Potholes in the parking lot, the size of the font in the bulletin, decisions about the price to be charged for the coffee—these are just a few of the topics which can devour hours of elders’ meetings. When elders occupy themselves with the work that should be done by deacons and lay servants or staff members employed for this purpose, it is the shepherding of souls that goes unattended. Elders’ meetings should focus on, or at least include, discussion of where people are spiritually and what steps can be taken to shepherd them in their knowledge, living, repentance, whether encouraging them, warning them, or teaching them (1 Thess 5:14).
One pastor I know sarcastically commented that what our elders do at meetings (discussing the spiritual progress and needs of our people) is little more than gossip sessions, and that discipline is just an invitation for a libel suit. But the elders meeting is a sacred event. We have a “soul mandate.” We are God’s under-shepherds gathering to do exactly what Jesus told Peter to do before he ascended into heaven: “Tend my sheep,” and what Peter told all elders to do “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,” (1 Pet 5:2).
The elders pray, discuss, and make decision about how to confront people on their sin, encourage them in their walk. The elders educate the flock in their quest for truth, or lead them on their path to Christlikeness. The meetings are confidential, on a need to know basis, and limited to spiritual ministry. Why? Because we will give an account for their souls.
When someone does not want to apply for membership, we still encourage them to attend the church, but we make it clear to them that we believe there is something wrong with someone who does not want to commit to serving the saints, and to receiving spiritual accountability and guidance.
When Paul called the elders of the Ephesian church together as he was about to depart, he left them with this sobering farewell speech,
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears (Acts 20:26 – 31, emphasis added).
Church discipline cases may be rare, but they are some of the most important moments in the shepherding process. The elders are to guard the flock from “fierce wolves” who will not spare the flock from their deadly error. They will draw people away, splitting the church with destructive divisions. According to Titus 3:10 divisive people accelerate the need to deal swiftly with discipline. Paul gave Titus a severe three strikes and you’re out rule to implement only for this sin of division.
How can an elder be expected to “Pay careful attention to…all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” without a thorough church membership process? Farmers tag their sheep to keep make sure none is lost. Should pastors not do the same?
Tagging your sheep means you are paying careful attention to those in your flock. You know them by name and pray for them. You know how they are doing physically, emotionally, spiritually, and perhaps financially if they are in need. As our church has grown larger we have had to come up with creative ways of knowing our sheep by name. We have a picture book that is updated regularly so when we mention someone, we all know who they are. When one of us meets a visitor, we send an e-mail to the other elders with introductory notes about the person. We also have someone do a head count each service and keep track of various factors that may influence attendance (rain, sports games, who the preacher is, etc.) We want to know our flock and know what their strengths and weaknesses. Is this hard work? Yes. Our meetings often go on until midnight. But if you tell us, through membership, that you want us to be your elders, we take that to mean your name will be brought up in a conversation with Jesus at his Bēma Seat. We take it seriously.
I’ve heard the objection that it seems too controlling. This is a matter of perspective. In 1983 Sting and the Police released the smash hit song, “Every Breath You Take.” It immediately became a success and was interpreted by the masses as a comforting love song. Ironically, this is not how the song writer had intended it. In his perspective the song was a creepy, controlling image of surveillance. When asked in a BBC Radio 2 interview why he appears angry in the music video Sting replied, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have misinterpreted it as being a gentle, little love song.” I guess listeners found the idea of a partner watching them to be comforting. Sting thought of it as controlling. A believer who is committed to pleasing Jesus (is there another kind?) should invite an eldership who cares enough to pray for him or her, enquire how they are doing spiritually, bring them back in line when they stray, and encourage them when I fall.
If a person says they do not want to become a member of church, my response is to ask why not? A Christian who will gladly commit to a gym membership, a video club, or a social network but refuses to join a church, has issues to be concerned about. Why would you not want your spiritual leaders to hold you accountable to living the Christian life? The elders of your church will only call you to the standard that you have committed to strive for when you became a Christian. If you don’t want that, your perspective needs to be adjusted by Scripture. If all that reasoning fails, I simply tell folk in our church that their leaders are asking them nicely to apply for membership and the Scripture commands them to “Obey your leaders and submit to them for they watch over your souls as those who will give and account.”