Shelby G. Floyd
What a blessing it is for all of us to come together and worship God. In a congregation where I preached there was a man that visited from time to time. He would fill out a visitor’s card, and on it he would write, “I am a member of the church of Christ at large.” All of us are members of the church of Christ at large. But are we all members of the church of Christ at small? Today I am speaking on the topic of “Joining the Church.” I have never preached on this topic in over 54 years of ministry. All of my life I have heard that you do not join the church. Is it true that we do not join the church? The answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which we do not join the church. And there is a sense in which we do join the church. Therefore we can have it both ways.
THE UNIVERSAL SENSE OF THE CHURCH
So I ask all in our audience, are you a member of the Lord’s church? Are you a member of that body of which Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18-19)? If so, you are a member of the church of Christ at large. But I add, are you a member of a local congregation? Are you a member of a group of people that assemble each Sunday on the Lord’s Day to worship Almighty God and honor our Lord Jesus Christ? This would involve partaking of communion, contributing to advance the work of the church, offering up prayers as sweet incense to the Almighty that he might hear us and help us in whatever we have need. It also would include singing the joyful songs of Zion and studying the word of God. Are you a member of a congregation of people like this congregation? That is the question!
Since we have all heard that you do not join the church, there is a sense in which we do not join the church. We cannot have open membership. What do we mean by that? Well, someone cannot just walk in and say I want to be a member of this church, like you would some secular club. Even in joining social institutions they have qualifications and prerequisites before membership is granted. There are all kinds of conditions in joining different organizations.
Therefore I ask, how does one become a member of the church of Christ at large. I am talking about the universal church.
CHRIST IS THE FOUNDATION AND HEAD OF THE CHURCH
The term church is used in several different ways in the Bible. For instance, when Jesus was up in the area of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I the son of man am? Simon Peter spoke up and said, some say you are John the Baptist, others say you are Jeremiah or one of the old prophets.” Here we have different answers, many answers, and they are all wrong answers. Jesus was not any of those people mentioned. Then Jesus asked the apostles a direct question: “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter who is always impulsive and quick to speak said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus complemented Peter and replied,
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18 NKJV).
Notice that Jesus said he would build his church up on “this rock.” Now at this particular time (February 24, 2013), the Roman church is without a head. For the next few weeks the Cardinals will be choosing a new pope. Can one possibly imagine the church of our Lord Jesus Christ being without a head? No! Jesus said to Peter (petros), you are a small rock, but up on this rock (petra), a large Gibraltar like rock, I will build my church. No, my friends, the church is not built upon the foundation of the apostle Peter for he was a weak, wavering man who made a lot of mistakes. But the church is built upon the great confession that Peter made that Jesus is the Christ the son of the living God. Neither is the church build upon the great apostle Paul, for he said to the church at Corinth, “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). All of the apostles taught that Jesus was the foundation of the church and even the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-22). There is no foundation of the church except Jesus Christ. And there is no head of the church except Jesus Christ! Paul declared, “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Paul repeats the same thing in his letter to the church at Colossae: “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18).
MEMBERSHIP IN THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH AT LARGE
Logically, we now ask how one becomes a member of the universal church that Jesus said he would build upon the rock of his deity. The best place to find the answer to that question is to go to the time the church had its beginning. The church was prophesied in Isaiah two, Daniel two and Joel two. Those prophecies find fulfillment in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts two. Open your Bibles to that place. I am not just talking off of the top of my head. I know what I’m talking about. All of the apostles are baptized (figuratively overwhelmed) in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). Because the apostles were speaking in a multitude of languages they were charged with being drunk. Peter refuted that false charge. He did not let it go unanswered (Acts 2:14-21). And then he launched into a great sermon about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Those facts are the very heart of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). And at the conclusion of that sermon he courageously charged many in his audience with being guilty of crucifying the very son of God: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). He then quoted King David to the effect that “His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” Acts 2:31-32).
