member of the church; meaning of course the universal church of Jesus Christ entered by baptism and verified by a confession of His Lordship (cf. Acts 2:38-39, Rms 10:9-10). They THEN use THAT definition of “church” to refer to “membership” in some local congregation; and in the process, transfer ALL the requirements of a covenant relationship with God to the requirements of belonging to their little, local organization! Wow; that’s not just a rabbit they’re pulling out there- but a very large elephant!
The consensus of Reformed scholars on “ecclesiology” is that we directly borrowed our concept of the local assembly from the Hebrew synagogue; the New Testament even makes a distinction between the “true” synagogues (the church) from the “false” ones; even calling them “Synagogues of Satan.” Now step back for a moment and consider this; how did synagogues derive their authority to form an assembly? Did the high priests, the Sanhedrin or some other established ecclesiastical body empower “synagogue” planters to start new works as needed? No, the Hebrews based the synagogue upon the system of judges established during the Exodus. Moses arranged the people by households and had them select a judge over every ten to help them resolve problems. Then, there was an ascending series of judges, over the judges to help in the more difficult cases. The households chose their own judges (or elders )* which Moses then “ordained.”
Later, this “theory” of “church government” developed so that any ten adult Hebrew men could form a synagogue. Often, (not always) a synagogue might appoint a rabbi (Hebrew for “teacher”), but most commonly, these men gathered to sing the Psalms, read and discuss the Word of God and pray. When Christians began organizing themselves into local assemblies, they used this model.
Most Christians are familiar with the missionary activities of the Apostle Paul but few have considered the situation in the church at Antioch. Neither an Apostle nor an apostolic messenger started the church in Antioch, a true church and recognized as such by the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem. According to the book of Acts, men who had confessed Jesus as Lord at Pentecost, returned home to Antioch where they shared the gospel with the “Greeks.” They then organized themselves into a local “church” with their own elders. Paul and Barnabus were even “ordained” by THEM for their missionary work. The authority to create a church came, not from some established ecclesiastical authority but from self-governed, baptized men who had confessed faith in Christ, who then organized themselves into a local congregation.
Now what has this to do with the Christian Mafia? Well, if the authority to FORM a church is inherent in the individual “covenanting” with other individuals, then logically, the right to LEAVE that association also lies with the individual. Does that sound too radical? Well, let us think it through; say the church in Antioch grew too big to accommodate all the new people coming to faith in Christ. Ten families then decide that it is too crowded on Sunday morning, too hard to hear the preaching, or maybe too far away. Do they not have the same right to form themselves into a congregation as the believers in Antioch did in organizing themselves into a “church” in the first place? They did not need the permission of the “elders” to start a new church because authority in the synagogue is inherent in self-governed men, already members of the broader covenant community as identified by their baptism and admittance to the Lord’ Supper, deciding to meet together.
Now, say that these ten families set up their new congregation and one of them decides that he prefers the old congregation after all. Is he FORCED to stay with the new group or is he breaking “covenant?” How about if that man MOVES to another city; is he still forced to be a member of the group he left behind? If so, by what authority?
Men of course are free to make all sorts of contracts with one another; but ultimately it is the Law of God that must govern the conditions; one of which is that only God can demand ultimate allegiance and obedience. In fact, God’s law even allows us to redeem “rash vows;” i.e., if we make a “covenant” but later discover that we cannot fulfill all the conditions we are allowed to BREAK the covenant, provided we make monetary restitution. The “restitution” serves to remind us that God intends for men to keep their word and not to write checks with the mouth that other parts of the anatomy cannot cash. Thus, to “break” a human covenant is NOT necessarily sin. Only God has the right to require unconditional covenant fidelity and only He can establish lasting, binding conditions.
Some have actually argued that church membership as a covenant is like marriage; the only lawful way to end the relationship is by death or in the case of adultery, desertion or other covenant breaking actions, divorce. However, marriage is a creation ordinance; God Himself clearly established the grounds under which a marriage can end. But nowhere does God EVER establish in His word the conditions under which one may leave a local assembly. Local membership in a particular assembly is a human contract we make with one another. We join a local church because we believe that that assembly will meet the spiritual needs of our households; and in return, we promise to work for the peace and purity of that local church (which usually means supporting the pastor and other worthy projects).
God does not authorize Man to create binding covenants contrary to His law for only He can demand our ultimate allegiance. Thus, if the church starts teaching heresy, we not only have a divine right, but a divine obligation to oppose it; and if we cannot remove the heresy from the church, we can lawfully remove ourselves from the heresy. This is what Luther and the other Reformers did.
