THE IMPORTANCE OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
By Wayne Camp
[EDITORS NOTE: This message was first published in the December 1, 1987, issue of The GP&P. With the growing popularity of such para-church organizations as Promise Keepers, it seems timely to publish some articles on the church. Other than proofing for errors that were in the original, the article is presented just as published in 1987. It is posted here in its entirety. The first part was published in The GP&P of Feb. 1, 1998. The second part will be published in the March, 1998, issue.]
"And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he ASSAYED TO JOIN HIMSELF TO THE DISCIPLES: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem" (Acts 9:26-28).
This is a message for those who have been saved but have never united with one of the Lord's true churches. This is a message for those who have been members of a New Testament Church and have departed to an unscriptural church. This is a message for those who have been members of a New Testament Church but are no longer members for some reason. This is a message for any who may simply feel that there is not a church that is good enough for them to hold membership in it. This is a message for those who are members of one of the Lord's churches but for some reason or another you have dropped out of services and are not attending. This is a message for those members of New Testament churches who usually attend church unless something that is more important to thema ball game, a concert, a grave yard decoration, a singing, or some other such thingis going on.
In the text above we have a most unusual situation. Saul, whom we know as the Apostle Paul, had been saved on the road to Damascus and had been baptized at Damascus and had begun to preach the gospel in that city. After a period of time he goes up to Jerusalem and seeks to unite with the church there but they do not want him. They are afraid of him and, except for the intercession of Barnabas, he would have been rejected.
WONDER OF WONDERS
Yes, when we think of it, it is a wonder of wonders that Paul would insist on acceptance in the church at Jerusalem. It was far from being a perfect church. Its first treasurer had been a thief, liar, devil and hypocrite who eventually committed suicide after betraying the Head, Founder, and Redeemer of that church. Thomas, the doubter, was a member of that congregation. Peter, the denier was also a member, even a pillar, of that church.
James and John, the position-seekers, were there. They had even asked their mother to plead with Jesus to allow them to sit on either side of him when he set up his kingdom. Nathaniel was a member of that church, also. He was somewhat of a fault-finder. Remember how he asked concerning Christ: "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
It was to such a motley crowd THAT PAUL ASSAYED TO JOIN HIMSELF. Now one wonders why such a man would want to join such a church. One especially wonders why he would INSIST ON ACCEPTANCE into such a faulty congregation. Why would such a gifted, intelligent, and educated man desire to unite with a church that was composed of men whom most folk considered to be "unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts 4:13).
Paul pushed his application for membership in that congregation at Jerusalem even though they let it be known that they did not want him. He persisted in his endeavor until Barnabas espoused his cause and went to the Apostles and spoke to them on behalf of Paul. Why, why would Paul insist on acceptance into the membership of the church at Jerusalem why did Paul place such an importance on church membership? That is the purpose of this messageto show why Paul did and why you, Dear Reader, should give much thought to the glorious privilege that every child of God ought to enjoy, the privilege of being a member of one of the Lord's churches.
The fellowship that one has in a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ is one of the most blessed opportunities that we have as children of God. "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and FELLOWSHIP . . ." (Acts 2:42). Writing upon the Scripture that is our text for this message, John Gill says of the expression, "assayed to join himself unto the disciples": "Grace had made a strange alteration in him (Paul); those whom he hated, and was exceeding mad against, he now loves; they are the excellent ones in the earth, in whom is all his delight; and whom he persecuted to strange cities, he now courts their company, and attempts to be among them; accounting it his greatest honour and happiness to be one of their society. It is the duty and interest of every gracious soul to join himself to a church of Christ, which consists of the disciples of Christ as the church at Jerusalem did . . . And a great privilege it is to be in such relation, having the grace of God; for such have the best company, and the most refreshing ordinances; are in the greatest safety, being under the watch and care of ministers and members, of angels, and of God himself" (Gill's Commentary, Vol. V, p. 872).
The fellowship of New Testament church membership is seen again in Acts 4:23. John and Peter had been in jail for preaching the gospel. When they are released, the first place they go is to church. "And being let go, they went to their own company." They did not go home to see their families. They did not go out and celebrate with some friends. They went to their brethren in the church and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them and the church had a prayer meeting asking for boldness in preaching the gospel in spite of the threatnings of the leaders.
"(And they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch)" (Acts 5:12). Again we see the fellowship enjoyed by the members of the church at Jerusalem. one is reminded of that precious Psalm of David in which he wrote: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore" (Psa. 133:1-3).
