An Assembly’s Responsibility for Its Own: Practical Care in the Local Church

Among the final exhortations given by our risen Lord before He returned to heaven was the three-fold, heartfelt direction to Peter to “feed by lambs,” “tend my sheep” and “feed my sheep” (Joh 21:15-17). We cannot overestimate the value the Lord places on the nurturing, feeding and caring for His own. Note how personally He refers to them – “my” sheep and “my” lambs! This imagery of the flock and the exhortation to feed and tend is then picked up in the New Testament with specific reference to the local assembly. In Acts 20:28, Paul exhorts the elders from Ephesus to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for [tend] the church of God.”[1] Peter then uses very similar language when he exhorts elders to “shepherd [tend] the flock of God that is among you” (1Pe 5:2).

These passages powerfully paint a picture of a local assembly as a place of protection, provision, compassion and care, a place where every believer is valued, every soul is nurtured and cherished, and specific intervention and care are taken for those who may have particular needs.

While there is a special responsibility and stewardship placed on overseers in the fulfillment of this work, it is also meant to be a collective mandate, shouldered by every member of a local assembly. Paul uses the imagery of a human body to describe the proper functioning of an assembly of believers – “that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Co 12:25-26).

A healthy assembly will pay attention to circumstances and situations in believers’ lives that call for specific, targeted responses to meet particular needs. In New Testament times, this often involved material support, given the lack of any societal safety nets to address financial and material hardships. In our modern western cultures, financial needs may still exist, and help should be provided when needed, but often the needs are more diverse and demanding – and every one of us as believers should be attentive to the needs of others in our fellowship.

An earthly shepherd tending an earthly flock will be constantly alert to the needs of individual sheep and lambs. When one is injured or sick, he responds accordingly. When one goes astray, he spares no expense or effort to seek to bring it back (Luk 15:4; Mat 18:12). This should be our standard and example for interaction with one another in a loving, caring assembly environment.

Some examples from the New Testament of specific intervention and care in a local assembly context include:

Widows – In both the Old and New Testaments, the Lord shows special care for the fatherless and the widows. In the Lord Jesus’ earthly life, we see numerous examples of His compassion for, attention toward, interest in and intervention for widows. The early church in Jerusalem is seen in Acts 6 meeting the material needs of widows. Paul gives specific instructions in 1 Timothy 5 regarding an assembly’s responsibility toward widows among their number. May the Lord help us all to make sure that our assemblies are warm, supportive, attentive and nurturing places for widows in our fellowships, where their diverse needs can be met and where they can be protected, preserved and provided for.

Overseers – Some readers likely think that overseers are supposed to be the “providers” of special care rather than the recipients of such attention. It is true that overseers have a special stewardship to lead, feed, nurture and tend the individual members of the flock of God entrusted to them. But the personal exercise of this work can sometimes place an individual overseer in situations of need. An assembly should be attuned to such situations, and be ready to respond and help. Paul instructs Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1Ti 5:17-18). This passage does not necessarily refer only to financial help, but certainly includes it. Mr. Jim Allen’s commentary from What the Bible Teaches states, “Appreciation of the spiritual value of such men, who sacrificially spend themselves for the saints, would scarcely allow them to suffer material need, particularly when this need was brought about by their unremitting attention to the needs of others. Thus the assembly should face an exercise to support materially those who would spend sacrificially on their behalf, if and when such a need arises.”

A brother or sister who stumbles – Assemblies are built from faulty material. Every one of us, as believers, are blood-bought, set apart, eternally secure and indwelt by the Spirit. However, every one of us also still has the sinful flesh within, an unrelenting enemy opposing us, and a hostile environment all around us in the world. It is, therefore, sadly possible (even likely) that every assembly will, from time to time, experience a stumble or fall in the life of a brother or sister within its fellowship. Galatians 6:1-2 gives us a general guideline: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Just like the shepherd in Luke 15 and Matthew 18, we should all be marked by compassion for those who may stray, and seek to graciously, gently and scripturally see them restored and strengthened.

In addition to these specific examples, the New Testament is replete with specific instructions regarding our interactions with one another in assembly life. We are exhorted to receive one another, comfort one another, love one another, forgive one another, forbear one another, build one another up, consider one another and encourage one another.

This begins with each of us individually. If we each took these exhortations personally and redoubled our efforts to put them into practice in our own lives, our assemblies could be revolutionized to the honour of our Lord and the blessing of His people.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.