Monday, December 13, 2021

Anonymous Asks (175)

“What does the Bible say about church-hopping?”

In the early first century, the world had a grand total of one local church. It may have had thousands of people in it, but “all who believed were together and had all things in common”.

In AD45, you couldn’t church-hop. There was nowhere to hop to.

The Hopless Church

So there was a lengthy period in church history in which church-hopping was a total non-issue. The church was hopless, though never hopeless.

By AD90, when it is thought the last books of the New Testament were being written and circulated, persecution and widespread evangelization saw churches planted all over the known world. Still, while there were plenty of doctrinal differences that the New Testament writers labored to correct, denominations as we know them today did not exist. The worst that could be said of the existing local churches was that they had to deal with internal squabbles.

And you still couldn’t really church-hop. It would have been next to impossible to find a second distinct local church meeting within easy traveling distance of home.

Around this time the Bible was completed. As a result, you will look long and hard to find anything in the New Testament about church-hopping. It just wasn’t an issue for the early church.

The Advent of Denominationalism

Denominations became a thing around the year 431, when the Church of the East parted ways with Roman Catholicism over Nestorianism. Twenty years later, the Syrian and Coptic churches split for good. The concept of separating over doctrinal differences was, if not generally accepted, at least a well-established reality in the body of Christ at this point.

Still, it would have been tough to church-hop. Most of the early divisions were along geographic lines, which meant the average churchgoer still had few options available to him.

The history of denominationalism is probably not of great interest to most readers, so we will skip ahead to the present day, when vehicle ownership is common and mass transit presents the Christian “consumer” with a smorgasbord of fellowship options. In any major town or city in North America, you can often find half a dozen local churches of the sort you prefer within driving distance and, provided you are willing to cross denominational lines, dozens more within walking distance.

That doesn’t mean they are all good options, but they are definitely options.

Now, even though the Bible does not specifically address the issue of church-hopping, it still sets forth principles that might help us think about moving between congregations in a way that pleases the Lord rather than simply pleasing ourselves.

What is Church-Hopping?

First, we should probably define terms. Evangelists and Bible teachers are often somewhere other than their own local churches in excess of forty weeks per year, but they are not exactly church-hopping; they are ministering to the body of Christ. Paul was not church-hopping when he went from Ephesus to Galatia or Antioch. He was literally on a mission from God, looking to strengthen local churches wherever the Spirit of God directed him.

So then, it’s not a bad thing to meet with different groups of Christians. It’s not a bad thing to care about the health of the body of Christ as much as you care about any local manifestation of it. What makes moving from local church to local church good or bad is the motive, not the frequency with which you move around or the number of churches you attend.

To take that thought further, how might we think about a couple who have a desire to meet and connect with multiple groups of local Christians regardless of denomination, and make it their habit to circulate between congregations for the sake of fostering unity and building relationships? Is that really a bad thing? It might not be generally accepted, but it’s hard to find a biblical basis to criticize a spirit that all true believers are one on the basis of faith in Christ, regardless of our other convictions.

There are a few issues, however, that pose potential problems even for well-intentioned church-hoppers:

Doctrine and Practice

There is a limit to how widely you can “hop” within the body of Christ without running into serious doctrinal error. Just to take one example, I might slip into a Reformed Baptist meeting for a special event, in order to hear a visiting speaker, or because I am having lunch that day with a Baptist friend. I certainly want to maintain ties with the Reformed Baptist Christians I know, many of whom are terrific people and serious believers.

That said, circulating through local Reformed churches is unlikely to become a regular habit for me. I simply find their doctrinal package — which has implications in numerous areas of theology — too far removed from my own beliefs to be helpful to me, and my own ability to minister to my Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ in the setting of a church meeting severely limited by their willingness to hear my views on the many areas where we differ.

Practice is another important issue. A church may acknowledge the Lord’s Supper in its statement of faith, but only remember the Lord monthly or even annually. Likewise, a church may acknowledge what the New Testament says about male leadership in teaching, but have accepted slippery-slope practices in small group fellowships that encourage women in the congregation to seek places of prominence from which they can promote their views.

While the occasional visit may be fine, regular attendance at churches with serious doctrine or practice problems sends the message that what we believe and how we live it out isn’t important. And it definitely is.


My final concern would be accountability. The New Testament encourages believers to have a committed relationship to local leadership. “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” says Hebrews, “for they are keeping watch over your souls.” Again, it says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Paul made much of the calling of elders, challenging them to shepherd the flock over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers.

All these verses and many others suggest the relationship between elders and their congregants is not to be equated with that of a salesman trying to find a market for a product, but is more like a strong family bond in which the elder works to encourage the spiritual progress of those in his charge, and the average Christian knows, respects, obeys and cares for his elders.

It is awfully difficult to foster these sorts of relationships with multiple sets of elders in multiple congregations. In fact, it is often the case that church-hopping as a habit starts not for the benefit of the Christians visited, but in order to enable the “hopper” to avoid the accountability that comes with submitting to a specific set of elders.

In Summary

Now, I wouldn’t say every Christian must attend the same congregation every week or else they are being unfaithful. That would be going too far.

That said, Christians who are accountable to nobody anywhere, who never put themselves in a position to receive pastoral care and correction, who skip all over the map without regard to what sort of teaching they are ingesting on a regular basis, or who have no special group of believers or leadership to whom they are committed and no regular forum in which to exercise their spiritual gifts ... folks like that are putting themselves in a position of spiritual risk.

I don’t think it goes too far to say they are shortchanging both the Body and themselves.

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