Associate Editorial

More About the Church of Christ
(Stucture and Fellowship)

The word church is a peculiar word. In our society, by common usage, it has a definite religious connotation. Such is not true of the Greek word from which it is translated. Originally, when the Greeks spoke of an ekklesia they had reference to an assembly, a gathering, a “called out” group. Once in the New Testament, the word is used to describe a group of people on the verge of a riot (Acts 19:32 & 41). In that same context (verse 39) a political assembly is identified by the word we translate a church.

The word is peculiar in another way. It is what the grammarians call a collective noun. That means that a singular noun is used to describe a plurality of people or things. A jury is a singular body or group of usually twelve people chosen to hear the evidence in a court proceeding. A chain is a singular collectivity of links joined together to form a functional unit. A herd is a collective of animals as is a flock or a covey or a pride. Collective nouns are not hard to illustrate. The church of Christ is defined as a collectivity of Christians all of whom have been added to that collectivity by Christ, according to His will. Acts 2:47, “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

This is an important point to stress. The Lord added people to His church. The unit in the collective noun church is people, individual Christians. This fact precludes any variation from that norm. The church is not a collectivity of denominations, nor is it a collectivity of local congregations. The church is a group of people, all added to the group as they are saved by the Lord through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Romans 1:15-17).

Matthew 16:18 is a passage that shows the church in its proper light. “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The church belongs to Christ, the One who said, “my church.” This usage identifies what we call the “universal church.” The distinction is made to specify that people of “all nations” (Isaiah 2:2) are included. There is a sense of geography in the idea of a universal church. In the next verse of Isaiah’s prophecy, reference is made to “many peoples.” The point to be made is that people, any people, all people, are subject to the gospel of Christ and need to be saved by the blood of Christ so that He will add them to His church, the church of Christ.

There is, however, another usage of the word church found in the New Testament which also relates to geography. It is extremely more limited. 1 Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” The geography of this identification is limited to the city of Corinth. There was a church there comprised of Christians, members of the universal church to be sure, but identified as living in one specific community named Corinth. Galatians 1:1-2, “Paul, an apostle . . . and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia.” Galatia is another geographic term that identifies the region in which a plurality of churches could be found and which were to receive Paul’s letter. These specific geography terms identify local churches.

By definition, they are still comprised of people, but not all people. Though the churches of Galatia could, no doubt, learn from the letter written to the church at Corinth, it was not so addressed, and we need to learn from that fact. Local churches are identified in the New Testament with terms of geography. People who have been added to the church of Christ band together in their own communities to form a congregation of Christians, a local church. Not all Christians are members of each local church, but every member of a local church is to first be a member of the church, having been added to the church by Christ as a result of being saved by His gospel.

All of this becomes significant when we consider that the local church has been given work to do as a collective unit. We can see the local church active in the New Testament. That activity is specifically different from the work of the individual Christian and is to be kept separate in most instances. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come." The churches of Galatia were given orders just as the church at Corinth was here given an order. The local church (each local church) was to collect. Each member of these local churches ("as he may prosper") was to "lay aside, storing up." The church did the collecting. The members did the giving. Collective action is different from individual action. 1 Corinthians 11:17-20; "Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper." Who did the coming together? It was the called out members of the church of God at Corinth. They came together as a church. The specific instruction in this context has to do with the observance of the Lord's Supper. The church was being chastised for what they were doing when they came together as a church. They should have been eating the Lord's Supper in accord with the will of Christ. Paul then explains that instruction (verses 23-29). Notice the individual action. 1 Corinthians 11:28; "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup." This is to happen when individual Christians come together as a church. Collective action is different from individual action.

Many problems exist today from a lack of understanding of the distinction between individual and collective action. The principles are not hard to establish, but they are seemingly hard to apply when people want to do something for which they can find no Bible authority. It is a good work and a command of God to care for widows and orphans. James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” It is, however, sinful to make this verse allow or command a local church to take from its storehouse of collected gifts (1 Cor. 16:2) and either build or contribute to an institution designed to do the work the individual Christian is charged to do. Individual action (“keep oneself; visit orphans and widows”) is different from collective action (build, maintain, support from the treasury).

1 Timothy 5:16; “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.” If ever a passage made the distinction between collective action and individual action, this is it. Let the believer relieve certain widows. Let the church relieve others. Which church? It is the local church where the widow lives and serves as a Christian, which would have the obligation to relieve her needs in the absence of these physical family members. The universal church has no organ through which it can relieve anyone. The local church (i.e. Corinth, Galatia) has a storehouse of collected gifts to do the work of the local church. The universal church has no such treasury, and, thus, has no such obligation or authority.

When we read the word church in the scriptures, we must identify which church is being discussed. Is it the universal church or is it some local congregation identified by some geographic location? Just because a work is good and right for an individual Christian to do, does not mean that the local church can take it on as a collective work to involve everyone in the local church. Husbands and wives, as Christians, as members of the Lord's church, have sexual obligations to their mates that do not apply to everyone in the church. The same is true for parents and their own children. Let us be consistent in the way we apply simple logical truths. Study the Bible. Read the context. Individual action is different from collective action. It is clearly so in the Word. May we all make it so in our lives. When people do that, we share, collectively in the great work of the church of Christ. When people refuse to so honor the word of God, then there are problems. These problems affect what we call fellowship, sharing together in work.

