Church Hopping and Unaffiliated Christians
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47b, NIV)
“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17, NIV)
“We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.” – From Article 28 (“Every One Is Bound To Join Himself To The True Church”) of The Belgic Confession of Faith (p. 48 in The Three Forms of Unity: The Belgic Confession of Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Canons of Dort (Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books; First Printing of the Leather Edition September 2010))
There are a number of perfectly valid, biblical reasons why a Christian may choose to move his membership and that of his family from one local congregation to another one. For example, I would assert that believers who find themselves affiliated with a liberal or heretical “church” which promotes modernist propaganda not only have the right, but the duty to resign or renounce their membership in such a pseudo-church and instead to unite in responsible membership to a local congregation that exhibits the marks of a true church (those marks being the faithful preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of loving church discipline). For a believer to remain in membership with a false or heretical church is spiritual adultery and involves an unequal yoking with unbelievers (see 2 Cor. 6:14-18). There may also be special providential circumstances where believers who are already united in responsible membership to a true biblical church may choose to transfer their membership to another local church that exhibits the basic marks of a true church. In such situations there will usually be a period of time when the believer and his family are between churches and will thus visit various churches to try to find one where they can settle into. Believers in such circumstances are not what I mean when I speak of “unaffiliated Christians,” nor would it be fair to refer to those in such providential circumstances as “church hoppers.”
It is one thing to be temporarily “between churches,” and thus to take a limited period of time to investigate different local church options. But from my own observations as a pastor and my own understanding of the evangelical movement in America (a movement which tends to have a very low view of the organized church and of church membership), it would seem to me that many professedly evangelical Christians today are permanently “between churches” (if they happen to attend church regularly at all). It seems to me that a great many professing Christians today hop from one church to another on a regular basis, and I would venture to guess that many of these “church hoppers” never end up actually joining any particular church which they happen to “hop” into. I would venture to guess that habitual “church hopping” is a very common practice amongst professing evangelical Christians today, and that the “unaffiliated Christian” is becoming the new norm rather than the exception in the evangelical world.
There are perhaps many reasons for the contemporary phenomena of church hopping and unaffiliated Christians. I would suggest that evangelical churches themselves are largely to blame for these phenomena, since many evangelical churches so stress the importance of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” that corporate responsibility to the church and membership in a local expression of the Body of Christ get little (if any) emphasis. Many evangelical churches today seem to communicate the message that responsible membership in an organized local church is of only secondary importance and is thus optional for faithful discipleship. In contrast, as the Belgic Confession quoted above asserts, the Reformed churches have historically taught that everyone has a duty to join in membership with a true church of Christ, and thus that church membership is essential to faithful discipleship and for living a life of obedience to the Lordship of Christ. Sadly, many evangelicals have been so indoctrinated with a low view of the visible church and membership therein, that they are perhaps simply ignorant of their God-given duty to unite in membership with a local church. Another factor that may contribute to the problems of church hopping and unaffiliated Christians is the prevalence of celebrity pastors and Bible teachers on TV, the internet and the radio. In America we worship celebrities and are given over to cults of personality, and the church has not escaped this celebrity mindset. Following the leadership of local pastors and elders with all of their quirks and imperfections is much less exciting to many evangelicals than following the famous and glamorous celebrity preachers whose “ministries” have the latest bells and whistles that are lacking in many of the smaller, struggling churches that now dot the landscape of America.
While the causes of the phenomena of habitual church hopping and lack of church affiliation may be many, I strongly suspect that many professing Christians today whose habits of church attendance exhibit a long-term pattern of habitual, unrepentant church hopping or an unwillingness to unite in responsible membership to any particular local church is ultimately rooted in two things: (1) Rebellion against God-ordained authority; and (2) Perfectionism. For example, I have met professing Christians who have wanted to change churches, not because of legitimate biblical reasons (for example, a change in doctrinal beliefs, or a refusal among their church’s leadership to address serious biblical concerns that were brought to their attention in an orderly and respectful way, etc.), but because they had personal issues with either the pastor or with members of the church — issues that they had either neglected or refused to deal with biblically in line with our Savior’s commands for peacemaking in the church (for example, Matt. 18:15-20).
