WHO SHOULD BE RECEIVED INTO THE CHURCH?
Jesus Christ is the Builder (Matt. 16:18 ; Acts 2:47 ; I Tim. 3:15 ) and the Head (Col. 1:18) of all churches that bear His name (I Thess. 1:1; 2:14 ). This being the case, His word must guide us in determining who qualifies to be received into His church.
The danger associated with ignoring the Christ-given guidelines and qualifications for church membership is real. There is the potential of filling the church rolls with unregenerate souls who seem to be religious yet possess no power of godliness in their lives. The result is a “church” that is really only a religious organization, void of love for Jesus Christ and lacking the life of holiness that should exist (Rev. 2:5).
It is also possible to set up extra-Biblical fences to guard the life and purity of the church. A church has no right to establish man-made protections beyond what Christ has ordained Such additions to Christ’s simple order demonstrate a lack of faith in what Christ has given. His order is sufficient. It is possible that such well-meaning, but misguided additions actually injure those for whom Christ died by keeping them away from the church relationship and discipline they desperately need.
Thus, every church ought to receive those whom Christ has received (Rom. 15:7) and who desire to enter into covenant relationship. The goal of this tract is to address the issue of church membership in this generation. There is such variety within the Christian community that confusion often exists in relation to the matter of church membership. This tract is intended to bring clarity to this matter for all that may be considering membership.
Qualifications for Being Received into the Church
A Testimony of Faith in Christ
The church on earth is to be moving toward conformity to a glorious church, without spot or wrinkle. This is the kind of church that Christ Jesus will present to His Father in glory (Ephesians 5:27 ). It is through the faithful preaching and application of His word that this cleansing process takes place practically in this present life (Ephesians 5:26 ). Each local church should be a microcosm of this grand, glorious church that, experientially, is yet future.
Every potential member of this church must have a testimony of conversion to Christ. There must be the expression of the sense of one’s guilt before a holy God and freedom from that guilt through the death, burial and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ must be experienced (Acts 20:21 ). One of the marks that this conversion has taken place is the desire to receive the word of God (Acts 2:37 -41,47). This is the first qualification for church membership.
A Baptized Disciple of Christ
The next necessity for church membership is baptism. You must have been baptized according to the pattern seen in the New Testament (Acts 2:41 ). Evaluate your baptism according to the standard set forth in the New Testament:
1. Were you baptized after you believed (Acts 8:36 -38, and all other examples)?
2. Did your baptism express your own personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Were you expressing your cleansing from sin and union with Jesus Christ in His death, burial and resurrection? In other words, was it the public expression of spiritual realities in your life received by faith, not the means of the cleansing of your sins or the means of receiving the Holy Spirit or His gifts (I Peter 3:21; Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-6)?
3. Was your baptism by immersion? Immersion is the placing of the convert completely under the water, out of which he comes to walk in newness of life (Matt. 3:16 ; John 3:23 ; Acts 8:38 ). This act pictures the spiritual union of the believer with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection ( Rom. 6:3-6).
4. Was your baptism administered by the authority of Christ given to His church and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Jn. 1:33 ; I Cor. 1:17 )? One appointed by the church acts in the stead of that church and therefore has the authority to baptize new converts.
There are “baptisms” that are not valid. All that appears to be a baptism may not be, just as all that appears to be a church may not be. There are many claims that require examination before the claim is accepted as valid. For example, if you go to the social security administration office and tell them that you need a new card to replace your old one you will need to give some credible validation of who you are. You know who you are, but they must see valid proof. It is no less significant for a church to examine the genuineness of a profession and a baptism.
Invalid baptisms would include:
- A baptism administered by a free-lance “Christian” (one not sent forth by a church to baptize).
- A baptism administered in the context of a “church” that denies the Trinity.
- A baptism administered in the context of a “church” that teaches one may be saved and then lost, or understands baptism to be a work for salvation, or an act by which the Holy Ghost is received.
- A baptism administered in the context of a “church” which does not recognize immersion of a believer as the only proper baptism.
The elders must examine the baptism of any prospective member to be assured that the NT guidelines have been followed. Diversity in Christendom since the NT has led to difficulty in determining valid baptisms. Even in the NT there was concern as to the validity of baptism. This is seen in Acts 19:2-5. Many religious groups baptize in many different ways, for different reasons and in relation to different doctrinal understandings (note the question in Acts 19:3, “Unto what then were ye baptized?” This indicates the need of a proper association to some measure of truth in baptism). A church must receive and acknowledge only those baptisms that fit the NT pattern.
There must not be a greater emphasis upon the administrator of baptism than is Biblically warranted. It seems that this was, at least in large part, the issue addressed by Paul in I Corinthians 1:13-17. It is clear that the message declared in baptism is far more significant than who administers the baptism. Yet, the authority to baptize must come from God in order for the ordinance to be accepted as valid.
Respect for the significance of this ordinance must lead to this careful examination. Nothing should be forced upon true believers which is not clearly taught in Scripture. At the same time our Head must not be dishonored by receiving that which does not fit the pattern He has given us. The elders and the church must prayerfully evaluate each person desiring membership.