Ok, Mr. Christian Mafia, answer me this; by what authority did Luther break “covenant” with Rome? Sure, there was heresy; but the question is, what gave HIM the right to DECLARE that it was heresy and lawfully remove himself from their ecclesiastical organization? Yes, yes, the word of God, I know-however the point here is that Mr. Luther had a crisis of conscience, which he powerfully articulated at the Diet of Worms. Consequently, he established as a basic principle that in the final analysis, a man MUST follow his conscience before God. We Reformed types even wrote the doctrine of the liberty of conscience into our creeds. If you are uncomfortable with this reasoning, then be consistent, and go back to Rome!
Mr. Luther also established the principle that an ecclesiastical organization cannot force a man to remain within an assembly that he deems aberrant. However, I am arguing here that this is just ONE application of a far more foundational principle; ALL ecclesiastical organizations are by their nature, VOLUNTARY associations, which free man, may enter into or leave, according to the dictates of their own consciences and discretion.
I can hear the howls of outrage from here; but let me explain by going back to the Old Testament again. Circumcision was the covenant sign of inclusion within the Hebrew church (just as baptism is the covenant sign for the New Testament church). Every Hebrew male was first circumcised and then, at about the age of 12-14, was granted full membership into the broader covenant community and allowed to participate in the covenant meal, the Passover. Thereafter, he was a true and full member of the Hebrew Church.
However, as a self-governed man, he was also free to join a local synagogue or gather nine other free men and form a new one. His membership in the local assembly was a good thing, a great thing and a helpful thing, (and one can argue even a necessary thing) but the conditions of membership in the local assembly were NOT identical as those that granted him membership in the broader covenant community! Granted, he had to have been circumcised and old enough to celebrate the Passover to join (or form) a synagogue; but if he left one of local assemblies (the synagogue) then it did not mean for a moment that he had left the covenant community! He was STILL a Hebrew, STILL circumcised and STILL ate the covenant meal!
At this point, I need to take a tangent for a moment because some informed critics are going to argue that the view of church polity I am defending here is NOT what the Reformers had in mind. In fact, in the 1647 Directory for Church Government (which accompanied the Westminster Standards), there is a statement that some might say takes the exact opposite position.
The comment reads, “Separation from a church thus constituted, were the government is lawful, upon an opinion that it is unlawful, and that therefore all the godly are also bound to separate from all such churches so constituted and governed, and to join themselves to another church of another constitution and government is not warranted by the word of God, but contrary to it. To gather churches into an independent form of government out of churches of a Presbyterian form of government upon an opinion that the presbyterial government is unlawful, is not lawful and warranted by the word of God; nor is it lawful to any member of a parochial congregation if the ordinances be there administered in purity to go and seek them elsewhere.” Directory of Worship-Of Particular CongregationsI admit that this view of the Westminster Assembly, at first look, SEEMS to be at odds with my position. However, I think that we need to understand their thinking in light of their historical situation. Remember that comment we made earlier about the first Reformed churches all being established by the civil magistrate? Well, the technical term for this is “Erastianism” and has to do with a theological view of authority. The Reformers were very much against rebellion against authority and therefore sought to demonstrate that they were NOT “rebels” by trying to find some source of authority to justify their removal from the communion of Rome. As a result, they usually turned to the State; the princes in Germany, the civil magistrates in Geneva, the parliaments in England and Scotland ALL provided the authority for the reformation of those nations.
Thus, as these nations were reforming themselves, by their understanding, there could only be ONE church-a church established by the State and to which every citizen was to be subject. Thus, if a citizen did NOT attend the church so established, he was considered a religious and civil traitor to the nation. Remember, Scotland WAS at that time, a Presbyterian nation and Presbyterianism was established as the state church by an act of parliament. Therefore, to separate one’s self from a Presbyterian church was an illegal act. The Reformers reasoned that since Romans 13 requires us to obey the civil magistrate, and if the civil magistrate establishes the “true” religion, then therefore, all Christians are required by Divine Law to accept that religion-and are not only criminals, but sinners if they do not.
Of course, the Presbyterians learned the hard way in just a few years how dangerous it is to hand this kind of power to the civil magistrate when the Stuarts returned to the united throne of Scotland and England. The English kings insisted that as the head of the nation, they were also the head of the church. The Scots refused to acknowledge any other head of the church except King Jesus and the Stuart monarchy (with the compliance of the Anglican bishops) viciously persecuted, murdered and oppressed them.
When the blood had dried (and God removed the wicked Stuarts from the throne), many of the surviving Scots Presbyterians fled to America where ON THEIR OWN AUTHORITY they established new Presbyteries. It was these same Scots Presbyterians who were largely responsible, as a group, for the War of Independence; they were NOT about to have the British crown impose Prelacy (rule by bishops) on them and they were not about to allow their new national government to “establish” a national church (the real meaning of the first amendment). However, somewhere along the line, people neglected to revise these kinds of statements from an earlier period. American churches though ACTED on the basis of what I am have been arguing here, even though some of their documents still contained the older language. Personally speaking, this is why I think there are so many “good” men who still hold to the “Mafia” position; they have not had the opportunity to really think through the issue, and do not evaluate 17th century documents in light of the historical situation.
