By Frank Jamerson
When a person is “baptized into Christ,” the Lord adds him to the church, but this does not make him a member of a local church. We are baptized into “one body,” the universal church, but we “join ourselves” to a local church. Some brethren have “floating membership,” others “leave their letter at their home congregation,” and others deny that there is any obligation to be a part of a local church. What does the Bible teach about a Christian’s responsibility to join a church?
Local church membership involves agreement of the individual and the group to work together. When Saul had to leave Damascus because of a threat on his life, he went to Jerusalem and “tried to join the disciples” there, but they were afraid of him, and would not receive him, until Barnabas recommended him (Acts 9:23-26). After they received him, he was “with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out” (v. 28). Later, we read of brethren in Ephesus writing a letter to Achaia, exhorting them to receive Apollos (Acts 18:27). The letter served the same purpose for Apollos that the mouth of Barnabas served for Saul. Apollos was his “membership,” not the letter that brethren wrote; just as Saul was his “membership,” not the words that Barnabas spoke.
In these two examples we see that there must be a desire to belong, and a willingness to receive, in order for local membership to exist. A church cannot force a member to “join,” and a Christian cannot force himself upon a church.
How Do I Decide?
Some say that “one church is as good as another,” but few, if any, really believe that. Is the church of Satan as good as the church of the Lord? Others seem to think that they must examine every church to see which they like best, but this would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. By the time you finished studying the twelve hundred churches, some of them would have changed, and you would have to start over! There are others who simply look at the sign on the building. If it says “church of Christ,” they decide that they can join it. The worship may be unscriptural, and the work may be patterned after the denominational world instead of the word of God, but “it says church of Christ” and that settles the question for them.
A Christian should find a church where he can worship God “in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24). The fact that the Bible mentions “vain worship” (Matt. 15:9), “ignorant worship” (Acts 17:23), and “will worship” (Col. 2:23) should indicate to any thinking person that one worship is not as good as another. Many churches add things to their worship which are not found in “the truth,” and leave out things that are taught in the truth. If I am to worship “in spirit and in truth,” I must find a group that does only what is “in truth” in order to acceptably worship.
Recent editions of The Examiner have been ridiculing our appeal to “the truth” as a pattern for everything we do in worship. Brother Holt no longer knows whether or not instrumental music should be used in worship, because he does not believe that we must do only what is authorized in God’s word. He said: “It is neither scripturally allowed, nor scripturally forbidden. The N.T. Scriptures say absolutely nothing about instrumental music one way or another” (March, 1990). Other writers have been attacking the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week. They try to make the “breaking of bread” in Acts 20:7 mean a common meal, so they know when Christians should come together to eat their common meals, but have no idea when they should come together to commune with Christ. Such “reasoning” is not because they respect the Bible as their authority and want to get back to the truth in all things; rather, it is the fruit of their rejection of the New Testament as a standard for our conduct.
The Bible teaches that churches had “elders and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). The fact that elders were not simply the “older men or women” in the group should be obvious from the qualifications that God gave (1 Tim. 3; Tit. 1). Among the qualifications, Paul said that a “novice” (new convert) must not be appointed. If the elders were simply “older members” there would be no way that “a novice” could be an elder. It would be useless to give that qualification, just as it would be useless to give the warning in 1 Corinthians 10:12, if it were impossible to fall from grace!
When a church has men who meet the qualifications, they should be appointed to the work (Acts 14:23). Having been “made bishops” by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), they are to “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly” (1 Pet. 5:2). The Bible says nothing about Presidents, Archbishops, Popes, etc., therefore churches that have such officers are acting without authority, and I could not “join myself” to one to them.
Another thing that should be considered before joining a church is the work it does. Paul told the Philippians that their support of him abounded “to your account” (Phil. 4:17). If God credits the right things the group does to my account, when I have participated in them, then he will credit wrong things to my account if I participate in them!
Churches provided and arranged for the teaching of the word (1 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 10:25), and the relieving of their needy (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 5:16). They also assisted preachers in teaching in other places (Phil. 4:15; 2 Cor. 11:8), and sent to other churches that had more needy than they could care for without assistance (2 Cor. 8:1-15).
Churches that are involved in business enterprises, sponsoring of recreation and entertainment and social meals are acting by the same authority as those who have Presidents, Archbishops or a Pope.
It makes a different which church I join, because it makes a difference how I worship, and what organization and work I fellowship.
Does this mean that I must agree with every member of the group on every issue before I can “join” that group? Certainly not! But it does mean that we must agree in the things we do together. There are many groups who practice what I believe the Bible teaches, but probably none of them would agree with every belief that I hold. Since I fellowship that in which I participate, I should find a group where I can “join up,” and “join in” the doing of those things that God authorizes me to do.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 22, pp. 675-676
November 15, 1990