to the Church
is debatable whether this article might have been better entitled "Jesusí Teachings About Church Membership," as this article was entitled when it was first prepared many years ago. But it has been decided to entitle it as above inasmuch as it is our desire to emphasize the responsibility of every truly saved person to be an active member of a true, sound, New Testament Church. Because this is very important for the glory of God, as well as for the good of the saint, church membership is not optional for any saved person, but is the Scriptural norm. Not only is the Biblical admonition "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together," (Heb. 10:25), but being added unto a sound church was the Lordís own authoritative practice, as we read in Acts 2:47: ". . . And the Lord was adding to the church daily those that were being saved," (literal reading).
The wickedness of rebellious man is such that he often tries to oppose one part of the Scriptures against another in an endeavor to escape personal responsibility. He assumes, either consciously or unconsciously, that two mutually contradictory Scriptures, or even one that is obscure in meaning, cannot be obligatory. Even genuinely saved, but backslidden, persons are sometimes guilty of this. Fallen human nature is notorious for endeavoring to manipulate Scripture for personal advantage, or to excuse from personal responsibility.
People assume correctly that Jesus is our great example, and that we are to follow Him after we are saved. The following of the example of Jesus cannot save, but it is the standard for right behavior after one is saved. Scripture abundantly declares this. "Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me," (Matthew 16:24). "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me," (John 10:27). "If any man serve me, let him follow me," (John 12:26). This is clear enough. However, it must be noted that the Lord also emphasized the fact that it is by His voice that He directs His sheep into the right ways of following Him.
Here is where many have made a serious mistake. They have assumed wrongly that Jesus had nothing to say relative to the responsibility of believers to be faithful members of His church. Because of the common error of teaching that no church existed until the first Pentecost after Jesusí resurrection, many assume that Jesus had no word of instruction to people relative to church membership. Indeed, it is the teaching of many that all that Jesus spoke relative to churches was only spoken prophetically of a coming church. Dr. C. I. Scofield must take a lot of the blame for this idea, for not only does he deny the existence of a church before Pentecost, but after that he has four kinds of churches, contrary to the Scripture truth of Ephesians 4:4a. There are many insurmountable difficulties attendant upon this theory, and its only purpose is to try to justify the theory that the Lordís church came into existence on Pentecost, something about which Acts 2 is totally silent. Pentecost was not the birth of a previously non-existent church, but was, in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, the enduement with Divine power of an already existing church.
This manmade theory about the origin of the church on Pentecost has already been dealt with and demolished in my books entitled "Studies On Church Truth," and so, we will not go into the matter again. Suffice it to say that one text of Scripture only is needed to show that when Jesus left the walks of men to return to His glory, He left His house of witness, the Church, here. This passage is Mark 13:34: "For the Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch."
Though this was a parable, every parable is, as a little child well said, "An earthly story with a heavenly meaning." Parables were given to teach the Lordís people the truth. For the most part, unsaved people could not correctly understand them, as Jesus taught in Matthew 13:10-16. Perhaps this explains why so many religious people do not understand such plain teachings as that found in Mark 13:34.
Here are all of the elements that Jesus taught and revealed in the days immediately before His ascent back to glory, and the likeness here is plain. Jesus left a "house," and to the members of this household He had appointed every manís work, and given authority to each of the servants. This house could only be one of two things, the Jewish Temple, which had been the house of God for several centuries, or the New Testament Church. Yet, it is evident from Matthew 23:38 that the Son of God had moved out of the Temple, and disclaimed any part of it as His House of witness because of its having been utterly corrupted. Jesus said "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate." This was henceforth only "your house"óthe house of the Jewsóand it was empty of its previous Divine Inhabitant. The "house" that Jesus left at His return to glory could only be the Church. And no endeavors to compel Scripture to teach a dispensational theory can justify perverting the numerous Scriptures that teach that Jesus founded His Church during His earthly ministry, and left it when He ascended back to His Father.
