At Christ’s first Advent, by means of the incarnation, He offered the Jewish nation the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. He offered Himself, the Son of God, as their King. As a nation, Israel rejected Jesus as their King and Messiah. Not only did they reject Christ as King, they asked for and received the crucifixion of their King and Messiah. Becaus of Israel's national rejection of their king and God’s program, it put God’s program for the Jewish nation on hold until Christ would come to earth the second time. At this future time the Jewish nation will accept Christ as their King and Savior. This rejection and crucifixion of Christ, opened the way for the blessing aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant to come to the Gentiles. Paul speaks of this fact many times in the Epistles, and in Galatians 3, he makes that fact very clear.

Galatians 3:13-14 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"), 14 that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

This blessing of Abraham has reference to...

Genesis 12:1-3 Now the LORD had said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. 2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

The continuation of God’s Eternal Program with the emphasis of “all families of the earth” is known as the Church, or the mystery form of the Kingdom. The Church was not built on the Old Covenant, nor is it a further development of the Old Covenant. As a non-Jew, we have no rights to the covenants of God with Abraham through natural birth. Jews living during this present time have no rights to the covenants of God with Abraham, because the covenants have been suspended due to the rejection of their King, who is the only One Who could fulfill and activate those covenants. God is not One to be caught off guard, so from eternity past, He had provisions already built into the covenants for just such events. Those provisions are found in the blessing aspect of the Abraham Covenant to all families of the earth. This blessing of Abraham is further developed in the New Covenant. “All families of the earth” include both Jews and Gentiles. This blessing to all families of the earth was not dependent on a certain earthly birth line. It is instead dependent on a spiritual birth through Christ, Who was the fulfillment of all aspects of the covenants.

Under the Old Testament economy there was a difference in how a person accessed God, depending on:

These differences had to do with physical birth and/or physical activity. Under the New Testament economy there is no difference in how a person accesses God.

Galatians 3:27-29 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

In all of Galatians, but especially in chapter 3, Paul talks about how we, non-Jews, become part of the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant(Galatians 3:13-14). We who are in Christ through faith do not become a part of the nation Israel, nor do we become the, so called, New Testament Israel. Anyone who is Christ’s through faith is part of His Church which Christ said He would build on the "Rock", the fact that He, Christ, was the Son of God.

1 Peter 2:6-10 Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, "Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame." 7 Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone," 8 and "A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense." They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. 9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.

Christ is the chief cornerstone of the church. When Christ came in His first Advent, He became the stumbling stone to the Jewish nation. As a result, their building, or the program of God for them was put on hold for a time. Since the rejection of Christ by Israel, those who believe in Christ become a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a special people. Before salvation, we were not the people of God, but through faith in Christ, we become a people of God. Those who believe in Christ, both Jew and Gentile, become the Church of Jesus Christ founded on the solid Rock, the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 11 For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each one's work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. 14 If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

All those who have accepted Christ as personal Savior make up what has been termed as the universal church of Jesus Christ”. Most of the instructions for the church, and as far as that is concerned, most instructions for Christian growth were given by the Holy Spirit to local churches. There is a growing trend among Christians, which says that the local church is not important, and sad to say, it finds much of its strength among churches referred to as Bible Churches. We are members of the Universal Church, so therefore we need not be members of a local church. After all, our service and worship is to God, and we don’t need the sanction or restrictions of a local church for either service or worship.

That sounds good on the surface, and certainly lessens the need for personal commitment and dedication. Such an attitude allows many to be bedside Baptists, or sideline Christians, or grandstand Believers, etc. One problem with that stance is that a person must ignore a great deal of the writings of the New Testament. Ignoring a great deal of the New Testament is a very dangerous position for any New Testament Believer to find themselves. Most of the writings of the New Testament were written to local churches. The instructions for properly living the Christian life involve the dedication to, and the direction of a local church. We will look at those subjects in more detail later in this series. For now, I want to emphasis a fact that is self-evident, even to the causal reader of the New Testament. It is a fact, however, that has been clouded by the teaching of some very great church leaders of the past and present. God recognizes the existence, importance and autonomy of local churches.

There is very little argument about the fact that Paul was God’s chosen Apostle to the Gentiles. He was also chosen by God to reveal the major truths of this new thing called the church, especially to the Gentiles.

1 Timothy 2:5-7 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, 7 for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle-- I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying-- a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Paul was appointed a preacher and an apostle to speak the truth concerning Christ’s death, through which He paid the ransom for all, both Jew and Gentile, and thereby became the one Mediator between God and Men. All of that describes the conception and birth of the Church. Paul was appointed by God to give the information needed so that we would understand the Church concept, and how the Church fits into the whole Eternal Plan of God.

Galatians 2:7-9 But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter 8 (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), 9 and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
Romans 11:12-13 Now if their (Israel’s) fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches (the church) for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! 13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,
2 Timothy 1:8-11 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, 9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, 10 but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.

Once again, without question, we see that Paul was appointed by God to bring this message of:

The other Apostles also gave us information in these areas, BUT putting all of these things in a correlated package of understandable teaching was Paul’s special calling of God. Peter confirms this fact in...

2 Peter 3:14-16 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation-- as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.

Paul, himself, attests to this fact several time in his writings. Paul gives us one of the clearest and most extensive explanatiosn of this fact in Ephesians. Looking at just a portion of Paul’s explanation will help cement in our minds this fact of his special calling of God to reveal the truth and function of Christ’s Church.

Ephesians 3:1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles-- 2 if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, 3 how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I wrote before in a few words, 4 by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), 5 which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: 6 that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, 7 of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.

Paul received, from God, a dispensation. Don’t let that big word scare you! It simply means an administration or stewardship, and those mean:

dispensation = (Webster) A furnishing or tendering according to a prescribed rite or formula.

God, by special revelation, gave to Paul the rite or formula concerning the Church:

  • How it fits in the Eternal Plan of God
  • How it relates to Israel
  • What are its claims on the covenants, promises and adoption (this is in the context)
  • How it is to function, etc.

In other words, Paul is charged by God to give us the formula of the Church’s existence, organization and function. As Peter said, other apostles comment on and expound those truths, but it was to Paul that these things were revealed by God, and Paul was charged with the task of dispensing that information.

By this time, most of you are saying, “We know all that, and we believe all of that.” That’s good! It is impossible to have those truths too firmly planted in our minds as we study the truth of the local church. If the foregoing things are true (and they are), and you firmly believe them (and I hope you do), then it would be safe to assume that we can follow Paul’s lead when it comes to both the universal church and the local church! You will grant me that bit of rhetorical overstatement, won’t you?

Paul wrote 13 epistles. 9 were sent and addressed to local churches. 4 were sent and addressed to individuals. Unless Paul also wrote the book of Hebrews, all of his epistles were directed to local churches, or individuals. None were general epistles written to the universal church at large, unless we consider Ephesians a general epistle. That summation becomes a bit stronger when we realize that:

  • the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ was directed to 7 local churches
  • Peter confirms that Paul was given the grace to reveal the church
  • the first deacons(?) served in a local church (how-be-it a large local church)
  • all three of the epistles to Timothy and Titus were written to give instructions concerning their ministry in the local church.
  • Philemon, even though written to take care of a personal matter, addresses the “church in your house”
  • John, in his first epistle, indicates that he is writing to a local church.
1 John 2:18-19 Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
Romans 16:3-5 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ.
Colossians 4:15 Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.Philemon 1:2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Titus 1:4-5 To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior. 5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you--

And the list and references go on and on and on. No honest Bible student, or so called theologian can honestly say that the New Testament takes the local church lightly. Some who are of this persuasion might say, “I’ll concede that the Bible does give the local church a measure of importance, but nowhere does it say that the local church should have membership.” Well., that is sort of within the ballpark of being almost right. Then on the other hand, the Bible also does not say we should have a building and lot to put it on, or chairs, or pulpits, or hymn books, or pianos, etc. The Bible does not tell us to have a lot of things, yet it does indicate that many things would be a very good idea to have or do. The Bible does not tell us to have a bank account, and checks by which we draw on that account to pay the bills. After all, when the Lord was here on earth and His mobile band of followers organized, they had all their money in a “bag” and Judas carried it with him. Please, keep in mind that I’m not making any comparison between Judas and our esteemed treasurer.

No, there are hardly any direct instructions, given in the Word of God, as to specific functions, items or procedures for the local church. However, there is a great deal of information indicating that some things should be incorporated into the operation of a local church. If Christ had given specific direction as to the operation or function of a local church, the church would have been obsolete long before the last of the apostles died. Times change, and specific instructions concerning function and operation which would have been fine in the first churches, would not, nor could they work in a church 100 years later, or 2,000 years later. God knew that fact. However, theologians are sometimes a bit slower picking up on these things than God. Instead of God giving a pre-made church constitution engraved in stone by the finger of God, He gave principles or teachings that should be followed. Therefore, the organization of any local group of Believers should be of such a nature that they can carry out those Biblical teachings in their local area, and at their time in history.

The principles laid out in the epistles for the local church have never changed! God’s teaching for the church, and the gospel for the world has never changed in any detail! If we were to change one jot of tittle of that teaching, we would and should be considered a heretic, or an extremely poor student of the Word of God. However, the methods of teaching this never changing information, and the manner of proclaiming that Gospel to the world has changed, and must change. Likewise the organization and function of the local church must change.

The organization and function of the local Church may need to change from one side of the city to the other. The message is holy, and we must be willing to give our life to protect it and proclaim it, but the church constitution will need to be changed from time to time, and should be done without the shedding of blood! The shedding of blood is reserved for our redemption once for all. Any organization, any rules, any constitution, any program of a local church should be for the purpose of effectively carrying out the marching orders for the church given by Christ, and all things should be done for edification.

