A common question for people in Reformed churches is "under what circumstances am I allowed to move from one congregation to another?" In most conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches today, members take vows to attend that local congregation faithfully. Yet for all manner of reasons, individuals may decide that they should move to another congregation. Do individuals have complete liberty to move from congregation to congregation? And what congregation may they move to? Do they need to request permission, or can they merely notify the elders?
§ Reformed Authors
§ R. Scott Clark
R. Scott Clark is a pastor in the URCNA, and a seminary professor at Westminster Seminary California. On his blog, he has two articles addressing the subject of leaving or moving congregation. . He addresses some of these questions in each.
Of particular note on the liberty of individuals, he says in comments:
[A user comments]: [H]ypothetically, would it be wrong for me to dissolve [my]] membership with a faithful three-marks church to join another faithful three-marks church [...] which is in the same “neighborhood”?
[R. Scott Clark]: Though I do not think Christians ought to be church hopping[,] if they are moving laterally to another true church then that would seem to belong to Christian liberty. I don’t see how a consistory/session could rightly forbid it.
[A user comments]: Is “I moved across town” sufficient justification to (in cooperation with both sessions) transfer membership from [one] NAPARC church to another?
[R. Scott Clark]: Generally, yes. “Across town” in LA or San Diego can mean a long drive. Further, and more to the point, it seems as if it is a matter of Christian liberty to be able to unite with a true church. On what ground would a session/consistory say to one not under discipline, “You may not unite [with] that true church”?
[User]: I was thinking potentially on the grounds “we are family; you made vows to this session, not just to this denomination or NAPARC more generally.
[R. Scott Clark]: I believe that I’ve heard of cases where sessions have reasoned that since one made a vow to “this session” or “this congregation” that they could not transfer. This is not the historic Reformed view.
[R. Scott Clark]: It would be unreasonable and even tyrannical for a session/consistory to refuse to dismiss/transfer a member in good standing to another true church, especially if the churches were ecumenically related. That could be tantamount to denying the status of the receiving congregation as a true church.
He also deals with the issue of the type of church one can join. While the preference may be Reformed and Presbyterian churches, he allows for conservative Lutheran and Anglican churches, and even Baptist churches, if no other options are available.
§ Samuel Rutherford
Samuel Rutherford was a Scottish minister and one of the Westminster Divines. He wrote a book against Congregationalism, where he discusses church membership vows. Of note:
[T]o swear the last article not to move from such a congregation without their consent, I think not lawful, nor is my habitation in such a place a matter of Church-discipline.
The "last article" in question is as follows.
I covenant, not to depart from the church, without the consent thereof.
§ Reformed Church Orders
In the United Reformed Churches of North America's church order, transferring membership from a URCNA congregation to a church in the NAPARC or in URCNA Ecclesiastical Fellowship is permitted. Membership release to true churches that are not in the NAPARC or in URCNA Ecclesiastical Fellowship is also permitted, if the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and the two sacraments Christ institutes are administered under the oversight of elders who exercise church discipline.
Joining a false or heretical church is met with discipline.
While ordinarily, a member will request transfer or release so that the involved sessions can handle letters of conduct and dismissal or transfer, the church order also mentions the case that the mbmer did not request a transfer or release:
In the event that a member becomes affiliated with a church without first asking the consistory to release his or her membership, the consistory should initiate correspondence with the other church to confirm whether the elders there have assumed, or are willing to assume, responsibility for the person’s spiritual care. Upon confirmation, the consistory should release the member to affiliate and inform the congregation.
There is no indication that a member not asking for a transfer or release is in sin and therefore to be admonished or otherwise disciplined. It is reasonable to conclude that the individual has liberty to move congregation, as long as it is to a true church and they are not under discipline.
In the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America's constitution, individuals may request a certificate of transfer of membership, which they are entitled to.
A member of the Church moving from one congregation to another congre-gation in the denomination shall be given a certificate of transfer of membership at his request. Notice shall also be given to the session of the congregation to which he desires transfer. A person leaving the membership of the Reformed Presbyterian Church shall also be given a certificate of transfer of membership including any qualifications the session has in its records.
If a member becomes a member of another denomination without a regular dismissal, the session shall record the fact and remove his name from the roll.
There is no indication that the session may forbid a member from moving to another congregation or denomination, unless they are under church discipline. It is reasonable to conclude that the individual has liberty to move congregation, as long as it is to a true church and they are not under discipline.
In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's Book of Discipline, individuals who are on the membership roll may be removed in three ways: dismissal, erasure, or excommunication. Of the three, only dismissal is non-disciplinary.
Dismissal is initiated by the member, who requests for a letter of transfer or certificate of standing. The letter of transfer is given if the receiving congregation is approved by the session. If the session cannot approve of as a church of like faith and practice, but they think the spiritual interest of the member will be advanced by their uniting with such a church, they will grant them a certificate of standing.
a. Members may be removed by a letter of transfer to another congregation approved by the session. When upon the request of a member the session dismisses him to another congregation, the clerk shall send a letter commending him to its care, and the clerk of the receiving church shall notify the dismissing church of the date of his reception. When notification is received the clerk shall remove his name from the roll and record the fact in its minutes. He shall be considered subject to the jurisdiction of the session which dismissed him until the time when he actually is received by the body to which he has been dismissed.
b. Members may be removed when they desire to be dismissed to a church of which the session cannot approve as a church of like faith and practice. If it appears to the session that the spiritual interests of the members will be advanced by their uniting with such a church, it shall grant them certificates of standing, and, upon being informed that they have joined such a church, shall remove their names from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes.
If the request is to another OPC congregation, or to a congregation with which the OPC has ecclesiastical relations, the session cannot deny the member a letter of transfer.
If the member requests dismissal to a congregation that the session cannot approve of, the member is given a certificate of standing, and is erased from the membership roll. This is considered an act of discipline.
When a member desires dismissal to a church of which the session cannot approve as a church of like faith and practice, nor a church which will advance his spiritual interests, and he cannot be dissuaded, it shall grant him a certificate of standing, unless the session institutes disciplinary action against him; on being informed that he has joined such a church the clerk shall erase his name from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes.
The OPC is stricter than many denominations. The members do not have liberty to move congregation without the permission of the elders, although the elders may not prevent them moving to an OPC or sister church.