CAN A CHURCH MEMBER DISMISS HIMSELF FROM HIS CHURCH?
Milburn Cockrell (1941-2002)
Various ideas continue to
surface among our people as to church organization. In some cases we hear
that three baptized members in good standing may constitute themselves into
a New Testament church without the sanction of the church where they hold
membership. Finding this statement a bit defective, it was then said during
extreme persecution or other highly-unusual circumstances a Baptist church
can be started by members-in-good standing of a Baptist church or churches
simply by their covenanting together, without their being formally dismissed
by letter from their church or churches for this expressed purpose. Then a
third theory has now been put forth. It is that two or more
scripturally-baptized-doctrinally sound members-in-good-standing from
another church or from other churches may, as they are led by the Holy
Spirit, meet, covenant, and organize themselves into a true New Testament
church. This new church need not secure authority from another true church
or other true churches in organizing, nor is it essential that a minister or
missionary from another true church or other true churches be present with
any authority from another true church or from other true churches.
Question: If these two or three baptized members are in “good standing,” why
not leave with a letter of dismissal from their church? How can people who
ignore the church they are a member of be “doctrinally-sound members”? It
would seem that “good-standing” and “doctrinally-sound members” are terms
being used very loosely.
But I heard someone ask, “Just what is wrong with this idea? Why do you say it is unscriptural?” First, I would say that it plainly denies Baptist church succession back to Christ. To say there is a baptismal link but not a church link, is to break the lengths in the chain of our Baptist church succession. A succession of bishops and baptisms is not church succession. It is more like the apostolic succession of the Roman Catholic Church. A bishop and baptism link is not a church link. When you separate the bishop and baptism from the church you make baptism a preacher ordinance rather than a church ordinance. If churches can be self-constituted without any connection with another church, then there is in truth no church succession. Those who hold to this idea should be honest and confess that they really believe in a succession of bishops and baptisms, but not any chain link church succession. Second, the worst thing about this whole idea is that they are saying that a member, or members, can dismiss themselves from a church where they hold membership without the consent of their church. Just where do we find in the New Testament that a church member may of his own accord dismiss himself from the church where he is a member without the consent of his church?
THREE WAYS OUT
A person, or persons, may dismiss themselves without any vote of their church, if it is for the purpose of forming a new church. But if a person could do it for this reason, and it be according to Scripture, then he could dismiss himself for any other reason. In other words, if a person can dismiss himself from the church roll without the consent of the church for one reason, then he could for any reason imaginable. He either has the power to do it, or he does not. Logically, if he could dismiss himself without consent of his church, then he could also admit himself to membership without the vote of the church. Furthermore, if it is scriptural for a member to dismiss himself without leave of his church, then it is surely wrong for the church to think it has this power, or that it has authority over its members.
Brethren, you cannot have it both ways. Either a church has the power to receive and to dismiss its members, or it does not. Brethren are now telling us that a member, or members, can dismiss themselves to form a new church when they desire to do so. They need no authority from another church; they do not need the church, or churches, which they are from to exercise their authority by dismissing them. The church of which such a person is a member has no authority over him. He is foot-loose and fancy free to terminate his membership at his pleasure, if he wants to form a new church.
But I heard someone cry: “I
said it could be done only in ‘times of extreme persecution or other
highly-unusual circumstances.’ I did not mean that this is the general
rule.” According to the Bible, the entire church age is to be characterized
by persecution (Matt. 10:16-28; John 15:18-19; II Tim. 3:12). Hence since in
every century of the church there will be persecution, then in every century
a member can dismiss himself from one church without their consent, if he
wants to form a new church. Surely if he has the power to do it in
persecuting times, he also has the power to do it in peaceful times. He
either has the power to do this or not.
I know of no Scripture in the New Testament which says that a church member has the power to dismiss himself from membership in the Lord’s church in order to form a new church, or any thing else. In the New Testament I see only churches receiving and dismissing members. Frankly, I am very fearful and afraid of this new hypothesis. If it is correct, I would think a “scripturally-baptized, doctrinally-sound” person could admit himself to membership in a church without the vote of the church. They are saying the individual has the authority to do this, not the church. The individual occupies the place of supreme authority. The church and pastor must play second fiddle to the individual.
Under this New Light Teaching
it would be impossible for a church to have a membership roll like the
Jerusalem church had (Acts 1:15). If the power to dismiss lies with the
individual rather than the church, no church could be sure of “the number of
names together” of its membership, for they would not know who might have
dismissed himself to form some new church from one week to the next. Church
discipline would be impossible to practice. A person facing exclusion could
declare “extreme circumstance” and dismiss himself to another church before
his church could subject him to discipline. I wonder what our Baptist
churches are going to be like when our members begin to practice what some
brethren are now preaching!
Other questions would follow. If the individual (or individuals), may dismiss himself from his church to form another church, could he not also, while visiting another church during the Lord’s Supper, admit himself to temporary membership and take the Lord’s Supper? Could he and two other “scripturally baptized members” admit themselves and vote in the business meeting of another church? If two or three “scripturally baptized members” can dismiss or admit themselves to a church, could they not also baptize themselves like John Smith did? Surely if a person can admit himself to a new church to be organized, he could also do whatever is necessary for him to be a member of this new church.
If a baptism and bishop link is all that is necessary to having a true New Testament church, then Campbellites and Adventists have such a link. Neither of these two groups at first greatly departed from the faith when they were first formed. Hence Campbellites and Adventists are true churches of Christ as much as Baptist churches, according to the new hypothesis. Many community churches have been formed out of people who have Baptist baptism and faith. One such church, made up of such people, exists near me and does not claim to be a Baptist church. I do not recognize it as a true church. I would assume that some of my brethren would do so, for they have a baptism link and a faith link, but not a church link.