Now, getting back on track; today, when people talk about church membership, discipline and even such things as excommunication, they tend to speak as if membership in a local congregation is the same as membership in the church universal because they have never worked out the implications of a disestablished church. This leads to such patently absurd situations as some weird little cultic tyrant excommunicating a person for some foolish reason and then expecting the rest of the wider church to accept their judgment! And what is even more ridiculous is otherwise sober, sincere and godly men talking as if the act of that little cult is SOMEHOW binding!
Now granted, if a man is thrown out of a local assembly because of unrepentant sin such as adultery, theft, blasphemy, etc., then clearly OTHER assemblies should recognize the validity of that act; provided of course that the local assembly can PROVE that the man was guilty as charged. But again, most people misunderstand the nature of church discipline. Some people think that God is obligated to follow the dictates of their little group when in reality; it is the other way around. If a man sins, and is unrepentant, even after two witnesses have confronted him, God ALREADY has “excommunicated” that person (Psa 66:18). The church therefore is only declaring what God has already said. Thus, the “discipline” is only as valid as its accuracy.
Thus, one local assembly is only required to recognize the validity of another local assembly’s judgments if they can PROVE that their judgment was accurate. In other words, just because one synagogue threw you out of their assembly does not necessarily mean that God has thrown you out of His Kingdom! This is why people who believe they have been abused by one local assembly can legitimately go to another and ask for justice; the validity of the judgment is dependant upon whether or not the person is actually guilty of unrepentant sin-not just because some church “court” said so.
But don’t say this to the Christian Mafia; in their minds, belonging to THEIR assembly is equivalent to belonging to the entire Christian community. Cross them or worse yet, try to get away from them, and they will come for you and do everything in their power to destroy you. Let us all give thanks that at least in America; we tried to prevent such men from using the power of the civil magistrate to persecute the innocent. But if they could, some of them would; one brother told me that in his church, the elders supposedly said publicly that they looked forward to the day when the civil law had been “reformed” enough so that they would be allowed to beat certain members of the congregation with a whip! This same church was at one time, at the forefront of “Christian Reformation” seeking to “return” the United States to a more “Biblical” form of government!
My point in this latest diatribe is simply that we all need to haul out our presuppositions about church “membership” and examine them in the light of Scripture. There IS “one” church; the church known only to God which consists of all of His elect. This church is invisible, universal and untouchable by human sin. There are also local assemblies organized by the authority of self-governed men who covenant together for worship, instruction and yes, even discipline if necessary. Clearly, we understand that simply belonging to a local assembly is no guarantee that we belong to the “real” church. And clearly, we ought to understand that simply because some people do NOT belong to a particular local assembly does not mean that they are not members of His invisible one. Once you figure that out, then clearly, the Christian Mafia’s hold over the individual is gone.
The fastest growing (and most populous) churches today are largely discarding the very concept of church “membership.” You are a “member” simply if you attend their services. More and more baptized, professed Christians never formally join any church. While there are some Christian Mafioso’s who might be perfectly willing to consign all these people to hell, most of us would agree that these people are in fact “true” brothers with whom we will share eternity. We might wish them better theology, or pray that they find a great church like ours; but we still recognize that they are God’s people.
Now, granted, there are many good, sound Biblical reasons for belonging to a specific local assembly and much evil can occur if we try to “go it alone” (Hebs 10:24). There are “Christians” who want to life autonomously and sometimes even wickedly who flee from any formal association; and of course, these people will suffer the consequences. We need each other, we need to be in fellowship with people who will love us, correct us and give us the occasional smack across the back of the head (Col 3:16).
Furthermore, for proper government, wise adjudication and better fellowship we need “covenant” relationships between local assemblies; sometimes we call them “presbyteries” sometimes something else. But (and this is a BIG “but”-I told you NO sniggering!) membership in ALL these associations is voluntary; we freely enter into them, and we can freely depart from them. Granted, many people too freely depart from these associations to the detriment of their own souls-but the solution is not the Christian Mafia, but rather gentle persuasion, acts of love and eradicating the little fascists in every group who want to run other people’s lives.
Now obviously, someone is going to criticize me for implying that people can leave the church for any old reason they like. In fact, in discussions with certain esteemed brethren, they have stated to me personally that to leave a church for ANY reason other than heresy or apostasy is “schism.” I respectfully disagree and can find no Biblical warrant for this position; yet many fine men assume this. However, my question is, “Where does God say that you are BOUND to ONE local assembly and that you cannot leave it unless it goes “bad?” Do you not have the right to associate with ANY assembly you choose? And do not churches have the RIGHT to associate with other churches THEY choose? And if they have the right to associate, they have the right to disassociate!
