By Anthony Wayne Goforth
Recently, a family left the congregation of which they had been members, under less than favorable circumstances. When their loving congregation, believing they should “have the same concern one for the other” (1 Cor. 12:25), sought to take steps to correct the matter, the family simply fled to another congregation where they were accepted. When their new congregation was contacted about the matter, and asked if someone from each congregation could sit down with this family to try to bring about repentance, the response was, “It’s none of your business; they are not your members anymore.” It was further stated that if the offended church were to discipline this family, they would be guilty of “practicing the sponsoring church concept in the area of discipline” since they were now members elsewhere. The sponsoring church is an unauthorized centralizing of funds under one eldership which oversees the work of many churches for them. However, God did authorize the local church to perform the works of evangelism, benevolence and edification (Eph. 4:11-13) of the which discipline is an essential part! Since the family was being disciplined for sins committed while yet members of the previous congregation, there is no parallel that can be drawn to the sponsoring church.
This real life scenario reflects some common problems and misunderstandings of church membership and discipline, both on the part of the individuals being disciplined, and of the congregations to which they may flee, asking that “asylum” be granted to them.
1. Errors on the part of the individuals. Those who would flee discipline have the old misunderstanding of “you can’t withdraw from me if I withdraw from you first.” Certainly, one may attend any faithful congregation he feels best meets his family’s needs, but if there are discipline problems left unresolved, these must first be corrected before moving on to another congregation. To fail to do so shows little concern for one’s own soul since sin remains unrepented and therefore unforgiven (Matt. 5:23-24). It shows little concern for the congregation from which one might flee as well. Correction needs to be made where the sin occurred, where it is known, and where its evil influence has been felt (Matt. 18:1518). One should be thankful if he is part of a congregation that loves him enough to discipline (Heb. 12:5-11). Instead, the attitude is all too often, “Then I’ll just go somewhere else.” And, if they look far enough, they will find some congregation that does not love their souls as much, and will accept them as they are, still in their sin, thus perpetuating the problem. Can you imagine an IRS agent notifying a person that because he had not paid his taxes, he was going to jail, only to be told by the tax evader,
“You can’t touch me, I now denounce my citizenship.” Such would lead to anarchy in the world, and in the church as well. It would virtually eliminate discipline all together. Now, one may be a citizen wherever he wishes, but if there are obligations left unresolved, they must first be settled before moving, or be sent back to correct it as in the case of Manuel Noreiga! This shows little concern for the congregation to which one might go. They are immediately brought into fellowship with an impenitent sinner, his thus becoming a “spot in their love feast” (Jude 12), thereby endangering the souls of the new members as well.
2. Errors on the part of the congregation which would accept those into fellowship who are being disciplined elsewhere. This can be a problem in areas where there are numerous faithful congregations. When problems arise, it is all too tempting for one to just move to another congregation and leave matters unresolved. And, congregations that do not encourage them to first “go and be reconciled” (Matt. 5:24) contribute to the problem. A local congregation is not a city of refuge (Num. 35). At least with the cities of refuge, one had to truly be innocent, or be delivered back for proper discipline. The second congregation in our illustration seems very much like the Corinthian church, being puffed-up over having gained a family in sin, rather than mourning over being put in fellowship with an impenitent sinner (1 Cor. 5:2, 6-8). If the erring brother of 1 Corinthians 5 had asked to be a member of Athens or Philippi, the two churches could have communicated about the man’s status without any violation of autonomy, regardless of which church initiated the communication. There is Bible precedent for communication between congregations without practicing the “sponsoring church” (cf. Rom. 16; Col. 4:13-17). Paul even instructed Onesimus to return to Philemon! And, there is even authority for asking of letters of recommendation from those seeking to place membership (2 Cor. 3:1). And, when one does ask to be identified with a group, must they immediately be accepted, even before the brethren can have a chance to talk with (Acts 9:26-27)?
May I suggest, that it does not suffice for the sin to be confessed only at the new congregation, but to the ones which were initially offended as well (Matt. 18:5). Otherwise, when we have fights with our spouse, all we have to do is to tell some stranger we are sorry and that should settle it! Often, we are too excited about the possibility of gaining new members to want to probe their reason for coming to us, or for leaving their previous group, which we have already established Bible authority for so doing.
Really, was the first congregation really guilty of the sponsoring church? Or, when members flee to another congregation to escape discipline and are accepted, is this closer to the Catholic doctrine of granting sanctuary?
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 13, pp. 398-399
July 4, 1991