Church Hopping and Church Membership

Church Hopping and Church Membership

The Scenario

Someone told me that he did not belong to any one particular church but was a “member” of the various evangelical churches in his city. He was a member of the body of Christ and did not see a need to be tied down to one single congregation. All the pastors know him and he respects them all. When asked to whom he was accountable, he listed a few men. The men to whom he felt he was accountable were not all from the same congregation and I think one of them was not an elder.

This fluid view of being a disciple of Christ without being connected to any specific congregation is gaining support. More people want churches to not “look” like a church (which is fine) but some of them want to change what a church is supposed to be (remember the “emergent” church?). Many desire a relational theology as opposed to an institutional or confessional one. The former is more dynamic while the latter suffers from its static and archaic past. Some of these criticisms merit attention and we do not want to maintain a position simply because we always did it this way. We must argue for our positions biblically. Though we cannot address all these questions and concerns in this study, we do want to look into the whole question of church membership.


The Question

We want to examine at the common practice of church hopping and church membership. Can a person be a “member” of many churches and not specifically be a member of a particular congregation? We are not talking about members from one church occasionally attending the functions of another church. Instead, can a true believer not be a member of a particular church? In this study, we argue that each believer must be able to say that he or she is a member of a particular congregation.


A Biblical Case for Church Membership and Elders

Membership Aside

We are not going to argue that there is a specific process every church must follow (inquirer’s class, membership class, etc.). Whatever the process, vows, study, etc. the end result is that the believer considers himself to be attached formally and spiritually to a specific congregation. Terms, labels, names, etc. are not important — what they represent do. Some may not like the term “member” but whatever one might call it, he is part of that local congregation to which he is accountable.


Church Officers and You

The appointment of church officers argues for the existence of a local congregation that is not fluid or open ended. Christ has given to a local congregation two specific offices, elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim. 3; also see Phil. 1:1, etc.). For this study, we focus only on the elders. The word elder (presbyter) means someone who is older but the NT takes it a bit further. They are given specific responsibilities and certain qualifications must be met before these men can become elders in a church (see 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Elders are called overseers (Phil. 1:1; Acts 20:17, 28[1]) — the elders oversee the flock of God. Paul appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23) and instructed Titus to do the same (Titus 1:5). Each church must have elders!

Paul said to the Ephesian elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) If the elders oversee the flock, then there must be a definite flock for them to oversee. They cannot oversee a nameless or faceless herd of people. A shepherd does not shepherd one group of sheep one week and then a different one another week. God the Spirit has made the elders overseers of the church of God. Elders “direct the affairs of the church” or manage, rule or lead (1Tim. 5:17, Οἱ καλῶς προεστῶτες πρεσβύτεροι, the ESV translates the phrase as “the elders who rule well”). They manage, rule, direct the affairs of the church and they can only function by overseeing a local church. Just as a lifeguard exists to oversee a specific beach or pool, so elders have been raised up to oversee a specific local congregation.

The epistle to the Philippians is addressed to the saints “together with the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Hebrews 13:17 further demonstrates the intimate relationship between the leaders and the people of God whom they shepherded: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”[2] They are called to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” in 1 Peter 5:2. The shepherding or oversight is restricted to those “among you” and not to the unknowable members of the invisible church.

The presence of this office argues that a definite body of believers was overseen, a specific flock was shepherded. An elder does not oversee the invisible church but a local visible congregation. Prior to the existence of elders and deacons were the Apostles themselves. Yet, even the “ministry” of apostles “existed for the sake of the community,” says Adolf Schaltter.[3] We must remember, the apostles existed to build up the church (2Cor. 10:8) and that “God has appointed in the church first apostles …” (1Cor. 12:28). Any appeal to the apostles without embracing their relationship to the church would be wrong. The apostles were appointed by Christ to build up the church. The elders and deacons were also set apart to serve the churches. In fact, Peter viewed himself to be a fellow elder (ὁ συμπρεσβύτερος) in 1 Pet. 5:1.

This is where the modern sentiment opposes the biblical model. Nobody wants oversight, accountability, etc. It is this gracious pastoral oversight most modern men and women cannot stand. Each one desires to do what he or she wants to do. Many do not want an elder to step in and hold them accountable. But the office does not exist for show, nor does it exist without a purpose. The office of elders has been divinely prescribed because our Lord wanted them to rule and shepherd local bodies of His people. The elders are exhorted to “shepherd the flock of God…exercising oversight” (1 Pet. 5:2) and to “keep watch over …all the flock” (Acts 20:28).

Did Christ establish this office so that no one can call them their elders? If I am not a member of a particular congregation which has divinely prescribed elders, then those elders are not my elders because they are not per se called to oversee me. I may receive charitable care but if I refuse to join that church or insist I am a member of a different church then I cannot be held accountable by them. The elders themselves will give an account for those whom they are called to oversee: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Heb. 13:17)


You are Called to Submit to Your Elders

We have just argued that the existence of the office of elders assumes that a local congregation must exist for them to oversee. The other related argument is the Bible’s teaching regarding the members who must submit to these overseers. Since the elders cannot exist or function without the visible church, neither can members submit to them without being in the visible church. Believers have a duty to respect, submit to, and obey their elders.

