As you engage relationally with your local fellowship and hear of a member in one of these situations, take note: that brother or sister could already be straying. Here are five common ways church members go astray.
Let’s start with an easy situation—not necessarily easy to address, but easy to recognize. If you discover that one of your church members is engaged in open sin, then you have a straying, sinning sheep in need of intervention.
Every church member struggles with sin, as does every elder. John writes, “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Yet some sins are more public and obvious than others, and at times members seem to stop struggling and embrace disobedience. So when sin that is both apparent and unrepentant comes to an elder’s attention, he needs to summon his courage, trust in the Lord, and humbly confront the member just as Jesus taught us to do (Matt. 18:15–17).
Sometimes the intervention works. I rejoice as I remember times I challenged a member entangled in sin, and, despite my trepidation, the Lord graciously brought the person to repentance. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. I know of an elder who was so intent on contacting an elusive errant member that he parked outside the member’s business during the lunch hour in hopes of finally confronting him. Unfortunately, that member evaded him and never repented or returned.
Wandering sheep slowly meander out of the church, drawn away by other activities or interests. The drift might result from a busy travel schedule, from an unwise choice about kids’ sports that takes the family away from Sunday worship, or from purchasing a fixer-upper house that consumes the weekends. Sometimes a younger member goes to college, backslides, and doesn’t come back to the church or the Lord. At other times, people complain about feeling out of place in the church, so they stop showing up.
Regardless of the circumstances, these members have failed to heed the exhortation in Hebrews: “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do” (Heb. 10:24–25). They have forgotten that church membership means regular connection with other members in order to promote “love and good works.” One might argue that such a wandering sheep, one who strays away from our worship meetings, is not that bad. But in fact, such a sheep is sinning by disobeying this command from Scripture.
Elders, take notice of members with overly full lives and lovingly remind them not to crowd out congregational fellowship and worship.
Jesus never promised us immunity from pain and suffering. Christians get laid off from jobs, dumped in relationships, diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, rear-ended on the highway, and hit with lawsuits. Once-active believers age and become home-bound. These suffering members are limping sheep who are in danger of getting left behind because they can’t keep up with the flock. They need someone to slow down and walk with them. Acute hardship can overwhelm even the stoutest saints with despair and sap their ability to maintain normal links with the church. If Job, the man of unmatched patience and faith, had his limits, so do your people.
When you know that a member is weathering a major life storm, it’s time to tune in. Is that brother or sister supported by other members, whether friends or members of a Bible study? Are there practical needs that the deacons could address? Has news of the member’s tribulations made it into the prayer bloodstream of the congregation? As elders, we can often serve a struggling member best by alerting and mobilizing the body even as we are reaching out ourselves to provide prayer and counsel.
It’s amazing how much limping sheep savor even the smallest gestures of concern. A quick hug and a prayer in the church foyer after the service, an encouraging note, or a short visit can bolster a hurting member to keep pressing on for another month. Just last week, I asked a woman in our congregation about her husband. He has had major health issues that sometimes keep him from worship. This sister updated me on his status, then went on to praise one of our elders who had taken time to visit them. That one simple house call had lifted their faith and given them strength to persevere.
Every little bit counts. As the Lord brings wounded members to your attention, reach out.
You will probably find this hard to believe, but I have learned there are churches where members become embroiled in conflict with one another. Of course, this has never happened in my church, and I’m sure members never fight in yours. If your church is like mine, all the members share identical views about politics and worship music, all the committees approach problem-solving and finances the same way, and no one sins against anyone else. Can you relate?
Neither can I. In fact, given the diversity of personalities and backgrounds among our members, coupled with our ongoing propensity to sin, I am amazed we have as much church harmony as we do. It has to be the work of the Holy Spirit.
When church members do lock horns, as inevitably happens, there is major danger of straying. People start disappearing fast. “Church shouldn’t be like this,” they say. “I can’t worship anymore because of all the tension I feel. I’m out of here.” Tussling members need to be challenged to make peace for God’s glory and for the sake of the gospel, but they likely need help doing that. Even the most mature disciples may require a referee. Paul called out a fracas between two of his coworkers: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2). Then he pleaded with the church to help: “Yes, I also ask you, true partner, to help these women who have contended for the gospel at my side” (Phil. 4:3).
Elders, don’t turn a blind eye to strife between members in hopes that it will fix itself. It rarely does. You may be tempted to avoid and ignore, because you’re a normal person who doesn’t enjoy breaking up fights. But remember the words of Jesus: “The peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). Grab hold of that blessing. Invite feuding members to talk with you and see what God might do. Remember, an elder’s goal is mature sheep. Conflicts present incredible opportunities for people to grow in Christ.
But what if the member’s beef is with you, the shepherd-elder? What if the sheep nip at you when you try to get close? How are you supposed to keep watch over someone who sees you as the reason he wants to bolt?
The Good Shepherd came into this world to seek and save the lost. The Lamb of God came to die for unrepentant, sinning sheep like us.
The answer to that question can vary dramatically depending on the circumstances and the specific people involved. However, regardless of the specifics, here are three things an elder should always do when coming under scrutiny:
- Ask a few other elders to help you work with the frustrated member. This is one of the reasons God decreed that there should be more than one elder in each church, a practice I like to call “plural eldership.” Elders keep watch over one another, because the shepherds are still sheep themselves. Humble yourself by submitting to the loving audit of other elders. If the member is out of line, let the other elders vindicate your position.
- Guard your heart from defensiveness, anger, and dismissiveness. When you reach out to other elders, don’t use that as a pretext for circling the leadership wagons. Work to sustain love and compassion toward your detractors.
- When you meet with your disgruntled sister or brother, listen carefully. I have found over the years that even my most angry, merciless critics usually have a point. It may be an overstated point, expressed in immature and sinful ways. But they are still usually responding to something I need to face.
Keeping Watch: A Gospel-Shaped Calling
Tracking down stray members in these situations is probably one of the most difficult, least glamorous parts of being an elder. You get kudos and respect from the church when you teach a class. You experience deep satisfaction from praying for members and exhilaration when you are part of an elder team that makes a historic leadership decision. But what are the personal benefits from confronting an adulterer or sticking your nose into a long-standing squabble? And who really wants to sit down and listen to an angry couple detail all the ways they believe you and the church have wronged them? Don’t we all have too much drama in our lives already? Why jump into someone else’s mire?
Here’s one reason: elders profoundly embody the gospel when they search out wandering members. Keeping watch and tracking down strays is a Jesus-shaped activity.
The Good Shepherd came into this world to seek and save the lost. The Lamb of God came to die for unrepentant, sinning sheep like us. The Great Physician came to bind up limping sheep, sick and broken by sin. The Prince of Peace waded into our war-torn world, ripped apart by rivalries and divisions beyond number. And when we hurled insults at him, struck him, and pierced him, he did not open his mouth. Jesus didn’t have to come, but he did. And when elders take the initiative to insert themselves, even though it costs them, they exemplify the very gospel that they preach.