Thoroughly read all your contracts. I really mean thoroughly. -Bret Michaels link
TWW wants to thank Nikita for providing us with another concerning example of the application of church discipline by 9 Marks: this time at the mothership in DC. In case you haven't read Todd Wilhelm's (a TWW hero) treatment at the hands of a 9 Marks church in Dubai, here is a link to My, My Dubai: 9 Marks Played Hardball. This post is important because it shows that 9 Marks churches are taking orders from the "big house" which is Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC).
Folks, we cannot stress this enough. If you sign a church contract, masquerading as some sort of "tip toe through the tulips, let's all pray for one another" covenant, you are potentially signing away your right to act freely on your conscience without expecting consequences by a controlling leadership.
This means, as highlighted in both this story and in Todd Wilhelm's story, that a church can decide not to remove your name from membership or even tell the entire church that you are now under discipline, even if you no longer attend. This could even result in the church chasing you to your next church to "report" that you left under a cloud.
You can minimize damage in the United States by following the procedure that we outlined in this post called: Abusive Church Discipline: How to Recognize It and Escape. In this post is a letter which can be sent to a rogue church, alerting them that you will seek counsel if they continue to discuss you in public meetings after your resignation. It tells you how to send that letter and to keep track of it. That post has lots of great information regarding "Red Flags."
Folks, once again-be careful when you "sign on the dotted line" as you join a church. The latest trick is to have you attend a membership meeting in which they discuss the "rules" of the church. If they have you sign a document that says you were present at the meeting, and / or get you to read the *covenant* out loud, they can still treat it as a legally binding contract. Be smart!
(Note: Editor has highlighted portions of the post for emphasis.)
In writing this, I hope to encourage other believers who are attending authoritarian or manipulative churches to be unafraid to question. If not for TWW and Christian friends on the outside, I might not have found the courage to walk out of the safe legalistic prison I’d built myself with CHBC’s teaching – to date one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I believe the leadership of CHBC is truly trying to do the right thing and follow Scripture as closely as they can, but that their legalism has blinded them and limited their ability to love others freely and trust the Spirit to guide individual believers. It is a church which needs prayer, and not for any of the reasons they think.
I was a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church for two and a half years, and for the first two years I thought it was as ideal a representation of Christ's body as you can get on this earth. As an overachiever, a rule follower, and an intellectual, I admired the structure of CHBC and its total reliance on Scripture as a basis for its organization – at least, so it seemed to me at the time.
For the first two years I lived about an hour from the church and found it difficult to connect with anyone at CHBC at more than a superficial level. When I did get together with people for lunch after church, as often as not we talked about the sermon. With all but one or two acquaintances, it seemed like a competition to see who had read the most Puritan theologians or who had read their Bible the most. I told myself that as soon as I could, I would move closer to the church and be able to get more involved, and then I would have those close connections and deep friendships I was hoping for.
I did move closer to the church about two years in – only a few blocks away. I went to Core Seminar (Sunday school for adults), morning service, and evening service as often as I could, even though I would be exhausted by Sunday night (and that’s not even counting Sundays when there are Members Meetings after evening service, once every two months). I taught English as a second language on Saturday mornings. I hosted lunches to get to know my CHBC acquaintances better. I wanted to join a small group but couldn’t find time to fit one into my busy schedule, and felt guilty about it.
Despite all this, people at church would ask me who I hung out with, and I wouldn’t have an answer for them. Countless times, I was asked whether I would be at Wednesday night Bible study as well or what small group I was part of. Slowly church became a list of activities to attend. As I became more drained I went to fewer commitments, dropping first Core Seminar and then evening service, and thinking I was horribly selfish and lazy to do so. When I expressed to a friend how tired I was, how frustrated I was that I had only one or two CHBC friendships that were more than superficial, I was told to give up my a cappella group so I could join a small group instead.
In service, I found myself constantly looking for a “to do,” some takeaway I could apply to my life and change myself and be a better Christian. I got tired of failing over and over again to meet CHBC’s standards, but at the same time I became proud, convinced that I knew the Hard Truth and didn’t shy away from the difficult tenets of the Bible. Any so-called Christian who neglected to follow Christ in the exact same way must be denying Scripture somewhere. With the very best but the most presumptuous of intentions, I quoted Scripture at hurting friends and absolutely crushed them with my legalism. It was so important that they be Right as I was Right that I couldn’t show them love without establishing that.
Last winter, my spiritual life was so dead, I was so completely devoid of joy, and I was so exhausted that I decided CHBC, while a great church, must not be for me. I remember sitting in church and crying for an entire service because it felt like I had chains on me that got heavier as the sermon went on. I tried to take a step back and attend only morning service, but I still came away exhausted and downtrodden – always more spiritual to-dos, and the grace preached at the altar didn’t seem to have any practical counterpart in the life of the church. I started to question doctrine I’d never in my life given second thought to, such as the role of women in the church – I now believe this was God setting the stage for my exodus, so to speak. The pastors’ condemnations of Catholics and the membership policy of excommunicating those who left the church without further communication struck me as repugnant.
