When the apostle Paul was addressing the elders of the assembly at Ephesus, he referred to the “church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood”, Acts 20:28. This is a remarkable statement, giving to us, as it does, some idea of the value attached to the local assembly by God. It was so precious to Him that the purchase price was nothing less than the blood of His own dear Son. If the local assembly is precious to God, then it should be precious to believers.
Maintaining the truth
In the midst of a world marked by rebellion against God, and apathy towards the work which His Son accomplished at Calvary, there are companies of God’s redeemed people who desire to honour the Name of the Lord Jesus, and gather together with Him in the midst. Alas, they are not in the majority now, unlike in the early days of the apostles when “all that believed were together”, but they believe it to be their duty to seek to maintain and defend the truths they have discovered in God’s Word about the way Christians should meet.
We hope the following remarks will help you to see the principles behind being received into a local assembly, and how it happens.
The meaning of the word “eklesia”
First of all we should consider what a local assembly is, before considering the question of fellowship.
The word assembly conveys the idea of a called out company of people. The Greek word involved is “eklesia”, which consists of the preposition “ek”, meaning “out of”, and the word “klesia”, which is formed from the verb “to call”. The word eklesia was used in Greece for a company of citizens who were called together out of the rest of the population, to conduct important civic affairs. This gives us the background to its use in the New Testament.
We need to remember that the Authorised Version uses the word church when translating the word eklesia. The learned men who did the translation were prominent in the established church, and they were instructed by King James, (who instigated the translation), that they were not to alter ecclesiastical terms. So it is that words like bishop and church are retained, even though the word church does not come from the Greek word eklesia but rather from the Greek word kuriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord”.
The first use of the word
The Lord Jesus was the first to use the word eklesia in the spiritual sense when He spoke of building His church, Matthew 16:13-20. By this He meant all believers down through this present age, before God resumes His dealings with the nation of Israel. The Lord Jesus assured His apostles that the gates of hell, (i.e. the forces of evil) would not prevail against true believers, for they would be firmly built of the Rock consisting of the truth as to His person.
The second use of the word
The Lord Jesus also used the word eklesia in Matthew 18:15-20, but this time in a different context. When disputes arise amongst believers there are certain procedures to be followed. The final stage of these is for the dispute to be told to the church. Clearly this cannot mean the whole company of believers of this present age, for many of them are in heaven. Rather, it means a company of believers in a locality. One such company in New Testament was described as “the church of God which is at Corinth”, 1 Corinthians 1:2, and this company had been built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, as the apostle had gone to that city and preached Him, 1 Corinthians 3:10,11.
Remembrance of the Lord Jesus
One of the foremost things a local church does is break bread together in remembrance of the Lord Jesus. Just before the He went back to heaven, He ordained that His disciples should remember Him in the way He set out. The words of Scripture are as follows, “And He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of Me”. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you”. Matthew 26:26-28. The Lord’s Supper is observed, therefore, as an act of remembrance of the Lord Jesus.
The observance of the Lord’s Supper is also an act of fellowship or communion. Fellowship involves the sharing of something with others. In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 the apostle Paul makes it clear to the believers in the church at Corinth that there are only three sorts of fellowship. There is the fellowship that Israelites had with God as they offered sacrifices upon the altar. There is the fellowship that Gentile unbelievers have when they offer sacrifices to their idols, behind which lurk evil spirits. And there is the fellowship of Christians, expressed when they break the bread at the Lord’s Supper, and drink the cup. His words in connection with this last sort of fellowship are as follows: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread”, 1 Corinthians 10:16,17.
As they drink of the cup, believers acknowledge that their only claim on blessing is the blood of Christ. As they break the bread together, they declare that the only circle of fellowship they wish to be involved in, is the fellowship of those who are members of the body of Christ.
The expression of fellowship in a locality
Now the apostle is speaking in general terms in 1 Corinthians 10, for the one body of which he speaks is the sum total of Christians in this present age. The majority are separated from us, either because they have died, or because they live at a distance from us. It may be asked, how can this be worked out in practice today? The answer is found in the fact that, as we have seen from Matthew 18, the word church is not only used of all believers of this present age, but also of believers as they gather together in the name of the Lord Jesus in a locality. The church of God at Corinth was one such company, and they were able to observe the Lord’s Supper, as 1 Corinthians 11:23-28 shows. The apostle describes that company as “the body of Christ”, 1 Corinthians 12:27, even though that term refers primarily to the sum total of believers of this age, over whom the Lord Jesus is head, Colossians 1:18. This means that as far as manifesting the truth of the body of Christ was concerned, the local church at Corinth was the body. What was true of them is true of all local churches that comply with the teaching of the Word of God in subjection to the Lordship of Christ.
