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Visionary Church Membership

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Part 1 of 2
As I sit down to pen the meditations of my heart, it is with much prayer, emotional wrestling, and mental discipline that I sift and sort out a topic of this sort. For you see, when examining the church of today and the church of yesteryears, one cannot help but see that over and over again, division and deep disappointments and hurts have been experienced within the context of something that God created and intended to be one of His most beautiful, intricate miracles experienced in this life! Yet time after time, man in the pride of his own heart has wreaked havoc in this marvelous creation of God! (Pro 13:10). At times this is done when diligently seeking to faithfully present the bride of Christ “without spot or wrinkle,” which is her utmost responsibility. Other times schism to the body of Christ has been experienced when an individual or group of individuals tried to spare themselves from complete brokenness and surrender to the leading hand of God and their brothers. but often damage is done by a mix of both of these causes, and at times all parties involved are equally guilty.

So as I endeavor to stir up our minds, my heart’s desire is that (1) we are rooted in the understanding and belief that the church is the New Testament plan of God. Man bears full responsibility for the shortcomings and failures that have been experienced in the life of the church, and it is not that the plan of God is weak and should be improved upon. This is very fundamental and it almost need not be said, yet in times of struggle it is good to be rehearsed. (2) The only conclusions worth embracing are those that not only pass the test of the Holy Scriptures, but those that were taught and practiced by the daily life of Christ while He walked on this earth. If this is not the case, it is a waste of resources to expound any farther.

The Birth of the Church
God created man in purity and perfection. He chose man as the crowning work of His creation by giving him the freedom of choice. This freedom was ultimately expressed in his choice of disobedience and change of allegiance when he listened to the deceptive voice of the serpent. consequently, man was separated from his creator, and death passed upon all men. Man couldn’t do anything of his own to change his standing with God. The holiness of God was disregarded and He alone had set the consequence for this. Only God could make a provision for this irreversible deed to be pardoned and for man to once again have a relationship with Him.

God chose to start unfolding His plan of redeeming mankind from this deplorable situation to a man named Abraham. To him, God instituted the covenant of circumcision as a token of His promise to establish his descendants as a collected people, a people to whom He would be God, and a people for whom He would establish the land of Canaan as their everlasting possession. Any individual who did not follow this covenant was to be cut off from this blessed people of God. This called out nation was to reflect God’s holiness and values, and to them alone was given the Old Testament law. The law taught an acceptable way to overturn the consequence of sin, man’s separated standing with God. Once again, man possessed in his freedom of choice the ability to individually give his allegiance back to his creator by accepting His provision. The practice and teachings of this law, in the context of a nation, pointed forward and hinged on a time when it would be fulfilled and a new covenant would be introduced.

When Christ came, He fulfilled the Old Testament law in its entirety. The plan of salvation as practiced by the Old Testament saints in the context of a nation, was complete (Matt 5:18). He was the perfect Lamb that shed His blood as an atonement for the sins of the whole world and then, being raised from the dead, conquered the consequence of sin for all mankind who accept His sacrifice and live in obedience to God’s will. This provision was no longer offered through the specific, called out nation of Israel, but was extended to the whole world, thus ushering in the concept of a global kingdom of which Jesus Christ is Lord (John 3:16-17; Mark 16:15-16).

This kingdom teaching was hugely misunderstood in the minds of the people living in this time. Herod thought that Jesus was a threat to his position as king and took action, killing all the children that were in Bethlehem from two years old and under (Matt 2:16). Pilate didn’t know what to do with the idea that Jesus was a King (John 18:33-37). even the disciples thought that Jesus was going to set up an earthly kingdom and would free the Jewish nation from the rule of the romans (Acts 1:6). Again God chose to unfold His “kingdom plan” with time, and as the disciples of Christ took His teachings to heart and chose to obey, their understanding was enlightened. After their King’s death and resurrection, He told them to remain in the city of Jerusalem until they were filled “with power from on high” (Luke 24:44-49). Christ’s ascension into heaven, and the disciples’ obedience to this command, brought about the sending of the Holy Spirit, which instituted the birth of this spiritual kingdom, the church.

