Reception or Joining a Church?
by David Dunlap
Christians have debated for many years the issue of membership in the
local church. Some churches have taught that, unless a Christian is a church
member, he cannot partake at the Lord's Supper, be married in the church, or be
involved in ministries of the church. Some have gone so far as to refuse to
recognize baptism from other evangelical fellowships and insist on re-baptism.
What does the Bible say about fellowship in the local church?
What is "Reception"?
Many churches talk about "joining a church", but the language the Bible
uses for fellowship in the local church is not "join" but "receive". We read in
the New Testament:
"Receive us; we have wronged no man, we have corrupted no
man, we have defrauded no man"
(2 Cor. 7:2) ;
"When Apollos was disposed to
pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to
"For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest
him forever, not now as a servant but above a servant, a brother beloved,
especially to me but how much more to thee, both in the flesh, and in the
(Philemon 15-16). We might define "reception" as the welcoming of
Christians into full Christian fellowship, privileges, and responsibilities
local assembly. The Bible never uses the word "join" in referring to entrance
into the universal or local church. When a person trusts in Christ as his
he is "added"(Acts 2:41, 47) to the body of Christ, or the universal church. As
we look closely at the New Testament, we see the word "received" used over
twenty times in regard to fellowship in a local church. Reception as a New
Testament doctrine is near to the heart of God, for it expresses the unity of
church and the nature of the body of Christ, and it refocuses the believer on
Christ rather than on church polity. New Testament churches received into their
local assemblies those who knew the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and did
not participate in moral or doctrinal error. In some cases, they may have been
weak or untaught Christians, but nevertheless, they were received on the basis
being received by the Lord in salvation.
ye one another, as Christ also
us to the glory of God"
"Him that is weak in
the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations...for God hath
(Rom 14:1). The New Testament emphasizes four essential principles when
receiving a believer into fellowship: (a)
without respect of persons (Jms
him that is weak in the faith (Rom 14:1); (c) Receive him on
the basis of spiritual life and not the degree of biblical knowledge (Acts 9:26,
him on the basis of spiritual life, not on church affiliation
(3 Jn. 9-10). Some, to whom this distinction is new, may object. One may say,
"Isn't this difference between joining a church and reception into church
fellowship merely a trivial nuance or a play on words?" What is the important
difference between these viewpoints?
What is the Difference Between "Reception" and "Joining a church" ?
When we look at this question, we must never lose sight of the fact that the
church is not primarily an organization or institution but a living body. The
Testament lays great weight on this truth. The church has a head and members, it
is indwelt by the Spirit of God, and it is composed of living stones.
"You also, as
living stones, are built up a spiritual house and holy priesthood to offer up
(1 Peter 2:5). This truth must greatly influence any view on
the doctrine of church membership. If the church is a living body, how then
one join such a living New Testament assembly? Many Church leaders would
reply by outlining the typical process of joining a church. However, it should
pointed out that it is biblically impossible to
a church. Although many may
strongly protest this statement consider the following illustration. Can an
itself, join the human body? Of course not. To join the body of Christ means
one is still outside. If a believer is a part of the body, then there is no
to join. We, as believers, are already in the church and are, therefore, joined
fellowship with one another. Thus, it is neither necessary nor possible to join
church. Of course, when one moves from the area of one local church to the area
of another local church, he is
into the fellowship of that new group of
believers. The New Testament teaches that entrance into the local church is
upon the same principles as entrance into the body of Christ. This doctrine has
been understood by Bible students and scholars for many years, yet is largely
neglected by many within the local church. The British New Testament Greek
scholar F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) writes:
Along a similar line, Dr. Robert L. Saucy, a professor at Talbot
Theological Seminary, CA, writes:
"There is no indication that Paul regarded the conditions of fellowship in the
universal Ecclesia (church) as differing from the conditions for fellowship in
the local Ecclesia...The universal and the local Ecclesia alike were wholly
made up of men who had each for himself believed, whose baptism of each
was the outward expression..."
Many will give theological lip service to the truth of reception but then
question its relevance. There is a distinct difference between joining a church
being received into the fellowship of a local church. What lasting spiritual
implications might be involved?
"At the time of salvation believers are first
‘called unto the fellowship of his
Son Jesus Christ, our Lord'
(1 Jn. 1:3). This fellowship or participation with
Christ constitutes the believer as a member of the universal church in the
sense of the spiritual reality of the unity of the Spirit in the body of Christ.
But the New Testament does not stop with this fellowship. For when one is
called into fellowship with God and made a member of the body of Christ, he
is at the same time brought into fellowship with fellow members of that
Why is this Difference Important?
One may say, "It is of no real consequence how a believer comes into the
church, but rather, how he functions once he is in it." There is some truth in
line of reasoning, but it does seem to miss the larger focus. All would
agree that departure from God's divine design for the church will have its
consequences. Would not the God of incomparable order and design have specific
purposes for the method of coming into church fellowship? What are some of
God's divine purposes for reception into fellowship of the local church?
