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If one's entry into the church is solemnized by baptism, then how does one leave the church? What are the ways that one may leave the church?

  • apostasy
  • backsliding
  • heresy
  • blasphemy

Is there a way to leave the church with a good reputation? Committing apostasy, backsliding, heresy, and blasphemy all sound like bad things. For instance, if a person does not commit blasphemy, heresy, backsliding, and apostasy, but still leaves the church out of a personal disenchantment or disinterest of the visible church, then would that still be considered "leaving the church"?

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This varies quite a bit. I could cover this from a baptist perspective, but different denominations = different procedures/reasons/policies/ways of addressing. –  David Stratton Aug 27 '13 at 2:09

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is no biblical precedent for formal disassociation with the church, other than excommunication. Excommunication is a church censure for some gross act for which as Paul says, one must be "handed over to Satan," with the idea that the offender will repent and (hopefully) be reinstated. 1 Corinthians 5 goes into this. One might be excommunicated for blasphemy or active, persistent heresy, but it would be rare indeed for simple backsliding to be the cause. In Amish circles, you might be shunned for for your behavior, but that is a different matter indeed from actual excommunication.

As a practical matter, excommunication in a body that is now a voluntary association is now thus a very rare thing. It takes a special individual to voluntarily remain a part of a body that has formally expelled him. As such, while it is still "on the books" so to speak, it's rarely used.

Furthermore, since excommunication comes from the church rather than the individual, there is still the question of how one would leave voluntarily. Indeed, many Christians - especially those who believe in eternal security aka 'perseverance of the saints' would say that once saved, you're always saved, and as such there is no ontological means by which one could renounce their salvation.

From 1983 until 2009, the Catholic church recognized defection from the same but has since rescinded it.

To fill this "gap", some atheists have created 'unbaptism certificates' and others have devised makeshift ceremonies, but these are mostly jokes. Indeed, probably the most famous - Count Me Out an Irish group - formally closed its doors on August 8, 2013, because they acknowledged the church has no official means of voluntary departure. Madelyn Murray O'Hair in particular liked to issue 'debaptismal certificates'.

In practice, what most people do is simply stop attending church. There have been no laws forcing compulsory attendance in a church in the US since the Bill of Rights, and I am unaware of any Christian country that still has any such laws on the books. (Muslims, different story, but no legally enforced Christian compulsion to attend service exists).

As far as one's reputation goes, that's strictly subjective. Most Christians will "respect" anyone's decision to leave, but there's no way anyone would be happy about it. If you're lucky, Michael W. Smith might write a sad song about you, but that's probably as far as it is going to go.

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To look at the various aspects of your question from a Catholic point of view...

If one's entry into the church is solemnized by baptism...

What does the Catholic Church teach about baptism?

1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), 4 and the door which givesaccessto theother sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word." (1)

Does this indelable mark protect a person from willingly and knowingly removing his or herself from what the Church defines as the Body of Christ (a.k.a. the Bride of Christ, a.k.a. the Church universal)? No.

1463 Certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place or priests authorized by them. In danger of death any priest, even if deprived of faculties for hearing confessions, can absolve from every sin and excommunication. (2)

...then how does one leave the church?

What exactly is excommunication?

Excommunication (Latin ex, out of, and communio or communicatio, communion — exclusion from the communion), the principal and severest censure, is a medicinal, spiritual penalty that deprives the guilty Christian of all participation in the common blessings of ecclesiastical society. Being a penalty, it supposes guilt; and being the most serious penalty that the Church can inflict, it naturally supposes a very grave offence. It is also a medicinal rather than a vindictive penalty, being intended, not so much to punish the culprit, as to correct him and bring him back to the path of righteousness. It necessarily, therefore, contemplates the future, either to prevent the recurrence of certain culpable acts that have grievous external consequences, or, more especially, to induce the delinquent to satisfy the obligations incurred by his offence. Its object and its effect are loss of communion, i.e. of the spiritual benefits shared by all the members of Christian society; hence, it can affect only those who by baptism have been admitted to that society. Undoubtedly there can and do exist other penal measures which entail the loss of certain fixed rights; among them are other censures, e.g. suspension for clerics, interdict for clerics and laymen, irregularity ex delicto, etc. Excommunication, however, is clearly distinguished from these penalties in that it is the privation of all rights resulting from the social status of the Christian as such. The excommunicated person, it is true, does not cease to be a Christian, since his baptism can never be effaced; he can, however, be considered as an exile from Christian society and as non-existent, for a time at least, in the sight of ecclesiastical authority. But such exile can have an end (and the Church desires it), as soon as the offender has given suitable satisfaction. Meanwhile, his status before the Church is that of a stranger. He may not participate in public worship nor receive the Body of Christ or any of the sacraments. Moreover, if he be a cleric, he is forbidden to administer a sacred rite or to exercise an act of spiritual authority.

