I am just converted. Which church should I join?
This question is a very common one, but what is not often appreciated is the flawed terminology used in it. What is implied here is membership of a particular Christian company to the exclusion of others. Thus people speak of becoming members of a Baptist chapel, of joining the Brethren or of being admitted to the Anglican Church. This is not to say that there is no contact between various bodies, but membership itself is what serves to distinguish and set apart one body from the other: If I am a member of one company, then clearly I am not a member of another. Let us test this by what God has laid down in His Word––that Word which ought to be binding on our souls and consciences.
In the NT, the concept of membership is linked exclusively with the body of Christ: “For we are members of his body” (Eph. 5: 30). This body is the whole world–wide Church (Eph. 1: 22), and I become a member of it when I put my faith in Christ. Christ only has one body (Eph. 4: 4) not several. Thus the idea of Christians taking out memberships of other bodies supplementary to their membership of the one body is really a denial of the unity of the Church.
What about Acts 9: 26–28 where we read of Paul joining the disciples in Jerusalem? Does this not, at least, teach the need for membership of ‘local’ churches? To understand this it is important to realise that while the Church of God itself is one, on account of geography and numbers, it cannot assemble in one place. Thus for the sake of practical convenience we have ‘local churches’––but this does not alter the overall unity of the Church as a whole. Why did Ananias call Saul (or Paul) “brother” and why did Paul associate with the disciples there in Damascus (Acts 9: 17–19)? Because he was a member of the body of Christ. On moving to Jerusalem why did Paul seek to join the disciples there? Again, because he was a member of the body of Christ. Why then did they consider refusing him? Because they were unconvinced of his membership of the body of Christ (see v26). His joining them had nothing to do with taking out a membership of a local church but refers to their acknowledgement of him as a member of the Church––their acceptance of him as a Christian.
Every Christian company should be practically gathered on the ground of the one body. What do I mean by this? Simply that everything is done with a view to the whole. (Thus for the saints in Jerusalem to reject Paul would be for them to reject Damascus as well, where he was accepted). No company should have only itself in view––a mere segment of the Church. If a person is given the hand of fellowship it is because he is considered suitable for Christian fellowship anywhere. Similarly, if a person is put out of fellowship it is because he is regarded as disqualified for Christian fellowship anywhere. Furthermore, if I speak of the ‘local assembly’ in a town, then I must think of every Christian in that town, and not just those with whom I gather. They may not all come together in assembly, but they are still part of that assembly.
Fellowship is a mutual matter––I agree to walk with someone, and he agrees to walk with me. There is no basis for my demanding he take out a membership of the company I am associated with. Membership of what? He is a member of the body of Christ, free of any Scriptural disqualifications for fellowship. Is that not enough? If he is a Christian why make him into a Baptist, or whatever? We ought simply to admit our common purpose of heart and come together. This is not to suggest that people should feel free to come and go as they please. Fellowship must be genuine: if we walk together we acknowledge our responsibilities to one another, as well as our mutual privileges. This is far removed, however, from denominational membership. God recognises two things on earth today (Israel being set aside)––the individual saint (1 Cor. 6: 19) and the Church (1 Cor. 3: 16) and that is all I ought to recognise. In a day of ruin, the faithful servant is to pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart (see 2 Tim. 2: 22), but this is only so many individuals walking together. They do not have a corporate identity themselves, but seek to walk in the light of the only corporate identity that God recognises––the Church.
So what is before my eye? The whole Church of God or some narrower corporate body? What is before the eye of Christ is abundantly clear: “Even as the Christ also loved the assembly, and has delivered himself up for it” (Eph. 5: 25). I would urge all my readers to remember that they shall only find Christian fellowship that is in accord with His mind by having hearts as wide as His.