Mr. Lanting, a member of South Holland Protestant Reformed Church, is a practicing attorney.

[Church membership] may be severed freely by a member’s positive act at any time. But until it is so terminated, the church has authority to prescribe and follow disciplinary ordinances without fear of interference by the state. Within the context of church discipline, churches enjoy an absolute privilege from scrutiny by the secular authority.

Hadnot v. Shaw

(Oklahoma Supreme Court, 1992)

Post-Withdrawal Discipline

At times a church consistory is involved in the unpleasant but necessary task of admonishing and disciplining a communicant member. But more often than not, it seems, the erring member who refuses to repent evades imminent censure or other discipline by “asking for his papers.” The consistory then faces the question of whether to ignore the resignation and continue the disciplinary procedure, or to acknowledge the withdrawal from membership and thereby terminate all discipline.

In his book, The Polity of the Churches, church order scholar J.L. Schaver argues that a consistory should continue a member’s resignation:

It is said that, when members resign, discipline must cease because it concerns only the members of the church. The error in this reasoning lies in the assumption that the Church should accept such resignations. The Church ought not to be regarded simply as a society wherein people become members by their own violation. In Reformed and Presbyterian churches it is not believed that people become members by a voluntary act but by an act of God . . . . That relationship should not be severed except by an act of the Church. In a Reformed or Presbyterian Church it should not be a person’s privilege to resign when he pleases. A soldier who has committed a crime cannot leave the army in order to escape its discipline—not even if he became united to the army by way of voluntary enlistment.

Although this view is sometimes entertained by zealous elders and ministers eager to maintain a high view of church discipline, it appears to be erroneous for at least two reasons. First, continuation of post-withdrawal discipline is contrary to the weight of church order authorities. Secondly, two recent state supreme court decisions have held that a church court decisions have held that a church that continues discipline of a member after a request for withdrawal of membership exposes itself to suits for civil tort liability.

Church Polity

J.L> Schaver notwithstanding most Reformed church polity authorities insist that a consistory cannot coerce or compel a person to remain a member in Christ’s church against his violation. For example, in their bookThe Church Order Commentary, VanDellen and Monsma quote with approval a 1918 synodical decision of the Christian Reformed Church.

Synod, considering that withdrawal from discipline, to which one has freely subjected himself, and the breaking off of the fellowship with the Church to which one belongs, for reasons which cannot stand the test of God’s Word, is a sin which should not be esteemed lightly . . . ; but considering also that one’s affiliation with the Church . . . should remain to be, according to Church government principles, an act of each one’s own personal choice, (therefore Synod) judges that no one can continue to be an object of church discipline if he persists in resigning his membership.

A later synod state that is should be announced that the person who withdraws under such circumstances has committed a very grievous sin. Furthermore, expressions like “accepting the resignation” should not be used in the announcement, “because full responsibility for his sinful act must remain with the person who withdraws himself from the Church.”

This then is seemingly the more reasoned and appropriate response: no person may continue to be an object of church discipline if he insists on withdrawing his membership. This is because Christ never forces or coerces membership in His kingdom, but rather enquires a will and compliant heart. And once membership is withdrawn, it follows that the church has no authority or jurisdiction over the former member.

Civil Liability

But there is also another compelling reason to discontinue discipline after resignation. In our regrettably litigious society, numerous churches have recently been sued by former members who were subjected to post-withdrawal discipline. In 1989, the Oklahoma supreme court upheld a jury verdict against the Collinsville (Oklahoma) Church of Christ for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of mental distress allegedly occasioned by post-withdrawal discipline.

The Collinsville Church of Christ apparently held a doctrinal belief that a member cannot voluntarily withdraw from the church. They consequently ignored a woman’s letter of resignation and proceeded to announce to local Church of Christ congregations her alleged sin of fornication. A jury later awarded her $390,000 in damages.

The Oklahoma supreme court upheld the verdict, declaring:

After she wrote a letter to the Elders unequivocally withdrawing her membership, the Elders continued their disciplinary actions against her. During Sunday services the Elders read to the congregation those Scriptures which the Parishioner violated. This exposure of her private life, done without her consent, was unprotected by the First Amendment.” (Ginn v. Collinsville Church of Christ.)

Pre-withdrawal Discipline is Privileged

But, in a more recent decision, the same state supreme court ruled in a scholarly opinion that, in contrast to Ginn, before a member resigns, a church’s discipline procedures enjoy “absolute privilege from scrutiny from secular [courts].” (See Hadnot v. Shawheadline quote above.)

The Hadnot court carved a sharp distinction between pre-withdrawal discipline and post-withdrawal discipline. The first amendment (freedom of religion) will protect and shield a church from suits filed by disgruntled ex-members concerning disciplinary decisions occurring prior to a parishioner’s withdrawal of membership. The Court also mentioned that this immunity extends even to post-withdrawl implementation of a disciplinary decision taken beforethe member’s resignation.

But the court went on to say that “when the church-member relationship is severed” by either voluntary withdrawal or excommunication, the church’s disciplinary activities are no longer constitutionally protected. Accordingly, any post-withdrawal disciplinary decision may subject a church to suits for invasion of privacy, slander, libel, intentional infliction of mental distress, and other such torts.

Conclusion

This is not to say, of course, that a consistory should neglect its duty to persuade resigning persons to refrain from this additional grievous sin and rescind their pending resignation. But it now seems clear that if a disciplined member insists on withdrawal of membership, both leading church authorities and civil courts agree that disciplinary decisions must be immediately halted and the resignations acknowledged. Churches which persist in disciplinary action against a member who has “asked for his papers” are arguably acting contrary to church order and also assume the risk of lawsuits by irate and litigious ex-members.