Mailbag #33: Job Conflicts with Church; Requiring More than One Gathering; Process for Members Who Leave on Good Terms

Mailbag
03.10.2016

What should we do when a job conflicts with church attendance? »
Is a church over-reaching when it requires more than one gathering for membership? »
What’s the process for when members move and leave on good terms? »

Dear 9Marks,

How should I respond to someone in my church who has a job that won’t allow them to attend Sunday gatherings?

—Anonymous

Dear Skippin’-Sundays,

Imagine you had a husband who told his wife that he would be overseas for just a few months due to work. Then a few months turned into a year, then a couple of years, and so on.  What would I say to the wife? At first, I would encourage her to be patient. But somewhere along the line—I’m not sure exactly when—I would stop believing he wanted to come home, and she and I would start discussing whether he was guilty of abandonment and she was free to divorce him.

Whether you agree with my view of 1 Corinthians 7:15 or not, hopefully you see the analogy. Prolonged absence eventually breaks a covenant.

You can be patient with a church skipper for several months or so. At the same time I want to know, do they give evidence of wanting to be there? Are they willing to talk to their boss? Are they willing to look for another job? Make any sacrifices? A real member of the family will do what it takes to be with the family.

I know one brother who lives in a closed Middle Eastern nation with no church in his city who drives 12 hours every weekend (one way, as I recall) in order to gather with the saints in a next-door nation.

Frankly, I would be content for the individual to find another church where the gathering time works for his or her work schedule. (The slaves and poor folk in the ancient Roman empire would have had to work on Sunday, which is why the Corinthian church appears to have gathered in the evening—see 1 Cor. 11. Perhaps the person can find a church that gathers Sunday evenings.)

The point is, a person cannot remain in good standing in church for long but never come (unless they are physically unable). The Bible commands us to come (Heb. 10:25), and a person cannot fulfill all the other “one another” commands if they are never there. You cannot be a family member if you are never with the family.

Certainly, I would be more patient, say, with a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet than an ambitious 25-year-old investment bank analyst whose high-end firm requires him to work seven days a week. Still, even that single mom needs to figure out some way to gather with the family regularly if she means to survive and grow as a Christian.

In the final analysis, church discipline could be the outcome. But before you go there, make sure the church is doing everything it can to help, whether in assisting the person find another job or even offering temporary financial support. Discipline should only happen as it becomes clear over time that, in fact, the person’s heart doesn’t finally prioritize time with the family, like the husband who keeps making excuses to avoid ever coming home.

I pray this is helpful.

Dear 9Marks,

Our church has practiced meaningful membership since we began seven years ago. In addition to worship, we expect covenant members to attend Bible study regularly (either adult Sunday School or an evening study). The rationale is, regular teaching is necessary for discipleship. But the leadership is discussing whether to drop the expectation of Bible study attendance from membership.

There are several non-members in our congregation who regularly attend worship but show no interest in attending either Bible study. In all other respects, they appear to be good candidates for membership, but one questions why they are not hungry for the Word and show no desire to support the body in this area. On the other hand, are we placing a requirement beyond what God has commanded?

—David 

Dear David,

I think you may be requiring something that God does not. Scripture commands us to regularly gather (Heb. 10:25), which I understand to be weekly based on the larger New Testament pattern (e.g. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1). It does not command us to gather ten times, or five times, or even two times a week.

Now your church is free to encourage people to attend an evening service or discipleship hour or Bible study. My church strongly encourages members to return for the evening service, where we spend time sharing and praying for the needs of the body. In fact, I will even tell member candidates that I have noticed that people who don’t attend the evening service, over time, tend to feel like they are on the relational fringe of the church. That’s not because anyone will deliberately push them to the fringe; it’s because the second service is just where the family grows together.

But maybe the person has a good reason they cannot come to the evening service. Maybe they will find other ways to draw into the church relationally.

And maybe the people who won’t come to your Bible study really do love the Scriptures and have found other ways to grow in understanding it. The Bible does not require them to demonstrate their love for Scripture in that way. Neither should you require it, I don’t think. (Nor do I think churches should require members to join small groups, as some do.)

Even if these people don’t attend a second event simply because they are immature Christians, churches should not establish “maturity standards” for membership, lest they compromise the gospel. Plus, I might be in trouble if they did!

Dear 9Marks,

I would like to hear your thoughts on the timing of releasing members from membership. Specifically, do you wait until members join another church before releasing them? Or do you release them after a set amount of time?
—John, Kentucky

Dear John,

I sort of answered this question before here. But I have received follow up questions to that post, so let me try again.

The question of how “to process” a member in good standing leaving our church and moving to another city means accounting for four factors simultaneously: (i) Christians in the New Testament ordinarily belong to churches; (ii) our pastoral goal when someone leaves is to shepherd them safely into another sheep pen; (ii) the Bible presents membership as an affirmation of someone’s profession of faith; (iv) the Bible does not offer instructions on how to process someone leaving one church for another. With those four factors in mind, let’s think through your question:

Factors one and two mean I’m going to encourage someone leaving to join another church as soon as they move. Factor three means that, once they move, my church basically can no longer fulfill our obligations to them, and they cannot fulfill theirs to me. Factor four means I’m reluctant to script too tightly how this transfer must work programmatically.

Yet notice, thus far, we have only been speaking in institutional terms. And the institutional does need to be addressed. But now let’s add the familial angle. When a child leaves home and moves to another city, you as the parent might continue to offer instructions over the phone, but you know that the authority structure changes the second the car pulls out of the driveway. You have to loosen your grip. And what you say to the child and what you do to support him or her in another city, say, financially, will depend in large part on your trust in the child and his or her maturity.

So it is with someone who leaves your church. If a godly and well-trusted brother tells us he resigns his membership right before he pulls out of the driveway, so to speak, we will hug him, wish him well, and tell him to write when he lands somewhere else. The immature brother who has been living on the fringe of the church, however, we might handle a little differently. He’s like the son who, when he was in high school, kept you up at nights worrying. To this departing member, you might hold on just a little more tightly. You might not encourage them to resign so quickly, but to keep closer tabs. That continued membership—though it’s not nearly as meaningful as it once was—does give you at least a very thin shepherd’s crook to help encourage him toward another sheep pen.

And, yes, it’s possible that your church would eventually, with a broken heart, excommunicate him—either for shutting down correspondence or for deliberately refusing to attend church—sort of like that terrible decision parents must sometimes make to cut off financial support for a trouble-making child who refuses to comply with certain terms. Affirming or supporting an illicit lifestyle is not loving!

Now, none of what I am saying makes any sense, John, if your congregation views “church” as a once-a-week, 90-minute spectator’s event. It only makes sense if they view church as an all-week-long family. So, yes, you should have general practices and recommendations that you broadly teach for the sake of institutional stability and transparency, but finally departures must always be handled on a case-by-case basis.

I hope this helps.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.