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.
Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Samuel 8:7; Acts 20:7;
Hebrews 10:25, 13:17


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