When believers take the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper they are doing two things. Firstly, they are complying with the command of the Lord Jesus that they remember Him during His absence, and secondly, they are expressing their fellowship with one another as they all share the same loaf.
The Breaking of Bread, or the Lord’s Supper, is a collective assembly action. By its very nature it cannot be kept either by a single individual, or by persons who do not form an assembly, in the New Testament sense of the word, (house-parties on holiday, for instance, or those on board ship). When the apostle Paul was travelling to Jerusalem, he was in a hurry, Acts 20:16. He arrived at the town of Troas, where there was a local assembly, early in the week. Despite needing to press on with his journey, he waited until the first day of the week so that he might break bread with the assembly at Troas, Acts 20:6,7. He might have continued on his journey and broken bread with his companions on board ship, but he refrained from doing this, no doubt because he wanted to preserve the collective nature of the action.
Breaking bread is also an expression of the believer’s bond with fellow believers. It is the communion of the body of Christ, and even though not all believers in a locality may be in the local assembly, for various reasons, still there is a bond of the common possession of eternal life, and this is expressed in the Lord’s Supper. On a practical level, this means that to break bread is to commit oneself in loyalty to that local company. It would not be consistent to break bread, and then become involved with Christians who differ in their beliefs in important areas. The local assembly is to be the “pillar and ground of the truth”, 1 Timothy 3:15, and it cannot be this if some of its number are involved in unscriptural activities elsewhere.
Coming into fellowship
We now turn to the second matter, that of coming into the fellowship of a local assembly. First of all, we should remember the words of 2 Timothy 2:19, where the apostle commands all believers to depart from iniquity. By this he means “that which is not right”, for the word used by the apostle here is not the regular word iniquity meaning lawlessness. Those thinking of joining a particular company of believers should ask themselves whether that company is right in its beliefs and practices. By the same token, the receiving company has the duty to ensure that the one seeking to be received into fellowship is likewise right as to belief and practice. Of course, there are matters over which believers may disagree, (whether to eat meat, for instance, Romans 14:1-3), but they are duty bound to be agreed about basic things, for the faith, the body of doctrine, is handed to each saint so that it may be earnestly contended for, Jude 3.
The whole assembly receives
Then we should remember that it is the whole company that receives into fellowship, not just the elders. And that reception is to the whole range of the activities of the assembly, not just the breaking of bread. Important as the latter is, it is surely significant that the order in Acts 2:42 is “apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers”. By becoming established in the doctrines taught by the apostles, now preserved in their writings, and by learning what apostles would have fellowship with, we are then in a better condition to break bread. Having done this, we shall be encouraged to pray collectively for others, that they, whether believers or unbelievers, may come into the good of the things we enjoy together.
Approach to the elders
Having satisfied oneself that the company being joined is sound in doctrine and practice, and being aware that coming into fellowship involves commitment to the whole life of the assembly, the way is clear to approach the elders to ask to be received. As already indicated, they have a responsibility to ensure that the one being received is acceptable. When this is established, the whole assembly will be informed, so that all are aware of the proposed reception. If all are happy with the situation, then an announcement is made, and the person involved is formally received into the fellowship of the local assembly.
We have already noted that the local assembly at Corinth was described as “body of Christ”, which means that it could be compared in its functioning to a human body. We should always remember, however, that it is, in fact, the body of Christ, for each individual member owns Him as Head. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle describes how body-like features are to be expressed. Just as the human body has many members, (limbs and organs, etc), and those various members have various gifts, (abilities), so it is in the local assembly. There should be the exercise of gift to the profit of all. We should not think of the assembly gatherings simply as meetings to be attended, but rather as opportunities to use the abilities God has given, so that the whole company gains benefit each time it comes together, 1 Corinthians 11:17.
Functioning in the assembly
It is for all the male believers to take part audibly, and lead the company in worship, teaching, and prayer, see 1 Corinthians 14:26; 1 Timothy 2:8. That does not mean, however, that the sisters have no part to play. It is true that they are instructed to be willingly silent during the gatherings, 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:9-12, but they contribute in a very positive way by remaining silent, by dressing in a becoming way, by having long hair, and covering their heads. All these things have deep significance, and should not be considered as negative prohibitions.
Fellow-feeling in the assembly
Just as every member of our body is affected if one member is diseased or injured, so in the local assembly there should be a spirit of sympathy and mutual consideration. Then again, it sometimes happens that medical research finds a wonderful new fact about a particular member of our body, and as a result it is confirmed that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, Psalm 139:14. So also in the local assembly. If one member is honoured, then all the members should rejoice with it, 1 Corinthians 12:26. If the Lord uses one member in a new way, then there should be rejoicing on the part of all, and the Lord who gives the gifts should be praised the more.