Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“To those who remove from the congregation, a letter or testimony concerning their profession and conduct shall be given by the consistory, signed by two; or, in the case of letters which are given under the seal of the church, signed by one.” Church Order, Article 82.
Transfer of Membership
Article 82 deals with the transfer of membership from one congregation to another within the church federation. The article provides for the transfer of membership by means of the granting of a “letter or testimony concerning the profession and conduct” of the member. On the decision of the consistory this letter is to be given to the member who intends to transfer. This is the language of Article 82. It is presumed that the member desiring to transfer will take this letter with him and present it to the consistory of the congregation with which he intends to affiliate. For practical reasons, and as an expression of denominational unity, Reformed churches have adopted various forms that fulfill the requirements of Article 82 on behalf of the members.
There are two forms that are used by the congregations of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America for this purpose. There is the form for “Transfer of Baptized Members” and there is the form for “Transfer of Confessing Members.” Although the form for “Transfer of Baptized Members” does not call for recording the date of birth and the date of baptism, these should be provided by the consistory issuing the transfer. Church membership records should be as complete as possible, and this information should now be on file with the church to which the baptized member is transferring.
The form for “Transfer of Confessing Members” can be used for individuals as well as for families. Ordinarily when parents request the transfer of their church membership they also include request for the transfer of the membership of their minor, baptized children. At the request of the parents, the covenant family as a unit is transferred to the care of another congregation and consistory. Space is provided on the transfer form for listing the name of each child in the family, including the date of their birth and baptism, as well as the birth, baptism, and profession of faith dates of the parents. Again, this form ought to be filled out in detail by the consistory issuing the transfer so that complete records for each family member are on file with the congregation that they are now joining. Too often incomplete information is given on the transfer form. If complete information is not provided by the consistory issuing the transfer, it ought to be requested by the consistory receiving the transfer.
These two forms are in use within our denomination when members transfer from one congregation to another. These forms may also be used when members transfer from one of our congregations to a congregation of a sister church. The “Constitution of the Committee for Contactwith Other Churches” states, among other things, that a full sister-church relationship implies “[m]utual acknowledgment of membership attests.” Although Article 82 does not speak directly to transfer of membership to a sister church, the principle and practice expressed in the article apply. This is the significance of a full sister-church relationship.
There is another membership form that the PRCA make use of, the “Certificate of Dismissal.” This form is used when members of the Protestant Reformed Churches terminate their membership in these churches, by requesting that their membership papers be sent to them. The PRCA do not transfer membership to churches outside the denomination with whom they do not have a sister-church relationship. This is not necessarily a judgment that these churches are not true churches. It is simply a recognition that they are not in ecclesiastical fellowship with the PRCA. The sad reality is that many who request dismissal papers intend to affiliate with churches that have serious weaknesses, churches that are officially committed to false doctrine and countenance unholy living. When such an intention is expressed to a committee of elders, which in every case of requests for termination of membership ought to be appointed by the consistory, these members must be admonished for the sin of leaving a true church of Jesus Christ. In the case of confessing members, they must also be reminded of the vows that they assumed at the time of public confession of faith, which vows they are now transgressing.
The adopted forms that the churches use fulfill the requirement of Article 82 that to those who transfer from one congregation to another “a letter or testimony concerning their profession and conduct shall be given by the consistory….” The adopted forms are today the letter and testimonial spoken of in the article. The use of the adopted forms by all the churches is an expression of the unity of the congregations within the denomination. On account of that unity, the churches within the federation ordinarily honor and accept one another’s certificates of transfer of membership.
If there are spiritual concerns regarding the individual or family who has requested the membership transfer, these ought to be noted on the form. If the member is under discipline, ideally this ought to be resolved before the transfer takes place. If, however, this is not possible, perhaps because the individual has moved out of the state, the fact that the member is under discipline must be noted on the membership papers. This applies also to certificates of dismissal that are granted. No member transferring or leaving a congregation while under discipline may be given “clean papers.” The fact of the discipline, a brief history of the case, and any other pertinent information ought to be noted on the membership papers. The consistory to whom the transfer is made must see it as its obligation to take up the disciplinary work begun by the elders of the sister church. And any consistory from another denomination must honor the discipline done by faithful elders of the PRCA, just as elders in our churches must honor the discipline that may have been done in another church and denomination.
Requests for member shi p transfer must be made by the members themselves. The consistory may not take a decision to transfer a member to another congregation, let us say, because that member has moved into the vicinity of a sister church. The consistory can recommend membership transfer under the circumstances. But ordinarily it is up to the member to request the transfer. Membership in the church is a matter of willing affiliation with the body of Christ in the world, at least on the part of adults. In this sense the membership papers belong to the individual. Since they do, it is only at the member’s request that his membership papers are transferred.