, it safeguards against sectarianism, as it stresses the unity of the
One Body. God knows, more than we ourselves, that man has the tendency
towards sectarianism. Men will create conditions and build walls to keep out
certain kinds of believers from the local church. These barriers may be beliefs
concerning views on prophecy, favored versions of the Bible, baptism, or
issues of the day. Reception bypasses these walls and lays stress upon whether
or not a person knows Christ, thereby strengthening the unity of the one body of
, it stresses a vital living fellowship with Christ as the basis of
New Testament church life. The question is not primarily "are you baptized?" or
"What church did you last attend?" Reception focuses on the most important
issue in the believers life; do you have a vital living relationship with
heart of spiritual matters is usually a matter of the heart. When a believer is
proper fellowship with Christ, other areas of concern will usually fall into
perspective. Instead of focusing merely on the outward marks of Christianity,
reception places the main focus on the believer's life in Christ and his love
, it emphasizes the living Body aspect of the church instead of a
human organization. Reception stresses that Christians are welcomed into a
spiritual body where there is spiritual service and spiritual needs among its
members. In this gathering, each member is a "living stone" in a spiritual house
where Christ leads as the Chief Cornerstone. In this living body, each member
has a responsibility to Christ and contributes to the health and growth of its
members. Reception emphasizes being a participant in a living body, rather than
having a name on a membership list.
Finally, reception helps to re-focus the church on the very purpose of its
meeting together—the person of Christ. Reception is not merely being a part of a
religious center with its programs and activities. Joining a typical evangelical
church usually focuses on the requirements of the new members, such as tithing
and attendance, and the importance of the church's programs and activities.
However, reception focuses on the central attraction of the church—Christ. A
believer is received into a gathering of saints, of which the Lord Jesus Christ
head and center of worship. The very purpose of reception is to enable believers
to turn away from the world and to turn their hearts and minds toward the Lord
Jesus Christ in worship and service. This focus will by necessity invigorate the
spiritual tone of worship and service in the local church.
How is a Believer Received into a Local Assembly
When a believer visits a local assembly and shows interest in being an
active part of that fellowship, the elders should meet with him. This visit
emphasize the spiritual character of the local church. This time together should
also stress the mutual responsibility of the assembly to the believer and the
believer to the assembly. The believer has the privilege of giving in time,
financial resources, and the use of his spiritual gift to the blessing the of
believers.! The believer, armed with a servant-attitude, also has the privilege
displaying acts of practical love to the brethren in praying, sharing, opening
home, and visiting others (John 13:34).
The elders also have a responsibility to the believer. The believer will be
held accountable to maintain a life pleasing to the Lord in doctrine and moral
purity. The elders have a responsibility to the believer to disciple,
shepherd with the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ.! However,
reception goes further than merely
one into the life of the assembly.
The New Testament often uses the Greek word
Romans 14:1) and also
(Acts 15:4, 18:27) when setting forth the
doctrine of reception. These words indicate that reception is more than the
welcoming of a believer into the fellowship of an assembly. These words show
that it includes hospitality, teaching, and the spiritual care of these new
in the assembly. This principle is beautifully illustrated in the example of
and Priscilla. When this couple saw the spiritual zeal in Apollos, they took
, ie. nurtured, taught, etc.) him into their home and began to
teach and encourage him in the faith. The Greek words, used in Acts 18, show
the tenderness and care exhibited as they ministered to him.
to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Priscilla and Aquila heard, they
him unto them and expounded to him the way more
perfectly...when he was disposed to go to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting
the disciples to receive
(vv. 26, 27). Aquila and Priscilla
showed sacrificial hospitality, taught, and gave spiritual guidance; then, when
Apollos took his leave, a letter was written to the believers in Achaia asking
them to receive him in the same way. This passage draws for us a word
picture of what reception should look like in New Testament churches today.
Reception goes much further than merely accepting a believer into fellowship.
It must include spiritual care and teaching by the elders, along with the other
believers in the assembly.
Reception does not urge believers to join a new church or become
members in a new denomination, but rather, to share in a new fellowship with
those who love the Lord in their common salvation. New Testament churches
do not rejoice because a believer is now a member of their church or
denomination, but because the believer now shares in the fellowship of saints
as members of the body of Christ. This fellowship is emphasized throughout
the New Testament. In the Lord's Supper, the cup is the
blood of Christ",
and the bread is the
of the body of Christ."
New Testament churches do not ordain ministers of the gospel but extend to
"right hand of
(Gal. 2:9). Monetary gifts that are sent to
support efforts in the gospel at home or on foreign soil are said to be
"fellowship in the gospel"
(Phil. 4:19). This fellowship was never considered
by New Testament writers to be "partial", or "Sunday morning only", on the
part of believers, but rather "steadfast" and continual. May all churches take
up this New Testament pattern, striving to set forth reception and fellowship as
a hallmark of their position in Christ and their love for Christ and for each
Fred S. mead estimates 1,500,000 members of baptist churches hold to the
Landmark position and doctrine
Handbook of Denominations,
fifth edition, Abington Press,) p. 45
(2) F. J. A. Hort,
The Christian Ecclesia,
(New York, Macmillan, 1897), p. 169-170
(2) Robert Saucy,
The Church in God's Program,
(Chicago, IL: Moody, 1972), p. 102
"Those who have
received Christ by
faith must receive
all Christians by
basis of the
love of Christ to
As Christ also
received us, to the
glory of God.
"We do not join the
church. Rather, we
are already in the
therefore are joined
to one another.
When a believer is
receives new life,
he is not only
resurrection life but
is also put into the
church by the
power of God. It is
God who has put
him in; thus he is
already in the
church. He is an
insider, so he has
no need of joining."
another as Christ
has received us.
Here is the basis
for reception in
assembly. We do
not receive on the
social status. We
received, in order
to promote the
glory of God".
BIBLE & LIFE
A non-profit ministry of Bible and Life Ministry, Inc.
Bible & Life Newsletter is published periodically and sent out free of
and is supported entirely by the free will offerings of the Lord"s
To join our mailing list, correspond, or to receive details of where to send cheques, please email
at the following address: