A few comments before my question. As I was growing up, my parents always emphasized to us children the importance of church membership. This included membership in the church with the three marks of a faithful church as described by Article 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession. My father, who served many years as elder in the church, reminded us not a few times that when the elders had their meetings with those who desired to leave the denomination, these individuals were warned that leaving was sin. If they persisted in their request, they were sent a certificate of dismissal from the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Now my questions. What is the significance of the certificate of dismissal? Does not the seriousness of this action warrant such a certificate?
A certificate of dismissal is an official document signed by a consistory that testifies that an individual (or family) has been a member of a congregation until the date given—the point being, that the said individual is a member no longer. (For the form, cf. The Church Order Book of the Protestant Reformed Churches, p. 125.) The consistory sends this to an individual who insists on leaving the congregation and the denomination. (It is not sent to a member who wishes to join another congregation within the denomination, or a sister church; his membership is transferred.) If the individual is under discipline at the time of his departure, that fact is noted on the certificate.
At first reading, the certificate might not indicate its grave implications. The significance of the certificate of dismissal is that the individual is not a member of the church of Christ as instituted on this earth. Few circumstances in a man’s life could be more serious. The Belgic Confession correctly expresses the Reformed believer’s confession (Art. 28)—”We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person, of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it….” And it concludes “Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.”
Sometimes a certificate of dismissal is sent to those who desire to join another (non-sister) denomination. It is obvious that the circumstances of the individuals and the reasons for leaving vary widely. Some leave in obvious rebellion against the rule of Christ as exercised through the elders. Some seek a more entertaining worship service or non-offensive preaching. Still others leave reluctantly because of some family situation, including marriage. In all these situations, the consistory gives the warning and instruction appropriate to the individual and the situation. Nonetheless, it bears emphasizing that a serious warning must be given.
Let there be no misunderstanding on this. The Protestant Reformed Churches have never taken it upon themselves to judge whether one church or another is a “true church of Jesus Christ.” Nor do we embrace the Belgic Confession’s strong statements because we think the Protestant Reformed Churches are the only true church. Yet the Belgic Confession makes it clear that a member may not leave his congregation without solid (which is to say, biblical) grounds. Schooling, jobs, family, marriage, convenience, or “just don’t like the minister” are not justification for changing churches. Only if the member is convinced that his church is no longer faithful in its calling, and that another church is faithful, may he rightfully change membership. In fact, if he cannot convince his own church of its errors, obedience to Christ demands that he change his membership to the faithful church.
The standard for judging a church’s faithfulness is the Bible. The Belgic Confession sets forth the three biblically prescribed marks of the faithful church in Article 29. “The marks by which the true church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin….” These are the marks of the true church because Jesus specifically commanded His church as institute to preach, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline (cf. Matt. 28:19, 20; I Cor. 11:23-26; Matt. 18:17, 18). And the reason why Christ so charged His church is that preaching, sacraments, and Christian discipline are the means of grace that He gave the church on earth. By these means, Christ gathers, defends, and preserves His church. One who wrongfully separates himself from a faithful church rejects the care and instruction of Christ Himself.
Does the seriousness of such an action warrant sending a certificate of dismissal? Truly, it does. And there is another consideration, equally significant.
The preaching is clearly the chief mark, even as it is the chief means of grace. Whether or not the preaching is “the pure doctrine of the gospel” (as the Belgic Confession puts it) must be judged by every believer on the basis of the Bible. The Reformed believer is aided immeasurably in this evaluation by the confessions. The preaching must set forth the truth, the whole counsel of God, in all its glory. Preaching that is faithful to the Bible reveals God in the face of the crucified and risen Lord. Thus, one sins grievously who leaves the preaching of the pure gospel and is willing to sit under preaching defiled with error, for he despises the truth of God. This has dreadful consequences for his own soul, as well as for his succeeding generations.
No wonder then that when a member of a faithful church “requests his papers” for illegitimate reasons, the consistory works long and hard to show him that it is a sin to leave. If he persists in his demand, the consistory has no option but to acquiesce and send the certificate of dismissal. However, when this fact is announced, the congregation ought to know that the elders have diligently labored to draw the individual back from this sin, and that it is with grief that they sent him this official dismissal from the congregation.
— Editorial Committee