CONDITIONS OF SALVATION AND MEMBERSHIP IN THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL
And when his audience heard that powerful penetrating charge, many in the audience cried out and said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” What shall we do to escape the guilt, the power, the stain and the consequences of our sin of murdering the son of God? How do guilty sinners escape condemnation and find forgiveness of sin and membership in the church universal? Listen to the answer. This is not some preacher talking off the top of his head. This is an inspired man and he reveals how one may be saved. This is the Bible answer. This is not my answer, but the answer of the word of God:
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
Now they obeyed what is called “the gospel” (Romans 10:16). The gospel is the good news of the death burial and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sin (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). They obeyed that gospel when they believed, repented of their sins, confessed Christ and were immersed in water for the forgiveness of sin. Did anything else happen after they completed their obedience to Christ? Yes something else did happen. Near the end of the second chapter of Acts the Bible declares “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
THE SAVED ARE ADDED TO THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL
They were saved when? When they obeyed the gospel! How did they obey the gospel? When they believed, repented of their sin and were baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of sin. That’s when they were saved. And what did the Lord do then? He added them to his church. So when everybody obeys the Lord like they did, then you are added to the church universal—the church at large. One then becomes a member of the worldwide congregation of Christ. That is how we become God’s people. It is that simple.
And then notice as the church grows and expands from Jerusalem into the surrounding area. People were being saved on a daily basis and the Bible declares: “And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14). “Added to the church” and “added to the Lord” is the same thing! They were added! And everyone who has obeyed the gospel plan of salvation can claim to be a member of the church universal—the church of Christ at large!
MEMBERSHIP IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
Now, the question is, how does one become a member of the local congregation of the church universal. A congregation is not the church of Christ universal or at large, but a local congregation of the universal church or congregation. A congregation is a group of people that assemble on the Lord’s Day to worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24). A congregation is made up of people who have obeyed the gospel and caused the Lord to add them to the church universal. Congregations of Christ vary from just a few families to hundreds of families. Sometimes these congregations assembled in someone’s house. These congregations are located all over the world. The Lord adds the baptized penitent believers to the church universal, but to what local congregation does he add anyone? That is a choice that each person must make.
SAUL OF TARSUS WAS ADDED TO THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL
In the book of Acts we read of a man who was a violent persecutor of Christ and the church. His name is Saul of Tarsus. He is a bad man. He is a Jew who hates Christ and his followers. He hates Christians because he believes them to be imposters. He considers Christianity a false religion. And he is doing everything within his power to stamp out this new movement. He has received letters from the high priest and he is traveling all the way up to Damascus, Syria to arrest any Christian who calls on the name of Christ. He will then bring them back to Jerusalem and put them in prison. But God can save evil people. Saul thinks he is a good person and almost perfect. At that time the Jews looked down upon the Gentiles as if they were dogs.
As he nears the city of Damascus he noticed a bright light shining from heaven. And it blinded him. And a voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, it is hard for you to kick against the goad.” I grew up on a farm and I know what a goad is. It is a pole with a nail in the end of it to punch the side of a cow and make them move on.
And so the Lord is trying to get Saul to understand that he was like an animal kicking against the goad. You are not going to win. Saul said, “Lord who are you?” Jesus replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Lord what would you have me to do? Go into the city and it will be told you what you must do. He was blinded by the light and his companions led him into the city of Damascus where he inquired of a man who lived on Straight Street. He was very penitent and would not eat or drink anything for three days. Ananias the preacher came to him and told him what he must do in order to be saved. And the record says, “Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). In order to get the full picture of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus one must consult Acts 9, Acts 22 and Acts 26. He was told to “Arise and be baptized and wash away his sins” (Acts 22:16).
Having obeyed the gospel, Saul of Tarsus was added to the church universal. And for some days he identified himself with the disciples at Damascus and even preached the gospel to those who were living there. But the tables were turned. Saul the persecutor becomes Saul the persecuted! It became known that there was a plot to kill him. The church lowered him over the wall in a big basket and he escaped without harm. Saul headed back to Jerusalem (Acts 9:19-25).