Now as to His teachings concerning individual Christian responsibility to become a member of one of His churches, this is set forth in Matthew 5:14-16. "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light to all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
This is part of what has been called the "Sermon on the Mount," and it was not delivered to the world as some sort of code of ethics, nor as an outline of Kingdom duties for the coming millennium, nor as a plan of salvation for lost people. It is an evidence of the foolish thinking and presumption of unbelievers that they often say, "I will live according to the Sermon on the Mount, and I will be alright." But this portion of Scripture has no application to any but true believers, for it was given to the Lordís disciples as an outline of Christian duty for His Church. In both accounts of this Sermon, (Matthew chapters five through seven, and Luke chapter six) it is addressed specifically to Jesusí disciples, (Matthew 5:1-2; Luke 6:20). True, the multitudes heard this Sermon, but that was only incidental, for it was delivered to and for the disciples alone. Not only so, but it was not delivered to them as individuals, but in their corporate capacity as the first Church.
This being so, it could not have been intended as a code of ethics for the world, nor as a plan of salvation, but it was a sermon on the responsibility of the saints in relationship to their church membership. It was Jesusí first sermon to His first church. In proof of this we are told in Luke 6:12-20 that this Sermon was delivered immediately after the calling out of Jesusí disciples from the multitudes, after which He then chose and ordained twelve as apostles, (v. 13). This was the constitution of the church, (the Greek word so rendered means a called out assembly), and, according to 1 Corinthians 12:28 was the first official act of Jesus relative to the Church. "And God has set some in the church, first apostles. . ." At no other time did Jesus ever appoint any as apostles.
The conclusion is inescapable according to all right rules of Biblical exegesis. After the whole night spent in prayer to God, (surely bespeaking the solemnity of the occasion), Jesus called out and constituted His Church, then chose and ordained the officers for the Church. This done He then instructed His Church as to its responsibilities. This is the only logical and orderly way of doing things. But wherein does individual responsibility concerning church membership come in? In Matthew 5:14-16, where we observe the following thingsó
I. CONSIDER THE CHURCHíS CHARACTER.
The church is characterized here first of all as "the light of the world," (v. 14). This is the title that belongs primarily to the Lord Jesus Christ, (John 8:12), but the Church is the Lordís representative, left in the world to bear witness of him. It is to reflect all of the spiritual truth that is in Christ Jesus alone. And all of the spiritual light that is presently in the world is due to the ministry of faithful churches of the past and present. But many people apply verse 14 simply to saved individuals, as this writer did until one day when there came the realization that the word "light" is in the singular, while the "ye" that constitute this light is in the plural. It is evident from this therefore that the many "ye"óthe members of that newly constituted churchóconstituted the one "light"óthe Jerusalem church. And so it cannot be reduced to individuals. Were this the case, then to be correct, it would have to read "Ye are the lights of the world." But it does not read this way. Did the inspiring Spirit make a mistake? I think not!
Therefore the church is characterized as being a light in this dark world. But the likeness is further drawn out by the Church being likened to a city upon a hill. Here again it is a single unit composed of many parts, or rather, of many lights, for this is what makes a city stand out at night. In 1953 this writer boarded the USNS Marine Serpent ship in San Francisco Bay, and sailed for Japan for a tour of duty there in the Air Force. Late that same night when the ship was then many miles out to sea, the myriad lights on the hills of San Francisco were still visible, lighting up a large part of the eastern horizon. It was a beautiful sight! But this is what the Church is to the world, an aggregation of lights, some bright, some dim, but all constituting the Church as "the light of the world" in its own community.
A third metaphor is also used of the Church in verse 15. The Church is a candlestick, or candlestand or lampstand, as the word might be rendered. This Greek word, luchnia, appears twelve times in the New Testament, and is always used in one of two ways; viz., either in a literal way of an actual candlestand, or else in a metaphorical way of something which resembles a candlestand. Thus, all twelve appearances of this word relate to some sort of light-bearers, either literal or symbolic. Ten of the appearances of this word are parallel in meaning and application with our present text. The other two are Hebrews 9:2, which refers to the literal golden candlestand in the Tabernacle, and Revelation 11:4, which refers to the two witnesses during the Great Tribulation as being symbolic candlestands. Once again, there is the single unit of the candlestand, but constituted of several lights that contribute to a single out-shining of light.
What shall we say then of these ten remaining verses which speak of candlestands? Here, as with every other thing in the Scriptures, the Scriptures are their own best interpreters. It is very easy for man to give vent to his imagination and to reason, and come up with some interpretation that will satisfy him. But neither imagination nor reason is needed, for the Scriptures clearly define the symbolic import of this word. "And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks. . .the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches," (Rev. 1:12, 20).
