Sunday, March 20, 2022

Of Folds and Flocks

The Lord Jesus used the model of a flock when foretelling Pentecost and the formation of his church. He said this flock would need only one Shepherd, meaning himself. He thereby ensured his sheep would be brought safely home at the end of the day. None of his flock would be missing and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it, for he gave to each believer eternal life and no one could pluck them from his hand.

In this teaching the Lord was preparing his Jewish disciples for a hiatus in God’s program for establishing Israel as the head of the nations.

The Son of Man was about to lay down his life to secure the eternal blessing of those who constituted the Israel of God, but in doing this he would also express God’s love for the world outside that fold. It was the mystery which prior to that time been “hidden in God”; Gentiles were to be fellow heirs and of the same body. He taught that the new society must not be regarded as a fold but a flock by saying, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The Local Flock

The Lord Jesus was using the word flock to refer to the church which is his body. This great flock spans this present age and includes men and women from all nations.

But his words also have meaning for every local body of believers. Each local company should act consistently with what God is presently doing universally.

The Old Testament economy, if obeyed, would have served to keep Israel separate from the nations and from idolatry. The Law was good, but that nation’s history shows it was a system “weakened by the flesh”. Most of the Jewish “sheep” seemed to believe there were greener pastures just outside the fold and broke through its protective walls again and again.

In sharp contrast, the local church — like the universal body it represents — is designed to be a flock rather than a walled fold. The word fold in John’s record of our Lord’s ministry is contrasted with the concept of a flock. Both Paul and Peter use the term flock to refer to the local church rather than fold.

Safety Without Walls

A flock’s togetherness is quite different from that afforded by the regulations of the Law and the confining rules men had added to it. In a flock the well-being of the sheep is achieved by each having a desire be near the Shepherd. They don’t need walls. They obey from the heart the teaching they receive from the Lord. This also draws the sheep closer to each other. Any straying from the fellowship of a local company devotedly following the apostles’ doctrine must raise heart-searching questions.

It also calls for extreme care on the part of those the Chief Shepherd has called to be overseers. One thing they must avoid is erecting man-made barriers around the sheep and so reverting to the Old Testament model of a fold. The concept of a flock calls for all to cleave to the Lord and to truly love one another. In this and other ways those who pastor — that is, the elders (always plural) — are to be examples, but the command to love is given to all without exception. Any lessening in that inner motivation by one individual seriously weakens the testimony of the local company.

Are You In or Out?

That question might seem foolish in the light of the fact that there are no walls. But think again.

A family has no walls but you can be said to be “in” it and, if you behave very badly, you might be put “out” of it! The same is true of a flock. As shepherds are watchful for predators, so must overseers be on the alert for those who want to use the flock to their own advantage. That raises a number of questions: How is “purging the evil person from among you” to be carried out? How do you answer a person who asks “Where do you fellowship?” (They are not asking whether you are a member of the church which is Christ’s body, but which particular group you regularly worship with.) Again, should some notice be given to all in the local body when a newcomer wants to regularly attend? Are all to receive such, and not just the elders?

How are we to do these things? Perhaps no official announcement need be given in very small group of believers, but surely a public announcement is called for in a gathering of any size. And yet we do not know of any scriptural command as to how such a reception is to be worded. There are general principles that apply: “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus”; “have a humble mind”; “Let all that you do be done in love”, etc., but no details are given as to how a local church ought to express its welcome to a newcomer.

Customs and Practices

Anyone who has served the Lord on a mission field among those of a totally different culture learns that it is unwise to urge believers to change or drop local customs unless they violate scriptural principles or, for their own reasons, the local Christians wish to make changes. In some cultures the arrival of an addition to the fellowship of the church might cause all to stand up, turn around and embrace the person next to them including the newcomer. Others might welcome him with a “happy-to-see you” song. Believers in the West had become more cautious in the last century, and would announce their intention to receive a professing Christian into fellowship the following Sunday if no one knew any just cause why they should not do so.

Each method was and is the outcome of custom or culture and local wisdom. There is no specific instruction in scripture about these things. It is clear however, that there must be some way of indicating to all when a person wishes to become part of the local assembly. This is especially so if a church regularly urges the public to attend the ministry it offers. Churches have no mandate to simply absorb people into the fellowship.

How then are we to think or speak of new people in relation to the local body after they are received? Most companies known to us would say they are “in fellowship”. That does not cut off that individual from contact and service with believers who fellowship elsewhere. They are considered in fellowship in one local flock, but their gifts may be used wherever they believe the Chief Shepherd leads them.

After all, they are not in a fold.

— Colin Anderson, “Not in a Fold but in a Flock”, July 2013

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