SAUL IN JERUSALEM
Saul left Damascus and traveled about 100 miles back to Jerusalem. When Saul was at Damascus he was a member of the universal church and had identified and was working with the congregation there. But now he is in Jerusalem and desires to work with the church there. How is that going to work out? Luke informs us in Acts of apostles: “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26 Emphasis SGF). Did Saul join the church? Well he tried to join the disciples. We will discuss what it means to join the church. You may already have an idea, but we will make it more graphic so everyone can understand. When he tried to join the disciples at Jerusalem they were all afraid of him. Every congregation should be alert to those who would come in to spy out our liberty in Christ Jesus. The elders and preachers must always be on their guard for the wolves who come in wearing sheep’s clothing. The leaders of the Jerusalem church were afraid of Saul of Tarsus. Would you not be afraid of a man of whom you had heard was putting Christians to death? Of course you would. They did not really believe that he was a disciple of Christ.
BARNABAS RECOMMENDS SAUL FOR FELLOWSHIP
Saul is a member of the universal church but not a member of the Jerusalem church. He wants to join the disciples there, but they will not have him! He has changed from being a Jewish persecutor to a Christian being persecuted. But the Jerusalem church does not know this. Thankfully, his good friend Barnabas recommends him to the disciples at Jerusalem:
But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out. And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus.
SAUL JOINED THE CHURCH IN JERUSALEM
The lesson we emphasize here is that the Jerusalem church questioned a man who had a reputation for persecuting a congregation of Christians. That is the right thing to do. Before they would admit him to join the group of Christians at Jerusalem they needed to know something about him. Upon the recommendation of his good friend Barnabas, Saul now became a member of the local church in Jerusalem and he joined the disciples there in the work of propagating the gospel. Therefore it is good to have a letter of recommendation when we travel from one part of the country to another location. That will help the leaders to know something about us when we join a new group of Christians. In summary, we have emphasized that when Paul obeyed the gospel the Lord added him to the church universal or at large. When he left Damascus and came to Jerusalem he wanted to “join the disciples.” When he was found to be a faithful disciple, then he became a member of the local church at Jerusalem. That is the sense in which we are to “join the church.” And this means that we are to be faithful.
But the persecutor becomes the persecuted. When it was not feasible for him to continue his work in Jerusalem because of persecution, the church recommended and sent him back to his home at Tarsus in Cilicia.
“JOIN THE DISCIPLES” DEFINED
Now, having established that there is a sense in which we “join the church” or “join the disciples,” it is in order that we define what we mean by “join.” Remember when Saul of Tarsus was confronted by the preacher Ananias who asked him, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Did he do what he was told to do? Yes he did, for the Scripture says, “And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received site forth with, and arose, and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). Therefore the Lord added him to the church universal (Acts 2:47). This all took place in Damascus, Syria.
Because of persecution, Saul was forced to leave Syria and go to Jerusalem. Then the Bible tells us, “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). It is the idea of what it means to “join” the disciples that we now wish to further amplify. “Join” is derived from (κολλαω-kollao), and is defined “properly to glue, glue to, glue together, cement, fasten together; hence universally to join or fasten firmly together; in the New Testament only the passive is found, with reflexive force, to join one’s self to, cleave to.”–Thayer. The idea is that literally Saul wanted to be an integral part of the congregation at Jerusalem. And this meant that figuratively he would fasten himself to them like something that had been glued together. Our word “gluten” derives from this word. Let us look at several ways in which the word join is used in the New Testament. They will illustrate the relationship that the members of the body of Christ should have with the Lord and with each other in the congregation or local church.
