Unbiblical Erasures

Peter Stazen II

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 3 (July 1995)

We live in a day and age of a lackadaisical attitude toward the visible church of Jesus Christ, even among professing Christians. In fact, I nearly go into cardiac arrhythmia every time I hear the question, “Where does it say in the Bible that a Christian needs to be a member of a church?” Such a question in my mind shows complete ignorance of the Scripture and covenant theology. Church membership is important! Paul certainly saw the importance where, in spite of his bleeding back, he proceeded to have the Philippian jailer and his entire family, at midnight, baptized (a sign of admission into the visible church).

Jay Adams says that identification with Christ’s church is important; without it one must be treated “as a heathen and publican.”[1] And yet, today we find professing Christians hopping from one church to another, avoiding commitment. This independent, lack-of-membership commitment in the pews, I believe, reveals a weakness of the ordained officers who, over the years have failed to uphold a high view of the church and its membership.[2] It is no wonder that many a person sitting in the pew has this independent, non-covenantal, noncommittal attitude when it comes to membership in the visible church.

In such a day and age we need to be careful to define biblically who is to be considered a member of the church visible. The Scriptures speak of the church in at least two ways. There is the universal church, made up of believers in many denominations and countries. This is the meaning of the church in Matthew 16:18 and Ephesians 5:22-23. But the Scriptures also speak of individual congregations as churches. This was a group of believers in a certain geographical location who had come together to worship and serve Christ; officers were elected, and a form of government for the body existed.[3]

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church Form of Government (FOG), Chapter II-2, reflects this scriptural teaching: “The universal church visible consists of all those persons, in every nation, together with their children, who make profession of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and promise submission to his commandments.” Importantly, FOG doesn’t conclude here but adds section 3, which states, “In accordance with the teaching of Scripture, the many members of this church universal are to be organized in local and regional churches, confessing a common faith and submitting to a common form of government.” Yes, there is a universal visible church, but this visible church is manifested locally. R. B. Kuiper states that “the visible church consists of all who are enrolled as church members...[whose] names appear on the registers of churches.”[4] R. C. Sproul likewise states, “The visible church refers to the church as an organization, as an institution. It numbers those people whose names appear ‘visibly’ on the membership rolls of various churches.”[5]

In Presbyterian and Reformed churches the board of elders (called the session) is responsible to decide who shall be enrolled as members of the church. The session receives communicant members in one of three ways: by letter of transfer, reaffirmation of faith, or by confession of faith.[6] It is the responsibility of elders to examine and admit believers to church membership which has its rights and privileges. These rights and privileges that non-members do not enjoy would include watchful care and spiritual oversight, instruction and government of the church, the sacraments and discipline.

All baptized persons, being members of the church, are subject to its discipline and entitled to the benefits thereof. Church discipline is a privilege, and no communing or non-communing member of the church should be allowed to stray from the Scripture’s discipline.[7] Where there is no discipline there is no godliness (I Timothy 4:7). Where there is no godliness there is sin and iniquity. As elders in Christ’s Church it behooves us to shepherd the flock of God among us, exercising oversight (I Peter 5:2). Discipline is not optional but a mark of the true church. Could it be that many members of our churches take no pride in their membership because elders have abdicated this mark and thus the church carries no more distinction than membership with a merchandise warehouse or a bowling league?

Both in its preaching and in its discipline the church must distinguish between believers and unbelievers. Adams says that “discipline is a primary means available for drawing a line between the church and the world, one of the chief ways of identifying God’s people.”[8] The world does not worship God. The world does not assemble together with fellow believers on the Lord’s Day to meet with the living God. The world could not care less about Christ and His body, the church. The world is ambivalent about making and keeping vows to Jehovah. And thus the importance of discipline whereby the church authoritatively separates between the holy and the profane, even as in the preaching of the Word the wicked are doctrinally separated from the good.[9]

Presbyterian and Reformed books of discipline explicitly outline the steps to be followed in judicial discipline. Judicial discipline is concerned with the prevention and correction of offense, an offense being defined as anything in the doctrine or practice of a member of the church which is contrary to the Word of God. The purpose of judicial discipline is to vindicate the honor of Christ, to promote the purity of his church, and to reclaim the offender.[10]

In judicial discipline there are varying degrees of censures, with excommunication being the most severe form. Excommunication is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It consists in a solemn declaration by an ecclesiastical judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ.[11]

By excommunication one is removed from the care and discipline of the Church of Jesus Christ. Note how the New Testament describes this action of the termination of one’s membership in the visible organized church: “removal from the midst” (I Corinthians 5:2), “clean out the old leaven” (I Cor. 5:7), “remove from among yourselves” (I Cor. 5:13), “deliver such a one to Satan” (I Cor. 5:5), “delivered over to Satan” (I Timothy 1:20), and “treat as a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). Excommunication excludes the unrepentant offender from the church. Removal is a serious matter not to be taken lightly or thought of merely as some therapeutic step. There is a grave danger to the unrepentant sinner who continues to exhibit contumacy.

