February 11, 2013

Tag Your Sheep: Church Membership on Judgment Day

by Clint Archer

HT Label a GoatSome governments take their role too seriously. In his book titled How to Label a Goat, Ross Clark has created an insightful anthology of some of Britain’s most ridiculous rules. The book’s title alludes to the British guidelines on how to keep track of sheep and goats. Before moving a goat from one field to another, Welsh farmers are obliged to obey every one of the instructions meticulously laid down in the 45 pages of the “Sheep and Goats (Records, Identification, and Movement) (Wales) Order of 2006.” This densely written government order stipulates in copious bureaucratic detail that a sheep may not be moved unless it has an ear-tag in place, and unless the details of the tag and the move are recorded in two separate documents.

Clark’s catalogue also shows the phenomenon of fastidious local governments’ micro-management of denizens. For example, one town council spent £5,000 planting yew trees to screen a children’s play area. It then had to remove them after health and safety experts said that if children ate “several handfuls of leaves,” they could get ill.

Another municipality banned the planting of pansies in public flowerbeds fearing gardeners would hurt their wrists if they caught their trowels on tree roots while digging. In an astonishingly condescending view of the aged, one town council banned paper napkins from food delivery services, for fear that elderly customers would mistake them for an item of food.

We get Clark’s point: sometimes government oversteps the bounds of control and common sense. But in the defense of the above town councils I’d like to point out that as misguided as they were, their intentions appeared to be looking out for the well-being of their constituents. I’m not advocating we import British pedantic rules into a church setting, but the other extreme is just as senseless. Some churches have little or no oversight of the spiritual lives of those who attend their churches. Some churches are so informal in their records of membership that they are not even sure who is in and who is out of their flock at any given time.

At a pastor’s conference I attended, over lunch I was asked what our church does to keep track of membership. I explained that our application procedure consists of interviews, doctrinal classes, signed commitments to attend, and the congregational voting to accept applicants. The looks on some of the other pastors’ faces made me feel like I had included a tattoo of 666 on the forehead as a requirement. They were clearly surprised at how intimidating the process was. I asked what they did to assure a like-minded membership. One pastor explained that they have a sign-up sheet at the back of the church; anyone who wants to be a member writes their name on the list with a phone number. Other pastors had absolutely no system in place to know who was in their church. This is disconcerting in light of the judgment to come, where not just the teaching, but the shepherding of souls is taken into account.


A part of the stricter judgment of the office of overseer is an appraisal of how they shepherded the souls in their care. The writer of Hebrews tells Christians to “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:7).

When I show up at the judgment seat of Christ (Bēma Seat) and have to give an account for my life, words, motives, and deeds whether good or worthless, I will also as a pastor be asked to give an account for keeping watch over every person in my church. It seems like a good idea for me to start by knowing their names.

The elders and I tell our church that we want them to sign up for membership because we want to know who considers us to be their elders and who doesn’t. And we want those who do not consider us to be their pastors to know that we in turn do not think of them as our sheep. Anyone is welcome to visit our church and attend as long as they want. But if they want us to be accountable for their souls, then they need to tell us that; and the way we want that to happen is through the membership process.

We want a reasonably like-minded membership. We don’t wants clones, or a cookie-cutter Christianity. But we do want to be sure that our church consists of believers (1 Cor 5:7 – 13) as far as we are able to ascertain (Matt 13:30). So in the interview we simply look for a testimony of conversion including an understanding of the gospel, and fruit of repentance (Matt 3:8; 7:17).


In the membership class we teach on our doctrine, and though we do not expect full adherence to every point, we ask that members do not teach doctrine contrary to what we teach. We ask them to talk to leaders if they have objections, but not to cause division (Titus 3:10). We explain the need for holiness in the local body and the steps of church discipline for unrepentant sin (Matt 18:15 – 20). We expect a commitment to obey Scripture, including the command to use their gifts to serve the body (1 Pet 4:10). So we ask for them to sign-up for a service function in the church. We also ask for their commitment to attend home groups, Sunday services, and members’ meetings if at all possible (Heb 10:25).