HOW “JOIN” IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
1. The idea that in marriage the husband is “joined” to his wife: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5 Emphasis SGF). Jesus is quoting what was said at the beginning in the book of Genesis. Suppose a young man and young woman are joined together in marriage and after a short time the husband informs his wife that he has decided that he will be gone for several weeks. A wife would not put up with that kind of a relationship. And yet we observe that many Christians who “join the disciples,” but shortly their attendance and devotion is not very faithful. They may be gone and not worship for weeks at a time. Will the Lord put up with that kind of relationship? Are they really joined, glued and cemented to the Lord and the congregation? A husband and wife are joined together in love, family, and in working together to be all that a marriage should be in the eyes of the Lord. And the Bible teaches that Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride (Ephesians 5:23-31). Christ is joined to his bride and his bride should be joined to him (Romans 7:1-4). Therefore, we “join the church” in faithfulness like a husband would be joined to his wife and become one family. At the Heartland congregation we are one family, and one body “joined together” with love and affection for one another.
2. The idea of dust “clinging” to your shoes or feet: “The very dust of your city which clings to us we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near you” (Luke 10:11 Emphasis SGF). Jesus is sending out his apostles to preach the gospel and he tells them that if the people do not receive them they are to wipe the very dust that clings to their shoes or feet. Brothers and sisters we need to “stick” together or “cling” together in serving the Lord. So the idea when we “join the disciples,” is that we should cling together like the dust that sticks to our feet or shoes. The idea is that we have a strong bond with the Lord and with each other. We are glued or cemented together in love and devotion to Christ and the church. Every congregation would accomplish a lot more work if we would have that kind of a relationship with each other.
3. The idea that some were fearful to “join” the leaders of the church: “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people” (Acts 5:13 Emphasis SGF). The apostles were the leaders of the church as long as they lived. But even while they were living, elders or overseers were appointed in every congregation (Acts 14:23). The elders were over the church under the headship of Christ. Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles and lost their life. This is why some were afraid to “join” the apostles. Any disciple who would be divisive and disruptive should fear to join a congregation where the elders and the whole church will not tolerate such rebellion (cf. Acts 20:28-31; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; Titus 3:10-11). Individuals who are bent on doing the wrong thing should be fearful of “joining the disciples!”
4. The idea of being joined to another person in studying the Scripture: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it” (Acts 9:29 NRSV Emphasis SGF). The preacher Philip was told to join a chariot in which a man from Ethiopia was returning home. He was reading Isaiah 53 and did not understand who the prophet was talking about. “Philip began at that scripture and preached unto him Jesus.” When we join a congregation we need also to join ourselves to able Bible teachers and study the scriptures. This we are commanded to do (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:15-17).
5. The idea that people from all backgrounds ought to “join,” “associate” and “keep company with” each other to serve God: “Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28 NKJV Emphasis SGF). During the Old Testament biblical times Jews and Gentiles did not socialize with each other. All mankind were classified either as Jew or Gentile. In Acts of apostles we read of the apostle Peter going down to the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. Cornelius was a good man, benevolent and one who feared God. God convinced Peter that he should not call any man common or unclean. Peter related to Cornelius, “Of a truth I perceived that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that fears him and works righteousness is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35). After hearing the gospel preached by Peter, Cornelius and his household were baptized into Christ and became members of the church universal (Acts 10:47-48). And there is no doubt that they continued to associate or keep company with each other in the local congregation at Caesarea. Today, the gospel is for everyone and we are free to associate or join ourselves in company with anyone who obeys the gospel and desires to serve the Lord Jesus Christ.
In summary, when we are baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of sin, the Lord adds us to the church universal. Then it is incumbent on every baptized believer to “join” a local congregation and associate with other Christians to serve God. Our relationship with the Lord and our fellow Christians can be summed up in Paul’s exhortation to the Christians at Rome: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9 NKJV).
Copyright © 2013 2016 Shelby G. Floyd, All Rights Reserved
Shelby G. Floyd delivered this sermon February 24, 2013 at the Heartland Church of Christ, 1693 West Main St., Greenwood, Indiana.
Shelby G. Floyd
Heartland Church of Christ
1693 West Main Street
Greenwood, Indiana 46142