Now I would like to think that the initiation of judicial process where a member is unrepentant ought to be fairly clear to sessions in cases involving sexual sins, gossip, slander, theft, drunkenness, etc., and that the censure of excommunication would be administered to those who remain unrepentant and hardened in their sin. But what are we to do with the member who stops attending church? How are we to deal with members who, over time, fall away and become inactive? Members who no longer take an interest in the body of Christ? How are sessions to respond when a member drops a note saying, “I quit” or “Please remove my name from the rolls of the church”?

Some books of church order make provision for these precise cases. For instance, The Book of Discipline (BOD) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church states,

When a member of a particular church, whether or not he be charged with an offense, informs the session that he does not desire to remain in the fellowship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the efforts of the session to dissuade him from his course have failed, it shall erase his name from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes, unless the session institutes or continues other disciplinary action against him.[12]

When a member, without adequate reason, persistently and over an extended period of time, absents himself from the stated services of the church, his name may be erased from the roll according to the following procedures. He shall be earnestly and personally dealt with by the session. If this effort fails, he shall be notified that at a meeting of the session not less that two months later his standing shall be reviewed. The session shall inform him of the time, date, and place of this meeting and invite him to show why his name should not be erased from the roll. If satisfactory reasons are not presented, the session shall erase his name from the roll, record the circumstances in its minutes, and send notification to him.[13]

In one sense it is propitious that the BOD advises the session to make contact with the delinquent member. Certainly some sessions are more zealous in seeking to persuade members to change their course of action. But note, when all else fails, the BOD gives the authorization to the session to erase the name from the roll and send notification of the session’s action.

Now I ask you: what has the session done if they take action and erase as cited above? What are the implications of erasing one’s name from the rolls of the church when the “erasee” has no other church home where he holds membership?

Some elders erroneously conclude that such folks simply remain members of the universal visible church. But in light of what has been previously presented in this paper, such is not the case. The session, by erasing their names from the church rolls, removed them from the visible church! They are now outside the visible body of Christ, outside the covenant community of believers. They have been removed from the midst.[14]

In reality this is precisely what occurs in such erasures. There is a misuse and misapplication of terms in some Presbyterian and Reformed books of church order. Erasure is a proper term when used in the right context. When clerks (of sessions) receive notification that one of our members has joined another church then the session erases his name from the rolls. When a member dies his name is erased from the rolls. When a man is ordained to the Gospel ministry and becomes a member of a regional church (presbytery), his name is erased from the roll of his home church. Unless there is a legitimate transfer of membership, erasure is tantamount to excommunication.

Saying “I quit” or requesting to be erased or “dropped” from the rolls of the church is serious business. When an individual unites with a church he is outwardly expressing his inward faith in Jesus Christ. He is, in essence, telling the world by his outward association with fellow believers that he is a part of the visible body of Christ. Vows are taken. A covenant is established. Conversely, if he withdraws himself completely from the visible body of Christ he is, in essence, telling the world that he is not willing to be part of the visible body of Christ. He is expressing, by his actions, that he is no longer willing to be under the authority that God has established on this earth to care for, shepherd, and watch over His people. He either is displaying an inconsistency in his faith or he is declaring that he never really possessed that faith.[15] In either case he has “forsaken our own assembling together” (Hebrews 10:25) and is living contrary to the fourth commandment. How can a member unilaterally cast off the jurisdiction of the church at will without sinning against God and the church?[16] How can one quit the Church without violating his covenant with it?[17] He has forsaken, abandoned, and deserted the body of Christ. His once apparent credible confession of faith has now become incredible (unbelievable). Let’s be honest and not skirt the issue: he has apostatized from the faith.

Under such circumstances how can sessions possibly be content with a person’s “quiet withdrawal” by simply erasing his name from the rolls of the church? Whereas the censure of “excommunication forewarns of the future and final judgment of God upon the unrepentant person (a judgment which none can escape by quiet withdrawal”[18]), yet, regrettably, many sessions accommodate the absentee member’s wishes. Why? Because this brand of erasure is non-confrontational. It is much easier and less burdensome than a trial which involves full process. Sessions are also prone to kid themselves when they entertain the notion that the negligence of worship attendance is a minor sin and is not to be categorized as heinous. A thorough reading of the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Standards, questions 108, 115-121, 143-145, 150 and 151 will squelch that notion. These catechetical answers concern the sins forbidden and duties required in the second, fourth, and ninth commandments, along with the several aggravations of such sins. I ask, how can we elders in good conscience, especially as we understand the teaching of Holy Writ concerning membership in the visible church, acquiesce and permit such erasures to occur with our blessings?

