We will look into three questions regarding initial reception into a New Testament assembly.
Why should we exercise care in reception?
The Word of God warns us three times of the possibility of some coming into the assembly who should never be in a NT assembly. Paul warned the Ephesian elders of this possibility: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29, KJV).
Then we read in Galatians 2:4 of “false brethren unawares brought in,” which suggests treacherous duplicity on the part of some already in the fellowship. The word “unawares” (pareisaktos) is used only here in the NT, and it means “brought in secretly or privily,” as spies or traitors. W. E. Vine tells us that Strabo (a Greek historian contemporary with the apostle Paul) uses the word of enemies introduced secretly into a city by traitors within. These “false brethren” had an agenda with those who brought them in; they were Judaizers, brought in by the circumcision party to establish ceremonial law.
In Jude 4 we read, “For there are certain men crept in unawares.” The word here for “unawares” is used only once and means “to creep in stealthily” or “to slip in secretly.” This suggests three things, as shown in Jude’s epistle: that these men had a serpent-like origin; that they acted humble when they wanted to come in but the opposite when they got in; that they were apostates. Apostates are those who, having professed faith in Christ, then deny Him and the essential doctrines of the faith. A true child of God, although he can backslide, can never become an apostate.
God’s Word teaches that a NT assembly should have a definite “within” and a definite “without” (1Cor 5:12). The “unlearned” is distinguished from the “unbeliever,” and also from those in the assembly at Corinth. In 14:16 the “unlearned” is able to say “Amen” at the giving of thanks, but not the “unbeliever.” In verse 23 we read, “If therefore the whole church be come together … and there come in those that are ‘unlearned’ or ‘unbelievers’” (KJV). These two verses clearly show that the “unlearned” are believers not yet in the assembly fellowship. The words “side seat” or “back seat” are not in the NT, but the principle is there. At conversion, a believer is automatically a member of the Church which is His Body, but is not automatically in a local church.
The NT assembly is a place where discipline is carried out. Any assembly practicing “open reception,” receiving temporarily to their fellowship any denominational believer who will be returning to his denomination, cannot carry out discipline of those never in the fellowship. A denominational believer occasionally breaking bread is neither “within” nor “without.” If that person falls into a sin requiring discipline, how can they be put out when they have never been received in?
The NT assembly is a place of order (1Cor 14:40). There are many believers who are unaware of the principles of headship in the local church, so they do not know that sisters should be wearing a head covering and not be speaking audibly in the church gatherings.
The NT teaches that letters of commendation should be used (Rom 16:1-2; 2Cor 3:1). This practice shows that someone should not be received just because he or she claims to be a Christian. There were no sects in the early days of Christianity. How much more are letters of commendation necessary today!
Sometimes Romans 15:7 is used to support open reception, but the context of verses 5 and 6 shows conclusively that Paul is talking about receiving to our heart’s affection those who are already in assembly fellowship.
In view of these reasons from the Word of God, I hope that we can all see why we should exercise care in reception. Nehemiah 7:3-4 is an OT illustration of this principle. Nehemiah charged the gate-keepers that the gates were not to be opened until the sun was hot. Then they could clearly see whom they were receiving and whom they were refusing admittance to the city.
Ezra, in his burden for restoring separation of God’s people from the peoples of the land, illustrates the days of J. N. Darby, Wm. Kelly, and C. H. MacIntosh, a time when they were groping their way out of the darkness of Christendom. Today some are in danger of returning to it! So Ezra, in gathering all the people together to hear the Law of God read and to worship (with only the altar and temple for their worship), can hardly be used to support open reception.
Who should be received?
Only those who are born again should be received (1Cor 14:33). There are three expressions in Scripture of local churches in the plural. We read often of “churches of God;” they have their origin in God and they are His dwelling places. In Romans 16:16 we read “churches of Christ;” they belong to Him because they are His by purchase through His own precious blood. We also read of “churches of the saints” (1Cor 14:33), meaning, not that they belong to the saints but that they are churches of the saints by composition (Acts 5:13-14; 2Cor 6:14). Unsaved persons could not be expected to support the testimony with godly living; they do not even have divine life. They can also be a bad influence on the genuine believers (Num 11:4-5; 1Kings 11:4; Deut 7:4).
I have spoken to a number of persons in assembly fellowship who discovered that they had had a false profession, and then became truly saved. I have been struck that most of them found it very hard to give up their empty profession. So mistakenly receiving them could be a hindrance to them becoming genuinely saved. When possible, overseers are wise to not sit in on the interview when a close relative is being considered for reception, so as not to allow emotions or relationship to influence decisions. Two things should be obvious in a story of conversion: first, some evidence of conviction of their sin and lost condition and, second, some evidence that they personally appreciated that Jesus died for them. Another important factor in initial reception is a willingness to submit to the authority of the Word of God in their personal life. It is not a good sign if there is a lack of interest in reading their Bible and obeying the Savior who has done so much for them.
Only believers who have been baptized by immersion after salvation should be received. In the NT there are records of thousands of believers who were saved, baptized, and received into assembly fellowship, and not the record of so much as one unbaptized believer in assembly fellowship. The thief who was saved on the cross died the same day, so he was never baptized nor in assembly fellowship. The Lord Jesus gave only two ordinances: baptism and breaking of bread. It is inconsistent for any believer to be concerned about one of those ordinances and not the other.
– To be continued