Assembly Reception Pt1
by Walter Gustafson
Why should we exercise care in reception?
The Word of God warns us three times of the possibility of some coming into the assembly who should never be in a NT assembly. Paul warned the Ephesian elders of this possibility: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29, KJV).
Then we read in Galatians 2:4 of “false brethren unawares brought in,” which suggests treacherous duplicity on the part of some already in the fellowship. The word “unawares” (pareisaktos) is used only here in the NT, and it means “brought in secretly or privily,” as spies or traitors. W. E. Vine tells us that Strabo (a Greek historian contemporary with the apostle Paul) uses the word of enemies introduced secretly into a city by traitors within. These “false brethren” had an agenda with those who brought them in; they were Judaizers, brought in by the circumcision party to establish ceremonial law.
In Jude 4 we read, “For there are certain men crept in unawares.” The word here for “unawares” is used only once and means “to creep in stealthily” or “to slip in secretly.” This suggests three things, as shown in Jude’s epistle: that these men had a serpent-like origin; that they acted humble when they wanted to come in but the opposite when they got in; that they were apostates. Apostates are those who, having professed faith in Christ, then deny Him and the essential doctrines of the faith. A true child of God, although he can backslide, can never become an apostate.
God’s Word teaches that a NT assembly should have a definite “within” and a definite “without” (1Cor 5:12). The “unlearned” is distinguished from the “unbeliever,” and also from those in the assembly at Corinth. In 14:16 the “unlearned” is able to say “Amen” at the giving of thanks, but not the “unbeliever.” In verse 23 we read, “If therefore the whole church be come together … and there come in those that are ‘unlearned’ or ‘unbelievers’” (KJV). These two verses clearly show that the “unlearned” are believers not yet in the assembly fellowship. The words “side seat” or “back seat” are not in the NT, but the principle is there. At conversion, a believer is automatically a member of the Church which is His Body, but is not automatically in a local church.
The NT assembly is a place where discipline is carried out. Any assembly practicing “open reception,” receiving temporarily to their fellowship any denominational believer who will be returning to his denomination, cannot carry out discipline of those never in the fellowship. A denominational believer occasionally breaking bread is neither “within” nor “without.” If that person falls into a sin requiring discipline, how can they be put out when they have never been received in?
The NT assembly is a place of order (1Cor 14:40). There are many believers who are unaware of the principles of headship in the local church, so they do not know that sisters should be wearing a head covering and not be speaking audibly in the church gatherings.
The NT teaches that letters of commendation should be used (Rom 16:1-2; 2Cor 3:1). This practice shows that someone should not be received just because he or she claims to be a Christian. There were no sects in the early days of Christianity. How much more are letters of commendation necessary today!
Sometimes Romans 15:7 is used to support open reception, but the context of verses 5 and 6 shows conclusively that Paul is talking about receiving to our heart’s affection those who are already in assembly fellowship.
In view of these reasons from the Word of God, I hope that we can all see why we should exercise care in reception. Nehemiah 7:3-4 is an OT illustration of this principle. Nehemiah charged the gate-keepers that the gates were not to be opened until the sun was hot. Then they could clearly see whom they were receiving and whom they were refusing admittance to the city.
Ezra, in his burden for restoring separation of God’s people from the peoples of the land, illustrates the days of J. N. Darby, Wm. Kelly, and C. H. MacIntosh, a time when they were groping their way out of the darkness of Christendom. Today some are in danger of returning to it! So Ezra, in gathering all the people together to hear the Law of God read and to worship (with only the altar and temple for their worship), can hardly be used to support open reception.
Who should be received?
Only those who are born again should be received (1Cor 14:33). There are three expressions in Scripture of local churches in the plural. We read often of “churches of God;” they have their origin in God and they are His dwelling places. In Romans 16:16 we read “churches of Christ;” they belong to Him because they are His by purchase through His own precious blood. We also read of “churches of the saints” (1Cor 14:33), meaning, not that they belong to the saints but that they are churches of the saints by composition (Acts 5:13-14; 2Cor 6:14). Unsaved persons could not be expected to support the testimony with godly living; they do not even have divine life. They can also be a bad influence on the genuine believers (Num 11:4-5; 1Kings 11:4; Deut 7:4).
I have spoken to a number of persons in assembly fellowship who discovered that they had had a false profession, and then became truly saved. I have been struck that most of them found it very hard to give up their empty profession. So mistakenly receiving them could be a hindrance to them becoming genuinely saved. When possible, overseers are wise to not sit in on the interview when a close relative is being considered for reception, so as not to allow emotions or relationship to influence decisions. Two things should be obvious in a story of conversion: first, some evidence of conviction of their sin and lost condition and, second, some evidence that they personally appreciated that Jesus died for them. Another important factor in initial reception is a willingness to submit to the authority of the Word of God in their personal life. It is not a good sign if there is a lack of interest in reading their Bible and obeying the Savior who has done so much for them.
Only believers who have been baptized by immersion after salvation should be received. In the NT there are records of thousands of believers who were saved, baptized, and received into assembly fellowship, and not the record of so much as one unbaptized believer in assembly fellowship. The thief who was saved on the cross died the same day, so he was never baptized nor in assembly fellowship. The Lord Jesus gave only two ordinances: baptism and breaking of bread. It is inconsistent for any believer to be concerned about one of those ordinances and not the other.
