by William J. Stewart
Saul left Jerusalem, headed for Damascus, intending to arrest any Christians he found there (Acts 9:1-2). On the way, he met the Lord, and in Damascus, he was taught the gospel and baptized by Ananias (Acts 9:17-18). Immediately he began to associate and work with the Christians in Damascus (Acts 9:19-22). However, a plot against his life (Acts 9:23-25) made it necessary for Saul to leave Damascus.
He returned to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples there (Acts 9:26). They did not receive him. He claimed to be faithful to Christ, but they did not believe him.
Barnabas seems to have had knowledge of Saul’s conversion and work among the disciples in Damascus, since he was willing to take him to the apostles (Acts 9:27). To do so without evidence of Saul’s faithfulness would be devastating for the church, since Saul was a known enemy (Acts 8:3; 9:1).
After hearing about Saul’s conversion and preaching, the Jerusalem church received him into fellowship (Acts 9:28).
Luke didn’t write this as a neat tidbit about the apostle Paul’s life. This text is one of a handful on congregational membership. Let’s notice what the Bible reveals about becoming a member of a local church.
- Being a member of a local church is important. If it were not, Paul wouldn’t have sought to join the disciples. Go-it-alone Christians are foreign to the Bible. The benefit of fellowship is in the local church. God-designed spiritual leadership is in the local congregation. Being a member of a local church is important.
- Membership with the local congregation is assumed for the one who has just been baptized. There is nothing about Paul or any other who had just been baptized making a request for membership or being examined by church leaders prior to being received into fellowship. By obedience to the gospel and confession of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), they are accepted into fellowship. Acts 2:41 simply says they were added to them. The only time this may not be so is if an individual was baptized while traveling, and has no intention of remaining there. In such a case, new converts ought to join a group of disciples after returning home. Perhaps a good example of this is Onesimus, who was baptized by Paul in Rome. He felt it was necessary for this runaway slave to return to his master (Philemon 1:10-17), who was from Colosse. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul referred to Onesimus as “one of your number” (Colossians 4:9, NASB). He was accepted as a member in the church at Colosse.
- It is right for those in leadership to seek proof of the faithfulness of any who desire membership in the local church. It was after they heard details of Paul’s conversion and work in Damascus that he was received in fellowship. We want to be sure, first of all, that those who seek membership in the local church have actually obeyed the gospel, that they are Christians. Further, we want to know they are faithful to God. In the New Testament, we read of a practice where people who went from one place to another might have a letter of commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1; Acts 18:27; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:3; Romans 16:1-2).
- If one comes our way seeking to be a member of the local church, it is right to find out if there is sin present for which they have been withdrawn from by another congregation (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14). If there is, such must be remedied before they could be received as a member.
- Likewise, before receiving someone as a member, we want to know what they believe or teach. Paul said we want to be of the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). To that end, John said we must test the spirits to see whether they are of God or not (1 John 4:1). Again, John warned the church of those who go beyond the doctrine of Christ, and said not to receive them (2 John 1:9-10). If there are differences on matters of opinion, it is neither here nor there. However, there should be agreement on matters of faith if we are going to have fellowship and work with one another.
- There is a distinction to be made between attending a church and being a member of a church. Unless we have closed assemblies, anyone may attend a meeting of the church. That does not make them a member. Non-Christians may assemble with us—they are not members. Christians who are traveling may assemble with us—they are not members. It is even possible for a Christian to assemble with a local church for a time and still not have been received into membership.
Paul went to Jerusalem, seeking to join the disciples. After his faith and works were known, he was received as a member. He was described as being “with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out” (Acts 9:28).
It is important for a Christian to be a member of a local church. It is equally important for a local church to be careful in receiving members.