The candlestand symbolizes the Lordís churches in six of the seven appearances in Revelation. See Revelation 1:12, 13, 20, (twice); 2:1, 5. If this is not the meaning of this metaphor in our present text and its parallels, (Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:2 1; Luke 8:16; 11:33), then we know not its meaning, and cannot know its meaning. But it is as clear as the noonday sun that this is the meaning that Jesus gives to the word "candlestand" in every place where He uses the word. It is noteworthy that all ten times in which this word is used symbolically of the Church, it falls from the lips of the Lord Jesus Himself, or else is explained in the immediate context by Him to have this meaning, (Rev. 1:12-13). He is consistent in His usage of language.
In Matthew 5:15 our Lord declares the characteristics of His churches. They are light-bearers, and are to shine the testimony of Christ into the darkness of this world. But it is argued by some that "This means the Universal, Invisible Church." Not so! For this is something that "cannot be hid," (v. 14); "it giveth light unto all that are in the house," (v. 15); it is a light that men may see (v. 16). Not only so, but the definitive passage in Revelation 1:20, which declares the symbolism of the candlestand, applies it only to local, visible, particular churches. Of the seven churches of Asia that were symbolized by the seven golden candlestands, not one of them was either universal or invisible. In fact, if we may judge by history, there never entered into the mind of anyone the idea of an "Universal" church until two or three centuries after Christ. The Greek word so rendered (katholikos) is not found in either the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) or the New Testament. No mention is made of any such contradictory thing as a "universal" church until post-apostolic times when inspiration ceased, and the corruption of churches became so general as proud and ambitious men sought to bring more and more churches under their own dictatorship.
So long as the sovereignty and independency of each congregation was admitted and practiced no room was left for the proud assumptions of men aspiring to "the primacy of Peter." Therefore, these proud and ambitious men began to teach that Jesus had given Peter authority above all of the other apostles, that Peter had founded the Roman church and made it the religious capital and ruler of all other churches in the world, and that all churches were part of the "Universal, Visible and Apostolic Church, whose headquarters were at Rome. This was how the idea of a universal church began.
Once established, the Roman hierarchy kept this idea because it was necessary to maintain their hierarchy against all dissent. The "Universal, Invisible Church" was simply Protestantismís mimicry of Rome, made necessary by the evident disharmony of all the different sects of Protestantism, none of which had a historical existence before 1517 A. D. But if each could claim to be a branch of the "One, True, Universal, Invisible Church," then that would justify their existence, and it would make no difference how diverse they were from one another in belief and practice.
But such a biblically contradictory and confused system is not the Church of which Jesus spoke, for every metaphor used in the New Testament of the Church is such as implies locality and visibility. A "Universal" church of any kind is an absurdity and a contradiction in terms, for "universal" and "church" are mutually exclusive terms. Locality inheres in the word translated "church."
But we have digressed somewhat from our original purpose, and therefore, to get back to Jesusí teaching about church membership we mustó
II. CONSIDER THE CHURCHíS PURPOSE.
The purpose is suggested in the word "light" in verse 14. The purpose of the Lordís church is to shine forth in testimony of the Lord. The churches were not ordained to be mere social clubs for the entertainment of their own adherents. Their work is that of illumination, revealing manís fallen condition, and Christís adequate provision for manís need. The Church is Godís House of witness in this present dispensation, and its work is to carry the Word of faith unto the uttermost limits of the world.
A candle is not intended to be put under some cover so that its light cannot be seen, but is meant to be put in a prominent place so that its light may shine throughout the whole house. This is the purpose of the candle being put on a candlestandóthat its effectiveness might be increased, and harmonizes with the Commission that Jesus gave to His church after His resurrection. "Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations," (Matthew 28:19). "Having gone into all the world, preach the gospel to all the creation," (Mark 16:15). "But ye shall receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you, and shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judaea, and Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth," (Acts 1:8) [all rendered literally].
