I’ve made this statement before, and I’ll make it again here: church covenants are often used to divide the body of Christ. I believe that we are already convenanted with one another due to our mutual covenant with God through Jesus Christ, and we are already in fellowship with one another through the Holy Spirit who indwells all of God’s children. Therefore, church covenants and memberships are unnecessary, and as I said above, can be a hindrance, especially to the unity of the church.
But, some argue, church covenants and membership are necessary (and even assumed in Scripture) because elders are to oversee “the flock of God which is among you.”
This kind of statement is made twice in Scripture:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you… (1 Peter 5:1-2 ESV)
[Paul to the elders of Ephesus] 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. (Acts 20:28 ESV)
(Note: An unfortunate translation in the KJV has perpetuated the idea of elders being “over” the church: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers..” While other translations have corrected the preposition “over,” the idea continues.)
For this post, I want to consider the idea of being “among” or “in” the church of God. Peter says that the elders are among the church and that the flock (the church) is among the elders. Paul says that the Holy Spirit has made the elders overseers among the church (or in the flock).
Most people recognize today that “church” points to a group of people – a collective, much like the English term “crowd.” Thus, to be “in the church” or “among the church” would be similar to be “in the crowd” or “among the crowd.” The idea is being part of God’s church – one of the people who make up his flock.
So, whatever group of people Peter and Paul have in mind, the elders and the people are “among” one another; there is no sense of hierarchy in these passages. (This helps us understand how to interpret the noun and/or verb translated “overseer” or “oversee,” since these words have range of meanings that includes the idea of caring for people.)
But, what group of people did Peter and Paul have in mind? Did they have in mind the kind of “local church” differentiation that we see today? In each case, Peter and Paul are talking about multiple elders but only a single church or flock.
The only designation is in the preposition “in” or “among” (it’s the same word translated two different ways). So, which “people of God” is each elder “among”? In the traditional understanding today, the elders are “among” those with whom they share church membership or with whom they have decided to sign a church covenant. However, those same elders are not considered to be “among” other believers if they do not share church covenant or membership.
In this traditional understanding, an elder would not be considered “among” a follower of Jesus Christ who lives next door, or who is a coworker, or who attends the same community group unless that person is also a member of the same “local church” as that elder. Thus, in this traditional understanding of elders, the elder would not be responsible for shepherding or caring for that other person, and in the same way, the other person would not be responsible for shepherding or caring for the elder either.
However, there is no sense of the word “among” in which that person would not be “among” the flock of God together with that elder. If God brings someone into our lives, we are automatically “among” the flock of God together. We do not – and so cannot – choose who is or who is not in the church with us. God makes that decision. Remember that Paul told the Corinthians that God arranges the members of the body, each one of them, as he chooses. (1 Corinthians 12:18)
Imagine how different the church would be – and how much unity and fellowship we would enjoy – if we actually treated one another as the church of God… that is, if we treated all followers of Jesus Christ that God brings into our lives as “our church”… or, as I prefer to call it, “the church.”