Dear unchurched child of God, you are missing the sweetest possible fellowship that is available this side of glory when you are not an active member of a local New Testament Church. You deprive yourself of God's best blessings by not being a faithful member of a New Testament Church. Your "Christian" (and I use the word "Christian" loosely for I doubt that a saved person who is not a member of a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ should wear that precious title of "Christian" which means to be Christ-like) life will be blighted and will not count for as much if you remain out of the fellowship of a local church of the Lord. The fellowship and unity of a local church is like the precious ointment upon the head. The ointment that was used in the anointing of a priest or a king was symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Dear Ones, there is a blessing of the Holy Spirit that one can only enjoy in the sweet fellowship of a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sunday, Nov. 15, 1987, was a wonderful day here at Pilgrims Hope. No, we did not have 1O additions to the church which would have been wonderful. No, we did not break an attendance record but that would have been great. No, there was no big-name preacher in town to preach to us. We did not have a weight-lifter, or an ex-drug addict, or a famous athlete, or a converted movie star here to give a testimony. What made it so great? There was a sweet, sweet spirit of fellowship and rejoicing in the Lord that was especially evident. This preacher felt it in the song service and in the pulpit. He could see that the members were experiencing the same sweet fellowship. God the Holy Spirit was truly in our midst and it was like precious ointment running down upon the garments of the children of God in the services. It was a blessing that you unchurched folks just can not know. You who are saved have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit but you will not know what I am speaking of in this paragraph unless you dwell in the unity and fellowship of a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A HABITATION OF GOD THROUGH THE SPIRIT
Before leaving this area of thought I would point out that Paul considered the local church to be "an habitation of God through the spirit." To the church of God at Ephesus Paul declared: "In whom (Jesus Christ) ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22). Paul was here addressing the local church at Ephesus. He said to that congregation: "Ye are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit."
Lest anyone sin by misrepresenting what this writer is saying, let me assure you that he does believe that every believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. "He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself" (I Jn. 5:10). "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God" (Rom. 8:16). "Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom. 8:90). Let everyone assuredly know that this writer firmly believes that every born again child of God is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. "After that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:13-14).
It is unequivocally and irrefutably clear that there is a special administrative work of the Spirit in a local New Testament Church that is not experienced by the unchurched child of God. The members of a local New Testament church are "builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit." When Jesus was yet on earth he promised the church that after his departure he would send the Spirit to dwell with them. The individual members of the church at Jerusalem were already indwelt by the Spirit as is every regenerated person. This was not a promise to individual saved persons. It was a promise to a local congregation. Just as God the Spirit dwelt in the tabernacle and in the temple, he would now make his habitat in local New Testament churches which are built together for an habitation of God through the spirit. It is in this built together state that the church is a habitation of God through the Spirit. And those who, for whatever reason, are not a part of a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ are not enjoying this special blessing of fellowship and guardianship of the Holy Spirit.
Let the reader consider the words of Israel in the land of Babylon: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Psa. 137:1-6).
Dear unchurched child of God, you are like Israel. You are trying to sing the Lord's song in a strange land. You ought to long for the fellowship of church brethren and sisters. You ought to long to be in our Zion, the local church. Israel indicated that it would be better if their right arm be paralyzed and their tongue be stuck to the roof of their mouths than that they forget Jerusalem, the place that God had chosen as his habitation in that day. Now, local churches are built together for a habitation of God through the Spirit and for you to absent yourself from the membership and fellowship of a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ is for you to try to sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
Israel had been carried away captive into a foreign land because they had not been faithful to the Lord. Now they longed to worship God in Jerusalem and could not. Dear friend, if you despise the Lord's churches and continue to absent yourself from the fellowship and membership of one you may one day find yourself longing for that blessed fellowship in the habitation of God through the spirit and be deprived of it. If you are willfully in this strange land, if you are willfully unchurched, you have forgotten your Zion and Jerusalem. If you do not love the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ enough to be a member in one and faithfully attend and support one you should not open your mouth to speak for Christ for you cannot love him as you ought and not love his church.
In a vein very similar to what has already been said, it should be pointed out that the local church is the house of God. "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15).
The first thing that needs to be understood is the fact that it is in the house of God that the child of God is to behave himself. Any person who willfully absents himself from the fellowship and/or membership of a local New Testament church is misbehaving, regardless of his excuse for so doing. I do not speak of those who are providentially hindered. I speak of willfully absenting ones self from the assembling. Paul is not concerned with the behavior of this young preacher Timothy outside of church membership for it is the normal thing that he be a member of a local church and he was a member of the church at Ephesus. If Timothy misbehaved, he would misbehave as a member of that local, blood bought church at Ephesus for Paul had taught him the importance of church membership.
There are some strange things in this world. Last night, Monday, Nov. 16, 1987, there was a story on CBS News about a giant male sea lion that had fallen in love with a bunch of cows. He had left the sea and was bellowing out mating calls to these cows and could only be kept from the herd by an electric fence. His attachment to these cows was abnormal and strange. He was as out of place and confused as a termite in a yo-yo. He was behaving in a most strange manner.