After I began to disagree with CHBC’s approach to membership, I went on to question many of the teachings I'd happily swallowed about other doctrinal issues, and God slowly, gently opened up a whole new free perspective that showed me not only that I was trying to earn my own salvation by being a good CHBCer, but that led me trembling out of the safe prison of rules and dogma that I'd trapped myself in. My legalism crumbled. I realized I had no desire to continue being a member of CHBC – I couldn't go back to the bondage to legalism I'd been in, but I didn't know what direction I was headed in, either.
Because I was fully aware of how CHBC feels about letting someone leave if they're not going to an approved "gospel preaching" church, I delayed notifying them about my change of heart (and mind and soul and understanding of the depth of the gospel. Basically everything). After not having any desire to go to church for a month or two, then trying a couple churches that seemed to offer something very similar to CHBC but watered-down, I finally crept into the back of a United Methodist Church near me and gingerly sat down in the last row, ready to bolt out of there at the first sign of doctrinal heresy.
And lo and behold, God was alive and well there and used the sermon to speak to issues I’d just been struggling with! Over the next several weeks he did the same thing over and over again, faithfully. He was kind enough to confirm that I was in the right place, multiple times. Now, I should mention that this particular UMC body is part of the Reconciling branch, which affirms homosexuality. I’m still praying for wisdom and searching Scripture for how to approach this issue, and quite frankly the Methodist church’s views kept me away until I’d tried all the other potential churches in the area without finding what I was looking for. I didn’t set out from CHBC to find a church as little like it as I possibly could, and at first I was intending to visit the UMC only once to appease certain Methodist friends of mine.
I should mention that back near the beginning of this saga, I had discussed my frustrations with CHBC and questions about its doctrine with my landlady, whose husband is an elder. Then after I had started going to the Methodist church, at a seemingly innocent brunch, the elder himself – who is NOT the person I had originally spoken with and who is also MY LANDLORD – started asking me about my still-very-fresh and very painful spiritual struggles in front of my roommate and the rest of their family.
He expressed “concern” about the Methodist church (a recurring theme) and suggested sitting down for a “follow up conversation” after I’d been going a few weeks. When they had approached me about this follow up conversation, I said the UMC was teaching the gospel and I was not interested in talking it over with anyone from CHBC. They said they understood.
Here’s where it gets fun. And by fun, I mean ridiculous. After attending the UMC and occasionally another independent church for a month or two, I sent in an email to the elder in charge of membership at CHBC saying something vague like "I've learned a lot at CHBC but I am being called elsewhere, so I wanted to let you know so you could remove me from your membership list. Haven't settled on a church yet but am no longer attending CHBC."
At that point I had started reading posts on The Wartburg Watch, but I told myself CHBC could not be that unreasonable. (Editor's observation: Never, ever doubt your humble and adorable blog queens!)
I wanted to give them a chance to prove that the paranoia was mostly in my head, that we had doctrinal differences now but CHBC was not as controlling and authoritarian as other Calvinista churches. Right? Right??
To no one’s surprise, I got an email in reply asking whether I wouldn't mind telling them what churches I was considering?
Well I did mind, because it was none of their business and I had given them all the information they needed to remove me from their roster. I was clearly not struggling, suffering, or in need of care, having been forthright about no longer attending rather than dropping off the face of the earth. I did not reply.
A few weeks later, I got another email asking for further information, at which point I told them I was still deciding and to please remove me from membership.
They responded with a long email which quoted the membership “covenant,” a document I regret ever signing, and repeated "gospel preaching church" as many times as they could fit. I considered naming a few local churches I knew they would approve of, which would probably have kept me out of the position I’m now in, but for the sake of integrity decided to be honest and tell them where I was going.
I heard nothing further for several weeks and thought the issue was settled, relieved that CHBC wasn't quite as controlling and dismissive of individual believers’ convictions as I'd worried they might be. I was wrong.
In another few weeks I got a voicemail from a pastor I'd met only once, asking to meet within the next few days about my membership resignation so I could let them know if there was any way for them to care for me as they sent me out. I was a little wary, so I was still deciding whether and how to respond when the same person sent an email with the same message THE VERY NEXT DAY. At this point I was irritated and I decided not to answer until a few days later, if at all.
Half a week later, my CHBC elder landlord texted me to ask if we could meet. I decided I couldn't ignore that, so I agreed to.
I prayed about the meeting with this elder beforehand, and God was there with me the entire time. I have never been comfortable with debates, particularly theological ones and especially not face-to-face, but I was able to tell him how uncomfortable his involvement made me and to explain that CHBC's presumptuous insistence that I tell them what churches I was going to had driven a greater wedge between me and that church than any doctrinal issue ever could have.
However, the majority of the time was spent in him repeatedly stating why CHBC’s leadership was "concerned" and wanted to "warn" me not to attend a church which they believed had doctrinal flaws – that is, the Reconciling Methodist church’s stance on homosexuality. Not even central flaws – the elder admitted that the Methodist church preached the same gospel!
