The following post is a “pastoral position paper,” prepared and unanimously approved by the pastors body at Morningview Baptist Church. We offer it here so Morningview members may review it. We’ll be providing hard copies for the whole church on Sunday.
In 1 Peter 1:22, Christ commands us to “love one another fervently, from the heart.” One of the crucial ways we love one another is by holding one another accountable. Hebrews 12:5-11 teaches us that God’s discipline of His children is a crucial aspect of His grace and love for us, and therefore, the exercise of church discipline is an exercise of His grace of love for the church as well as for the member who persists in unrepentant sin. Church attendance and involvement is one of the most central expressions of our faith in Christ. The idea of a believer who does not identify with a local church is completely foreign to the New Testament. So, when we allow members of our church to forsake all fellowship and participation with God’s people, we are not demonstrating love. We are demonstrating an extreme indifference and disregard for their souls. Because we love Christ, love His Word, and love one another, when one of our brothers or sisters refuses our admonishment to obedience in this area and persists in unrepentance, we must move through the steps of Matthew 18:15-17 to address their sin of church abandonment.
Definition of Church Abandonment
A member who abandons the church completely forsakes his local church and will not join another (Heb 10:25). The word “abandon,” found in Hebrews 10:25, is also used in Acts 2:27, 31 to say that God did not “abandon” Christ to death, since He was resurrected. In the Scriptures, a member who “abandons the assembly” has a settled and persistent determination to desert his local church, in spite of every effort to encourage him to return, or join another. The Bible provides many legitimate reasons to be absent from church on a given Sunday. Matthew 12:1-14 teaches that personal necessities, emergencies, sickness, and caring for those who are sick are all legitimate reasons to miss church. Individual members have liberty in Christ to decide for themselves when any of these reasons for church absence apply to their own circumstances. But a member has abandoned the church when he does not come to church for a long time, will not provide any explanation as to why he’s not coming, will not respond to outreach from church members and pastors, and is not planning to join another church.
Reasons to Discipline for Church Abandonment
1. Church abandonment is a serious sin that the Bible says deserves hell (Heb 10:24-27). The Bible teaches that abandoning the local church is a serious sin, which must not be taken lightly.
Hebrews 10:24-27 says, “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit [i.e., custom or practice] of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”
2. Church abandonment repudiates our church covenant (Ex 20:16; Eccl 5:4-7). The church covenant is a promise that every member makes to the whole church to live faithfully together in Christ. A member who abandons the assembly has broken all of his church covenant vows to dwell together in unity with his local church. Thus, the member who breaks covenant with the church is lying and fearfully inviting God’s anger.
Ecclesiastes 5:4-7 says, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.”
3. Church abandonment violates Lord’s Day observance (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Heb 4:9). While under the Old Covenant, God’s people observed the seventh day of the week for rest and public worship. Under the New Covenant, Christ established the first day of the week as our day of rest and public worship. The Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10) is the Christian Sabbath, one of the Ten Commandments, the moral law of God (Ex 20:8).
Acts 20:7 says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” 1 Corinthians 16:2 says, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” Hebrews 4:9 says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” Exodus 20:8 says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
4. Church abandonment is a disqualifying condition of joining the church (Acts 2:36-47). A person who submits his name for membership, but who states that he never wishes to attend or to participate in any of the means of grace (to hear the preaching of the Word of God, to pray with God’s people, to partake of the ordinances, to fellowship with the saints), does not qualify for membership. Since such a person does not qualify for entry into membership, then he does not qualify to remain a member and is, therefore, a candidate for church discipline.
Acts 2:41-44 says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together.”
5. Church abandonment manifests lovelessness toward brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Thess 5:11-14). Those who abandon the church withhold the gifts and graces God has given them from the church to which they are covenanted. Abandoning the local church makes it impossible to obey the Bible’s commands to love, care for, and support “one another” in the local assembly (1 Cor 11:33; Gal 6:2; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16, etc.).