The sympathy believers are to have for their leaders’ appearance at the Bēma should motivate them to live rightly under the leadership of “those who will give an account.” The teacher’s judgment will not only be on the preparation and delivery of their sermons, not only the style and content, but also the follow through of shepherding the souls who heard the message. This is a sobering thought. Care of the flock is not limited to feeding them, but also encompasses protecting them from error, guiding them by wisdom, and disciplining those who will not repent of sin.

[This excerpt is taken from Clint’s book on eternal rewards and the ministry, The Preacher’s Payday, courtesy of DayOne Publishers.]

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Jordan

    This is fantastic. Thanks, Clint. May I ask what your church’s strategy is for paying CAREFUL attention to ALL the flock (Acts 20:28)? I am a member of a large church that seeks to implement shepherding through small groups, but a significant number of members may not even be in one of those small groups. Because of this, it seems that many members are not actually being shepherded. Does this seem like a legitimate strategy for shepherding the church members?

    • Hey Jordan. With the rate at which our church is growing, we are constantly needing to come up with creative ideas of making sure everyone is plugged in. First, we make the requirement for regular attendance at a mid-week home group very clear at the membership class. We expect all members to participate in a home group. This is where the real shepherding happens. We also assign an elder to each member, and it becomes that elder’s responsibility to notice if that member has been absent from church or home group for an extended period. We ask members to let us know if they are travelling or otherwise planning on being away for extended periods. We also use a photo directory, which we pray through personally and as an eldership and int he church prayer meeting. Other than that, it really is up to the individual to make use of the resources God gives them for their souls to be shephereded. I.e. they need to actually *ask* for help when they need it.

      I hope this helps put some feet on it.

  • This was excellent, Clint. Thanks for sharing it with us. This was a great and convicting reminder of the account we as shepherds will give for those dear people God has entrusted to us.

    I especially appreciated this part, as it was stated so succinctly and helpfully:

    Anyone is welcome to visit our church and attend as long as they want. But if they want us to be accountable for their souls, then they need to tell us that; and the way we want that to happen is through the membership process.

    It also dovetails nicely with the Grace To You Blog’s recent January-long series on the importance of the local church and church membership.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for the link to GTY’s blog. This is an important topic.

  • PaulC1

    This is very insightful for me…

    My family and I are missionaries in a foreign country where we are at the beginning stages of church planting. I am the only elder in our small group. We have Sunday services (worship, message and a light snack), Tues bible study and Sat evangelism (door-to-door).

    Obviously the context is different for yours, as an established church, but what recommendations would you make based on our limited leadership resources at this point? We want to make sure we do things right from the beginning.

    Looking forward to your thoughts Clint. Thank you!

    • Hey PaulC, great question. In some countries you can’t have formal membership until you have a legally constituted church. Conversely, you can’t constitute without formal membership.
      But in general, I think, biblically, there needs to be an understanding of who the believers are, who can be disciplined out of the church, who can serve, and who has a say in the decisions of the church. Each situation is unique, but the basic idea is that people who visit should be considered visitors (they may be unbelievers or curious believers, or tourists), people who attend regularly should be approached by leadership to ask them if they consider this their church and consider the leaders to be their shepherds who are accountable before God for their souls. If the answer is yes, then the next step is to determine what they believe about the gospel, are they living it out, do they undersand the implications of being in a church (serving, giving, being part of the church discipline process for unrepentant church memebrs, etc). If the answer is no, then that’s fine, they are visitors, but they should understand that there are privileges they are not privy to (like regular visits from the leaders, permission to serve and/or teach.

      That’s the theory. In practice you will get believers who want to attend and suck up resources without any contribution or commitment. They should be challenged to commit. BUT I certainly wouldn’t do this in the early stages of a church plant. And the challenge should be done out of concern for them and by showing them the biblical responsibilities of believers: all Christians must give, serve, submit to leaders, all the “one anothers” etc, not just the super mature.

      My advice, for what its worth as one who has not planted a church (though our church has planted 6), is that you take it as slow as you can, but head it in the right direction. That way you will eventually get to where you are heading, without making secondary things of primary importance upfront. That’s my 2c.

      • PaulC1

        Thanks for this Clint. Lots of things to consider. Excellent post and thank you for responding.

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