Assembly Reception Pt2
by Walter Gustafson
In the previous article, we discussed some considerations regarding reception into the fellowship of a NT assembly, including exercising care in reception, and who should be received. We introduced the topic of baptism, understanding that baptism is not a door into the assembly, but a step of obedience that should be taken after salvation and before coming into assembly fellowship.
Let me reiterate that only believers who have been baptized by immersion after salvation should be received. Baptism by sprinkling is a prevalent doctrinal error; Acts 19:5 gives us authority for re-baptizing individuals who were only sprinkled. Some may object and say that we are making light, rather than life, the basis of fellowship, but no one has eternal life without some light. Anyone being baptized should at least see that their baptism is according to the Word of God – that is, by immersion – even if they don’t know much about the doctrine of baptism.
Believers received should be not only baptized since conversion’s day but also sound in life and doctrine. Reception is reciprocal. Every believer should be careful with whom he or she breaks bread. If a believer breaks bread with a company that holds fundamental errors regarding the person and work of Christ, he is a partner in their evil deeds. John teaches in his second epistle that we are not to bid such Godspeed or invite them into our homes, although we should have compassion on their souls if not truly saved. Since reception is reciprocal, not only should the assembly be prepared to receive to their heart’s affection, but the individual being received should be prepared to receive the assembly and all for which it stands. A denominational believer who acknowledges the authority of any other set of rules (whether that of a denomination or a creed, etc.) is acknowledging an authority alien to the Word of God. We desire to see in a candidate for reception submission to Scripture and evidence of owning the Lordship of the Lord Jesus in their lives.
A believer who is either visiting an assembly for the first time or unknown to the assembly should be commended by a letter (Rom 16:2; Acts 18:27; 2Cor 3:1). A letter is not really a ticket of admission, but rather a matter of courtesy. Visiting believers well known to the assembly should not be required to bring a letter each time they visit. But in 2 Corinthians 7:2, we should note that even though Paul was an apostle and had seen that large assembly planted, he did not expect to be received if he had wronged anyone, corrupted anyone, or defrauded anyone.
The overseers are responsible to act as closely as they can to the principles of the Word of God and to act in the best interests of the saints under their care. They are also accountable to the Lord as to teaching given in the assembly. An option that can be exercised in the discretion of the overseers is to allow a visiting brother to break bread but to prohibit him from ministry or teaching until they have more confidence in him. He would then be free to pray or give praise to God. Since sisters do not speak in the assembly gatherings, there would not be the same concerns. If an assembly believer without a letter has an attitude of being willing to submit to the overseers regarding sitting back or (if a brother) not teaching if asked not to do so, that is a good sign that they could be received unless there is a scriptural reason not to.
Our attitude should be positive. It should not be “How many can we keep out?” but “How many can we receive consistent with the principles of the Word of God?”
How should they be received?
Believers should be received Courteously. Every one of the characteristics of divine love in 1 Corinthians 13 was lived out in perfection by the Lord Jesus; surely, we all want to be more like Him. Our interactions with visitors who come to our assembly, whether saved or unsaved, should be courteous and kind. We should make all visitors feel welcome regardless of their background or appearance. If we invite saved persons to the breaking of bread, we should let them know beforehand what to expect; if we have already accepted them as believers, they should not be shocked at the meeting to learn that they will not be partaking of the emblems with us.
Believers should be received Heartily. We should make visitors welcome to our hearts and homes (Rom 16:2) “as becometh saints.” Paul adds, “And that ye assist her in whatsoever matters she may have need of you” (RV). If possible, it is good if one of the saints can invite visitors home for a meal, especially if they are from afar.
Believers should be received Unanimously. The whole assembly receives and the whole assembly puts away from the fellowship. Most often, it is the overseers who have the responsibility of handling the receiving, especially the initial reception. However, there should be at least a week’s notice to the whole assembly before the initial reception. That gives opportunity for anyone in fellowship to make known to the overseers something they may be unaware of which would disqualify that person from reception. Paul writes in Romans 1:7, “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (KJV). They are the ones to receive Phoebe in Romans 16:1, 2. He also writes, “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse” (Col 1:2). They are the ones whom he asks to receive Marcus if he comes to them.
Believers should be received Responsibly to all the privileges and responsibilities of the assembly. It is not merely receiving to the Breaking of Bread; that concept is not found in the NT (Acts 2:42; 9:28). If a visiting brother in assembly fellowship comes midweek and is capable of being a help in the weeknight meeting, it is becoming to read his letter of commendation at the beginning of that meeting. His letter could be read again on Lord’s Day morning if some are present who were not at the midweek meeting.
Believers should be received Impartially. James writes, “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with respect of persons” (James 2:1, KJV). The following eight verses (James 2:2-9) also deal with receiving impartially. Partiality is inconsistent with the words “My brethren,” and also inconsistent with the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
These principles from the Word of God should help guide us in assembly reception. But, if after considering these principles carefully, I suggest that if there is still some doubt about a visitor, it is better to err on the side of leniency than on the side of rigidity. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Col 3:12, ESV).