As he approaches the coda of his correspondence, the author of Hebrews exhorts his audience:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
A few verses earlier, in verse 7, these leaders are described as those who “spoke to you the word of God.” There, we’re told to imitate these leaders’ faith, and consider the outcome of their way of life.
One implication of these verses is that church leaders (pastors, elders, etc.) are to live amidst their people such that the ways and outcomes of their lives can be considered and therefore imitated. Any elder who lives in an ivory tower, above and away from his people, is living below his station. Thundering commands and exhortations from the clouds, this so-called elder doesn’t realize his people can’t even hear him. He’s talking to himself.
This should be instructive. A church member who only hears from their pastors when they’ve done something wrong—like, say, not attend church for a year—offers a reasonable (though not foolproof) objection when they ask, “Well, where were you when the stuff that caused me to leave happened?” It’s simultaneously easier and more effective to pastor someone on their way out the door rather than someone who’s already left.
Though important, let’s ignore the command to obey our leaders and instead focus on why we’re told to do this. We’re to obey our leaders—assuming they’re joyful and not grumbling, qualified and amidst their people—because one day they will give an account for us.
This is an elder’s unique calling. On the Last Day, they will give an account for every member placed under their care. To state the specifics of everything this means would state too much; we just don’t know. But at the very least, if you’re an elder at a church whose membership roll has no bearing in the reality, then you should wonder what this means for you. If you’re leading a church that has assured, through baptism and/or membership, hundreds or even thousands of people that they’ll spend eternity with Jesus, but you’ve absolutely no idea where they are, then you should at least wonder what this means for you. Perhaps you should also start to worry.
Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders come to mind: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
There’s never a moment when an elder can say about a church member: Oh, he’s not my responsibility anymore. Why? Because our Lord charges them with paying careful attention to all the flock—whether they’re there or not, whether they want to be cared for or not.
Every single member of any local church should be precious to its leaders because it’s precious to its God. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, look at her purchase price.
The biblical case is clear. We pursue absent church members for at least three reasons:
- God pursues straying sheep.
- We’re told not to forsake gathering with our brothers in sisters. This is not an optional command.
- Our elders will give account to God for every single person placed under their care. There are no exceptions.
But who cares what the Bible says if there’s nothing in the life of a church to make this course of action plausible? In an effort to fix this, I’ve listed a few plausibility-building steps below.
1. In your church covenant, add a line or two that mentions what members should do when they leave.
My former church used this line: “We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.” Brief, general and to-the-point—that should be the goal.
Of course, the words in your church covenant won’t matter if it just gathers dust. So use it: in membership classes, when you take the Lord’s Supper, before you begin members’ meetings, periodically in your sermon application.
2. Teach your members about their God-given authority and responsibility.
Church discipline both begins and ends with individual members exercising their God-given authority and responsibility. Thankfully, the process usually stops after Step #1, when Member A gently confronts Member B and Member B responds in gratitude and repentance.
But on those unfortunate occasions when a sinning member remains unrepentant, it’s important to underscore the whole church’s involvement. A steady diet of teaching on this will help people see that here’s also no reason for them to ever say a church member is no longer their concern. The reclamation of an absent member is a congregational project, not just for those who are paid or elected to care.