The Lord never intended for His truth to be left solely in the hands of individuals for this would almost certainly insure its being lost or corrupted, but He left it as the responsibility of His churches. Death conquers every individual in time, but death cannot conquer a church, for it lives on through generation after generation, so long as men realize their responsibility to it, and are faithful to their responsibility. To His Church, considered as an institution, Jesus gave the promise of victory over the gates of Hades, and a continual perpetuity. "Upon this rock [referring to Himself] I will be building my Church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against," (Matthew 16:18) [Literal rendering].
But though our Lord has promised that His church, as an institution, shall not die out, yet no such promise is given to any particular congregation, and history has seen the death of all particular churches except a few from the last two or three centuries. Therefore, every believer should realize his duty to help fulfill the purpose of the church, for unconcern is the slow creeping poison that destroys many churches from the inside. One does not have to be positively wicked to be detrimental to oneís church. One only has to be negligent about oneís duty. Many years ago, the writer felt the danger of unconcern and expressed it as follows.
I passed a church building just today
That was falling through with fast decay.
What caused this fate? I sought to learn.
Twas caused by Christiansí unconcern.
They voted not with upraised hand
The membership thus to disband,
But each by staying from its door
Has closed this church for evermore.
And I wondered as I mused within,
Have I been guilty of this sin?
Does my presence there assure
That my church will yet endure?
Or shall I with thoughtless unconcern
The blood-bought house of Jesus spurn?
If I do this, I cast my vote
For the "Closed forever" church door note.
Christian duty so far as perpetuation of the church of which one is a member may be summed up in one wordóMISSIONSófor this is Godís appointed means of doing so, and is the duty set forth in the Great Commission.
"A Baptist church is essentially missionary. Christís command constitutes its marching orders; His spiritual weapons make up its armor; the Ďends of the earthí are its objective. This principle should be inculcated in all who unite with churches. Too often they are received and neglected until a shock is needed to awaken them to missionary endeavor, as persecution scattered abroad the Jerusalem church. The pity is that some never awake. They live as missionary drones, die unwept by the church and go to wear a starless crown. If their souls are saved their works perish.í They are Ďsaved yet so as by fire.í"óG. W. McDaniel, Churches of the New Testament, pp. 27-28.
Too often churches lose sight of their purpose. Their "light" is turned wholly inward, and all things are directed for individual pleasure and comfort. They cease to be witnesses of anything except their own selfish indulgence and spiritual laziness. Such churches would be better off if they died out completely, and made room for a church that would faithfully measure up to its responsibilities. Unfortunately such is not generally the way that it happens.
How comes a church to fail of its purpose? A lack of emphasis upon the individual responsibility of every member is often the starting of it, and when this is coupled with a dependence upon others to make up this slack, becomes a case of chronic shirking of duty. Individual irresponsibility produces a like condition in the whole church. Too often churches assume this "Let someone else do it" attitude. It is to be feared that the uniting of churches into superchurch organizations such as conventions and associations and fellowships for the supposed purpose of greater efficiency often has this effect. Thus it becomes little more than a great circle of churches, each one of which points to the one to its immediate right and says, "Let them do it, as they are more able than we are." Such a condition is like an automobile with its motor running but its transmission in neutral. It makes a lot of noise and uses a lot of fuel, but it goes nowhere.
This candlestandís purpose is to "give light unto all that are in the house," that is, to be witnesses of the saving grace of God unto all that are in the inhabited earth. But this cannot be done unless there is the fulfillment of duty upon the part of every saved individual, which brings us to the crux of the whole matter. This portion of scripture also teaches the responsibility of every saved person to unite with the Lordís church. Therefore we mustó
III. CONSIDER THE CHRISTIAN DUTY.
A church can only fulfill its purpose if saved people realize their responsibility, and join themselves to the church. They must put their light on the candlestick where it may shine for the whole world to see. It is shamefully true that many who have been saved by the grace of God put their light "under a bushel." Often this is done deliberately in order to escape responsibility. A person knows that if he joins a church, he is responsible to contribute to its welfare by his finances, but he worships his money too much for that, so he just refuses to join. Or it may be that he knows that he will be expected to regularly attend, and to serve in the church, but being unwilling to misput himself, or give up his own time and pleasure, he just refuses to unite with the church.
