The universal body of Christ provides immediate “membership” to believers in Christ (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Eph. 4:3-4). This world-wide universal body of Christ is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. The local church assembly needs not to offer “membership” but rather “fellowship” to true believers in Christ, as they are received into the local testimony of the saints gathered in His name (1 Cor. 1:1-2)
Reception into Assembly Fellowship
This truth is often misunderstood, and in more recent days neglected in the local body of believers. Assembly fellowship is a wonderful privilege and with it comes serious responsibilities, of both a spiritual and a practical nature. Two of Paul’s epistles, Romans and Philemon, seem to have been written in part at least, to facilitate the reception of two believers into a local assembly fellowship, Phoebe in Rome (Rom. 16:1-2) and Onesimus in Colosse (Phm. 1:12-17).
Responsibility of Those Received into Local Assembly Fellowship
Scripture would teach us that local assembly fellowship has certain responsibilities associated with such a privilege. Paul writing to Timothy expressed that the saints must know how to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Luke records for us in Acts 2:42 four areas in which local believers are to be “continuing steadfastly,” often referred to as the four pillars of the New Testament Church: the apostle’s doctrine (teaching), the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in prayers. As one is received into the local fellowship, the following biblical truths are to be personally embraced.
Acceptance of the biblical truths and doctrines of Scripture held by the local church, whose biblical authority is none other than the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:14-16; 3:15-17).
Submission to the care and discipline of the elders who rule over the flock as under-shepherds of Christ, and who must give an account to the Chief Shepherd (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).
The development and exercise of spiritual gifts given by the Lord for the edification of the body of Christ. There is no room for Sunday morning only “pew warmers” in the local church. Each believer has a place and responsibility to serve, not only to be served. Spiritual needs are met when each believer seeks to meet each other’s needs (Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 1:6).
Faithfulness unto the gathering of the saints, supporting each other, as an enclave of love and security, as the days grow evil and our Lord’s return is nearer (Heb. 10:23-25).
The Term “fellowship” as found in Acts 2:42 is better understood from the original language of the New Testament containing four distinct avenues of thought: 1) partnership 2) participation 3) communication 4) distribution, each understood as it applies to the benefit of one another in the local body of saints. From these four areas, a greater understanding of fellowship is gained.
The Biblical Pattern of Receiving Saints into Fellowship
It is the Lord who adds to the fellowship of the local church. It is the responsibility of the saints, administered by the elders, to “recognized and receive” believers into the fellowship of the local church gathering in accordance with biblical instruction (Acts 2:41, 47; 1 Cor. 3:6-7). Therefore, it is the responsibility of the local assembly elders, under the direction of the Lord, and with prayerful exercise, to receive saints into the local body of believers.
Newly received believers should acknowledge that local church fellowship is a “strong” and enduring “bond” of unity, not a temporary whim or fancy. The word used for “join” means to “cleave to, to join fast, glued to, cemented” in association with the company of. Some professing believers were not willing to join in fellowship with a local body, due to what would be expected of them. Therefore, fellowship in a local church was considered a privilege that carried with it certain responsibilities. Some chose not to accept the cost involved. It should never be viewed as that which is the “popular or social” thing to do in a so-called Christian culture for personal recognition.
There is a clear understanding of who is “in fellowship” and who is “out of fellowship.” Saints don’t slide in and out of fellowship unnoticed (Eph.1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; 1 Cor. 5:4-13). Fellowship is granted on the basis of a commonality of “new life” in Christ and a “walk in the light” of God’s Word (2 Cor. 6:14-18; 1 John 1:2-3, 6-7). This includes the weaker, untaught believers as well (Rom. 14:1; 15:1-5). Conversely, those living in unconfessed sin, holding to false doctrine, or under discipline from another assembly fellowship, are areas which should delay reception until matters are fully investigated, and/or restoration and forgiveness is granted (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Fellowship is extended in the spirit of God’s grace and love, with all humility, as Christ has received us (Rom. 15:7; 1 Pet. 5:3-5; 3 John 9-11). New prospects for reception into local assembly fellowship should be interviewed by the oversight regarding their spiritual condition and willing commitment to the Lord and the responsibilities of the local church (Jude 3-4; Heb. 13:17).
Newly received believers should be “read into fellowship” publicly to the gathering of the saints. Good communications within the church seems to be part of Paul’s admonishment to do all thing “decently and in order” and without confusion (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). Believers transferring between one local fellowship to another should likewise be “received into fellowship” in a similar procedure. A letter of commendation from the previous assembly fellowship can expedite the process and is a good practice to follow as Paul did on behalf of Phoebe and Onesimus (Rom. 16:1-2).
We recognize it is difficult to implement a “Reception Policy” if one has been ignored for an extended period. The best practice would be to acknowledge that it is lacking, and begin to implement a biblical process as the assembly moves forward in the will of the Lord, and in prayer. Communication to the existing body is essential, so that things are done “decently and in order.” The oversight has the primary responsibility, yet there is liberty in methodology and the counsel of the Scriptures. The action of “voting” by the congregation is not a biblical practice. Strong leadership is essential, with patience and determination to act in unity following the example given to us by the early New Testament Church. Such men gave themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude” (Acts 6:4-5a).