Entrance into the Church
Christ taught that being a descendant of Abraham was no longer needed to gain entrance into this kingdom (Matt 8:11-12; 21:43). This was also confirmed in the minds of the early apostles when Peter had the vision of the sheet that was lowered from heaven containing all manner of unclean beasts in it, and a voice told him to kill and eat (Acts 10:9-16). Peter reflected on the requirements that God had set in the Old Testament concerning this matter. He had followed these commands his entire life and refused to disobey now. but God showed him that because He had set the first standard, He alone had the authority to change that standard. After the vision, God brought clarity to the mind of Peter as to what this meant by sending him to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, who after hearing the gospel preached, received the Holy Ghost and was baptized (Acts 10:34-48). So what are the requirements for entrance into this collected, New Testament people of God?

(1) The New Birth is experienced in the life of an individual when he turns from sin and by faith believes in and acknowledges the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and confesses Him as his personal Savior and Lord (John 3:3-21). It is somewhat two fold, but there cannot be one expression without the other, or it does not bring about the New Birth. First there is the turning from sin or repentance, and then there is the belief and confession of Jesus Christ. Let’s look first at the aspect of repentance.

Because of the fall of Adam, we all are born in sin, and we committed sin (Romans 5:12; Isaiah 53:6). Sin, its presence and the practice of it, will bar a person from entering the chosen people of God. Jesus preached that repentance was necessary to enter the kingdom of God, and on the day of Pentecost, Peter set forth the standard of repentance as a requirement for receiving the Holy Ghost and being added to the church (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38-41). A person must turn their face from sin and be separated unto God in order to experience the promise God gave to His chosen people (2 Cor 6:14-18). This covenant of separation carries almost the same promises that the covenant of circumcision had. The church cannot mix herself with the uncircumcised of heart.

The other aspect of the New Birth is faith in the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus said of Himself that he came to do the will of the Father. This was his desire very early in His life, and He carried this purpose all the way to the end (Luke 2:49; Matt 26:39). The will of the Father was for Jesus to be sacrificed as the Lamb without spot or blemish. This plan was conceived in eternity past before man was ever created (1Pe 1:18-21). Jesus made it very clear as He walked on this earth that He is the only way back to a relationship with God (John 14:6). But this way back, although provisionally completed in the death and resurrection of Christ, still hinges on the choice of an individual. Each person must personally believe in his heart and confess with his mouth the Lord Jesus (John 3:14-17; Rom 10:9-10). Along with this confession, an acknowledgment that all men are equal gives one entrance into the church of Jesus Christ (Matt 16:13-18). Jesus explains that upon the rock of confession that Jesus Christ was the Son of the living God, and upon the reality that Peter was a man, He would build His church. There is no other way to experience salvation.

(2) Jesus promised that the Father would send the disciples the Holy Ghost. One of the purposes for this was to aid them in writing the words and actions of Jesus when he walked on this earth, as well as to reveal future events that were to be recorded in the inspired Word of God (John 14:26). The Spirit was given to empower the believers to preach Jesus, first at Jerusalem, and then unto the uttermost parts of the world (Acts 1:8). Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the believer into all truth and would glorify Christ (John 16:13-15). On the day of Pentecost, this outpouring of the Holy Ghost began, and it continues at the time of each individual’s New Birth experience. God baptizes the believer with the gift of the Holy Spirit to indwell him (Acts 2:38). As we study the New Testament, we see that the early church clearly understood that God had planned that man would give expression to the New Birth experience by water baptism (Acts 2:38-41; 8:29-39). By the institution of water baptism, a believer was added to the church (Acts 2:41). This brought on the working of sanctification by obedience to the teachings of Christ, as well as unity and accountability to the church (Acts 2:42-47; 11:1-18).
~ Myerstown, PA
October 2013

Part 2 of 2
Sanctification in the Life of a Believer in the Context of the Church
This Church, a called out, gathered, chosen people of God, have a responsibility first to each other and then to the world. Their saving faith in Jesus Christ has no expression other than obedience to His teachings. The Sermon on the Mount outlines the actions and reactions of someone who is a part of this kingdom (Matt 5-7). The fruits of the Spirit are to be exemplified in the life of a believer in the context of the Church, for each other and to the world (Gal 5:22-26). The gifts of the Spirit are to be used to edify and build each other up in the Church (Eph 4:11-16). It would take a long time to expound on each of these individual expressions, so I’d like to think a little on the responsibilities we have to each other regarding edification and then purification.