Fellowship in the Lord’s church is a most serious question. It is viewed by many as a presumptuous position to stand in a place of judgment and make decisions on questions about people, their behavior, and whether or not a church will indeed have fellowship with any particular person. Balance must be sought and found to harmonize scriptural positions. Let us seek that balance as we study this issue of fellowship among God’s people.

First, observe that we are not talking about making judgments about people in the world. 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, "But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore 'put away from yourselves the evil person.'" God judges those who are outside the body of Christ. We must answer questions about who it is with whom we will share our time, love and our lives together in the Lord. If a person does not even claim to be in Christ, or if, by his life, he proves NOT to be in Christ, there is no fellowship question involved. God judges that man and will bring His wrath upon Him in the last day (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9).

Fellowship, first and foremost, is with God. 1 John 1:3, "That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." Fellowship with God is established on the basis of what the apostles and prophets of the Lord have seen, heard, and declared to us. Fellowship can be established on no other basis. Therefore, whoever it is with whom we share in divine fellowship, must show, by their lives, in word and in deed, that they are in fellowship with the Lord. Acts 2:47; "...And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved." The Lord does the adding to the church. We must never forget that. We are likely to make mistakes in the area of fellowship, as we lack the perfect knowledge of the Lord, but admitting the likelihood of error in no way diminishes the command to do God's will. We will include in our fellowship those whom the Lord would not have or we may exclude those whom the Lord has accepted. As in all areas of spiritual endeavor, we must study, pray, and do the very best we can, based on the written word and the evidence provided by the lives of people.

It is not all a matter of uncertainty. In Galatians 2:9, Paul relates an event in his life. "And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." Three men, James Cephas and John, all Christians and apostles, gave to two other men, Paul and Barnabas, the “right hand of fellowship.” On what basis? Verse 7 tells us that it was based on what they could “see” in the two men. “... seeing that I had been entrusted with the gospel...” In a parallel statement in verse 9, Paul says they “perceived the grace that had been given to me.” How could they “see” or how could they “perceive?” The answer to that is to be found in the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 7:16-20; “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” We are assured that we can and will be able to see in the lives of people the fruit of their faith and their labor.

God’s people are charged to organize, congregate and assemble together in local churches in the communities where they live. In these local churches we have work to do, some of it individual and some collective. As we can see in many of the local churches in the New Testament, we have also a charge to keep these bodies, these local churches, pure. 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, "Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed." Leaven, in the Bible, is always destructive. The leaven of evil influences is destructive to the Christian, and we must defend against that evil, purge it out from within so that we may be kept pure. Other churches received similar instructions: Rome; (Romans 16:17), "Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them." Thessalonica; (2 Thessalonians 3:14), "And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame." Ephesus; (2 Timothy 3:5), "Holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these." Local churches are independent and autonomous entities. No super religious body or structure sets down the rules by which we function. Each church, each Christian, has the same guide, the Bible, to direct our activities. That Bible leaves it up to us to police ourselves according to the revealed law of God, and to keep ourselves pure from the evil influences of the world. It is not presumptuous of us at all to delve into these realms. It is a matter of survival, ours.

Who shall be included in a local fellowship? Obviously, all who make it known that they are in Christ and desire to be known as a part of such a union. When Paul first traveled to Jerusalem, the record tells us that he had an expressed desire to be a part of the local church there. Acts 9:26, "And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple." The first prerequisite for being considered a part of the fellowship is being a disciple. The disciples in the Jerusalem church were afraid of Paul and would not accept him at first based on an erroneous belief that he was not in fellowship with the Lord. Such was a legitimate fear and a legitimate concern. No local church need accept anyone into fellowship if there is a doubt of that person’s standing with the Lord. Paul had people in the church at Jerusalem who were familiar with his conversion, and, on their testimony, he was allowed into the fellowship.

Who will be excluded from the fellowship? Obviously, again, those who are outside of Christ are never to be included. But, that is not the only question. Who is to be expelled from the fellowship? In Corinth, there was a man who was immoral. From that situation, the church was instructed to remove that man from their fellowship. (1 Corinthians 5) Not only was his incestuous adultery condemned and found worthy of expulsion, but several other sins were cited (Verse 11). The Romans, as we have seen in 16:17, were to “note and avoid” divisive and contentious people. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 commands us, as it did them, to withdraw from the “disorderly” and identifies in the context just who is to be so marked. "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us."

Doctrinal and moral purity is demanded of every Christian, and we should expect nothing less than such purity when we are talking about the local church. We cannot judge the hearts of men, but we have no choice but to judge the fruits of their lives. Just as 2 John 9-11 condemns the false teacher and any reception of that false one, the verse does not expect us to judge his motives. We could never do that anyway. 1 Corinthians 2:11, "For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him?..." We must judge the message he brings. Ephesians 5:11, "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them." Expose the works. Expose the one doing the works. Do everything in our power to save his soul, but do not, in any way, share in his evil deeds. The Lord taught the parable, Luke 6:39; “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch?” Forget about judging motives. We are simply unable to do that job. Prepare yourself. Arm yourself with truth, so that you will be able to discern good and evil and maintain purity in the fellowship of the church.

E-mail Larry Fain

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