We are to be people of the book, a people who do only those things for which we have Bible authority (Col. 3:17). When people are new to an area, they are often encouraged to place membership with a local congregation. First, do we have Bible authority for such an action or is it simply a tradition of men which should be discontinued?
There are several avenues by which we obtain Bible authority for this action. After the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, we find him going to Jerusalem. “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” (Acts 9:26). Join is a word which means to glue together (it is the word used for being cleaving to one’s wife, Mat. 19:5). Vine states of this word, “in the sense of becoming associated with a person so as to company with him, or be on his side.” While we do not have the terminology of placing membership, this is what Saul intended to do when he came to Jerusalem.
We also find this principle by considering the nature of the work of elders in overseeing those who are among them (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). For elders to properly do their work, they must know those sheep who are their sheep which they are to care for and protect. Placing membership with a local congregation is simply stating that you are putting your soul under the care of those shepherds (cf. Heb. 13:17).
Since there is Bible authority for the practice of placing membership with a local congregation of God’s people, let us consider a few practical ideas concerning the practice. Why is it that brethren believe that we must simply accept anyone who wishes to place membership with a congregation? Additionally, why is it that elders (or the leaders of the congregation) do not make an examination of one who desires to place membership with the local congregation? What happens so often is that a person (family) will come down during the invitation song and state that they wish to place membership with the congregation. It is then announced to the congregation that so-and-so has placed membership.
When Saul “assayed to join himself to the disciples” in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26), the disciples would not accept him. “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” (Acts 9:26). Only after Barnabas vouched for him, was he accepted by the disciples. Were the disciples wrong in this or were they using appropriate caution? If Saul’s conversion had been a ruse, then without their caution they would have exposed all of them to one who was attempting to destroy them. After learning from Barnabas about him, he was accepted into their fellowship. “And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:28).
Elders (leaders) of a congregation today who do not first examine one who desires to place membership with the congregation, exposes the congregation to far more damage than the physical harm which Saul could have brought to the church at Jerusalem. They expose their congregation to spiritual harm!
Jesus stated, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Mat. 7:15). Peter would state, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Pet. 2:1). Without prior examination before accepting one into the fellowship of the congregation, we might be accepting a wolf that is coming in sheep’s clothing. Elders have an obligation to watch for the souls of their flock. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). Elders will have to give an account on the day of judgment for those who are members of their congregation. Is it not folly to fail to examine those who want to come into the flock they have been given care over and make sure they are not a wolf?
However, we are finding another problem today in the church. There are many liberal (unscriptural) congregations who are now accepting into their membership those from the denominational world. These individuals are not even Christians, and if congregations simply accept into one’s fellowship those individuals, that congregation is giving them the appearance that they are in an acceptable relationship with God when they are not! These individuals need to be taught the Truth so they can become Christians. Also, today there are many who are in adulterous marriages (and other sins) who have been accepted by liberal congregations. By what stretch of the imagination can one deduce that a congregation should accept into its membership (fellowship) an individual and then immediately have to withdraw their fellowship from that one to whom they have extended it?
What needs to be done today instead of just accepting one into our fellowship based upon the request of that person, the leaders of the congregation need to examine that person and what he believes and teaches. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). They also need to examine his conversion to make sure that he is a Christian in the first place. Then they need to consider his life to make sure that he is living in a proper relationship with God (he is not involved in any unrepentant sin, nor has been withdrawn from by another congregation). This simple practice would save many a congregation a heartache because they would not extend fellowship to those to whom they should not.
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