In 1 Thess. 5:12-13, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to respect and esteem the elders very highly in love because of their work: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” That phrase “are over you in the Lord” means those who rule you, are concerned about you, stand before you as protectors, etc.[4] They have that role over the member and in turn, the believer is called to respect, esteem them highly in love. One commentator summarized the implications of these verses with these words:

Honor is due to church leaders, whether they are paid staff or officers who give their time and energy (elders, deacons). Spiritual leadership is difficult and weighted with responsibility. These leaders are engaged in hard work. One of their “thankless” duties is to admonish. This deals with pointing out faults or mistakes, errors in individuals or the community. Those who perform this task take on a difficult responsibility, and they are to be respected and honored.[5]

They are the ones who “labor among you”. Here, the elders were working among the people because they did not exist independently of the church. Furthermore, in Heb. 13:17, the church is instructed to obey (pei,qesqe) and submit (u`pei,kete) to their elders: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This idea of submission is once again reinforced in 1 Peter 5:5 — “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject (u`pota,ghte) to the elders.”

These commands of esteeming, obeying, and submitting are quite explicit. How does one get around them? These verses strike at the heart of our Western democratic sensibilities because we pretend to be our own masters, fundamentally unaccountable to anyone. Not only does the office of elder demand the functioning existence of a local visible church, but these commands necessitate the same ecclesiastical context. The office itself necessitates the existence of a local congregation; the commands to esteem, obey, and submit demand the same.

Going back to the scenario presented above, how can we best apply these commands? Is it not by being connected to a specific church which has elders? To be a supposed “member” of all the churches is to be a member of none.

Let us use this example. Joe has been to any of the various churches he said he was a part of for several week. One elder of a specific evangelical church asked, “Where has Joe been these seven weeks?” Either the elder of one church has to call all the churches to see if Joe has been attending “a church” or the elder concludes such a person was just visiting. Was Joe a member? Visitor? Transient attender? Is that particular elder responsible for Joe? Is Joe submitting to this elder? To any elder? If these elders finally contacted Joe, couldn’t Joe simply say, “Well, I’m not really a member of your church so leave me alone.” Perhaps even more bizarre, he could say, “I am attending a different church for the next two months and I am scheduled to be at your church eight months from now. So, I’ll see you then!” Is Joe esteeming, submitting, obeying, etc. any elders? Is he accountable to any elder? The answer is, “NO.”

There is probably nothing more offensive to our easy-going society than a call to submit to fallible men. Submit to them? Certainly, there are other men who are smarter, more gifted, better looking, etc. Yet, these commands assume that the elders are faithfully laboring among the people and that they are being diligent. Nonetheless, those who believe they can get along without being a member of the visible church simply have no way of heeding these commands. Their autonomous spirit greatly conflicts with these biblical commands. It is true that instruction may help, but on this point, a basic sinful rebellious spirit may be at work.

There is one more thing that we must not overlook. In Hebrews 13:17, the commands to obey and submit are coupled with the reason for doing this. Why? The answer is: “For they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” Those who submit to these leaders receive the benefit of godly men who will oversee the welfare of their souls. Someone else will be held responsible for the church members. Even as each individual will stand before Christ, so the elders will also have to give an account for his dealings with each soul of the congregation. Who would not want to receive this benefit? It can only come to those who are willing to join the church and submit to her leaders.

So in conclusion, when Paul said to the Ephesian elders to “keep watch over … the flock” (Acts 20:28), can you say that you are part of a specific flock which a body of elders is shepherding? To the church hopper who avoids being a member of any specific congregation, who are the elders appointed to oversee your soul? When the Bible calls you to obey and submit to your elders, to whom are you submitting? Is that even a possibility in your life? Our Lord is the Head of His church and He appointed elders to shepherd His flock. If you do not have elders over you, are you not rebelling against Jesus’ church structure? Eldership and submission to them are the inventions of men but instructions given to believers by divine inspiration.

I remember speaking with one person about this lesson we just covered on eldership and submission. He is not a member of our church but comes pretty regularly to our congregation. During our fellowship lunch, I asked him, “Now, since we just covered this lesson, can you now tell me, who is your elder?” He couldn’t answer the question and try to dodge answering it. I ask you, who are your elders?


[1] Please note, they are called elders in v. 17 (τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους) and then overseers or episcopos or bishops (KJV) in v. 28 (ἐπισκόπους). Elders and Overseers are used interchangeably in the NT. Even Bishop Lightfoot admits quite plainly that the terms are interchangeable, see J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 4 vols., J. B. Lightfoot’s Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 95-97, 193-195.

[2] I will address the issue of “submission” to elders in the next section.

[3] A. Schlatter, The Church in the New Testament Period, translated by P. P. Levertoff (London: SPCK, 1955), 25.

[4] Cf. Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 192.

[5] Knute Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, HNTC, vol. 9, ed. Max Anders (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2000), 71.

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