In terms of perfectionism, I once knew some professing Christians who (if memory serves me correctly) refused to become members of a sound, faithful church in their area in large part because the pastor of that church does not accept the young earth creationist interpretation of the “days” of Genesis chapter One, but instead holds to the “day age” view. (Let the reader understand that I myself hold to the literal six day interpretation of the days of Genesis One, and hence I am a believer in the position which is often derisively referred to as “young earth creationism.” I believe the hermeneutical question of how to interpret the “days” of Genesis chapter One is an important in-house debate within the church. But while I strongly disagree with this pastor on this particular issue, to my knowledge he is an orthodox brother in Christ who holds to the inerrant authority of Scripture and who faithfully preaches the gospel, so I would view a refusal to unite with his church due merely to his interpretation of Genesis One to be but one example of holding a pastor and a church up to an unbiblical standard of perfectionism.)
Habitual church hoppers and unaffiliated believers often get onto “hobby horses” so that instead of seeking a church that faithfullly preaches the basic gospel message and administers the sacraments according to Christ’s ordinance, they search for a “hyphenated church” – for example, a “six-day creationist” church, or a “homeschooling” church, or a “public schooling” church, or a “contemporary worship” church, or an “exclusive psalmody” church, or a “theonomic/reconstructionist” church, or a “postmillenial” church, or an “amillenial” church, or a “politically-active” church, or a “patriotic” church, or a “family-integrated” church, or a “redemptive historical” church, or a “cool youth program” church, and the list could go on and on and on. But as the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us: “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” (Chapter 25, section 5)
When imperfections and impurities in the church show up, the responsible church member will not immediately pack his bags and move on to the next church. Instead, he will use all the biblically lawful means at his disposal to seek the reformation and purification of the church, rather than commit an act of schism by severing himself from a true (though imperfect) church of Christ without clear and just cause. Great leaders in the church like Martin Luther and J. Gresham Machen are examples of godly, faithful men who sought reformation in the church. Martin Luther originally sought to reform the Catholic church of his day, and it is my understanding that he didn’t leave that communion to start his own church until he was unjustly excommunicated from that church. J. Gresham Machen and his associates did not leave the mainline northern Presbyterian church until after Machen was unjustly defrocked from the ministry by the Presbytery of New Brunswick (a verdict that he appealed all the way to the General Assembly of that church, but which that Assembly sadly upheld). Only then did he and his associates form what is today known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Today’s church hoppers need to learn from the biblically-grounded high church views of great and godly men like Luther and Machen.
It is my contention that the common practice among evangelicals of habitual church hopping and refusal to join a faithful local church needs to be confronted. Habitual church hopping manifests a spiritual immaturity and instability in the faith. Habitual church hoppers must be called upon to repent of their sin, and invited (even urged!) to find a faithful biblical church that they can unite with in responsible, long-term membership. I believe that one of the reasons why the visible church in America is so weak today is because of the prevalence of church hoppers and unaffiliated Christians in the churches. They are like members of the Body of Christ who refuse to be united organically to the Body (picture a hand or foot that refuses to be united to the body to which they belong and tries to exist apart from the body). Church hopping harms the unity of the Body of Christ and weakens the gospel witness of the church. It involves a refusal to take one’s part as a responsible and submissive member of the Body of Christ, resulting in the dismembered state of Christ’s visible Body in America today (which is another way of saying it is schismatic). The practice of church hopping also harms families, and it especially teaches a very poor example to the children of church hopping parents (who will very likely grow up either to leave the church altogether, or to be immature and unstable chuch hoppers themselves, just like their parents were). May God in His kind providence curb the contemporary epidemic of church hopping and unaffiliated Christians. Instead, may He see fit to renew in His professing people a love for the visible church and a commitment to membership in the Body of Christ in its local, visible expressions!