By Rev. Eric D. Maefonea (SWIM)
Once again, I invite you to our continuing discussion of the above topic. Last week we looked at the birth of the Church and the pictures used in the New Testament to describe the Church. This week, we will discuss the criteria’s for becoming a member of the Church as stated in the New Testament.
Adherence to revealed truth, among the early Christians, was the standard. ‘And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers’ (Acts 2:42). Paul warns of false teachers arising within the Church (Phil. 3:2), and Peter echoes the same solemn theme. Throughout the New Testament there is emphasis on doctrinal purity and holiness of life. Doctrinal and moral impurities are to be purged from the Church (1 Cor.5:7).
God’s ‘called out’ people were designated ‘saints’ (Eph. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; Phil.1:1). They met together for worship and mutual upbuilding of spiritual life (1 Cor. 14:3, 5, 19; Col. 3:16). The Church was an evangelising fellowship whose purpose was the communication and preservation of the gospel message throughout the whole world (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8). Paul’s letters placed little stressed on evangelism, possibly because early believers were naturally and effectively evangelistic. He wrote to the Thessalonians, ‘For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith towards God is spread abroad, so that we need not to speak anything’ (1 Thess. 1:8).
Christians were to be servants, meeting the physical and spiritual needs of both believers and non-believers. ‘As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith’ (Gal. 6:10). Christ Himself was the example; He ‘went about doing good’ (Acts 10:38).
As Leon Morris puts it, ‘During the history of the Church there have been many variations from the New Testament pattern. Indeed, there are so many gaps in our knowledge of what went on in New Testament times that we cannot be quite sure what constituted that pattern. Even those groups who claim to model their polity exactly on the New Testament cannot be certain they have succeeded…No attempt seems to have been made to fasten any pattern on succeeding generations, for no authoritative directions were given as to the mode and perpetuation of the ministry. Ministerial forms have evolved in a variety of ways.
That there was some organisation at the local level in New Testament times seems clear. There were stated meetings (Acts 20:7); elected deacons (Acts 6:5, 6); membership discipline (1Cor. 5:13); letters of commendation (Acts 18:27); and lists of widows for support (1 Tim. 5:9).
God gave spiritual gifts to the Church. ‘He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:11, 12). The purpose of these gifts is ‘the perfection of the saints for the work of the ministry’. There is no clear distinction between clergy and laity, either in terms of church government or spiritual ministry.
Hammond outlines the three periods in the New Testament ministry. The ‘first period’ is with our Lord’s ministry with the seventy (70) whom He commissioned; second, the apostolic ministry of those who had specially delegated authority from the Lord to give authoritative leadership in the Church after Pentecost; and third the ministry of deacons, elders, and bishops. The three pastoral epistles (1, 2 Tim; Titus) give the principles of and qualifications for the ministry.
The second is the ‘transitional period.’ During most of the lifetime of the apostles, and until the New Testament had been circulated to the various Christian communities, there were special gifts, such as prophecy, in the Church. The object of these was to enable the local community to receive the New Testament revelation of Christ direct from the Spirit of God. When the apostles had completed their work, some of these ‘gifts’ ceased. For instance, there was not an unending succession of apostles and prophets (cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11).
The third is the ‘permanent ministry.’ A bishop, or elder, was to teach spiritual truth and exercise rule and discipline in the local church (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7). ‘Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their manner of life’ (Heb. 13:17, cf. 1 Tim. 5:17).
Deacons helped in administering the business of a church (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-12), though it is clear there are spiritual overtones to their activity. In view of the many denominations and sects throughout Church History, it is surprising that all forms of Church government and views of the ministry fall generally into one of three groupings: the episcopal, the presbyterial or the congregational.
Each genuine Christian, regardless of denomination, is spiritual one with every other believer. All are in the Church Universal. We are united in Christ, who is our life. There is no such thing as ‘lone-wolf’ Christianity. If we are obedient to our Lord, we will identify with and join other believers for worship and service. In so doing, we not only contribute our own unique gifts to the fellowship, to be used by God to help bless others, but ourselves as well.
It is important for us now to look closely at the one factor which gives basic shape to everything the church does, the element which lies at the heart of all its functions, namely, the gospel, the good news. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus announced that he had been anointed specifically to preach the gospel; later he charged the apostles to continue his ministry by spreading the gospel. Without doubt, then, the gospel lies at the root of all that the church does.
Jesus entrusted to the believers the good news which had characterised his own teaching and preaching from the very beginning. It is significant that, in the Book of Mark, the first recorded activity of Jesus after his baptism and temptation is his preaching the gospel in Galilee (Mark 1:14-15). Similarly, Luke records that Jesus inaugurated his ministry in Nazareth by reading from Isaiah 61:1-2 and applying the prophecy to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
There is hope, and it comes to fulfilment when we believe and obey the gospel. Because the gospel has been, is, and will always be the way of salvation, the only way, the church must preserve it at all costs.