That brings us back to the subject of local church membership. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this subject would probably find its way into the Top Ten Hottest Subjects for the budding theologian, or even for the gnarly old weather beaten theologian. No, church membership, along with almost any other organizational subject is not commanded, nor is there any direct reference to such a transaction in the New Testament. However, some form of church membership is assumed by the actions of the early church and Biblical teachings. We will look in more detail at the ins and outs of this subject later. For right now, I want to simply establish the fact that there was some form of membership in the churches mentioned in the New Testament. Let me call your attention to a passage in which we have already looked.

1 John 2:18 Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.

There had to be some method of knowing who the "us" and "they" were as mentioned in this passage. This passage certainly indicates that they did not give the “theys” who left letters of transfer. However, it is clear that those at the local assemble knew who “they” were, and that “they” were not a part of “us”.

Just a couple more accounts that give credence to the fact of church membership. There was the account in 1 Corinthians of a fellow who was living in immorality with his father’s wife (probably his step-mother). Paul tells the church at Corinth to turn him over to Satan, and not to have fellowship with him. Then in 2 Corinthians, Paul says to reinstate him, because he had repented.

2 Corinthians 2:4-7 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears, not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you. 5 But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent-- not to be too severe. 6 This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, 7 so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow.

There must have been some way of knowing who were the “all of you”, and who were the “majority”. This may not have been some formal membership role, but there was some type of accounting so they knew who was a part of the church, and who could participate in the function of the church.

Acts 6:1-7 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 "Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 "but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word." 5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. 7 And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Here we have the account of the first church board. I don’t know if they were called deacons, elders, or just what. They were probably called waiters, because their job was to take care of distributing food to the widows. We will see their function a little more when we look at the operation of the local church. For right now, we want to see some very obvious factors that show that they knew who were “of the their number”. The number of disciples was multiplying v.1. Then after the appointment of these seven, we again see the number of disciples multiplied greatly. If they knew that the number increased greatly, there had to be some way of knowing what the number was in the first place.

I once had a preacher say, “That’s simple! When they all got together, the group was bigger.” Well, it’s not quite that simple. For one thing they did not have a nice church building in which to gather each Sunday morning. Sometimes, some of them met at the Temple, and other times they went house to house in fellowship.

Acts 2:44-47 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.

Someone is sure to say, “See it says vs 44 they were together. Therefore, they could tell if the multitude increased by just looking!” I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this “together” does not mean in the same place. As a matter of fact, this Greek word really should not be translated “together” without some qualifying phrase in connection with it.

together = (Greek) in itself signifies nothing more than again; To reflex in unison. It is a pronoun in the Greek, and is used in the New Testament 296 times: 84 same, 42 himself, 31 thereof, 20 therein, 14 yourselves, 11 themselves, 10 thereon, 8 those, 5 very, 4 this, 3 Jesus, etc.

As we can see they were acting in unison, but not all in the same place at the same time. No, that church at Jerusalem had some way of knowing who was “theirs”. They evidently kept quite good records, also.

Acts 2:41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.
Acts 4:4 However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

It wasn’t very long until “to be counted among” the number who embraced the “Way” was very costly. During the persecution of Nero and others, the meetings of the church had to be in secret places. In and around Rome, the major meeting places of the church became the catacombs. At that time, it was necessary for those attending the church services to be dedicated to the cause, without reservation. If someone who was in opposition to the church found out where they were meeting, it was sure to mean mass executions.

To keep the place of meeting secret, they had to change locations often, and they didn’t take out an ad in the paper to announce the new location. Of course they wanted all Believers to know the meeting place, and to come for fellowship and edification. Therefore, the “sign of the fish” became the symbol of membership, and pointed out who was part of the church function. The sign of the fish didn’t have its beginning on the back of a chariot. If you didn’t know the “sign”, you had no part in the church.

The way it worked was like this. Let’s say you met someone on the streets of Rome. As you talked, you might wonder, “Is this person a Believer? Can I tell them the place of meeting?” So as you talked, you would slip off your sandal, and with your bare toe you would doodle in the dust of the road. In your doodling, you would make a little squiggle line which was half of the sign of the fish. If the person you were talking to took their toe and completed the other half of the sign of the fish, you would know they, too, were a member of the underground church, and you could safely tell them the place of the next church meeting.

Church membership is not that costly today. However, if it were that costly, we would have better churches, and the purpose of the church would be accomplished. For the most part, church membership means very little to the average church member, today. As a result, the average church is doing very little towards accomplishing Christ’s Great and last Commission. Would you be willing to meet for church services in the catacombs next Sunday, with the threat of death if the wrong person knew of the location? Would you be willing to put your life on the line just to tell someone else where to meet for fellowship?

How little does it take to keep you away 
from the fellowship and service of the church?
The church is only as solid as its members
© Clyde White, Austin TX, 1998