I am shocked when I hear the Christian Mafia view from some people who have pictures of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee on their walls; you know the sort-they are locked and loaded to fight round two of the “War of Northern Aggression” (by the way, where do I go to enlist?). They will insist that the South had the RIGHT to secede from the Union, but then argue that an individual does not have the right to SECEDE from a local church (especially THEIR church)! Do you not find it astounding that so many members of the Christian Mafia are adamantly opposed to the tyranny of the State, but perfectly happy creating their own little ecclesiastical dictatorships in their churches! Hey folks, there’s this little saying about sauces, geese and ganders that may be relevant here!
OK, admittedly, SOME churches actually say right up front in their constitutions that “once you are in you cannot leave unless we let you go” and if someone joins such a church, they have voluntarily agreed to this concept of “membership.” I do not happen to think this is a good idea; but again, free association means that people can restrict their freedoms, if they choose. However, most people do not know (and most elders do not TELL them) that this is a condition of church membership. If you discover this to be true and it concerns you, then that Old Testament case law about “rash vows” becomes applicable here. The Proverbs also have some principles about people who unwittingly make themselves liable; they are to BEG to be relieved from this burden. Personally, I would sincerely try NEVER to contract myself to any organization, secular or ecclesiastical that would forbid me the right to leave; but that’s just me.
Granted, with freedom comes responsibility. You may lawfully EAT whatever you want to eat; no church council has the right to bind your liberty other than what God Himself has established (Acts 15:1ff). They do not have the authority to even comment on how fat you are getting (Spurgeon was a hero to many of us for more reasons than just his theology!). However, if you refuse to listen to wise council and get to where you need a forklift to get you to church- YOU will suffer the consequences! People probably won’t say nasty things to your face, (like comparing you to a Thanksgiving Day balloon) but your spouse probably won’t find you too attractive (and if you don’t have one you probably won’t find one) and you may have to pay for two seats on an airplane!
What has this to do with the right to leave a particular church? Well, we all agree that there are “good” reasons for leaving a church and “bad” ones. The real issue here is “who gets to determine whether an individual’s reasons for leaving are good or bad?” Obviously, God sets the ultimate standard-but who has the say here on earth how those standards apply to YOUR situation?
My argument here is that in the end, the decision to join or leave a particular local assembly is a solemn, serious moral decision between the individual and God; and that no one here on earth has the authority to JUDGE those reasons because they lie in the “secret areas” known only to God. In other words, each man must go before God and make a decision regarding the assembly with which he associates and no one else on earth is competent to judge the legitimacy of his decision; for in the end, HE is the one who will stand accountable to God FOR that decision.
Sure, people may often leave churches for all the wrong reasons. and God WILL judge them if they leave because the preaching makes them “uncomfortable” (which usually means “convicting”) or because “that church is SO unfriendly” (which usually means people don’t treat them like the center of the universe). However, I am arguing here that these people have the “right” (lawful authority from God) to leave if they choose to do so because ultimately the authority to form or dissolve an association is inherent in self-governed men following their consciences. Hence, we are ultimately accountable to HIM, and not to the local assembly. If our reasons are BAD, then God will sort them out. Fail to deal with your anger in one church, and God will providentially bring the same problem up in another one. Fail to deal with your sins in one local assembly and you are likely to discover a whole host of “arrogant pastors” who seem to preach specifically at you.
On the other hand, He might not; He does allow some people to gather “teachers” who will tickle their ears with false doctrine just as He allows idolatrous societies to become morally depraved (Rms 1:20ff). Personally, I think He does this for the same reason He hardened Pharaoh’s heart; it simply increases the severity of His righteous wrath against rebellious men. Freedom is a scary thing, isn’t it?
So run if you will from one church-you have the right to leave, but be careful that you are not running right into God’s eternal judgment! There are those who “forsake assembling together” because at heart they are autonomous antinomians refusing to acknowledge any authority other than their own. However, THEIR sin, does not justify us creating a false concept of church membership.
Therefore, it is my sincere conviction, that despite the Christian Mafia, individuals may join or leave local assemblies based upon the God-given right of free association and the liberty of conscience. Churches can join or leave presbyteries and denominations, on that same basis. Of course, since all relationships are precious, we should never break one simply because we are angry, frustrated or because we want to escape correction. Surely, because the love of Christ is within us and manifests itself through the love of the brethren, we should always try to resolve problems, seek forgiveness and live at peace with one another.
But tyranny is no antidote to anarchy; it just makes a bad situation worse.
This article is used by permission of the author, Rev. Brian Abshire. The original appears at Christian Civilization. Rev. Abshire is the head pastor of Highlands Reformed Church in Spokane Washington.
See also Pastor Abshire's When To Leave a Church
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