1 Thessalonians 5:11-14 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
6. Church abandonment evidences an unregenerate heart (1 Jn 3:4-10). The Bible teaches that those who continue persistently in hardened and unrepentant sin, while fleeing from all accountability, do not manifest the fruit of a heart that has been born of God. Specifically, those who abandon the church do not love their brothers and have therefore lost their credible confession of faith in Christ.
1 John 3:9-10 says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
7. Church abandonment greatly endangers the soul of the one who abandons the church (Hebrews 3:12-14; 4:11; 10:24-25). While justification is by grace alone through faith alone, Scripture teaches us that God uses the means of grace through the church to strengthen and preserve His people to the end. The book of Hebrews teaches us that the local church is the central institution that God uses to preserve His people.
Hebrews 3:11-13 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another [in the church] every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 4:11 says, “Let us [the church] therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us [the church] consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
8. Church abandonment is evidence of forsaking Jesus Christ (Jn 13:34-35). The church is the bride of Christ, His beloved people, for whom He died. The church is Christ’s greatest earthly treasure. Jesus loves the church, and those who love Jesus love what He loves. Those who abandon the church, therefore, give evidence of abandoning Christ Himself because they do not love His body, the church.
In John 13:34-35, the Lord Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
9. Church abandonment is inconsistent with a heart that yearns for Christ (Rev 3:14-22). When a member, without reasonable cause, consistently abandons fellowship with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day, he manifests a heart that is dull toward the things of God. Jesus provides a warning to the church at Laodicea regarding this kind of lukewarm disposition. He tells them plainly that members who walk in this manner will be cast out.
Revelation 13:15-16 says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Process of Discipline for Church Abandonment
The process of discipline for church abandonment is no different from the process of discipline in general. Every case of discipline is dynamic and different on the subjective level, but here is a list of the steps that would ordinarily be taken in a case of discipline for church abandonment.
1. When church members or pastors notice a member not in attendance for a significant amount of time, we commit to reach out to them in love to find out why that member is not attending.
2. If the member has been out due to necessity of any kind, then nothing more will come of it.
3. If the member does not provide any reason for his absence, then the pastors will reach out to the person in love, trying to discover the reason for the absence.
4. If the member still gives no reason, or if the reason he gives is patently unbiblical, e.g., “I just want my name on the church roll,” “I need my membership somewhere so I can go to heaven,” or “I need my name on your church roll because I really like that church,” or “I don’t care what you do with my membership, but I’m not coming back or going to another church,” etc., then the pastors will lovingly explain the purpose of church membership, and invite the member to return to our church or join another church.
5. If the member still does not return to our church or join another church, the pastors will continue to reach out in love by attempting to communicate with the member, writing letters, etc., warning the member of the prospect of discipline for church abandonment.
6. If the member still does not obey the Bible’s teaching about church membership, and/or refuses to answer communications from the pastors after ample time given, then the pastors will put the member’s name before the church as a matter of discipline, prayer, and pursuit. The pastors will present the case and the biblical rationale for disciplining this member for abandoning the church to the church body as a whole.
7. The church as a whole will then be asked to pursue the wayward member, seek to call him to repentance, to return to our church, or to join another church. This is also the time for the whole church to confirm every fact, search the Scriptures, and speak to the pastors, if any of them has any questions or concerns.
8. If the absent member continues to persist in sinfully abandoning his church, then his name will be presented to the congregation for excommunication.
9. Final human authority on all matters of church discipline rests in the hands of the congregation.
Rationale for Beginning to Discipline for Church Abandonment
Someone may ask why we haven’t disciplined for church abandonment in the past and why we are just now beginning to do this. The answer is that for a long time at Morningview, the church covenant was not explained, and it was not enforced. Morningview had many members who knew nothing of the church covenant. The church did not teach it or hold members accountable to it. That is our fault and failure. We do not believe we should discipline anyone for the church’s failure to teach or enforce its own covenant.
Now, however, we teach the church covenant in the membership class, and all of our members recite it together each time we take the Lord’s Supper. We all promise together to keep the terms of our covenant. Our words bind us together. Members, therefore, who completely break the church covenant by totally abandoning the church and refusing to join another, must be removed from the church covenant on the authority of Scripture for their sin of breaking the covenant.