How We Address the Absent Member
Hebrews 10:24-25 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Dear Brothers and Sisters of PBC,
In this season of the life of our church we have been thinking about and discussing the importance of meaningful church membership. We have been considering what it means to live in covenant relationship to one another as the local body of Christ, and these ponderings have spurred many questions and conversations and a small degree of reform.
While my intention is to keep this article brief, we must first consider why church membership is so vital. Many lengthy and thorough treatments of church membership exist, and I certainly recommend an in-depth study of this topic. For our purposes here, though, it should be sufficient to point out that the New Testament is abundantly clear that covenanting with a particular local expression of the Body of Christ is necessary for the proper fulfillment of many NT imperatives. Fulfilling the call to evangelize and disciple (Matt 28:18-20; 2 Tim 2:1–2; Heb 3:12–14) obedience to leaders (Heb 13:17), the charge of leadership (1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:17), church discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:11-12), member care (Acts 6:1-4; 1 Tim 5:3-16), and mutual service (1 Cor 12; Rom 12:3-8, 13) - just to mention a few - all require a formal accounting of who is a part of the particular community of faith. If we could boil down the question of membership to anything it is this: Meaningful church membership is vital to properly loving and caring for our brothers and sisters with whom we partner to fulfill the Great Commission, to the glory of Christ.
Inevitably, in conversations regarding meaningful membership the question of what to do regarding members who no longer faithfully attend will come up. This question is, admittedly, a difficult one for a couple of reasons. The first, most obvious one is because there are many different explanations for why a member may become an irregular or non-attender. The life circumstances and motives of each individual are so varied that it would be unwise to apply a formulaic principle to this issue. For example, should we treat someone who has a debilitating medical condition the same as someone who simply has developed a distaste for the hymn choices? The answer is no, of course, but that is because we implicitly understand that this issue requires wisdom, tact, and a highly nuanced approach.
Also, this question is a difficult one because Scripture does not give us an explicit answer as to how long a member may absent themselves. There are many matters of faith and practice in which the Bible is explicit and clear, but also others that require us to draw down on implications of the text and synthesize its teaching to come to conclusions. We should not take a lack of explicit instruction as silence, for “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,” (2 Peter 1:3) including matters of church membership and discipline.
Perhaps the clearest and most helpful text in this regard is Hebrews 10:24-25 (quoted above). In this text, the author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, makes an imperative statement regarding stirring one another up to love and good works. He then moves in the next few phrases to qualify that imperative with how one is to obey his command. So, how are we to obey? Two ways: by not neglecting to meet together and by encouraging one another. The first is a negative expression - what not to do. The second is a positive expression - what to do. Because we have a clear command here and explicit explanations on how to obey that command, doing the opposite of those explanations is disobedience to God’s word and thus sinful. I would conclude that, on both the corporate and personal level, neglecting to meet regularly with God’s people and doing anything that discourages others in their walk of faith are sinful. We know from other places in Scripture that matters of sin are subject to church discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:11, etc.), and thus the pattern of church discipline should be exercised with someone who is neglecting to meet with the local body with which they have covenanted.
The most natural question that comes next is this: what exactly does “neglecting” mean? When has a member gone too far and neglected to meet together? The words for “not neglecting to meet together” can be rendered literally as “not abandoning the assembly of ourselves,” and I think, combined with the positive participle “encouraging,” convey the idea of someone who has detached themselves from the Church to the point that they are no longer meaningfully contributing their gifts and service to their fellow members (compare also: 1 Cor 12). These words carry with them a conscious negligence or willful abandonment of the Body.
At this point, we must be careful to recognize that there are circumstances that unintentionally prevent a member from being meaningfully involved in the life of the Church. Easy examples we might consider are those who have chronic health conditions or disabilities that legitimately prevent them from leaving their home. Of course, in those cases, willful neglect or abandonment is not present and many of those individuals long for fellowship and lament their absence. The Church should do all they can to bring comfort and peace to such members. Another example of such unintentional absence may be someone who is in active-duty military service and is being deployed - similarly, a temporary job assignment may be conceived. In such cases, long term absentees should avail themselves of the means of grace where they are. Attend a Bible-preaching, Christ-exalting church and fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. Participate in the ordinance of the Supper and testify at the ordinance of baptism. Engage in evangelistic opportunities and always remember that their church family at home loves and cares for them.
In all cases we ought to heed the call of Hebrews 10:24-25 to stir one another up to love and good works, and thus all members should reach out to those who seem to have withdrawn from church life. Pray for wisdom, for those that engage with absent members should use care and tact and, most of all, embody the “one another” described throughout the New Testament so as to accurately assess a particular situation.
If someone is identified as having willfully and consciously neglected meeting with the Church with which they have covenanted, what then? Simple: the steps of Matthew 18 are followed with great care, grace, and humility. The ultimate goal is that an individual would be restored to full fellowship with the Body and the preeminent glory of Christ is displayed. As the heart of church membership is love and service, not control, so too the heart of church discipline is love and restoration, not punishment. If an absentee has some grievance or reason to avoid church, then lovingly, we ought to help them work through the grievance or find another fellowship that can provide their spiritual growth. We want to do our best to point the absentees to Christ above all.
As a final note, I would like to reiterate why this issue is important enough to deal with this way. God, through His word, places supreme importance on the members of the Body being clearly known. Elders/Pastors should know with certainty whose souls they are called to watch over (Heb 13:17) and who is included in the flock that they shepherd (1 Pet 5:2). Members should know with whom they have covenanted and to whom they owe the “one another” of Scripture. In the end, we all need each other and the gifts that we have been given because Christ has not only saved us as individuals, but corporately as His Body and Bride. [T]o him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:21)