Re-Posted from Sept 9, 2009.
The HB has addressed the problem of “churchless evangelicals” before. This question is a little different. How should consistories/sessions address the problem of members of a congregation who simply seem to disappear as if they’ve fallen off the face of the earth? People appear before the elders (consistory or session) sometimes as those who were raised in the church or sometimes as converts to the Reformed faith from a broad evangelical background. In the former case one hopes that the covenant children of the congregation have been catechized thoroughly. In the latter case, folk become interested in “the doctrines of grace” and go through membership class. In either case, the elders usually hear an enthusiastic profession of faith before the elders and the new members stand before the congregation and take the four membership vows:
- First, do you declare that you love the Lord, and that you desire to serve him according to his Word–to forsake the world, to put to death your old nature, and to lead a godly life?
- Second, do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed to you in your baptism, and do you humbly confess that you are sinful and that you seek life not in yourselves but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?
- Third, do you sincerely believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testaments, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
- Fourth, do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?
It’s the fourth vow that is the sticking point here. We live in a highly transient culture. People arrive from seemingly everywhere and others depart just as quickly. In the current economy, as jobs disappear quickly, so do members. Sometimes people simply disappear without a trace. The problem is the fourth vow. With that vow Christians have pledged fidelity to the visible, institutional church. They cannot simply vanish without a word to Christ’s church. They have taken sacred and binding vows which have practical consequences.
In response to our transient culture, some congregations have adopted a practice of “lapsing” or “erasing” members who simply disappear. On the surface this seems like a reasonable thing to do. Indeed, I’ve done it myself. After all, what else can the elders do in such a case? If a member is gone, he is gone. It’s not good for the church rolls to be full of non-attending members and the elders are no longer able to care for a missing member, so the best thing is simply to accede to the reality of our transient culture and erase or lapse them.
There is an alternative. It’s the third mark of a true church: discipline. As attractive and eminently practical as lapsing or erasing members might be it’s not a biblical option. If church membership is analogous to marriage or any other binding contract, one member of the covenant cannot simply disappear. There are extraordinary circumstances. It might be that a husband goes on a trip and, unbeknownst to anyone, he is eaten by a lion. Ordinarily, however, if someone disappears, it is with intent. If it is with intent, then there is a moral problem. In our time, when almost everyone has a mobile phone, email, facebook etc. going “off the grid” is pretty difficult. It requires intent. If a person intends to escape a covenanted relationship to the visible church by disappearing, then such a person has violated his membership vows. In such a case, a person is a candidate for church discipline, even if he is apparently beyond contact.
There is a reasonable objection to disciplining missing members. If church discipline is aimed primarily at restoring members and if the member is apparently beyond contact, how is church discipline of any value to the wandering member, especially if they have no idea that they’ve been disciplined? In such a case, isn’t consistory (session) spitting into the wind?
There are two responses. If the elders have made a good faith effort to contact someone using all reasonable means and the missing member persists in absenting himself from the means of grace then the elders must assume that the absence is intentional. The member is guilty of contumacy, a willful rebellion against Christ’s church. If the missing member is missing by intent, then the elders’ inability to contact him may only be apparent. Just because someone isn’t responding doesn’t mean he isn’t hearing the message. It’s true that the elders may not be able to follow the usual process in church discipline but they can follow some process. It seems perverse , however, to refuse to discipline someone for willful sin simply because he has found a technique for ducking contact with the visible church, as if he is saying, “If you can’t touch me, you can’t discipline me.”
Nonsense! Of course the elders can discipline someone who refuses to be contacted. Consistory/session can make good faith efforts to contact this person and then proceed to the next step. If someone continues to absent himself from the means of grace and apparently evade the elders (remember, just because he isn’t responding doesn’t mean that he’s not hearing) then his name and sin should be announced to the congregation as part of a good-faith effort to obey and apply Matthew 18. If, after these steps, a member continues to absent himself willfully (and that is the most reasonable presumption) then the process should continue to excommunication, if necessary.
There is a second point here that sometimes gets overlooked. Yes, discipline has the wayward member in view but it also has the congregation in view. This is apparent from Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 5 and elsewhere. Sometimes Reformed folk speak about the “peace and purity of the church.” So they should. It is bracing and instructive to members to remind them, by such a process, that they took sacred vows before the risen Christ and before his holy church and that those vows entail a genuine commitment to the visible institutional church. However transient our culture may be, we are Christians first and citizens of an abiding, eternal, immutable kingdom. Our citizenship in this age may not be allowed to overwhelm our heavenly citizenship, our citizenship in the kingdom of God.
The good news is that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13;8). Our culture is transient. We are transient. Our jobs are transient, but Christ is not. He obeyed on behalf of died as the substitute for covenant-breaking wretches such as you and me. He came for the ones who strayed and he still loves those who stray. If you’re reading this and you have wandered from a Reformed church, a congregation that has the marks of a true church (the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of discipline) please contact your elders. They still love you. Wandering from Christ’s church is a sin but it is not the unforgivable sin. There is redemption. There is grace (free acceptance with God). When you return you will be received like the prodigal you are. Speaking as a minister and as a sinner I can say one of the greatest joys of the Christian life is to see one restored and that joy is not only for the church but for the wanderer who is restored. The beginning of restoration is only a phone call or email away.
UPDATE 21 Dec 2009
My congregation recently approved a revision to our by-laws which allows the consistory (elders and ministers) to “lapse” one with whom they have lost contact and whom they are unable to contact for one year. My response is ask what the military does with someone who goes AWOL for a year? Do they simply lapse a soldier, a sailor, a marine, or member of the air force if they evade contact with the MPs for one year? I guess not. I guess that the MPs have a list of AWOL personnel and when they catch one of them that person is disciplined. If a consistory is unwilling to discipline someone in absentia, then why can’t they make a list of folks who need to be disciplined? Why reward them for going off the ecclesiastical grid?