Members ought to request the transfer of their membership either in writing or by way of personal appearance at a consistory meeting. In some cases a verbal request in the presence of at least two elders may be deemed sufficient. But ordinarily a written request or personal appearance before the consistory is preferable. In this way the consistory retains a record of the request, either by way of a supplemented letter or an article in the consistory’s minute book.
Reasons for Transfer
Article 82 speaks of transfer of membership of “those who remove from the congregation….” The language of the article is open to misunderstanding. The article does not refer merely to those who remove from one congregation to another, both of which are in the same city, or at least both of which are in easy driving distance. Rather, the article refers to those who move out of the city in which the congregation of which they are members exists. This is also clearly the meaning of the article in the historical context in which it was originally written. In our day, the reference would be to those who move to a different city or state. The principle of the article is that one ought to be a member of the congregation in the city in which he resides, if this is at all possible.
It happens today that there may be a number of congregations in one city. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, or in northwest Iowa there are a number of PRC churches in close proximity. Members of one church often drive by one or more PRC churches on their way to the church of which they are members. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. Nevertheless, the principle of Article 82 is that we ought to be members of a congregation that is near to our residence. An important consideration, in this regard, is that we will be able to participate more fully in the life of the congregation.
Granted that all the congregations within the denomination exhibit the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ in the world, there may be legitimate secondary factors that enter into church membership. A newly married couple may choose to be members of a congregation in which a number of their friends have their membership. Or they may choose to join the congregation of which one or both of them were members before they were married. Or, again, they may choose to be members of a congregation in which they were raised and in which many of their own family are members. And there may be other equally valid considerations as well. These judgments must be left to the members themselves, allowing for a certain measure of freedom on this matter.
Nevertheless, what our people must be admonished against is needlessly transferring membership to another congregation. What our members must be encouraged to do is to establish themselves in a congregation, live in a congregation, raise their family in a congregation. Especially our young couples must be encouraged to put down roots in a congregation. What they must be exhorted against is “church hopping.” There are those who show this weakness. They are quick to leave one congregation for another. Perhaps they are critical of the minister’s preaching, or they have a gripe against the elders, or they dislike a certain member. Like Reuben they are “unstable as water” (Gen. 49:4). For a few years, they are members of this congregation. After awhile they leave to join another of the congregations. And in time they are on the move again. This is not good for the church. And this is not conducive to the member’s spiritual growth or the growth of his family.
In their Church Order commentary, VanDellen and Monsma give reasons why they feel that the failure to maintain boundary lines between the churches is to be regretted. While our churches do not establish and maintain boundaries when it comes to church membership, it is worthwhile to consider their reasons.
1. Believers should manifest the body of Christ in the place of their providentially determined residence. 2. It is against the intent of Article 82. 3. It fosters the overgrowth of some Churches and the undergrowth of others. 4. It promotes ‘floating.’ 5. It promotes a one-sided development. (Birds of a feather flock together.) 6. It stimulates unholy competition. 7. It promotes slothfulness in catechism attendance. 8. It promotes needless Sunday travel. 9. It constitutes a practical denial of the communion of saints (The Church Order Commentary, p. 338).
While we do not necessarily agree with all of the reasons advanced by VanDellen and Monsma, we can appreciate their concern for the consequences of transfer of church membership for little or no real reason.
Approval of Requests for Transfer
It is the consistory that grants approval for the request of a member to transfer membership. Not the clerk, nor the president, nor even a committee of the consistory may act on a request for membership transfer. The transfer is to “be given by the consistory….” The consistory as a body must approve or disapprove requests for transfer. The adopted forms are also to be used, which forms require the signature of the president and clerk of the consistory. Article 82 allows for the signature of one “in the case of letters which are given under the seal of the church….”
It is important to note that one remains a member of the congregation from which he is transferring until such time as that consistory receives from the consistory of the congregation to which the member is transferring the “Membership Receipt.” At that point his membership in his former congregation ceases, and his membership in the new congregation commences. During the process of transfer, therefore, he remains a member in the church from which he is transferring and under the oversight of its elders.
For this reason, a consistory ought to wait with notifying the congregation that so-and-so has transferred to such-and-such congregation until the receipt of transfer has been officially received by the consistory. There have been cases in which consistories postponed approving a transfer of membership, or denied it altogether, even though an announcement had already been made to the congregation from which the transfer had been requested. This puts the consistory in the awkward position of having to inform the congregation that so-and-so’s transfer had not been approved, or, at least, was being delayed. Much better that the bulletin announcement waits until after the receipt of transfer has been duly received, for the sake of decency and good order.