James A. Garfield was the twentieth president of the United States, serving less than four months before he was assassinated. He was a member of the church and served as an elder. When Garfield relinquished his role as elder, it is said that he stated, “I resign the highest office in the land to become president of the United States.” Serving as an elder in Christ’s church is the highest position a man can attain on this earth.
The responsibility of elders is to oversee the flock of God among them, watching in behalf of their souls, being aware that they will give account to the Lord for the exercise of their leadership (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2). One aspect of the elder’s obligation is to “admonish” us when they see we are in spiritual danger (1 Thessalonians 5:12).
The term “admonish” conveys the companion ideas of encouragement, and when necessary, reproof. When the child of God has spiritual difficulties, and his elders seek to assist with loving care, the devout person will appreciate that, and respond with grateful improvement. To resist affectionate counsel that is in harmony with the Scriptures is an act of rebellion against God himself (cf. 1 Samuel 8:7b), and the offender will give account for his conduct on the Day of Judgment.
In criminal law there is the common practice of flight to avoid prosecution. Law-breakers frequently labor under the illusion that if they flee jurisdiction they will be free from their legal responsibility. But such cannot be tolerated in a law-abiding society, as reasonable people know; rather, one must accept accountability for his deeds within the environment where the inappropriate actions have taken place.
Similarly, it sometimes is the case that church members will drift into outrageous and sinful patterns of behavior. When approached by the elders for spiritual counsel, they resist. If the godly leaders begin to apply gentle pressure, the resistance becomes more determined. Finally, when it becomes apparent that the shepherds are going to apply a firmer approach in their attempts to help the wayward soul, the tactic then becomes: “flight to avoid prosecution.” Or, in the more common “church” jargon: “I am withdrawing my membership.”
Congregational membership is both an obligation and an option. There is no conflict in this statement. It is an obligation that a Christian identify with a local group whenever a faithful church is available. The Lord never intended that the child of God be an “island unto himself,” traversing the countryside with his “membership” in his back pocket, so to speak. There are corporate obligations (Acts 20:7; Hebrews 10:25; 13:17).
On the other hand, a person has the option of making his own congregational choice. No eldership has the right to demand that all Christians—within a certain radial sphere of the local building—identify with them.
When one seeks membership in a congregation, and places himself under the leadership of local elders, he has taken on a responsibility to be regarded with great reverence. He may not misbehave, and when approached by godly elders, declare (in essence): “You have no authority over me. I will do as I please. I will leave this church and you can do nothing about it.”
If one wishes to leave, fine; he has the option to do so. But if there is “unfinished business,” that may not be ignored. The offenders must take responsibility for their actions and make matters right with the congregation they suddenly have found so distasteful.
Right is right; and accountability is both expected and required. Unfortunately, in too many instances the practice is: “Just let them go; out of sight out of mind.” Such does not reflect responsible leadership.