By J. Edward Nowlin
There are some relationships in life from which one may just pick up his hat and walk away. For instance, one who is employed to work on a job may find the work or the working conditions unsatisfactory to him, and simply quit after due notice. This amounts to unilateral severance of the employer-employee relationship. If the employer is unhappy with the arrangement, he may terminate the employee, preferably with adequate notice, in which case the result would be the same.
Membership in the church is quite another matter. It seems that some wish to operate here on the basis of the worker-employer relationship, and just check out at any time they wish. This cannot be done with honor to all. Membership in the local church is a family-type relationship. It carries obligations with its privileges. What father or mother or child in a family is free to just “up and walk away?” Even if one tires of the privileges of a home, he has responsibilities which must be adjusted before leaving it. The State is interested in such matters and has laws which govern such actions. Again, what citizen can just default his obligations to his government with impunity? His government gives him protection in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and he must pay his taxes to his government which provides these. Then, in case of military service a relationship is established from which one cannot simply walk away. What soldier may go AWOL from his Army base any time he wishes? The Army does not take such actions lightly, and any soldier who does so is subject to discipline, court-martial and imprisonment.
Neither does time wash out such responsibilities. A father may be gone from home and family five years, but the judge is unimpressed when he says that he has withdrawn from the family. A citizen may not pay his taxes for ten years, but the IRS man takes a dim view of such neglect. An Army deserter may not be caught for many years, but he still has to “face the music” when apprehended. Should it be any less important that the church member who just walks away be subject to reminders of his obligations in the local church?
Letters of Commendation
When church members wish to leave a congregation and become members of another, they should let their intentions be known to the church and leave gracefully and with the consent of the brethren. This would pave the way for their return at some future time, fi they so wished, and would end their relationship on the same mutually friendly terms it was established upon. Letters of commendation should be more commonly used among churches of Christ than they are. Once in a “blue moon” a member who has moved into town will come forward with a letter in hand from the church of which he was formerly a member, and present it with his request to be “identified” with the local church. This is in keeping with the practice of Paul and others in Bible times. In writing the Corinthian church, Paul alludes to such a practice (2 Corinthians 3:1), and when he wrote to the church at Rome he included such a commendation on behalf of Phoebe (Romans 16:1,2). Also, when Apollos went from Ephesus into Achaia, the church at Ephesus wrote a letter of commendation for him (Acts 18:27; 19:1).
The usual practice (and a bad one it is). is to accept into local churches any stranger who comes along claiming to be a member of the church of Christ somewhere. Certainly, we should trust people and not have suspicious hearts, but some churches have been dealt deadly blows by accepting at face value someone who was a false teacher, hypocrite, or immoral person, when a little investigation and caution on the part of the elders might have prevented it. Some good brethren who do not know the difference between the local church and the universal church are heard to object to the use of church letters ‘as “denominational.” If the Lord accepts one, why should we not do so? The simple answer to this question is, the local church has no word from the Lord that He has accepted a given person! It is true that the Lord adds to the church (universal) those who are saved (Acts 2:38-47), but membership in a local church is obtained by mutual consent; not by baptism, as the Baptists teach. Paul found this out at Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28).
What Of Members Who Stray?
In addition to leaving the local church to become members of another of the same persuasion, there are some who stray away into sinful living and quit the church. There are others who stray away into error and become members of some digressive church or denominational body. Most of these never announce their intention. They just do it. They are found absent from their usual places of duty and worship, and when investigation is made they are found worshiping and working in a situation of religious error. In either case, those who stray should have the attention of the brethren they have left.
To begin with, every effort should be made to show them the unscriptural and sinful situation they are in, and to get them to renounce such and return in penitence to the fellowship they have left. This means that every member of the church should join in a concerted effort to restore them in the fear of God. Paul laid down this rule in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering
and become members of another, they should let their thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” One visit by the preacher and another one by one of the elders is not sufficient. This is one of the hardest things to get members of the church to do, but every member should show an interest in the one who has strayed.
In case such group effort to restore is unsuccessful, more drastic measures are to be taken as a last resort. The straying member is unresponsive. There is nothing left but for the church to exercise disciplinary action of a more formal kind. This is commanded by Paul (2 Thessalonians 3:6) in order that such person “may be ashamed” (verse 14) and hopefully will repent. “Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (verse 15). This applies to the backsliding member. Those who stray into error “contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned,” and have caused divisions and offenses should be marked and avoided (Romans 16:17); yet, James teaches the importance of trying to “convert” such a person “from the error of his way… in order to “save a soul from death” (James 5:19,20). Although no apostolic example of the mechanics of this action is given in the Bible, it involves using’. the most appropriate method of notifying the straying member of the action of the church toward him. His walking away affects a great many members of the church. It is not just his “own business.”
Truth Magazine XIX: 31, pp. 486-487
June 12, 1975