By Grant B. Caldwell
Since the elders of the church perform in a given locality over “the flock of God among them” and are limited in their rule to that flock, we need to understand how one comes to be a part of that flock under the rule of specific elders. There are basically two ways in which this may be done:
When baptized into Christ, people in the New Testament seemingly were considered a part of the church (congregation) where they were. This was done more or less “automatically.” The elders in that place would know them, be familiar with their circumstances, and would “take the oversight” of those persons.
This is done when the person involved meets with the church where he was baptized. The oversight of elders is limited to “the flock of God among you,” and “over the which the Holy Ghost made you overseers” (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). This cannot be stretched to include those persons who are baptized while in transit-the Ethiopian of Acts 8, for example-unless those persons remain with the church for some time-such as in the case of the 3,000 converts in Jerusalem, Acts 2.
By Expression of Desire
By Expressing such a desire when moving from one place to another. Many consider their “membership” to be “back home” in “the old home church.” They will not separate themselves from the church with which they are no longer identified. They may be in a place for years and yet not consider themselves “members” there. Who is supposed to be watching. for their souls? The elders “back home” cannot and yet the elders in the new place are told they are not “members” here. There should be some expression of desire to be a part of the congregation in the new place in order that one may enjoy all the benefits of the local church. This “transfer of membership” or “placing of membership” or “identifying of oneself” may be done in one of three ways generally. However, one of these is inadvisable and confusing. It may be done:
By Letters brought from the congregation with which one formerly met. We do not advocate the sectarian idea of “moving one’s letter,” for there is no central office through which this sort of activity is controlled. However, there is good scriptural basis for using a letter to inform the congregation in the new area of the person who is coming into its midst.
Rom. 16:1-2.Some have suggested that the real reason for sending a letter to Rome was that Phoebe was going there from Cenchrea. Be that as it may, Paul writes to verify her position as a faithful child of God.
I Cor. 16:10-11. In this case, Timothy was moving to Corinth. His youth seems to have been a problem (1 Tim. 4:12) and Paul writes of his faith and ability in the gospel. As these folks moved from place to place, letters were sent with them to serve as credentials of their faith and service to the Lord.
This action protects the church from erring members who might just move from place to place. Some move to escape corrective discipline promised in the congregation for wrong-doing on their part. Some move simply to involve new people in some scheme or false doctrine they happen to be teaching. Some who are not faithful and who need to repent for error where they are do not have the courage, but will “start over” again when they move.
Elders should be willing to follow a similar procedure for those who are leaving in order that they may be recognized as being faithful immediately upon their arrival in a new -place. Great care should be given to those who are unfaithful.
By Informing Elders
By informing the elders of such desire. This may be done in lieu of, or preferably in addition to, a writing of letters. By stating directly to the elders that one wants to be a part of the flock under their direction, he voices his approval of and cooperation with those men.
An example of this type of activity is found in Acts 9. Paul went to Jerusalem and “assayed to join himself to the disciples.” They in effect refused fellowship to him until Barnabas came to his defense and convinced them he was a disciple of the Lord. (This example demonstrates the autonomy of the local church. Jerusalem had the right to screen its own members.) This example demonstrates the right of the local church to refuse fellowship to those who are not proven worthy of it. There is no hint that Jerusalem did not do the right thing in refusing to fellowship a man who had not treated the Lord and His church properly. This example demonstrates the need for a person to `join ” a local congregation when in a given area. Paul himself felt the need to “join” that church. This example demonstrates the need for some type of verification of each person coming into it. Barnabas had to come to Paul’s rescue and verify his fidelity to Jesus.
Members coming into a congregation avoid a great many problems and uncertainties when they inform that congregation with its elders that they intend to be members there. There is no reason why faithful Christians should not want this to transpire. People who do not want the elders where they are to be over them generally have some unholy reason for such. Even when one is going to be in a given locality for only extended temporary periods-such as for college, or prolonged business stays, or any situation where the stay in the local church is not considered permanent but is more than a visit-he should make it understood what his situation is and his desire to be a part of the congregation while he is there. Cf. Acts 9.
By Continued Association
By Continued Association And Meetings With The Congregation. This is a highly-argued question. What does the church (congregation) do with a person who does not identify with the group, but who constantly meets with them and takes active part with the church both in and out of the assembly?
Often people of this type will refuse to become a part of the congregation even when asked to do such. They will affirm that their membership is in another place. While they desire to worship here, they are to be considered members there they say. Does the church have the right to consider them as members anyway? Do the elders have responsibility to oversee them? If they err, should the church exercise corrective discipline?
As noted earlier, one of the ways suggested as a possibility for becoming a part of the flock in a given locality and coming under the rule of the elders is inadvisable and confusing. This is it. Surely one should begin continued association and meetings with the local congregation. But if that is all he does, it becomes more complex as to what the responsibilities of the congregation and the elders are toward that person.
However, there are certain statements in the New Testament which would cause one to believe that continued association and meetings with a congregation will place one under the direction of the elders of that church.
1 Peter 5:2. “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof.” The word “among” in the original is en and means, “in, on, at, with, by, among” (Thayer, p. 209). Are these individuals “among you”? If so, the elders are to take the oversight. They do not have to wait for it to be given. They “take the oversight.”
Hebrews 13:7. “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: Whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” Elders who are in the position of regularly speaking the word of the Lord have the rule. Elders who are in the position of regularly serving as examples are those who have the rule and are to shepherd the flock. Cf. 1 Peter 5:2-3.
I Thessalonians 5:12. “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you.” Elders who labor among the people and admonish the people are over the people.
As already stated, there is no authority for elders to make any attempt to exercise authority in a locality other than that where they have been appointed. By the same token, where they have been made bishops, they have authority to be rulers and those who are “among” them are to submit.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 27, pp. 442-443
July 12, 1979