One of the themes I’ve pursued here is the churchlessness of the evangelical movement. I’ve challenged those “evangelicals” who say that they believe the Reformed faith to stop being Nicodemites. When other folk see for themselves what is happening and they begin to reconsider their relationship to broad evangelicalism it can create a crisis. One of the questions I’ve received more than once is this one, “When should I leave my congregation?”This is not an easy question to ask or answer. It is not easy to ask because it suggests that a relationship has been broken and that a divorce of sorts is impending. That means pain and discomfort. It’s not an easy question to answer; not because I don’t have an opinion but because it’s an unpopular opinion and one that some might not want to hear.
First, a bit of historical context. In the Reformation one of the questions the emerging evangelicals (i.e., those leaving the Roman communion and forming Protestant congregations organized around sola Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide) faced was what to do with the vows many had made to various monastic organizations or to the Roman communion. The Protestants took this question seriously. This was one of the topics Luther was addressing in his 1521 letter to Melanchthon when he counseled him to “sin boldly.” He wrote:
You cannot convince me that the same is true for the vows made by priests and monks. For I am very concerned about the fact that the order of priesthood was instituted by God as a free one. Not so that of the monks who chose their position voluntarily, even though I have almost come to the conclusion that those who have entered into that state at an age prior to their manhood, or are currently at that stage, may secede with a clear conscience. I am hesitant, however, with a judgment about those who have been in this state for a long time and have grown old in it.
…If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.
Later, Luther was not as hesitant to to counsel others to leave their orders. Embedded in his advice to Melanchthon is the notion that we sometimes obligate ourselves to that which is either not real or has not sufficient legitimacy to obligate us. Melanchthon was worried about faux sin, in this case breaking monastic vows. Luther wanted him to worry about real sins, to stop pretending about inconsequential things and to understand the true state of things. Jesus didn’t die for faux sins but for real sins and real sinners. This is what Luther wanted Philip to understand when he wrote about “true mercy” and real sins.
In a 1553 letter Calvin made more explicit some of these same themes:
Being questioned concerning vows, he answered, that all our promises are but lies. Now, it would have been well to specify that a part of their vows being impossible, they are nothing but an insult to God: as, for instance, when the monks and priests renounce marriage; and that generally the whole of these vows are nothing but false inventions in order to bastardize the service of God, and that we are not permitted to promise or offer to him except in accordance with his word. I believe that the said brother will be well pleased to be informed of these things, so that the truth of God may be the more victorious in him.
When we take false vows, they are no vows at all. if we’ve promised something that is contrary to the word, then we’ve not taken a proper vow. If we’ve affiliated with that which is not really a church at all, because it lacks the marks of a church, however friendly the people are, however sweet the people are, however connected we are by common experience and even affection, what have we actually done? Does our intent at the moment of the vow determine the nature of it? Really? Does intent define reality?
Calvin said essentially the same thing to the Five Prisoners of Lyons (1552) who were facing certain martyrdom:
As I hope to write to you again, I shall not at present lengthen my letter. I shall only reply briefly to the point which brother Bernard has asked me to solve. Concerning vows, we must hold to this rule, that it is not lawful to vow to God anything but what he approves. Now the fact is, that monastic vows tend only to corrupt his service. As for the second question, we must hold that it is devilish presumption for a man to vow beyond the measure of his vocation.
Whatever discontinuities between monastic vows and membership vows in congregations that lack the marks of church, there are certain similarities. Our intent does not create reality. The truth creates reality. Vows, whether for membership or monasticism, taken in ignorance or in rashness are not proper vows.
Vows taken before God in a congregation which has the marks of true church are a different matter. Those vows are binding. Church members (assuming that we’re talking about a church here) are not free agents
How should one proceed? Slowly, clearly, and graciously. If, in a given congregation, reformation according to the Word is not possible, then one who has taken vows should withdraw to a congregation that has the marks. This should not be done rashly but it should be done. If possible, one should meet with one’s minister or elders to explain what is happening, that it is not personal, and that one is acting on principle. One should focus on the central issues. This is what I mean by “clearly.” The color of the carpet in the auditorium is not a sufficient cause to leave a congregation but refusal to recognize the continuity of the covenant of grace established by God in Gen 17 and re-articulated in Acts 2:39 is. Refusal of a minister to preach the gospel or to distinguish the law from the gospel or the flat refusal of elders to practice discipline are matters of sufficient gravity as to provide warrant for ending a relationship with a congregation. I say “graciously” because too often those who have discovered the Reformed faith have not always borne witness to it in the most winsome way
(here is a talk on this same topic
It was not easy for ex-monks to walk away from their brothers and fathers, with whom they had prayed, with whom they had suffered, and with whom they had sworn vows to God but walk away they did. They left the monastery and renounced their vows because they realized that their vows were not biblical, the monastery wasn’t biblical, much of the theological system undergirding it wasn’t biblical, and the ecclesiastical structure which nourished the monastic communities wasn’t biblical. They had a higher vocation to Christ, to his Word, and to the visible, institutional church founded on that Word.