When Should I Leave My Congregation?

One of the themes I have pursued here is the churchlessness of the evangelical movement.1 I have challenged those evangelicals who say they believe the Reformed faith to stop being Nicodemites.2 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 have 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 is not an easy question to answer; not because I do not have an opinion, but because it is an unpopular opinion and one that some might not want to hear.

First, let us look at 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.3

Later, Luther was not as hesitant 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 did not 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.4

When we take false vows, they are no vows at all. If we have promised something that is contrary to the Word, then we have not taken a proper vow. If we have 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.5

Whatever discontinuities there are between monastic vows and membership vows in congregations that lack the marks of a 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 a true church are a different matter. Those vows are binding. Church members (assuming that we are talking about a church here) are not free agents.6

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 Genesis 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 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 borne witness to it in the most winsome way (here is a talk on this same topic).7

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 their vows were not biblical, the monastery was not biblical, much of the theological system undergirding it was not biblical, and the ecclesiastical structure which nourished the monastic communities was not biblical. They had a higher vocation to Christ, to his Word, and to the visible, institutional church founded on that Word.


  1. See R. Scott Clark, “On Churchless Evangelicals (Part 1).”
  2. R. Scott Clark, “To The Evangelical Nicodemites.”
  3. Martin Luther, “Let Your Sins Be Strong: A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon, Letter no. 99, August 1, 1521,” trans. Erika Bullmann Flores, Project Wittenberg, from Johannes Georg Walch ed., Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche Schriften, vol. 15 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), cols. 2585–2590.
  4. John Calvin, “To Denis Peloquin and Louis de Marsac. Information regarding various controverted points—exhortation to fidelity, even unto martyrdom,” in Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), letter CCCXXIII, para. 421.
  5. John Calvin, “To the Five Prisoners of Lyons—Martial Alba, Peter Escrivain, Charles Favre, Peter Naviheres, Bernard Seguin,” in Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), letter CCXCVI, para. 352.
  6. R. Scott Clark, “Are Church Members Free Agents?
  7. R. Scott Clark, “Why (Some) Reformed People Are Such Jerks.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Glad you posted this, I was just about to bring up the same subject. I am Reformed (A process that took a number of years) but my husband is Arminian Baptist. We joined an OPC church a few years ago (Where the only qualification for membership is a credible profession of faith). I had hoped & prayed with time and sound teaching his views would change, but they didn’t. He could tolerate watching infant baptisms, but not the Doctrines of Grace preached, nor how that perspective pervades everything else.

    He left the church a few months back but I remain and will continue to remain. We are making it work even though it is not easy. We are both retired with adult children, so I’m very thankful that this happened at this stage of life vs. having to make decisions about their baptisms.

  2. One must note too sadly,that even in a church with the three marks (from the dutch reformed belgic) their can still come necessity to leave, whether pastoral abuse (unchecked by presbytery/appeal), a condemnation and punishment of those with different convictions on areas outside of the confessions, or many more situations.

    I think you put it well when you say that the leaders are in essence abandoning their vows to their congregants in these areas. Either way, it is “painful and full of discomfort”, and often a long thing! When these “leavings” happen we must pray as well that both sides work towards reconcilation however possible and put away bitterness.

    Thank you for this article, I found it encouraging.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I’m genuinely curious – do you know of any references to historical membership vows? From what I’ve read, they were not added to the PCUS Directory of Worship until 1894. Which denominations were using membership vows before then?

    This is merely speculation, but did the tremendous growth of the Baptist and Methodist churches in the 19th century influence Reformed practice? Much as we chide modern Baptist baby dedications as “dry infant baptisms”, is it possible that our membership ceremonies are a form of “dry adult baptism”?

    Of course, the late 19th and early 20th centuries also begat a profusion of mutual benefit and fraternal organizations. Many of these borrowed rites and practices from Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and other older societies (as did the Mormons in the early 19th century). If you look back at obituaries from 100 years ago, you’ll see that it was common for good churchmen to also be a member of several of these new societies. Might, “wouldn’t it be nice to have an organ in here?”, not have been the only innovation of the time?

    So, in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, did those wishing to join a church stand before the congregation and take four or five vows? Or did they recite vows with the Elders? Were they required to sign written membership contacts (or covenants), as is now the case at some churches (seemingly starting in the last twenty years)? What record do we have of such transactions? And to what extent is a church free to require additional vows? Will the people of 2100 think of the written church contract as a natural part of historical Reformed practice?

    This is a topic I’ve been wanting to research but have not had time. Any sources that you can provide will be greatly appreciated.

    • It is still the practice of the Free Church of Scotland (at least it was until recently) that those wishing to be admitted to the Table went to meet the Elders during the Communion Weekend, and, if they had a credible profession of faith, were admitted. The going forward to the Table in and of itself constituted a public profession. Vows were only required if there was to be a baptism on profession. I am now in a congregation of the IPC which does have vows.

    • Hi Don,

      I think there is a problematic premise in your question or a missing distinction.

      For virtually all of Christian history Christians have made profession of faith orally before church officers. In the earliest post-apostolic church practice there were three offices: ministers, elders, and deacons. We don’t have a lot of information but converts made profession of faith before the elders and ministers as part of administration of baptism. Later, as the church devolved to episcopal (bishop-centered) polity, catechumens were received into the church at Easter by the bishop. Once Christianity became the established religion of the empire and as it expanded to the West, things changed.

      Still, Hodge was correct to write,

      Confirmation indeed, or a service attending the introduction of those baptized in infancy, into full communion in the Church, was early instituted and long continued among Protestants as well as among Romanists. Those who had been baptized in infancy, had their standing in the Church on the ground of the profession of faith and the engagements made in their name, by their parents or sponsors. When they came to years of discretion, they were examined as to their knowledge and conduct, and if found competently instructed and free from scandal, they assumed the obligation of their baptismal vows upon themselves, and their church membership was confirmed. In all this, however, there was nothing of a sacramental character. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 492–93.

      From AD 380, until the New World (the USA), there were no free churches. As the faith moved to Europe, whole villages were baptized and made members in one act. For about 1,500 years there were only state-churches and parishes in Europe and the British Isles. Everyone in Europe was more or less baptized into the church. Over time there were fewer and fewer converts but this does not mean that there were no members of the church. E.g., the Church Order of the Synod of Dort speaks of members of the church about 5 times.

      Under that system, the Reformed churches received people by baptism and upon profession of faith. Calvin’s Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances ((1541) speak of making promises (or vows) to the church.

      The CO says:

      59. Adults are by baptism ingrafted into the Christian church and accepted as members of the church, and therefore are duty bound to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism…

      61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

      The “promise” of which the CO speaks is tantamount to a vow. The public profession of faith before the elders was tantamount to a vow.

      The Draft Eccl. Ord. had the Genevan ministers taking oaths in 1542. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands began requiring vows of their ministers in the 1560s and 70s. So, vows in church long pre-dated the rise of secret societies. Our churches used baptismal forms in the 1560s, which included questions of the parents, in which they took vows. The form for the baptism of adults dates to the Synod of Dort (15168-19). See Van Dellen & Monsma, 242-42.

      In the New World, when churches were no longer instituted by the State and, in that sense, free, membership vows of the laity probably did take on greater significance insofar as families were not automatically members of the local parish by law.

      I don’t know that, in Reformed churches, members have ever signed written contracts but they have long taken vows of some sort.


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