A Disciple of Christ Who Desires to Function in This Body
When it is known that a person is a baptized disciple of Christ, it is then necessary to witness a desire to enter into fellowship and participation with this body of believers (Acts 2:42,44,46). Membership is not merely a label. It is a relationship involving:
- Attending the regularly scheduled services (Hebrews 10:25 ; I Cor. 16:2)).
- Supporting the ministry by prayer, giving, and general openness in fellowship (Acts 2:42 ; 4:32 ).
- Bonding in spirit, not merely passing a mechanical test or formal evaluation (Eph. 4:2,3,13).
When a person senses that a this church is one in which he might worship and function as a believer, the sense will be mutual. A covenant will be gladly entered into by the new member with the rest of the body to serve the Lord together and hold one another accountable to maintain a faithful Christian walk. An addition of this nature will simply strengthen the body to carry out the work Christ has left for His church to do till He comes again. Only those baptized disciples who are willing to publicly commit themselves to this kind of relationship should be brought into the protection, oversight and care of this church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Methods of Receiving New Members
The following procedures are consistent with what is demonstrated or implied in the NT church. Sound churches may differ in the details of their method of receiving members. The following standards are given to clarify how this church will go about receiving members.
New Converts in Need of Being Baptized
The new disciple should request a meeting with the pastor. If fruits of repentance have been demonstrated and faith in Jesus Christ is obvious, there will be instruction and encouragement to announce his relationship with Christ in baptism. This is the order of the great commission. Once baptized, he will be instructed more thoroughly in the things of Christ.
Baptism is the prelude and preparation for entrance into the church on earth and participation in the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:41 ,42). Following baptism, usually in the next regularly scheduled service, the right hand of fellowship is extended to the new convert welcoming him into the church of Jesus Christ and all the privileges and responsibilities accompanying this relationship.
Brethren Coming From Another Church
A meeting with the pastor is requested in order to discuss the matter of membership. The petitioner will be asked for a statement of his conversion to Christ, details concerning his baptism and the circumstances that are leading him to leave his present church to join this one.
Following elder approval, the petitioning disciple will be asked to give a public statement (which may be in writing) in a regularly scheduled service that includes: a testimony of conversion to Christ, statement of valid baptism, and expression of desire to be received as a member of this assembly. His former church will be asked to send a letter of recommendation. The church will then be given a minimum of one week to prayerfully consider the request.
After a letter of recommendation is received and there are no Biblical objections from this church, the applicant will come before the assembly to be officially recognized by the “right hand of fellowship” as a communing part of this body.
Brethren Coming Without a Church Recommendation
A meeting with the pastor is requested to discuss the matter of membership. The petitioner’s testimony of conversion and details of his baptism will be heard. Reasons for not being a part of a church will be heard. With no church to recommend him to us, he must attend for a minimum of three months (including the time prior to meeting with the pastor) in order for his character and relationship within this body of believers to be observed.
Following elder approval, he will be asked to give a public statement (which may be in writing) in a regularly scheduled service that includes: a testimony of conversion to Christ, statement of valid baptism, and announcement of desire to be received as a member of this assembly. The church will be given a minimum of one week to prayerfully consider the request. If there are no Biblical objections, or if all objections are adequately answered, the church will publicly acknowledge its positive recognition by giving the “right hand of fellowship” at the close of a regularly scheduled service.
Brethren Being Restored From a Church Discipline Situation
A meeting with the pastor is requested to discuss the matter of membership. The elders will hear the explanation of the details surrounding the discipline of the petitioner. The church in which the discipline occurred will be contacted for details. The elder(s) of this church will work with the elder(s) of the disciplining church to seek to resolve the matter in a Biblical fashion. No person will be received into this church that has not dealt Biblically with conflicts in another church. Only after the conflict is resolved can progress be made toward examination for membership.
If the petitioner gives a consistent testimony of conversion to Christ and has been properly baptized, the elder(s) will patiently work with him to determine if this is the church he should join. The petitioner may be encouraged to attend for an undetermined time frame in order to remove any lingering concerns on the part of the elder(s).
At the discretion of the elder(s), the petitioner will publicly give: a testimony of conversion, a statement of valid baptism, and expression of desire to join with us. The pastor will give to the church those details deemed appropriate regarding the resolving of the church discipline. The church will be asked to prayerfully consider the matter over a minimum of one week. If there are no objections or if all objections are satisfactorily answered, this person will be given the “right hand of fellowship” in recognition of his addition to this church.
Special note applying to all prospective members:
Understanding that sin has complicated lives and added to the multitude of scenarios existing in the lives of people, the elder(s) will be responsible to carefully examine every prospective member. The list above may be incomplete. The elder(s) will use the Bible as the final source of authority in each case.
It is our desire to recognize and receive every single child of God that Christ would give to us. We are not seeking to exclude anyone sent from God. We believe that God has given to us clear helps in determining who He is placing in this assembly. We understand that judgments are being made both by the ones received and the ones receiving. Our desire is that the Sprit of the living God will guide us both in order that we might have all the parts to this body that God intends (I Cor. 12:18), and that every part may be certain that this is the body in which they should function.
October 2004 (revised for generic use, 10-12-04)