When a person is born of God, he takes on the value system of God. God values no person or people group above another. As was stated earlier, believers must confess this reality as well, or there is no entrance made into the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:1014). There is God the Creator, and then there is man, the created. Any alteration to this truth God labels as sin (Jas 2:14). This is easy to say, easy to accept as right, yet sometimes difficult to practice within the brotherhood. If this truth is not expressed in the attitudes and actions of the church, whether lay members or ministry, the church will indeed suffer (Jas 2:1-4). There are those within the Church that God has called to a position of responsibility, but this doesn’t reflect a greater value (Matt 20:25-28). This calling is a call of service, sacrifice, and submission for the body of Christ (Php 2:5-8).

A person that has a proper view of God, himself, and his brother, will cherish the input of others (Php 2:1-3; Rom 12:10). He will gain wisdom and experience from the elderly as they carefully set forth an example of Christ (Tit 2:1-6). He will value openness and honesty as a way to build each other up (Jas 5:16). He will exercise the gifts he was blessed with for the edification of the brotherhood and not to elevate himself (Eph 4:11-16; Rom 12:6-9). This can also be said of the weaknesses he sees in his own life. He realizes that this gives opportunity for someone else to speak into his life and that together it can be for the perfecting of the saints (1Co 12:20-25).

These strengths and weakness in different members of the body are not to create stumbling blocks before the weak, but rather are given as an opportunity for the body of Christ to work together in love for each other (eph 4:16). This is such a beautiful, unnatural process that Jesus says that this is how all men will know we truly are His disciples, “if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35). This type of love cannot be mimicked by the world, for the world’s love is selfish, self-seeking, and self-gratifying. our devotion and love to Christ for what he has done in saving our souls will express itself in love, sacrifice, and service to the brotherhood (1Jo 3:16).

God expects us to hospitably give of our resources for the benefit of the needy brother (rom 12:13; 1Jo 3:1718). This is not limited to money, but it’s interesting to note that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the New Testament believers and souls were added to the Church by repentance and water baptism, one of the first things it affected was their earthly possessions (Acts 2:45). They understood clearly that God had no interest in the building of individual estates, but called them to lay their possessions on the altar for the benefit of group edification (Acts 4:32,34). The unregenerate heart cannot begin to comprehend this teaching and blasphemes the idea of it, but the alternate concepts they live by are an abomination to God (Luke 16:13-15).

Along with this brotherhood equality, the New Testament Church strove to keep brotherly love alive by observing the Lord’s Supper as a token of remembrance of what united them (Acts 2:42,46). Group prayer engaged the power of God and the Holy Spirit, and boldness to preach Christ was a result of being together (Acts 12:5,12; 4:31). The Church was exhorted to continue meeting together, provoking one another to love and good works (Heb 10:24-25). Genuine faith and freedom from sin was to be expressed by visiting the fatherless and the widow (Jas 1:27). God has a special interest in these individuals of the Church, and we show the values of God when we share time with them. Later on, Paul gives the command to greet one another with the holy kiss as an expression of love and appreciation for each other (2Co 13:12).

The Church, as the Bride of Christ, is called to keep herself holy and unspotted from the world (Eph 5:27). If we follow the example of the New Testament Church, this takes collective effort in deciding on the practical expressions for our daily lives. The Church made these decisions together as a body with the leaders leading out in the discussion (Acts 15:1-29). This approach unified the Church and brought peace to the issues.

Not only must the Church find her way in practical applications to the Scriptures in order to maintain holiness, but she must also deal with sin in her midst. First of all, each of us needs to examine ourselves (1Co 11:28-30). Sin makes a person sickly and contagious (1Co 5:6). It will spread through the rest of the group if not dealt with. Sin is to be dealt with in love and for the ultimate desire of restoration (Gal 6:1-2). Healing can be experienced by confessing faults and by praying for each other (Jas 5:16).

Jesus taught us that when a brother trespasses against us, we are to talk to him privately (Matt 18:15-17). Only after we’ve done this can we include one or two others. If restoration still is not won, the Church is to get involved. If the matter pertains to earthly things, Paul tells us to let the least esteemed in the Church decide on the issue (1Co 6:4). But if he still fails to repent, he is to be considered an unbeliever (Matt 18:17). It is not a small thing in the eyes of God when this pattern is neglected (eph 5:31-32; Pro 6:16-19). The New Testament Church practiced excommunication for members that would not repent from sin or were following false teaching (1Co 5:5,13; 2Th 3:6). but when confession is made and forgiveness is sought, Jesus taught us that in order for God to forgive our sins, we must extend forgiveness to our fellow men (Matt 18:21-35; 6:12).