It seems to this writer that a child of God who has no connection with, or fellowship in the house of God is acting just as strangely as that misguided, confused male sea lion. He is out of step, out of order, and misbehaving. To try to serve and worship God without being a part of his house, a local church, is simply out of order.
A MAN'S HOUSE IS THE CENTER OF ALL THAT HE DOES
Have you ever been around a large factory at shift change? Have you ever been around a large office complex at quitting time? My, how the people rush out of the building to get to their cars! They peel out of the parking lot and rush like mad toward home. When it is time to go to bed, there is no place like one's own house and bed. When it comes time to eat, most folk would rather eat at home. We spend most of our time together as a family in our house. All our activities center around the house. A good portion of most folks' salary goes to pay for a house and to furnish that house.
God's house is his local church. Paul told Timothy that the house of God at Ephesus was the local church at Ephesus. That is true of every true New Testament Church. It is a house of God and the center of God's activities in this world.
CENTER OF EVANGELISM
The local church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the center of evangelism. It is likely that in a pole of the readers of this paper who are saved many would confess that they were saved in a service of some New Testament church. It is likely that the majority of those who were saved elsewhere were saved as the result of witnessing by members of a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The proclamation of the gospel into all the world has been committed to the Lord's churches. Through individual members and the ordained ministry, the gospel is to sound forth into all the world (Mat. 28:18-2O). No person, be he preacher or otherwise, is commissioned and charged with the preaching of the gospel separate and apart from membership in a local New Testament Church. When Paul was saved, the very first thing that he did was to unite with the church at Damascus and submit to baptism at the hands of that church. Then, as a member of that church he began to preach the gospel in that area. When he went up to Jerusalem to preach there, he first "assayed to join himself" to the church at Jerusalem and then went forth preaching. When God was ready for him to go forth as a missionary, he sent him forth as a member of the church at Antioch and he periodically returned to report to this church all that God had done through his work. Paul never, in his ministry or life, divorced himself from fellowship and membership in a local church. It was too important for him to even consider such. When he wrote to the church of God at Corinth he rebuked them for many schisms and errors. He never even hinted that the faithful members of that church should withdraw themselves from its fellowship or membership because of those errors. It was, at that time, the only true church in Corinth. It was better to be a member there than to be isolated and deprived of the blessings that were theirs even among that carnal membership.
Because of his high esteem for the local church of the Lord Jesus Christ Paul conducted all his missionary work out of a church. He also made it his business to establish churches wherever he went preaching the gospel. The care of the churches was a great concern of his. He looked to churches for his support. Paul knew that the center of God's evangelistic activities in this age was and is the local church.
GOD'S PLACE FOR BAPTISM
From its early origin the Lord committed the ordinance of baptism into the hands of his local churches and the ordained ministers thereof. "Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (Though Jesus himself baptized not, BUT HIS DISCIPLES)" (Jn. 4:1-2). When he left this earth the Lord delivered the ordinance of baptism to an organization that could administer it until the end of the age. When he spoke to the apostles in Mat. 28:18-2O, he spoke to them as ordained ministers of a local church out of which other New Testament churches were destined to come. He had promised a perpetual existence to his churches and therefore the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper were placed in their hands.
Just as a man's house is the center of all his activities, so the Lord has ordained that his house, the local New Testament Church, will be the center of much of his activity. That is why baptism is one of the two ordinances of the local church.
GOD'S SCHOOL FOR CHRISTIANS
The local church is God's school for Christians. It is the church that has the commission to "teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." The local church is the "pillar and ground of the truth" because God has sent his Spirit to "guide" them "into all truth." There is no station for the propagation and proclamation of truth such as a local church. The association or convention loved by so many is not the pillar and ground of truth. There is a continuous chain of associations and conventions that have gone into rank error over the last 2OO years or so. You cannot trust such man-made organizations to be the pillar and ground of truth.
Seminaries and Bible Schools that are operated by conventions and associations cannot be trusted with truth. These schools that are not under the ownership and control of local New Testament Churches have been virtual volcanoes erupting with the lava of heretical leaven. The only way to keep a Seminary or similar Bible School true to the word of God is to have it sponsored by a true New Testament church. The Lord has charged his churches with the protection and propagation of truth.
Dear unchurched child of God, you will be deprived of the opportunity to learn all the truth you can if you are not a member of and faithful in a church of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have been a member and learned truth but have now separated from a local church as a member in fellowship, you are likely to stray into all manner of error. We need the fellowship of brethren. We also need the protection from error that is found in fellowship. If one in the fellowship of a church starts departing from the faith, brethren can reason with him. He can have his thinking tested by the questions that brethren might ask in discussions of Scripture. This is why the Lord's churches have been charged with the defense and proclamation of truth.