So then, what are sessions to do with those members who have apparently apostatized from the faith? Sessions have always had available to them the prerogative to use the full process as outlined in our books of church order. The biblical mandate on church discipline, as found in Matthew 18 and other places, consists in the five steps as outlined by Jay Adams.[19] This mandate is elaborated upon in Presbyterian and Reformed books of church order. It involves contacts (personally and by letter) with the individual by session members, with exhortations to repent. If there is no godly response, the next step is to formulate charges with specifications, issuing a citation for the accused to appear, and then proceed with trial. The details involved in these books of church order concerning trials are to insure that things are done decently and in order.

But can one biblically be excommunicated from the visible church without “going full process,” that is, without conducting a trial? While some say no, I am inclined to think that the Bible certainly permits such. If we follow the steps as outlined by Adams (based on Matthew 18:15-17) then we could say that the current process of erasure as cited in the OPC Book of Discipline V:2- a-(5)[20] is sufficient to remove someone from the church. By the time the session gets involved in the process, we are already at the fourth step (telling it to the church). There has been, in essence, a public declaration of sin by those who forsook the assembly. By their inactivity they have shown their sin publicly. Therefore it is not improper for the church (as a government) to enter into the process. It must confront the sinner (which the Book of Discipline supports) by, first, “earnestly and personally” dealing with them, and secondly, by issuing notice to appear to give reason why he should not be erased. Based on what is currently in the Book of Discipline he has two months to put together his “defense” (i.e., the reason for not having his name erased). There is probably nothing wrong with the current process, with the exception of the wording. It is not erasure but rather excommunication, the “removal from the midst” of the visible church of Jesus Christ.[21]

This writer knows of another NAPARC church where a denominational committee is currently studying this issue of unbiblical erasures. A session of that denomination presented a paper questioning the long-standing practice of such erasures and has proposed possible amendments to their book of church order.

I hope the reader can see and understand why I am very uncomfortable with the current language and misapplication of the word “erasure” in the above noted instances. The current language of erasure as cited in the OPC Book of Discipline V:2-a-(2), (3), (4), (5), and (6) is ambiguous and needs clarification.


[1] Jay Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 1986), p. 81, footnote.

[2] There are numerous cases in which this manifests itself in Presbyterian and Reformed churches across our land. Many sessions serve the Lord’s Supper to individuals who are not members of the visible church. Some folks are received into membership without the session inquiring into previous affiliations or if the applicant is under any form of discipline. At times, requests for letters of transfer are ignored or at best delayed because “it is a bother” or considered “just paperwork.” Many sessions fail to request a letter of transfer. Some sessions authorize the baptism of infants whose parents are not communicant members of their congregation. Sessions often permit people to attend and involve themselves in nearly all the privileges of church membership for long periods of time without even approaching them to commit to the local body of believers. The list is virtually endless.

[3] When we think of church membership, it is usually this latter sense of the word “church,” of which we are speaking. The New Testament clearly reveals that every professing Christian is to be a member of a local church (Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 2-5; 6; 20:28; Romans 12; I Corinthians 5; I Timothy 3:5; Hebrews 13:17; I Peter 5:3; III John 10; etc.).

[4] R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 26.

[5] R. C. Sproul, The Symbol (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1975), p. 137.

[6] A letter of transfer may be received from another Presbyterian and Reformed church that substantially confesses the doctrines we believe (generally this means from another member of NAPARC). Reaffirmation of faith is when an individual has previously confessed faith in Christ but in a church whose doctrines or practices differ enough from that which we are not willing to endorse. Confession of faith is by an individual who has not previously been a communicant member of a church (for example, a baptized youth who wishes to become a communicant member or an adult convert).

[7] The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, Part II, Chapter 27-2, 27-4.

[8] Adams, p. 10.

[9] PCA Book of Church Order, 27-4.

[10] The Standards of Government, Discipline and Worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Book of Discipline, Chapter I:3.

[11] Ibid., Book of Discipline [BOD], Chapt. VI:B-5.

[12] Ibid., BOD, Chapter V:2-a-(3). Chapter V is titled “Cases Without Full Process.”

[13] Ibid., BOD, V:2-a-(5).

[14] Adams, p. 79, footnote.

[15] A prolonged illness is a providential hindrance and would not be under consideration here.

[16] Peter Stazen II, “The Family Matters,” Ordained Servant 3:3.

[17] Morton Smith, Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order (Greenville: Greenville Seminary Press, nd), p. 46-7.

[18] Daniel E. Wray, Biblical Church Discipline (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), p. 15.

[19] Adams, p. 27ff.

[20] The Standards, Chapter V:2-a-(5).

[21] I appreciate OPC ruling elder Mike Diercks’ preliminary thoughts on this subject as it pertains to the OPC BOD.

We are grateful for another thought-provoking contribution from the Rev. Peter Stazen II. He currently serves as pastor of the Pilgrim Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Metamora, Michigan.