Despite the periodic talk of churches leaving the communion (denomination), such a thing is simply not possible.
It is true that the Book of Church Order has a process (long and involved for good reason) for a church to be transferred to another ecclesiastical communion, but a church cannot, of its own volition, disaffiliate from or leave the Reformed Church.
In my previous post, I argued that when we speak of “the church,” we speak primarily of the local church rather than a communion. Indeed, one may attempt to use the principle of the local church being a complete church as license to come and go as one pleases and to freely and without hindrance affiliate with whichever communion that it wishes or no communion at all. This, however, would be a gross misunderstanding of the local church being an ecclesia completa, and indeed, I address it there.
So often, however, it may seem that the local church ought to have the ability, even the right, of unrestricted self-determination.
However, local churches do not have that ability, and for good reason. While local churches are complete, in that they have the ministry of Word and sacrament and all the necessary elements as expressed in the Belgic Confession of Faith, they do not form themselves. The church is not something which we can, on our own, establish. The church is something which is outside of us and into which we are grafted. As such, local churches are established not from us, but from beyond us. The broader church is the one that establishes local churches. In our structure, the classis is the one that is charged with that responsibility and privilege. Because churches do not form themselves, they do not have the right to do whatever they wish.
It is for this reason that the classis has “the authority to transfer a local church to another denomination, together with all or part [or none] of its real and personal property…” (1.II.10.3, 2016). Indeed, the classis is never required to transfer a church, and it is well within their right, after doing due diligence, to determine that it would not be “in the best interest of Christ’s Kingdom” (1.II.10.4f, 2016) and deny the request altogether.
Thus, on the one hand, a church cannot decide, on their own, to disaffiliate with the communion because they did not form themselves and they do not have the ability to break a bond which they did not form. On the other hand, however, there is a deeper issue at stake.
What does it mean to be a church? Is the church a corporation which is owned by its members and deserve a “share” in the church? After all, the members of the church are the ones who have poured their blood, sweat, and tears (and money) into the life and property of that local church. It only seems right that they have the ability to determine with whom, and on what terms, their church affiliates. While local churches are often incorporated and while there are elements of corporations in the church, in its essence, a local church is not a corporation but is the local expression of the universal church of Christ.
It should also be noted that a consistory in effect holds its property in trust, not only to keep faith with the generations that have gone before, but for those who are yet to come. The local church stands in relationship to the denomination as one link in a long unbroken chain binding past, present, and future in one continuing expression of faithful witness to Reformed faith and practice…
When a person becomes a member of a church, he comes under the discipline and jurisdiction of the denomination. He does not expect that he owns a piece of the church building. If he becomes disaffected with the church, or the denomination, he is at liberty to ask for a transfer of church membership. He does not then receive a portion of the church’s assets, nor does he expect to, even though he may have contributed substantially toward the cost of building the present church edifice. But when a group of members elect to leave the church, or the denomination, they seem to feel that they should be allowed to take the church property with them. (Minutes of General Synod, 1972, p. 192).
Furthermore, it has been determined by the church that there are times when it is to the benefit of the church of Christ for a local church to be able to retain its property. This determination, however, is the domain of the classis in exercising its episcopal function. For generations, the church has determined that the classical authority of oversight and supervision is essential and worth protecting.
The well-known and well-loved first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads,
I am not my own…
Indeed, this holds true not only for us as individuals, but also for churches as well. Churches do not belong to themselves, nor do they belong to their members. Churches belong to Christ, and some things, such as breaking fellowship, require broader discernment and oversight of the broader body of Christ.
7 thoughts on “Why Leaving the Communion is Not Possible”
I’ve read over a couple of times – I wonder whether it’s possible to disaffiliate from a denomination, but not from “a communion.” Folks argue about whether the RCA is a communion, at least in the same sense that Churches with an episcopal office understand themselves as communions. I would also aver, as I have before somewhere, that one does not “join” the RCA. One joins a congregation, with a table and font and pulpit and officers. (Not claiming anything for what folks in other groups do) But I seem to be in the minority on this, so I probably don’t have my head on straight yet.
I have chosen to use the term “communion” over “denomination” largely because “communion” is ecclesiastical, whereas “denomination” is sociological. I think part of the problem is that we have focused too much on being a denomination, and not enough on being a church. and I agree with you that no one joins a denomination, we all join a church.
The more you are in ecumenical conversations, the more the difference will hit you at an existential level. (Not saying it doesn’t already – just saying, it hits you like a brick in ecumenical discussions.)
I grew up in a mixed marriage – dad was Reformed and mom was Roman Catholic. In a pre-Vatican II that ipso facto made me a Roman Catholic boy. Latin learned, altar boy trained, novena participating…I was truly enculturated. In college I reconnected to my father’s spiritual roots…but as a Reformed clergyman nearing retirement after a life of service in the RCA, I find myself strangely rekindled to my Roman roots. I would take your premise even farther and apply it to individuals as per the Catechism QA 1. We cannot choose our DNA, nor our ethnicity, nor our parents…at best (or worst) we can deny them but this is never effectual…we are the children of the covenants from which we were weaned…and forever there will remain a soul initiated by God into the faith that may be “reformed” but can never be re-created in anyway other than what it is. In- troibo ad altare dei…Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum.
Amen! Thank you for sharing.
The above is nicely put, Matthew, and compelling.
Thank you, Daniel.