On Shepherding and Swapping Sheep

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Is it biblical for another pastor to try to take members from another local church?

I want to answer this question as clearly and succinctly as possible. Before you read Scripture’s answer to this question, I have to make known my own burdened and broken heart. My heart os overwhelmed with love, and I desire only the good of all my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have intentionally made this particular answer very generic and addressed a few different possible scenarios. This answer helps us to understand the importance of church membership, participation with the fellowship of believers, devotion, and the selflessness necessary for Christian living—especially among those who are elders or pastors of any local church. These are all things that I have grown to understand more over the course of the last month or so. Throughout my ministry, I have experienced deep conviction on these points. I approach this question as a person who knows where I came from, as an elder called by grace and by the Holy Spirit, and as a pastor who is still broken and being sanctified.

From my very first ministry, I have had people visit the local church I was pastoring from different churches. They were thinking about leaving their current churches because of problems they were experiencing. Because I understood church membership, I counseled them to remain at their current church. Still, when someone comes from a different local church desiring to leave their local church and become part of the one I get to pastor, I ask about their motivations and talk with their current pastor before I even consider the possibility of recommending them for church membership. Church membership is too important a thing to take lightly. Sheep swapping, it seems to me, is little good for the local church because it produces immature believers and keeps us from reaching the unchurched. Many churches brag about their growth when all they are doing is gaining people who already claim to be Christians and who are not devoted to the brothers and sisters where they were previously. This is the degradation of the Great Commission; Instead of reaching those who are going to Hell, churches are trying to convert people from other local churches. Little work is being done for the Gospel, and Christians are tossed to and fro by the winds of perpetuated shallow Christianity. I want to answer this question in three parts. 1) We encourage commitment, not betrayal. 2) We lead churches to reach the unreached, not swap sheep. 3) Pastoral qualifications require us to love and bear with others, encouraging every Christian to do the same. After giving a biblical answer, I will share my own heart.

  1. We encourage commitment, not betrayal.

After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the new Jewish believers asked Peter how they should respond to the Gospel? Peter answered:

Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself (Acts 2:38-39).

This group formed the first local church. The marks of the local church were basic. Those who received the Spirit devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship of fellow believers, the breaking of bread (communion), and the prayers through the week and from week to week (Acts 2:42). The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by a believer’s devotion to the fellowship of believers. Later in the First Century, John the apostle wrote concerning the evidence of salvation and eternal life. He wrote so that we may know we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). John warned about antichrists in the world. He claimed that the antichrists were revealed because they went out from the fellowship of believers and tried to turn those committed to the fellowship of believers away; “If they had been of us (Christians),” he wrote, “they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). John wrote this because the fruit of the Spirit includes devotion to the fellowship according to the descriptive text in Acts 2. Paul listed the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-26—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, not boastful, not challenging one another, and not envying one another. Those who have the Holy Spirit love the brethren, have peace with the brethren, are faithful to the brethren (the fellowship of believers), and don’t envy or challenge the brethren. Further, the Holy Spirit produces His love in those who know Christ and have His Holy Spirit. Love is patient, kind, not jealous, not braggadocio, not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

If anyone is a pastor or elder chosen by the Holy Spirit, he encourages Christians to bear the fruit of the Spirit and to sincerely love others—necessarily meaning he encourages devotion to their fellowship, faithfulness, unconditional forgiveness, and the bearing, believing, and hoping of all things. After all, that’s what it means to be part of a family. Here, we notice that any person who is trying to persuade church people to leave their church families is trying to persuade them to bear fruit contrary to the fruit of the Spirit. That person leads us away from Christ and into sin. The local church fellowship is precious in the Lord’s sight, and He is serious about desiring we be devoted to one another—even bearing all things for His own glory and the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Pastors, elders called by the Holy Spirit, are to guard the flock of God from unfaithfulness, not entice them to be unfaithful (Cf. Acts 20:28).

2) We lead churches to reach the unreached, not swap sheep.

By encouraging the swapping of sheep, we only encourage divisions and factions among the people of God—the deeds of the flesh according to the apostle, Paul (Cf. Galatians 5:19-21). Paul wrote that those who encourage such things will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven. Further, Paul instructed Titus to instruct Christians to avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, strife, and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless; He instructed the church to reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self condemned (Titus 3:9-11). Any person, then, encouraging the swapping of sheep, competing with the local church in order to gain congregants for himself, and being factious is explicitly to be rejected because that person is self-condemned according to Scripture. So, what is the mission of the true church? We do church to grow in our own spiritual maturity and service to one another (Cf. Ephesians 4:11-12) and to reach the unreached in our community (Cf. Matthew 28:19-20). We are not concerned about competing with other local churches. We are concerned about God’s glory, the good of the saints, and sharing the Gospel so as to call the world to repentance and invite others into Christ’s everlasting kingdom—they they may come into the eternal life that is only found in Jesus Christ by grace through faith.

3) Pastoral qualifications require us to love and bear with others, and to encourage others to do the same.

When we think about those pastors called to be elders and overseers by the Holy Spirit, we consider the character qualifications listed in Scripture—primarily 1 Timothy 3:1-7:

  • One who aspires to be an overseer, elder, must be above reproach,
  • a one-woman type of man,
  • temperate,
  • prudent,
  • respectable,
  • hospitable,
  • able to teach,
  • not addicted to wine,
  • not pugnacious (looking for a fight), but gentle,
  • peaceable,
  • free from the love of money,
  • a good manager of his own household,
  • not a baby Christian, but mature in the faith so that he does not become conceited and fall into condemnation, and
  • reputable among those outside the church.