The Church’s Responsibility to the World
God holds the Church to a high level of responsibility not only to each other, but also to the world. The Church is made up of people, and the world is made up of people, and God values people! The very purpose of creation was to share Himself with the created in a relationship with them for the ultimate glory of Himself. The sin of man did not change this purpose. His desire still is that all would come to repentance (2Pe 3:9). The value He places on the worth of one soul is greater than the worth of the whole earth! (matt 16:24-26). He delights more in the conversion of one soul than in tallying the ranks of the saved (Luke 15:4-7). To this end, Jesus came to this earth, and to this end, the Church exists today (matt 9:12; 1Co 9:22).

Jesus passed on this value by commanding the apostles before He ascended into heaven to preach to every creature the gospel. Paul understood that by the foolishness of preaching one could be saved (1Co 1:21), and how can they know except they have a preacher (Rom 10:14)? While being worldwide preachers of the gospel, they were also to baptize the believers and teach them to obey all the teachings of Christ (Matt 28:16,20). This gospel was going to demand a response from the hearers, either to their salvation or to the damnation of their soul (Mark 16:15,16). For some it pricked their hearts to repentance (Acts 2:37), and for others this global witness of Christ sparked uproars and violence (Acts 19:23-35).

Yet the Church continued to show God’s love for fallen man, not only in word but also in deed. They followed the teachings of Christ to love their enemies and to look for opportunity to do good to all men (Matt 5:43,44; Gal 6:10). In fact, time and time again Jesus taught the New Testament concept that if we give of our resources to those that can give something in return, we are using the world’s standard of life. but if we pour out love and mercy to those that misuse us and hate us, we exercise the attributes of our Father (Matt 4:43-48). It’s upon this basis that Jesus will divide the true Church from the “good” of society and usher His children into their inheritance of eternal life, but declare judgment and the punishment of fire upon those that may have been religious, but did not portray the heart and values of God or produce actions that exemplified their relationship with Him (Matt 25:31-46). These little Christ’s that do the will of the Father will have a preserving affect in the world (Matt 5:13). Jesus’ illustration of salt here suggests that it’s not just one individual that makes the difference, but just as salt has many grains, it takes the collective effort of the Church to preserve the world. Just as God revealed to Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if he found ten righteous souls, the Church must strive to show the world that it is only because of the mercy and longsuffering of God that this world is not consumed (Gen 18:32,33; Lam 3:22,23).

The Church is also called to hold high a moral code of ethics and righteousness for the world to see (Matt 5:14-16). Even though they may not agree, society subconsciously looks to the Church for direction and answers on issues of right and wrong (1Pe 3:15,16). But as the City on the hill crumbles and fails to hold up the true light and standard of God, the world accepts the passions of their sinful nature and the lusts of their flesh as normal and good. Whom will the Holy Spirit use to warn the sinner of impending judgment and hell if the Church has lost its preserving power? Who other than the Church can carry high the torch of Truth and expose sin for what it is?

It is my prayer that we are convinced that God’s plan for the New Testament believer is to live his Christian life in the context of a called out, collected people of God. In the event we find ourselves in the midst of a collected people where the beauty of this plan is missing, may we first look long and hard at ourselves and seek humility and honesty before God and man. If each of us personally walks with the Lord and practices the principles taught by His Word, this beautiful design of God can be a reality. Pride and selfishness in the thoughts and ideas of oneself, though small it may seem, will slowly destroy the love and fellowship that can be experienced in the Church. It takes love, humility, and submission in the lives of each member as they labor together in finding their way to blend different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different convictions, to live in the context of agreed upon practical out workings of the Christian life. But liberty must be given for other groups to do the same, accepting the reality that they may arrive at a different agreed upon practice. There is a deep struggle to embrace and believe strongly enough in personal and group conviction so that we can pass it on to the rising generation, yet keenly understand that the practice of a group, be it a conference or be it a local church brotherhood finding their way in daily applications to living out Spirit filled lives, is not equal to the Divinely inspired principles of the Bible. This doesn’t make truth relative, but instead elevates one choice in love and submission to a specific local body of believers.

May we strive to glorify God in all that we do, edify the body of Christ in all that we are, and together exemplify Christ to this sin cursed, selfish world! Christ is coming again for His bride, and when the trumpet sounds, may we be found a part of that called out, prepared group of unspotted people of God!

~ Myerstown, PA
November 2013