The words “church tramp” may immediately conjure up an image of people you have known who don’t seem to get along very well at any church and who are constantly on the move from congregation to congregation. I am not talking about those who move for legitimate reasons, such as a dramatic change in their doctrinal beliefs, because their congregations have turned liberal, or because they have been taken over by some schismatic faction. I am talking about those who, like the hummingbird, hover for a while at one flower and then another but never stop their wing motion long enough to settle down anywhere.
People like this often cause trouble wherever they go. They may come declaring that the church they left is full of heresy or problems and that they are so glad they have finally found a church (yours) that stands for the truth. But it is not long before they are somewhere else in town telling someone else the same story about your church. What can be done about this problem?
Are we to everlastingly be plagued with such people and the trouble and distrust they bring, or is there something that can be done to stop this flitting from church to church? And, is there some way to minister to them so that we can reclaim them from this life of ecclesiastical vagrancy? Yes, there is an approach that will do both. The only difficulty is in getting enough congregations to begin doing what needs to be done. I often speak about this topic when I meet with a ministerial group in a community. There I propose a biblical solution and urge the group to adopt and follow a policy that, if enough pastors and people agree, will virtually put an end to the practice.
If you are encouraged by the policy I set forth, you may want to share this article with your pastor, who, if he thinks it has merit, may in turn wish to share it at the next evangelical ministerium. At the very least, he may wish to work out an arrangement with those pastors in town with whom he already has working arrangements.
A deceptive, flattering temptation faces a pastor and church whenever someone defects, declaring that the former church has serious deficiencies he at last finds remedied in yours. How glad he is to be with people who mean business! It isn’t easy to think objectively when someone is feeding you such heady stuff, but if you follow this policy, you will be able to keep your senses, and not even that kind of obsequious prattle will affect you. But first, let me tell you about an incident that happened when I was pastoring a church.
I had no more than arrived on the scene as the pastor of a new congregation when I received a call from a neighboring pastor. He said, “Mr. and Mrs. I. M. Tramp have been attending our church for several weeks now and want to join. I understand they were members of your congregation for a while; can you tell me anything about them?” Because I had so recently arrived, of course I could not. I replied, “No, I don’t know them; I just arrived in town about a month ago. But I’ll talk to my elders about them and let you know what I find out.”
When I did, the elders said, “Oh, the Tramps, eh? Yes, they were members here; but they caused all kinds of trouble, and after working patiently with them for over a year about their schismatic activities, we were forced to excommunicate them.” Hearing this, I immediately called the neighboring pastor and told him the story. “Thanks,” he said. “I had no idea.” About six or eight months afterwards, I bumped into this pastor at a meeting, and I asked him, “Whatever happened to the Tramps’!” “OOOH,” he replied, “I hate to talk about it. We took them in, in spite of what you told us, and just last week they split our church and walked off with half a dozen families.”
Church tramps are no bargain. They are a Jonah in your boat!
A minister of the gospel has no business welcoming a church tramp into his congregation in the first place. If he has wandered out of the fold of a true shepherd of Jesus even though that shepherd doesn’t teach every jot and tittle correctly, you should lead him back. Now, understand, I am not talking about sheep that have left the fold of a wolf in shepherd’s clothing. Take them in immediately. In fact, you should do all that you can to lure them away from any place where the gospel is undermined and the Word of God is despised. But what I am talking about is a straying sheep from a sheepfold that is under the care of a true shepherd of Christ.
When you discover a stray appearing regularly in your services, you should speak with him, saying something like this: “It’s nice to have you here, but you tell me you are a member of the congregation pastored by Bob Greene?”
“Well, that puzzles me. Bob preaches the gospel. What has happened; have you changed your doctrinal beliefs or something?”
“No, I just don’t seem to fit in there very well. I have had problems with some of the people. But, even after only two weeks here I can tell I am going to really get along well.”
At this point you say, “Well, I’m glad you have enjoyed our services and like our people, but the reason you give for leaving Bob’s church and coming here isn’t biblical. What you should do is work out your problems over there. In cases like this Bob and I have an understanding. This is what we do. I shall call Bob, and we will all meet together to discuss your problems thoroughly and to figure out what God expects you to do about them. I will be glad to offer any help you request in this matter.”
If the potential tramp agrees, perhaps you will save him from making a career of tramping. If he is already making a career of it, perhaps you will be able to turn him from it. At any rate, you have done the right thing before God and before him, regardless of how he responds; and don’t forget, a church tramp is no bargain.
“What you say may be right, but won’t he just go to another church?” Doubtless, that is what will happen in a number of cases, but consider:
- You must do the right thing regardless of the outcome.
- You don’t know what the outcome will be; perhaps he will respond properly. After all, no one has ever confronted him this way before.
- You will have saved your own church future heartaches.
- After he causes trouble at the church that accepted him, the pastor of that church may wish to join in the agreement with you and Bob.
Of course, you won’t get all of the Bible believing churches in town to agree to follow this or some similar policy right away, if ever. But the better churches are likely to respond favorably, and when more and more churches agree, it will become increasingly difficult for tramps and potential tramps to run from church to church. How exciting it would be for church after church to respond in the same way whenever a stray attempts to flee from place to place.
Think this over carefully. Doesn’t something like this need to be done in your town? Think of the last bad experience you had with a church tramp. Do you want that again? And think of him. But most of all, remember the proper processes set forth in the Bible for handling interpersonal problems (Luke 17:3 ff.; Matt. 18:15 ff., etc.). The practice of receiving such persons cannot be justified biblically, and it is time that pastors and congregations stopped encouraging these tramps to sin by doing so. Aiding and abetting sin is sin. Think. Think and act.