Jim Wilson is the retired director of Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho. He will be posting regularly, so check back in soon!

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Membership of the Church

The Scriptures are completely inspired (1 Timothy 3:16), but they do not always speak in exact terms. Look at Acts 2:41: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Earlier in Acts, we see that the believers were “a group numbering about a hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15). This number included women. We can draw several conclusions about that group of people:

• They were believers.
• They were baptized.
• They were “added to their number.” That is, about 3,000 were added to about 120.

After this initial jump in numbers, Acts 2:47 says, “and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Again, there is no exact number given. After Peter’s preaching in Acts 3, we find the number of believers had increased again: “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about 5,000.” This time only the number of men who believed is given, and even that is an approximate number.

In Acts 5:14, we see further growth. This time the women are included. “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” In Acts 6:1 and 7 there is more growth: “In those days when the number of disciples were increasing…,” “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

All of this increase was in the church in Jerusalem. Notice that the Lord did the adding to the numbers. The people that were added were all saved. We know that some of them were baptized. There is no clue as to how many believers there were except that their number exceeded 5,000. That number included men, women, and a large number of priests. Except for proselytes to Judaism, all of the believers were Jews, many of them ex-patriots.

At this point, the church was made up of thousands of saved people with no apparent church membership list. There were no deacons until later when a problem made them necessary. The problem was solved by men filled with the Holy Spirit.

Although the believers met in homes for breaking bread (Acts 2:46), they were called the church (singular) in Acts 8:1-2.

The account of these things is in narrative form, so it is not wise to derive doctrine from them. Church doctrine should come from the teaching and proclamation parts of Scripture.

Here are two decisions made by the councils in Jerusalem:

“'So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?' When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life'” (Acts 11:17-18).

"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19).

The first council recognized that God had saved the Gentiles who were in Cornelius’ home, and therefore there could be no objection to Gentiles being in the Church. The second council confirmed the decision of the first and ruled that the Gentiles who were turning to God did not have to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses. Circumcision was an entry rite and therefore denied as part of the gospel. Salvation is by the work of Jesus Christ, received by faith alone.

After they were saved, the Gentile Christians were required to…

• abstain from food polluted by idols
• abstain from sexual immorality
• abstain from blood and from the meat of strangled animals

The Apostle Paul confirms these decisions in his letters.

The narrative continues with stories of saved people being added to the Church:

"When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:15-17).

"Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord" (Acts 9:31).

"All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord" (Acts 9:35).

"This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord" (Acts 9:42).

"Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" (Acts 10:47).

"When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, 'So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life'” (Acts 11:18).

"The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21).

"When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch" (Acts 11:23-26).

"But the word of God continued to increase and spread" (Acts 12:24).

"When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord" (Acts 13:12).

"When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43).

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region" (Acts 13:48-49).

"At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed" (Acts 14:1).

"But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch" (Acts 14:20-21).

"From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (Acts 14:26-27).

"So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers" (Acts 16:5).

"One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message" (Acts 16:14).

"The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family" (Acts 16:34).

“'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,' he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women" (Acts 17:3b-4).

"Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men" (Acts 17:12).

"A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others" (Acts 17:34).

"Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power" (Acts 19:18-20).

“'I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds" (Acts 26:17-20).

I have quoted only the conclusion of the preaching and teaching for each of these stories.

Only clearly-saved people were added to the church. In Acts 8, Peter recognized that the people had not yet been born again and that Simon was still not a believer. In Acts 19, Paul recognized that some “disciples” had not received the Holy Spirit, so he taught them to believe in Jesus. Then they were born of the Holy Spirit.

Today, churches have two extremes, neither of which are found in the New Testament:

1. Unsaved people are allowed to be members. We have let people “climb in by some other way” (John 10:1).

2. Saved people are required to meet other conditions in addition to salvation, such as:

• form of dress
• length of hair
• hair covering
• a distinct eschatology
• systematic theology (e.g. Wesleyan, Reformed, Dispensational)
• form of worship
• form and meaning of baptism
• form of church government
• following a certain leader
• other “sacraments” and “ordinances”

We have made it more difficult to become a member of a local church than it is to become a member of the kingdom of God. In the New Testament, conversion alone made people members of the local churches.

Churches full of saved people also existed before there was a church government (Acts 14:23). Removal from the local church (other than by moving away) was based on unrepentant immorality (1 Corinthians 5) or apostasy (1 Timothy 1:20). In both cases, the offender was “handed over to Satan” so that “his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” and “to be taught not to blaspheme.”

Today’s churches teach loyalty to their particular group. They insist upon loyalty so much that any “disloyalty” can lead to church discipline or heavy false guilt laid upon the offender. This practice is strongly taught against in 1 Corinthians 1-3. Such partisanship is a sign of being worldly and “mere infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).

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