Sometimes, when I am explaining the church to people, I will draw a large circle and inside it write the words, “Jesus is Lord.” I tell them that the circle represents the church. I tell them it is a large, flexible circle that can include a lot of people, that it can include anyone who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.”
I’m not talking about Richmond’s First Baptist Church, necessarily, but the Church of Jesus Christ in the world—what some call “the invisible church”—which is so much bigger than any local, visible representation of it. It recognizes the fact that there are people around the world who have made Jesus their Lord, some we would probably recognize as fellow Christians and some we would not. And yet, if Jesus is their Lord, they are part of his Church.
It is the sort of thing he seems to have in mind when he talks about being the Good Shepherd and says, “I know my own [sheep] and my own know me” (John 10:14), or when he says later in the same passage, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (vs. 16). It makes me think that Jesus could look out over any congregation in the world and say, “That one is mine, and that one, and that one…” and also that he could look out over any crowd in the world and say, “That one is mine, and that one, and that one….”
He knows his own and his own know him.
So when we talk about membership in a local church we are talking about those people who have decided to let Jesus be Lord and chosen to follow him in a particular, local “flock.” As a pastor I often have to take their word for it. I ask the nine-year-old girl with the big grin and dimples, “Are you ready to let Jesus be Lord of your life?” “Yes,” she says, giggling. “And are you ready to follow him wherever he goes?” “Yes,” she says, and giggles again. I look at her for a long time, trying to weigh the seriousness of this decision for her. The giggles make it difficult, but they are probably just signs of her nervousness. Chances are good that she’s had a long, heart-to-heart talk with Jesus, and that he already knows her as “one of his own.” And so, finally, I shrug my shoulders and move on with preparations for her baptism.
The Lord only knows.
It might serve us well to remember that: that only the Lord knows who is his and who is not. It might keep us from judging others so quickly, or from deciding who is and who isn’t ready to make a profession of faith, or from turning up our noses at Christians who haven’t had the same experiences we have. The Good Shepherd knows his own and his own know him, and some of them are not members of this flock.
But they are part of his Church.