If we consider only its nature, excommunication has no degrees: it simply deprives clerics and laymen of all their rights in Christian society, which total effect takes on a visible shape in details proportionate in number to the rights or advantages of which the excommunicated cleric or layman has been deprived. The effects of excommunication must, however, be considered in relation also to the rest of the faithful. From this point of view arise certain differences according to the various classes of excommunicated persons. These differences were not introduced out of regard for the excommunicated, rather for the sake of the faithful. The latter would suffer serious inconveniences if the nullity of all acts performed by excommunicated clerics were rigidly maintained. They would also be exposed to grievous perplexities of conscience if they were strictly obliged to avoid all intercourse, even profane, with the excommunicated. Hence the practical rule for interpreting the effects of excommunication: severity as regards the excommunicated, but mildness for the faithful. We may now proceed to enumerate the immediate effects of excommunication. They are summed up in the two well known verses:

Res sacræ, ritus, communio, crypta, potestas, prædia sacra, forum, civilia jura vetantur,

i.e. loss of the sacraments, public services and prayers of the Church, ecclesiastical burial, jurisdiction, benefices, canonical rights, and social intercourse. (3)

Can a Catholic just stop going to Mass or replace attendance with any other weekly denominational worship?

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin. (4)

Is there a way to leave the Church on good terms?

The answer to that question is that it is impossible to leave the Roman Catholic Church on good terms - with one exception.

Many people do not know that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only Catholic Church. There are many Eastern Catholic Churches, and it is absolutely possible for a Roman Catholic to become a member of any of these churches. The usual requirement to switch is that a person attends an Eastern liturgy for at least 2 years, and both Bishops approve. It should be noted however, that these churches are still in union with the Pope, and it is still a requirement to adhere to church teaching.

It is possible for a person to leave a local church and transfer membership to another church for any legitamate reason (i. e. relocation, lack of youth ministry, etc.).

To summarize - Is it possible for a Catholic to leave a church on good terms? Yes.

Is is possible for a Catholic to leave the Church on good terms? No.

At "best," this would result in grave sin, and at worst being publically reprimanded. Its important to note that there are many gray areas with no one size fits all case.

  1. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm

  2. http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1463.htm

  3. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05678a.htm

  4. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c1a3.htm

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"It is possible for a person to leave a local church and transfer membership to another church for any legitimate reason" -- and even this is an informal procedure (even though most parishes will have paperwork for both ends of it). My understanding is that parish registration has no canonical significance. It just determines who sends you donation envelopes! –  Ben Dunlap Aug 28 '13 at 0:01
    
@BenDunlap Yup...donation envelopes and Christmas cards. :) When my wife and I were going through marriage prep we both had to provide baptismal records. I didn't realize that my membership was still with my childhood parish! From what I can tell parish registration is mostly just for record keeping. –  Charles Alsobrook Aug 28 '13 at 0:17

From a Non-Denominational Standpoint, if you are worried about what God will think, then you need not worry about what the Church goers are saying about you.

if you are leaving a church because it interferes with you being one with God, then it doesn't matter what "the church" is going to say about it. the church is there for you, not the other way around, if that church isn't giving you your "Daily Bread" then it's probably not where God wants you to worship him in the first place.

every church has little things that it believes and doesn't believe, you have to look at what you believe and know to be true in your Heart.

there is no Sin in leaving a Church to find a church that serves you your "Daily Bread".

another point, Probably a Better Point, if there is something about the church that you are attending that is keeping you from having a meaningful relationship with God, then that church is not serving the purpose that God intended, I am not saying that it is a bad church, it may be helping others have a meaningful relationship with God in a way that doesn't work for you. Your goal should be that meaningful relationship with God. if there is someone or something that is interfering with that, you should avoid it.

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In Roman Catholic doctrine, there is no such thing as an "Ex-Christian" (or even an "Ex-Catholic"). This is because we believe that the sacraments of initiation leave an "indelible mark" on the soul, a mark which we are simply unable to remove by any human effort.

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Just because a mark is indelible doesn't mean that it can never lose its effectiveness.a priest receives an indelible mark with ordination but can be stripped of all his faculties and be rendered ineffective as a priest. If a catholic is raised to receive initial marks but leaves the church become a satan worshiper then is classified by the church an ex catholic...or any situation similar...good exampl is Adolph Hitler –  Charles Alsobrook Aug 27 '13 at 14:26

I would first challenge that from a Biblical perspective, many doctrines would not agree that membership in the church is solemnized through baptism, but rather that baptism is an outward display of the inward change which produces that solemnized joining to the spiritual Church (acceptance and belief in Christ as personal Lord and Savior).

To ask about leaving the big C Church really is to ask if salvation can be lost and thus be cut off from God. The Bible is clear in John 10:28-30 that nothing can snatch followers of Christ from his hand and this leads to a once saved always saved theology.

Mark 3:29 describes the only unforgivable sin as blaspheming the Holy Spirit which would result in being cut off from the spiritual Church, but it isn't particularly clear what that is as no further explanation is given. Personally, I've always interpreted it to mean that the only way to give up salvation is to truly within your heart reject God again after truly accepting him. I also think it is the kind of thing that if you were to do it, you would never again have any desire to be saved anyway.

As far as the little c church goes (an individual community of believers), I think simply explaining why you are leaving and not showing up anymore is the best path. It's nice to let them know why you are deciding to leave, if it's a problem with the church, there may be something they can do to work on it. Be polite certainly, but most churches that have any hope of improving should take it well.

People change churches or back out of churches pretty regularly and it isn't normally taken personally by any churches I've known over the years.

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