Build Fences Around Your Flock
Wolves devour sheep.
In my first few years as a pastor, I was struck by the Bible’s call to guard and defend God’s people from wolves. Fake shepherds, called “hired hands” by Jesus, don’t stand up to wolves—particularly those “wearing sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). In contrast to the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us that these hired hands do not care for the sheep, and therefore “the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (John 10:12–13).
As under-shepherds, we must faithfully serve Jesus’ sheep in light of his coming and in view of the unfading crown of glory which we will receive on that day (1 Pet. 5:4). We must guard the sheep against wolves. For this reason, we must know how to build fences; that is, we must lead our church in practicing meaningful membership and discipline.
WOLVES, KEEP OUT!
Fences are good. Fences guard the spiritually vulnerable from attack. They maintain the purity of the church which displays the gospel to the lost world.
So how do we build them? How do we keep wolves out of the church?
1. Teach on the purity of the church and practice church membership.
First, preach God’s purposes for the church. Explain and define the biblical reason for church membership. Keep your membership records up-to-date, and teach your people to regularly pray through your membership directory. In other words, lead your congregation to know who your church members are and distinguish them from regular attenders.
Tools such as a church covenant and statement of faith will clarify who belongs to the church and how membership changes our relationship to one another. Does your church have a statement of faith? Members must know it and agree with it. Is there a church covenant? Use it. If it needs to be dusted off, dust it off! In our church, we ask members to sign both the statement of faith and church covenant as a way of saying, “I agree with these things and am submitting myself to relationships defined by these principles.”
2. Interview each prospective member.
One of the first questions we ask each prospective member is: “What is the gospel?”
We want to make sure every member understands and believes the gospel. If it becomes clear they don’t understand it, we immediately pause the interview and move the candidate into a class called “Christianity Explained.”
Before we finally bring new believers into membership, we ask the candidate to give their testimony. As they do, we listen not with an overly critical ear but for a credible profession of faith that includes the existence of spiritual fruit. As best as we can discern, we only want to receive genuine believers into membership.
3. Put membership (including baptism and communion) into the hands of your church.
The gathered people of God are better suited to maintain the purity of the church than a few pastors sitting in a room by themselves. Let your congregation have the final word on who belongs to your local church. Explain the candidate’s testimony to the church and receive any questions prior to affirming the individual as a member. At Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, this process involved two interviews, one with a pastor and then a Q&A with the congregation before the congregational vote. Such a practice isn’t biblically mandated, but we need to press in on our congregation’s responsibility to oversee one another’s membership in the local church.
Additionally, churches should only baptize those coming into membership (with a few rare exceptions). Baptism is how we enter into the visible, gathered church. Baptizing without belonging, therefore, confuses membership and creates two tiers in the church: the baptized and the members.
Similarly, the Lord’s Supper itself should function as a “fence”—clarifying who is inside the church and who is outside. At the table, the church is put on display. Pastors should fence the table with our words, warning unbelievers not to eat and drink judgment on themselves.
SHEEP, EAT HERE!
In addition to guarding against wolves, membership fences allow the sheep to graze safely. They inform church members who they are responsible for and who is responsible for them.
But our sheep aren’t safe if we’ve allowed false teachers to slip in among them. For example, if a member of your church condones homosexual practice, the church is less safe for sheep who struggle with same-sex attraction. If someone in your church is a racist, “one another” ministry has been compromised. When pastors build membership fences, sheep can safely graze and be nourished through others in the body.
ISN’T THIS EXCLUSIVE AND UNLOVING TO THE WORLD?
Isn’t all this talk about building fences a little exclusive? Doesn’t this turn the local church into a club only for elite, righteous people? No, because the entry into the church depends only on faith and repentance. All who come to these waters can drink freely without cost (Isa. 55:1). Building a fence around your church only excludes the unrepentant and guards the purity of the church.
The church should be a light to the world and a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14). It should display the gospel to the world around us. Our goal is to model a city within a city, a kingdom within a kingdom. What the world needs is not a social club that looks like them. The world needs us to be Christians, to gather in our communities, and to shine our light.
 Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 certainly allows for this in a missionary setting where there is no local church present.