Partway through this conversation the elder said that the rest of the CHBC leadership would be more reassured about letting me go because I had chosen the UMC congregation despite, rather than because of, its stance on this particular issue, to which I replied “What if I HAD joined for that reason? What would CHBC do about it?”
To which he replied, “I’m not sure. This isn’t a situation we’ve ever encountered before.”
Right there, he admitted there was nothing they could do if I wanted to leave for this other church. (Side note: I can’t believe they’ve never had members leave over doctrinal issues before. This probably means that other people who have resigned were lying about their next churches.)
He continued to repeat himself about their doctrinal “concerns,” so I calmly told him message received, we’d have to agree to disagree about the severity of the issue. The shock on his face told me all I needed to know about the CHBC leadership’s confidence in its spiritual power over its members; he couldn't conceive that I could sit there and listen to his arguments and not be moved by them.
In the end he assured me this was the last time he would interact with me as anything but my neighbor and landlord (thank goodness), and said that the elders might not be able to advise the congregation to "send me off joyfully" at the next day’s Members Meeting, to which I responded that was fine and I'd expected it, assuming it just meant they would relieve me of membership with reservations.
Imagine my incredulity when the following Monday I opened my email to see a new message from yet ANOTHER pastor, informing me that they were not sure how to proceed with me because they had never had anyone leave for a church that they didn't believe preached the truth and therefore they had not brought up my resignation to the congregation. They told me they understood I wasn't going to attend anymore and didn't want to be contacted, but they have apparently kept me on the membership roster for the sake of determining how to send me off in a "biblical" way. They alluded to "church discipline" in the same email in which they acknowledged that I was de facto no longer a member, and assured me they only wanted to care for me in a Christlike manner.
I didn’t even finish the email before I started laughing.
I’ve copy-pasted the relevant parts of that letter below, leaving out his long LARGE FONT arguments in favor of CHBC’s view of homosexuality. They seem to have missed my point that I am not at this point intending to join the UMC, but am only attending. (As though I would ever formally join another church after being exposed to the abuse and manipulation in their membership process.)
In a single letter they simultaneously admit that I am for all intents and purposes no longer a member of their church while still refusing to let me formally leave, revealing their position on membership and local church involvement to be a complete farce. As pointed out in TWW’s post on abuse of the 9Marks membership system, they believe the church has more say in whether a member can leave than the individual does herself. They have entrapped themselves in their legalism and given themselves no way out but to enact “church discipline,” which I expect will be the next step, against someone who cut all ties with their congregation months ago. I hope the absurdity of their position has not escaped them.
That is my story to date. I hope the rest of it contains less cause for outrage and more understanding on the part of CHBC. The beauty of my situation now is that there is nothing they can say which I will care about and nothing they can do to injure me. I know from whence my salvation comes, from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and not from Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
The Letter From CHBC
“I wanted to write and to let you know that the elders decided not to recommend that the congregation act on your resignation letter at our Member's Meeting last night. So we didn't bring it up at all before the members of CHBC. Certainly we understand that you don't intend to attend CHBC and we don't have any intent to bother you or try to talk to you if you don't wish to talk with us. But your resignation with your intent to join Capitol Hill United Methodist church has frankly put us in a unique situation that we need to think about.
As I'm sure you understand, just as you have a right to decide to leave a church, the church has a right and responsibility to decide how it removes someone from its rolls. Certainly if a member of CHBC (or any other bible teaching church) leaves to join another faithful church, they are simply removed in good standing. However, if a member were to leave to join a false church, like one that denies the Trinity or the gospel outright...a faithful church would likely removed them by "church discipline" to warn them of their danger. In this we simply follow the practice of most Protestant churches for centuries.
Your decision, however, has put us in a position that we feel we need to think about further.
[Arguments on specific doctrinal issues which are covered at other places in this website.]
All churches have errors as they are all composed of sinful men and women, and we know that CHBC is no exception. But how far and how deliberately a church can openly reject biblical teaching that's this clear and still remain a true church, is a question we will have to give serious thought and prayer. This is especially problematic since this question strikes at the heart of declaring who is and is not a Christian, and in a way that may cruelly lead sinners to Hell while assuring them they will inherit a heavenly kingdom that God emphatically says they will not inherit. Of course, we wish that you would reconsider and instead simply join a gospel preaching church that intends to obey Scripture, rather than to contradict it. But if you are intent on joining Capitol Hill United Methodist, and if we are correctly understanding their intentions, then we will have to give this more thought as elders to determine what would be the biblically faithful avenue to remove you from membership.
I'm truly sorry to have to write this to you. We wish you only the best. Please trust that we will endeavor to act in faithfulness to the Scriptures and with a desire for your eternal good. When we come to a decision, we will let you know. We will try to do so as quickly as we can. Certainly if anything changes in your plans please let us know. Otherwise, we don't intend to disturb you but will continue to pray for you to hold fast to the gospel and to all that God has given to us in his Word.
With warm regard for you in Christ.”