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Volume 15, Issue 1: Poimen

Named and Numbered

Joost Nixon

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account . . . (Heb. 13:17)

How pastors judge success, and how God does, is often as different as guns and butter. In their uglier moments, pastors will vie subtly with one another on the basis of Sunday's head count, or the offering, or whether they've been published or are on the conference circuit. But these criteria will be all but forgotten on judgment day. As those who must give an account, we would do well to know the extent of our stewardship. The answer of our text is that we don't merely account for a flock, but for the individuals which comprise it.
The implications of this truth roll in like the breakers at Wiamea. For starters, we get a fresh perspective on the mega-church. Pastoring a church of five thousand means accounting to the Lord for five thousand souls. With a flock that large, sheep are bound to get eaten.
Also, it transforms our assumptions about pastoral care. If success is judged by numbers, then bring `em on in, baby. No need for introductions, just drop that check in the offering basket. This is shepherding the undefined multitude—and for the hireling it's quite the racket. Seemingly low responsibility, high pay, and plenty of ego-nurture. But if I must give an account for individuals, then I must account for people with names and faces—each with their own proclivities, and each requiring loving pastoral care. When pastoring the amorphous mass, all these anonymous saints can be comfortably ignored as I perfect my golf swing. But if my Lord is going to ask me specifics about the Widow Stephens and the Johnson boy, then I get off the golf course and into the living rooms real fast: wandering sheep are sought out, lame sheep are mended, sick sheep are cared for, defenseless sheep are protected (Ezek. 34). In short, elders adopt an active shepherding role, and the sheep prosper and multiply.
Understanding this duty, how do we determine the boundaries of our charge? Historically, the answer has been that elders are accountable for members of their church. Unfortunately, however, the duty of membership is increasingly questioned as a concept foreign to the Scriptures. But is it foreign? Though the word "membership" does not occur in the Bible,1 the concept of formal association certainly does.
First, as already implied, shepherding is a grievous burden without being able to identify those for whom we are responsible. If he is to be faithful, a steward must know how many talents with which he's been entrusted. But without church membership, it is all a mystery—until judgment day, that is, and isn't that a bit late? But God isn't an unreasonable Master. To some He gives ten talents, to some five, and to some one—but in each case, the trust is specific and tangible. Jesus numbered His sheep (Jn. 17:12), and called them by name (Jn. 10:3)—and so should His undershepherds (Heb. 13:17). Having them named and numbered, we know when some are wandering.
Second, the purity and order of the church require membership. Try to imagine, for a moment, a world filled with churches with no distinction between member and visitor. How would elders and deacons be chosen? In the early church, this was done "by the raising of hands"2 (Acts 14:23). But which saints get to raise their hands? This is by no means an hypothetical question. One of the most dog-eared pages in the church-politics playbook instructs the bad guys to pad elections with inactive members who left the church long ago, but have not been taken off the rolls. If this happens with churches who allow for membership, how much more in churches that do not? And what if the whole Christian world lived this way? Can you visualize buses packed with sodomites from the local Metropolitan Tabernacle showing up at the church's congregational meeting to vote "that homophobic pastor" out? Absurd? But if there is no membership, on what basis could they be excluded?
Furthermore, eliminating membership also eliminates the ability to discipline and exclude sinning brothers (Mt. 18:15-17). If no one is ever in-communicated, how could anyone be ex-communicated? "Purge the leaven from among you" becomes an impossible command (1 Cor. 5; Mt. 18). If someone says that we know who is a part, I ask, How do we know? And what stops the sinning brother facing excommunication from simply saying he's just been visiting?
Finally, the Shepherd-sheep relationship is not a one-way deal. Shepherds have specific duties toward the flock, and the flock has duties towards their shepherds. These duties can only be fulfilled by being able to formally identify our elders. One of these duties is appreciation and esteem (1 Thes. 5:12-13). Christians don't have to appreciate every elder, but only those who "have charge over you, and labor among you." We are not required to appreciate the elders who labor among the saints in Laos, but the ones laboring wherever we are. Becoming a member is the biblical way of saying "I will appreciate and esteem highly in love these specific men." But if we never identify them, we never have to esteem anyone.

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