GOD'S GLORIFYING INSTITUTION
"Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end" (Eph. 3:21). We live in one of the ages of which this verse speaks. It is God's purpose for his churches that they be the place where he receives the ultimate glory that is possible in this age and in the eternal ages. God will get glory from the destruction of the wicked in the eternal flames of hell. God will let no one rob him of that glory. Yet, it is very clear from Paul's word to the Ephesians that God has chosen to receive the ultimate and greatest glory from the lives of his children when they are members of a local New Testament Church.
If there is a place where a man should be king it is in his own house. Louisiana once had a governor whose slogan was something like this: "A chicken in every pot, and every man a king in his own house." In advancing that cause he sponsored laws that protected the rights of citizens in their homestead. One who lives in a moderate home pays no property tax on the home or the land on which it is located within certain limits. Even in the city one can still keep a cow, chickens, horses, and such.
A good husband and father is magnified in his own house. Certainly our Heavenly Father should receive the ultimate glory possible in his house, the church of the living God. But, you who are unchurched are not bringing him the glory that you could if you would become a faithful member of a local New Testament Church.
AN UNFLOCKED SHEEP
"Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of god, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 2O:28-29).
Two times in the verses here cited Paul refers to the church at Ephesus as a flock. It is a gathered flock of God's sheep with shepherds to look out for its welfare, to watch over it and protect it from ravenous wolves, i. e., false prophets.
If you are one of God's sheep and not a member of a New Testament church you are like an unflocked sheep. It is natural for sheep to flock together. It is unnatural for a sheep to not desire the company and fellowship of the flock. Those who are out of the flock are considered "sheep" who "have gone astray." Are you a stray sheep? If you are out of fellowship and/or out of the membership of a local church of the Lord Jesus Christ, you are a stray sheep.
When Jesus was preparing his church for his departure and their future days without his bodily presence with them he said: "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Lu. 12:32). Dear unchurched child of God, this promise was directed to a flock, a church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a promise that you have no claim in as a sheep with no flock of which to be a part.
The sheep without a flock has no shepherd to feed him. "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." Here we see described the gentle care of a shepherd for his flock. It is used to describe the Lord and the care of his sheep. It is sad to see a herd of sheep without a shepherd to feed and to care for them. It is sad to see a church without a pastor to care for them, lead them, and watch for their souls. It is an even sadder spectacle to see a sheep that does not belong to a flock and has no shepherd either. This is the sad plight of the unchurched child of God. He is a sheep without a flock and without a shepherd (pastor) .
No one should join a church just to be a member when he dies so that his obituary will sound good if read at his funeral. It has fallen my responsibility on several occasions to be asked by a family to read the obituary furnished by the funeral home at the services for someone. I have read several that went like this: "Although Mr. _________ was not a member of any church at the time of his death, he did profess to be a Christian." That is one of the saddest statements that can be made about a child of God, if indeed he were one. It is like saying: "Here is a sheep without a shepherd; here is a sheep that was a part of no flock." May God be gracious to the unflocked sheep and bring them to one of his flocks where they will have the comforts of the flock, the fellowship of the sheep, and the watch and care of a God-appointed undershepherd, a pastor.
AN UNBODIED MEMBER
"Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (I Cor. 12:27).
In the church at Corinth there were various schisms. Paul used the analogy of a human body to show them their need of and dependence upon one another. He declared that they were each individual members of one local body, the church of God at Corinth. He said: "If the foot shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were the hearing, where were the smelling?" He then says: "The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have not need of you." (I Cor. 12:15-21). It would be a sad occasion indeed if one of your hands said to one of your feet, "I don't need you." Sadder still, and worse still, and more absurd still would be the case if one of the hands said to the entire body: "I have no need of you. I will sever myself from the body. I can exist just as well or better separate and apart from the body." That would not be true. Neither is it true that a saved person can be a better Christian outside the body of Christ, the local church, than in one of Christs blood bought churches.
As I conclude this article, I have mixed emotions. I pity that child of God who does not see the importance of being in the fellowship and membership of one of the Lord's true churches. He is like a glowing ember that is removed from a bed of coals and is soon black and smoking. It gives no heat and no light and smells of smoke. He is as salt that has no savor and is cast out to be trodden under the foot of man. He is like a light that is covered by a bushel basket.
I feel concern for those around this unchurched child of God. He is a stumbling block and not a good influence for Christ. He has shown that he despises (lightly esteems) the local church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I pray that God may open your eyes, if you are an unchurched child of God, and show you that you tread under your feet the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ when you sever yourself from the services of his church. May he show you that you are especially guilty of this sin if you have severed yourself totally from the fellowship and membership of one of his churches. I pray that he might deal with you and give you godly sorrow and repentance for this.
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