Love of money refers to sordid gain—the desire to gain for one’s self at others’ expense. The person who seeks to mine other churches to build a congregation for himself is not prudent, respectable, peaceable, or hospitable; He is interested in his own gain and pugnacious. Understand, these characteristics show because a person has bad roots as we saw in numbers 1 and 2 above. The roots of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s call on one’s life to be a pastor (elder or overseer) produces character consistent with repentance and the fruit of the Spirit. A pastor or elder of the church who truly and really loves his congregation will bear with her no matter her faults; That, after all, is the simple love and faithfulness produced in every Christian. If we are unfaithful to the body of Christ, how can we possibly build a new congregation that will somehow honor Him? It is impossible. So, the person trying to steal sheep is not qualified to serve as a pastor (elder or overseer) according to the character God produces in His people—especially those He desires to be overseers in His church.

So, it is not only unbiblical to try to take members from another local church; It is contrary to every instruction we receive and disqualifies us from serving as pastors by the Holy Spirit. If we do such a thing, we prove to be false-teachers and lead others to produce fruit contrary to the fruit of the Spirit.

Now, knowing how Scripture counsels us concerning the question at hand, I want to get a little personal. I have been frustrated with local churches before. I have been tempted to start my own church out of spite because of my experiences. God kept me from that sin. Not every church is healthy, but our experiences are not our masters—Jesus alone is. He sanctifies us by calling us to live in community with believers of every maturity level. God has kept me faithful to His church. My heart breaks in a special way for those who have been burned by the clubs or individuals who refer to themselves as Christians but only ever condemn others. I want to ask and answer three questions for us.

How do I respond to the person trying to steal me from my church family?

The answer to this question depends on the more specific context of the encounter. (1) If another pastor from an established church in the area is trying to steal sheep, know that he is only interested in the size of his own audience and not in your good. We should be skeptical of those who use flattery by either tickling our ears or making promises to build their own congregations. (2) If a pastor bullies people into coming to the local church he pastors or constantly talks about how every other pastor or church is wrong about everything in order to entice people to attend, he is a factious and pugnacious man interested in his own ministry rather than Christ’s. (3) If someone has recently forsaken a local church and is trying to steal members from the local church he left, we simply have to wonder why he left in the first place. If he loved you and wanted to minister to you, he would have remained devoted to you in the first place. This person may be hurt but likely wants the devotion of others without himself being devoted; He wants others’ respect without having to really love them or be vulnerable. This is a particularly painful realization for me because I have loved many people who have abandoned me for the sake of building their own kingdoms—who left me when I needed them most. We do not respond with disdain or complaining or more divisiveness. We simply respond by praying for them but seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness—trusting Him to produce the fruit of the Spirit in us: faithfulness, love, peace, and so on.

If a person has recently left a church, we appeal to him as a brother. We love him. We desire his reconciliation with whomever he has a problem. We desire his restoration and spiritual maturity. People do things they don’t mean when they have been hurt. If we have caused pain, we apologize. We make sure we let the person know that we desire him to be part of the fellowship. If these sorts desire us to be around, they simply need come join us and fellowship with us again. We do not take into account any wrong suffered because we love them.

When should I leave my church?

This being said, there are times when leaving one’s church family is right–other than moving to a new geographical area. It has nothing to do with whether or not our sensibilities were hurt or our preferences met; Those are trivial matters. If a local church is not striving to honor God or preaches and teaches a false Gospel or fails to preach and teach the whole counsel of God and that is growing in love and grace, that church is not actually a church. Recall Acts 2; Those who received the Spirit devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship of fellow believers, the breaking of bread (communion), and the prayers through the week and from week to week. A church without these basic 4 marks is not a church; It is a social club full of unregenerate members who know not the Holy Spirit, and they refer to themselves as a church. So we don’t ask about our preferences, we ask about God’s. Is there both sound doctrine and biblical love? Is there devotion to the things of God and the good of the body? Do we receive the means of grace? Is this a house of prayer?

Ultimately, if you choose to leave a church, understand that you are breaking fellowship. It is a serious matter because the Lord has made the elders (pastors) of that church overseers of your soul. Be sure it is what God wants, not what people want—not even you. Christ is king, here, not us. On those occasions when you leave with the blessing of your brothers and sisters in that congregation, be sure it is to do the Lord’s work and not yours.

How should I plant a church?

Planting a church is no small matter. If you are put out with churches and want to plant your own church because it will be better, do not plant a church. Your church plant will not be better than what you leave because people are still people, sinners are still sinners, and the wretchedness of the human heart is still evident. Loving people means bearing with them despite their sin and ours. When people plant churches out of spite, those churches are not based on Scripture, or any form of legitimate Christianity, but on the preferences and reactions of the people planting those churches. If you have a godly desire to plant a church, find a healthy local church. Get involved there. Let the elders know that you desire to plant a church. They will help you plan, partner with you, commission you, and send you out knowing that you have qualified as an overseer in God’s church. A healthy church will want you to succeed. A healthy church will be passionate about church planting in areas with less Gospel influence.

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