When I press some of these brethren for clear Scripture where three baptized members may dismiss themselves to form a new church without being given permission to leave from another church or churches, they tell me that many such Baptist churches were formed in Baptist history. Please bear in mind these are the same brethren who not long ago said they did not want Baptist history on church organization, but clear Scripture. Now they have done an about-face. Now they have given up the Bible for Baptist history. I must have missed something. Why is it right for them to use Baptist history to prove their new hypothesis of church organization, and wrong for me to use it with the Bible to prove my position? Why condemn Baptist history on the one hand, and then exalt it above the Bible on the other?
Brethren, I want to know where the New Testament says that “two or more scripturally-baptized, doctrinally-sound members in good standing” can dismiss themselves from a church, or churches, where they are members without the consent of their church or churches. Since you vehemently insisted that I give clear Scripture for my view of church organization, please do the same for me. Surely you would not require of another what you yourself would be unwilling to do. Or, would you?
I do not believe that three baptized members can dismiss themselves from another church in order to form a new church. If they are “doctrinally-sound,” they will leave by letter with the consent of their church which has authority over its members. A new church is not self-constituted. It is constituted by another true church of like faith and order. All living things which God has created bring forth after their kind. There is a baptismal link because it goes back to the organizing church. There must be a church link and a baptism link, for baptism is a church ordinance. Ever since the apostolic age one church has been organizing another church all the way down to the present time. In this manner the ordinances of the church, as well as the church, have been perpetuated across the centuries.
CAN’T MAKE HEADS OR TAILS
I have another problem on which I need help. How can you have a baptismal link without a church link? Is not baptism a church ordinance? Or, is it a preacher ordinance? Does a Baptist preacher get his authority to baptize “indirectly, mediately, and horizontally from the church he is a member of? Or, does he get his authority “directly, immediately, and vertically” from Christ Himself? I need answers to these questions. Please tell me the answers to these questions in plain language so we all can know where you really stand.
I suppose the real answer to this question appeared recently in one of their papers. Three men went to a foreign country where some people needed baptism. These men went with authority from their churches. These people were all baptized, but they were never at any time members of any church in America, nor were they lettered out of any church in America. Then when these baptized believers had been “set in order, they formed themselves into churches. Then it is asked what is wrong with this?
I shall be
happy to answer. All these baptisms were outside the body of Christ, the New
Testament church. The baptisms in the New Testament put people into the body
“For by (in) one Spirit are we all baptized into one
body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have
been all made to drink into one Spirit”
12:13). According to Paul, “all” (not a few or some) were baptized into the
body of Christ. This verse clears up any doubtful cases in Acts, including
Paul’s own baptism. According to these brethren’s own testimony, these
people were not baptized into any of the churches they were from. The first
two or three could not have been baptized into any body (that is unless it
was one universal and invisible), for no body existed at that time. I say
this because they say it takes at least three baptized members to constitute
themselves into a New Testament church. At best it could only be a body in
prospect. How do you reconcile such a practice with “all” being baptized
into one kind of local body in I Corinthians 12:13? Was not their baptism
administered apart from the body of Christ, if they were never at any time
put in a church body in America? Are we saying that a church is to send a
preacher with authority to baptize people and then they may, or may not,
organize themselves into New Testament churches? How can you with a straight
face say baptism is a church ordinance, and then baptize people when it puts
them into no church?
I have already predicted that we must have a new interpretation of I Corinthians 12:13. It could be that we will hear that water baptism puts people into some kind of prospective church or glory church. Or, will they go so far as to make it the church universal and invisible? Perhaps there will be some fancy twisting and turning of the preposition “into” for which another religious group is so famous. Let us watch and see how this verse will be given a new meaning. Remember, we are already seeing a new meaning given to Matthew 28:18-20. I predict I Corinthians 12:13 is next.
MAYBE AN APOLOGY IS NEEDED
Some have changed their position. Once they believed that one church should start another church. Now they no longer believe this, according to their own testimony in print. An honest confession is good for the soul. They have changed, but most of us have not. We still believe that one church should start another church. We have obtained no new light on the matter of church organization.
Seeing some brethren now hold that each church is started by Christ directly with two or more baptized believers who dismiss themselves from their church for this purpose, how was their church organized? In the manner they now say is the correct way? Maybe in some cases the answer is in the affirmative, but in most cases it is in the negative. According to the new hypothesis, if they had some other church and pastor to organize them into a New Testament church, do they not need to make an apology to this church and pastor for bringing them maybe some distance on a fool’s errand? There was no need for any journey, or vote of another church, as they now see things. Therefore an apology is in order and I’m sure would be appreciated. I have yet to hear the most ardent advocate of the new hypothesis say that it is unscriptural for a New Testament church to dismiss some of its members to organize another church. Is there any reason why churches could not be organized that way and end the present controversy? Would not such an agreement bring peace and prosperity to our churches? We all know the answer to these questions. But it will not happen because the issue has now become “who,” not “what.” I will continue to deal with the issues, so it may ever be “what,” not “who.” Some brethren on the other side have ethics as bad as their ecclesiology.
QUESTIONS WHICH NEED TO BE
Due to the present controversy, it seems to me that there are few questions which need to be answered by those of the new hypothesis. I will list a few of them.
Grace Bible Baptist Church
26080 Wax Road
Denham Springs, LA 70726