Still others are unwilling to unite with a true church because they know that there is a certain amount of ridicule and reproach heaped upon sound churches by the corrupt and compromising world around them. And so, they are unwilling to "go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach," (Heb. 13:13), and try to just slide along with all the other rebels against the revealed will of God.
Then there are those that are willing to serve and honor God, but they become entangled in mere human organizations, and think that this is just as good as the church of the living God. How often do we hear someone say, "I can serve God just as well in the YMCA," or the Lodge, or this or that other human organization, "as I can in the church"? To such a person, we are inclined to ask, Where is your scripture and verse proof of this theory? Scripture declares that God gets His glory in His churches, (Eph. 3:21). And the person that thinks otherwise is deceiving himself. The church is a Divine institution, and no one can serve God as acceptably in a mere human organization as he can in Godís church. It is certainly true that these human organizations often perform good works, and find much acceptance in the eyes of the world, but it must be remembered that accomplishment is not the standard by which Godís people will be judged and rewarded. Neither does human esteem carry any weight with God. The standard by which God will judge His people is this. Have you been faithful? "Moreover it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful," (1 Cor. 4:2).
Can anyone claim to be faithful to the Lord when he has repudiated Godís House of witness, and rather honored with his presence, efforts and finances a mere human organization which is, in most instances, in direct competition with the church? Ah no! God will not account that faithfulness, and He will not reward it.
Jesus therefore teaches personal responsibility of saved people to unite with His church, for He says: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven," (Matthew 5:16). The word that gives the greatest force to this admonition, is a word which is often overlooked because of its seeming insignificance. It is the little word "so." This word, houtos in the Greek, is often translated "on this wise," (Matthew 1:18), "thus," (Matthew 2:5), "after this manner," (Matthew 6:9), "on this fashion," (Mark 2:12), "in this manner," (Rev. 11:5). It is an adverb, and it defines how the action of the verb is to be performed, or where it is to be performed. In Matthew 5:16 it shows where the light is to shine, for the reference is to the candlestand in verse 15. It is to shine "in this manner"óupon the candlestand. "Let your light of witness shine from the candlestand of the church." This cannot mean anything else than that the Lordís disciples have a duty to unite with His church and therein glorify God.
Any Greek speaking person would immediately grasp the full weight of responsibility that is here, but in the English it is often overlooked or ignored. How we need to emphasize this responsibility when so many people are despising the blood-bought House of Jesus. The New Testament example and teaching is clear on this matter, as we see from the literal rendering of Acts 2:47: "And the Lord was adding to the church daily those that were being saved." By contrast, who can cite even one example of an unchurched believer in the New Testament, except it be those who had been excluded for ungodliness? Sadly, in these last degenerate days there are multitudes of "believers" that are members of no church. There are perhaps even more of these than there are of those who are in the churches, and certainly many more than are faithfully attending the churches.
Church membership, while not necessary to salvation, is certainly necessary to right service, for God has decreed that this is where He will be glorified. "Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end," (Eph. 3:21). If a person says, "I will serve and glorify God in such and so organization," he is making God a liar, for God says He will be glorified in the church, and there is no intimation of any other acceptable place to serve Him. When it is said, "For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are Godís," (1 Cor. 6:20), it shows the instruments wherewith to glorify God, while Ephesians 3:21 shows the place to do so. It is presumption of the worst sort for anyone to think to dictate to God where, when and how he will glorify Him.
Now what does all this imply? First, it implies that a person must have a light before he can put it on the candlestick, and this must be lit in regeneration. There is no such thing as the "spark of divinity in every man" that some prattle about. Everyone in his natural state is in darkness, and only God can enlighten him. "For thou wilt light my candle: the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness," (Ps. 18:28). No candle was ever lit by an internal fire, for it is lifeless and cold until an external flame is applied to it. So neither can a man light his own spiritual candle. Only God can give eternal life.
But when once this candle is litówhen a person is truly born againówhat then? He is immediately brought under another obligationóto put his light of testimony on the candlestand of the church, and to let it shine before men. No one is faithful to his responsibility until he has done this, and no human organization is "just as good" as the Lordís church. Satan often tells this lie to try to make ineffectual the "house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth," (1 Tim. 3:15), for nothing is as effectual against Satanís kingdom as faithful churches.
Are You Obedient to Jesusí Will Regarding Church Membership?