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Can Your Church Divorce You?

One of the church’s long-standing “dirty little secrets” is the often awkward dynamics of membership. People have debated the necessity of church membership for centuries and continue to do so today. Books like “Stop Dating the Church” scold those with commitment issues, insisting you cannot really be part of the body of Christ unless you join a local church. It all sounds great until you discover that church membership is a lot like marriage: the church can divorce you for irreconcilable differences.

Church divorce doesn’t make sense. Churches teach the unconditional, un-earn-able love of God. They major on marriage-related issues like abstinence, faithfulness to marriage vows, and the evil of divorce. They highlight the parallels between marriage and the relationship of Jesus to the Church – his Bride. They teach that church membership is essential for one’s spiritual growth, accountability, and participation in the local body of Christ.

But then they practice something called church discipline. Church discipline is a way of dealing with sinning church members and can lead to excommunication (removal of someone from church membership) if the sinning member remains unrepentant.

To put it bluntly: The church can divorce you.

Seems like a good idea to know this before you “marry” or join a church. You know, so you can write up a good prenup. I date the church to find out what I’m promising and being promised by signing or going forward or whatever the ritual may be to make our relationship official and binding. Dating a church is one way to learn if we are compatible or doomed to divorce from the get-go. This might sound negative or even take the romance out of it—but I think it’s wise to get a feel for the community you’re about to commit to before making the big leap to membership.

I didn’t know any of this when I first joined a church as a newlywed. Since then, I’ve watched the divorce/discipline process unfold numerous times. In most cases, the end result was appropriate: removing from membership those who didn’t want to be there anyway, for example, husbands and wives who left their spouses and children for others.

But I’ve also seen it gone wrong. The practice of church discipline is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the abuse of power. Too many churches use Matthew 18 to bully people into conforming to their narrow idea of righteous living. Perhaps most tragic of all are the churches that use discipline to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by forcing the child to confess their fault in the abuse.

Commitments to one another, like marriage vows and church membership covenants, are encouraged in the Bible. God, our ultimate example, reveals Himself as the covenant-keeping God from Genesis through Revelation. He is so committed to His people that He keeps His promises to them no matter how bad they are, how far they stray, and how long they rebel. (This doesn’t mean He shields them from natural consequences of their unfaithfulness to Him, and that’s where the story gets really messy, but God never abandons them for good.) Shouldn’t the church reflect that covenant-keeping attitude? The way we practice church discipline should move people to see the grace of God in action, not a black-and-white legalistic country club.

In one of the best stories in the entire Old Testament, God told one of his prophets, Hosea, to marry a whore, have children with her, and stay married to her even when she went whoring again. His marriage was a living example of God’s faithfulness to Israel. What’s even more incredible is that God became human to keep Israel’s part of the promises. Jesus kept every promise that Israel broke. And then He opened the door for non-Jews to participate in these covenants and become God’s children too.

This is the kind of commitment we’re supposed to emulate. By dating a church for a while, you have a better chance of seeing what kind of spouse they are. Roll up your sleeves and get dirty, sweaty, and tired together so you can find out who they are when they’re at their worst. Find out what they mean when they talk about “membership.” Watch how the people respond to financial pressure. Pay close attention when a family encounters a crisis – does the church blame them for lack of faith or rally around with love and support? Most important, examine how they handle people’s failures. Look for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and restoration. Look for practical help with recovery. As cheesy as it sounds, look for what Jesus would do. If they run the person out on a rail, run as fast as you can.

God goes to superhuman lengths for His children. He refused to divorce Israel even for repeated infidelity. Jesus lived our lives and died in our place to preserve our relationship with Him. So why do so many of His churches fail to do the same? Becoming a “member” should mean that you’re a part of a family—deep seated in the blood of Christ—and not just a name on the books that can be easily scratched out when you don’t fit the mold.

What do you think? Is membership a necessity or a tradition that’s used more for power than relationship in the church today?