Some 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.]