What a place the assembly is! – where God’s glory is preeminent; His presence is known; His wisdom is displayed; His rule is acknowledged, and His order of headship is honoured and displayed. We come now to a sixth purpose: the assembly is where God’s care is experienced.
From Eden’s garden all the way to the future Millennial kingdom, it has always been God’s desire to care for His own. At the present time in history, the local assembly is the place where God intends believers to be nurtured, preserved and developed; and, where each can fulfil their own responsibility to “look out not only for [their] own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4, NKJV).1
In the first and second centuries AD, gathering with other believers was a high-risk activity. Yet meetings were a lifeline to persecuted believers – they wanted to be there! Why? In ancient Rome what would you have done without your fellow believers? They were the ones who fed and sheltered you when expelled from your community. They encouraged you to press on in the faith. They stood with you in the arena as the lions closed in. And so, after being arrested, interrogated and released, where did the apostles go? To their “own company” – to the Christians (Acts 4:23).
True, each believer can, without attending meetings, personally experience much of the pastoral care of the great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus. But, despite the inevitable problems that come with being around ‘people’, it is clearly God’s mind that each believer should experience and reciprocate care in the context of a corporate company of God’s people (Acts 2:41-42, Heb 10:25).
The blessing of belonging to an assembly has often been likened to “coals in a fire”. A single coal that accidentally falls onto the hearth soon grows cold and dies out. Christians need each other; and not just for support. Being with other Christians who, like ourselves are not perfect, forces us to grow and change as we constantly learn and relearn that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).
Let us now look at four categories of local assembly care.
1. Care of the assembly by elders
Concerning elders Paul says, “If a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim 3:5). Notice the parallel between elders in an assembly and fathers in a home. Assembly leadership is clearly intended to be paternal in nature and motivated by familial love.2
But how should elders take care of an assembly? Their primary task is to “feed the flock”.3 Believers in local assemblies should be well fed by elders who “declare the whole counsel of God” through regular focussed Bible teaching (Acts 20:17-35). Being “apt to teach” would also enable elders to give Scripture-based personal counsel as the need arises.
There are so many other aspects of shepherd care. Elders should pray for and take an interest in all the local believers. Elders’ homes should be open to all, as they and their wives are “given to hospitality”. Visitation of the sick and of others, along with support of the weak and the faint-hearted, are all different aspects of the “good work” in which overseers are engaged (1 Tim 3:1, 1 Thess 5:14).
The efforts of elders to show care for the assembly as a whole may at times prove an unpopular and thankless task. The unruly and disorderly may need to be disciplined, and false teaching may need to be confronted.4 But, though biblical shepherding will prove severely challenging, the Lord graciously promises compensation for those who faithfully bear the burden of shepherd care in the assembly (1 Pet 5:4).
2. Care of the assembly by “one another”
All believers, not just elders, have a duty of care. Yes, elders are to be given to hospitality and are to support struggling saints in practical ways, but so are all believers!5 So, while the care of elders uniquely involves aspects of government and guidance, each Christian has a responsibility to care for their brothers and sisters. Assembly fellowship is not just about getting – it is about giving!
The Bible illustrates the local assembly under the metaphor of the human body. Each and every part of the body is useful and needful. All the various body members “care for one another”. Indeed, when one part of the body is in pain, the rest of the body comes out in sympathy (1 Cor 12:25-26)! The concept of “one another” is a constant theme of the New Testament – “love one another”, “edify one another”, “serve one another”, “bear one another’s burdens” and “pray for one another”.6 And we are not just to care for our own class, culture or age group. James condemns fussing over rich Christians at the expense of the poor (Jas 2:1-9). May the Lord help us to be impartial as we care for others.
There’s a ‘ministry of care’ for every demographic in the assembly. Care for older saints by the young starts with an attitude of respect (1 Tim 5:1-2). Care for single sisters by young men is seen in pure actions and attitudes (1 Tim 5:2). Care for young mothers by older experienced ones is given as they pass on the wisdom of their years to the next generation (Titus 2:4-5).
The fact that, in 1 Corinthians, an entire chapter about love (Ch 13) is sandwiched in between a chapter about spiritual gifts (Ch 12) and another chapter about their use in assembly gatherings (Ch 14), indicates that our fellow believers will likely care very little how much we know, unless they know how much we care. Do you have a care for the Lord’s people in your home assembly?
3. Care of visitors, new converts and unbelievers
Believers away on holiday or business will seek to meet up with like-minded saints wherever they go. This provides opportunities for locals to show hospitality. The Greek word for ‘hospitality’ basically means love of strangers (Heb 13:2). The Bible also highlights those occasions when “the unlearned or unbelievers” come to assembly meetings. They too should be shown care and concern – so that unlearned believers may learn, and that unbelievers may be saved. Let them see that “God is among you of a truth” (1 Cor 14:25) and take note that we are Christ’s disciples because we “love one another” (John 13:35). Do you take time to be friendly to visitors?
Another needy group are new believers. In addition to the teaching and help they receive as they attend all the gatherings of the local assembly, converts with no Christian background may benefit from informal one-on-one input from experienced Christians in their homes. Remember that godly couple Aquila and Priscilla? They took Apollos into their home and taught him “the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26).
4. Care of evangelists, teachers and missionaries
Our final category of care relates to the needs of ‘commended workers’. Those who spend all their time preaching and teaching the Word of God have a right to be supported financially (1 Cor 9:14, Gal 6:6). This responsibility falls at the feet of assemblies and the individuals in them. Jack Hunter writes: “The NT knows nothing of one-man ministry, of a man being paid a stipend or salary in return for spiritual services. The long established principle of clerisy and the more modern innovation of paid-pastors in some assemblies are foreign to the word of God. There are those gifted by the Lord to feed the flock and spread the gospel, who have gone forth ‘taking nothing of the Gentiles’. It is our privilege and responsibility to support them.”7
The apostle Paul was daily burdened with the “anxious care of all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). Should we not wholeheartedly care at least for the one to which we belong? There should be no ‘passengers’ in God’s assembly; no ‘Sunday morning only’ Christians. May we be freshly gripped by a “purpose of heart” to do all in our power, as led and sustained by the Lord, to see the local assembly cared for and preserved! But make no mistake; as we are “one heart and one soul” with others (Acts 4:32) and are “continuing steadfastly” in fellowship with them (Acts 2:42), we will not only enjoy all the privileges of assembly fellowship but will also feel the sharp end of its weighty cares and responsibilities.
Michael J. Penfold (email@example.com)
1. The Christian home is also a vital sphere of care, but all believers do not have this privilege.
2. Unlike the money–oriented hired hand who “careth not for the sheep” (John 10:13)
3. Acts 20:28, 1 Tim 3:2, 1 Pet 5:2
4. Titus 1:10-13, 2 Thess 3:6-15, 1 Tim 1:19-20
5. 1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:8, Rom 12:13, 1 Pet 4:9, Acts 20:35, Rom 12:13
6. John 13:34, Rom 14:19, Gal 5:13, Gal 6:2, Jas 5:6
7. J Hunter, What the Bible Teaches, Galatians (Kilmarnock, John Ritchie Ltd. 1983), p. 97