Roaming Christians (Part 1)
By bro Alvin Lin
In telecommunications terms, roaming refers to the process of changing connection to a different mobile network, when there is no network coverage from the home network. In the Lord’s church, there seems to be a noticeable trend of “roaming Christians” as well, who do not want to place membership with a local congregation but associate with whichever congregation suits their fancy. This may be in the form of “church-hoppers” who worship with different congregations each Sunday, perpetual “visiting brethren” who worship with a congregation but do not want to commit their membership, or those who practice “home worship” in worshipping by themselves or with their families without other Christians.
Many of them readily acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Master and still consider themselves to be part of the universal church that He built (Mat 16:18), but they do not want to be a part of a local congregation. They reason that there is no command in the Bible for one to place membership with a local church and that churches have problems and imperfect people, so their rationale is that they only want to follow God but not be a part of any local church. It is true that some churches are corrupted with false teachings, some are plagued with divisions, and some are led by irresponsible leaders, but do these problems mean that we can or should be Christians without belonging to any local church? Is such an understanding scriptural?
Even those who insist that there is no command for one to be a member of a local church must acknowledge that the Bible does not merely teach by direct command, but also by approved examples and necessary inference. Let us talk about examples in the Bible first. Let us consider, are there any approved examples of Christians being a part of a local church? To ask is to answer. An obvious example would be that of Saul, who “assayed to join himself to the disciples” in Jerusalem (Act 9:26). While the Christians at Jerusalem were initially hesitant to accept him due to his notorious reputation as a persecutor of Christians, eventually they welcomed him into their fellowship and “he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem” after Barnabas had vouched for his conversion (Act 9:27-28). Other examples that come to mind would be Phebe, “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1), and Onesimus, “who is one of you [the church at Colossae]” (Col 4:9). These examples should suffice to illustrate that the first century Christians clearly identified themselves as members of particular churches. Moving on to necessary inference, let us now consider the implications if local church membership is not important or necessary, but is merely an option and matter of personal choice.
Who are elders to oversee and be accountable for?
Elders are given a solemn responsibility to oversee the church members that are “among you” (1Pe 5:2) and to “give account” for their souls (Heb 13:17). Members too have duties towards elders, “to know them which labour among you”, and “to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake” (1Th 5:12-13). In matters of expediency, members are to submit to their elders and to follow their examples (Heb 13:7,17). However, if Christians do not place their membership with a local congregation, who then would have spiritual oversight over them and be responsible for their spiritual wellbeing? Wouldn’t that make the apostle Paul’s command to submit to elders superfluous, if one is not subject to local church authority in the first place?
How is church discipline to be administered?
In writing to the church in Corinth, Paul rebuked them for various sins, one of which being sexual immorality in the church where a man had his father’s wife, and Paul admonished them to carry out church discipline by removing the offending brother (1Co 5:1-13). Later, in writing to the church in Thessalonica, Paul would tell the brethren to “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2Th 3:6). However, if Christians do not place their membership with a local congregation, how can church discipline be carried out effectively and fellowship be withdrawn from them, since they were never members of the congregation to begin with? What’s to stop them from switching their association to other unsuspecting congregations, repeating the process each time their sins are discovered, since they are not accountable to anyone at all?