Questions from an Assembly Observer: Reception

An older Christian couple moves to town. Previously, they have attended various evangelical churches. They are looking for a new “church” and decide to check out the assembly on Sunday morning. They are greeted warmly at the door and ten promptly and politely escorted to seats at the back to “observe.” Not sure if they should be curious or offended, they immediately grill the elders with the query, “Why can’t everybody who is a Christian participate in the Lord’s Supper?”

Leaders in the local assembly need to treat visitors with respect, balancing the explanation of truth with the tenderness of love. We are living in days of tremendous tolerance in every area of life and great concern for what is “politically correct.” However, as Christians, we must first be concerned with what the Bible teaches. Practices in the local church must be based, not on public popularity, but on precepts from God’s Word.

When we do not receive all who come as Christians, are we ignoring the command of Peter: “Love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous” (1 Pet 3:8)? What about Paul’s words to the Roman believers: “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye” (Rom 14:1)? Should we receive based on the doctrine of the One Body? Or, is reception into the local church based on agreement concerning the Biblical principles of New Testament church truth?

Defending the Doctrine

Paul tells Titus, “But speak thou the things that become sound doctrine” (Tit 2:1). The oversight in each assembly has the responsibility to see that the flock is properly taught the truth in God’s Word. They also have to ensure that those who hold to other doctrines not be given opportunity to teach in any assembly meeting. What would happen if any believer from any “place of worship” were allowed to get up at the end of the Breaking of Bread to teach God’s people? That is a time bomb of potential conflict and confusion. It could also happen that an unknown brother in Christ, passing through the area with a desire to break bread, could worship in such a way as to cause doubts or difficulties. For example, many today do not hold the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ. Whether in teaching or in worship, expressing such thoughts could confuse, divide, and harm believers.

Foundation of Fellowship

Acts 2:41-42 shows a very important order regarding church truth. Those that heard the Word of God in Jerusalem first received it; secondly were baptized; then they were “added.” Before we read that the new believers enjoyed “fellowship,” we see that they “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” Therefore, the foundation for fellowship in the local assembly in Jerusalem, which ought to be our pattern as well, was the apostles’ doctrine, or the Word of God. The Breaking of Bread is the highest expression of this fellowship, and we must understand that we do not receive to the Breaking of Bread, but rather into the assembly where one of the privileges and priorities is the Lord’s Supper.

Paul explains the same truth in 1 Corinthians 10:16-21. He makes clear that if I eat at a certain table I am expressing fellowship with that table. We are not referring to the piece of furniture in the center on a Lord’s Day morning, but rather the sphere of fellowship that we enjoy. If a true believer, not in assembly fellowship, arrives on a Lord’s Day morning with the desire to break bread, we ought to be able to explain to him that fellowship is based upon full agreement concerning doctrine. The fact that he attends another “place of worship” indicates that he is in agreement with what they practice there. Perhaps he has not even taken the second step of obeying the Lord in baptism. Allowing him to break bread would be a tacit approval of the system in which he is involved. We must not separate the privilege of breaking bread from the responsibility to hold firmly to the foundation of fellowship which is Scriptural truth.

Paul writes to the Romans about receiving the “weak in the faith” (14:1). Some would use this verse to tell us that those who are “untaught” should be received to the breaking of bread. Paul, however, is expressing the need to accept those who do not understand the liberty that they have in Christ in regards to their diet or their observation of certain days. The idea of receiving here does not have to do with those who are not in assembly fellowship, but rather with the need not to judge those already in the assembly for their scruples, but instead to welcome them with affection and brotherly love.

We do need to be open to receive visitors who do meet in a Scripturally gathered local assembly. In the New Testament, visitors were received based upon a letter of commendation (Rom 16:1) or upon a personal commendation (Acts 9:27).

Safeguarding the Sanctity

In 2008, we see tremendous moral laxity in the world. Those who are going to participate in the fellowship of a local assembly need to be blameless in their morals. It is again the apostle Paul who helps us understand when he writes to the Corinthian believers, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you” (1 Cor 3:16)? Later he writes, “Do not ye judge them that are within?” (1 Cor 5:12). He is teaching that the overseers have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that those in assembly fellowship are living holy lives, separated from the filth of this present evil world. If there is sin in the life of a believer who comes with a desire to be received as a visitor and he is not in a local assembly where sin is judged, he will defile the assembly, which is the temple of God.

So when you hear the question “Why do you not receive all who come as Christians?” remember the local assembly is a place where the truth of God is upheld, the fellowship is both doctrinal and practical, and it is a holy place that must be preserved for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.