By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: A young husband recently left his wife and baby. He is a member of the church but she is not; however, she attends services regularly. He soon started dating, obtained a divorce (not for fornication) and brought his girlfriend to services with him. Not having elders, the preacher asked if he could talk with him, but he refused. So, the preacher told him we could not fellowship him. Now he attends a nearby congregation with his girlfriend and parents. The elders are aware of the situation, but say they can do nothing until they place their membership? Do the elders have an obligation in this matter?
Reply: It is obvious from the Scriptures that this young man is guilty of sinful conduct. The preacher is to be commended for his effort to talk with him. We are to “admonish the disorderly” (1 Thess. 4:14); we are to “reprove, rebuke and exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2). When all efforts to restore the erring have been exhausted, we must then withdraw from him – have no fellowship with him. Concerning the brother guilty of incest at Corinth, Paul wrote, “Put away the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13). He also admonished, “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). Note also that Paul wrote, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly” (2 Thess. 3:6). This is the scriptural procedure.
Taking his girlfriend and attending another congregation does not acquit him of guilt. He remains guilty of sin until he repents. It is quite often the case that when a guilty party has been confronted, he will run off to another congregation, supposing that he is sheltered from any further rebuke, and will not be disciplined. The church is not a place of refuge (dumping ground) for those disciplined or those trying to avoid it. It is the conviction of this writer that the elders of that congregation do have a responsibility here to fulfill. Though not a member of the flock, nevertheless, his very presence has a bad influence upon those who are members. And, those outside the church who are aware of his situation and know that he attends there, will suppose that he is a member. Even though the people mentioned in the question have not placed their membership, the elders must protect the flock from their evil influence. A wolf does not have to be part of the flock before the shepherd can take any action against him. Suppose a false teacher attends a congregation, but has not placed his membership. Are the elders to sit idly by and allow the false teacher to continue his evil work? The mouths of false teachers must be stopped (Tit. 1:11). Are elders to act in this matter, but not in regard to one guilty of another kind of sin? Although neither has placed his membership with the local church, elders must take action with regard to both. Elders have the responsibility along these lines, more than they sometimes realize. It is true that this person is not under the oversight of the elders in the sense that the members of the congregation are; but elders are obligated to make an effort to talk with him and his parents in order to protect the flock for which they are responsible. They need first to inform him that they do not condone his sin, neither can they fellowship him, but then urge him to repent. The members should be publicly informed that this person is not in fellowship with his former congregation, and that this action is recognized until he repents. The brethren should be admonished publicly to avoid any social contact which would, in any way, condone or encourage his conduct (see 1 Cor. 5:9). When this is done, the guilty young man will probably do one of two things: leave, or repent. Should he not repent, but continue to attend, the elders would do well to suggest to the preacher that he preach some strong sermons on the home, marital obligations, divorce and remarriage. Preaching along this line is always appropriate and much needed. Good men serving as elders can do more than they think they can in this regard. A sinner should not be given the idea that he can tie the hands of the elders, simply because he has not placed his membership with this congregation where he is attending regularly.
Serving as an elder in a local church is not as easy task; and no one knows this better than this scribe who serves as both an elder and a preacher. But all Christians must be firm, and with true love for the sinner, make every effort to save his soul. Disciplinary action is not merely to castigate the guilty, but rather to bring him to repentance. This is God’s will. Any failure to accomplish His purpose does not reflect upon His plan. The problem is the hardness of heart upon the part of the one who refuses to repent. This has been the problem in the past (Rom. 2:4-6), and it is the problem today.
In my opinion, the question under consideration is a challenging one which needs further study by all of us. Are elders, as shepherds of the flock simply to feed it, or are they also obligated to protect it?
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 2, p. 44
January 15, 1987