Uniquenesses of a New Testament Local Church (2)

Walter Gustafson

2. Only believers sound in life and doctrine and baptized by immersion are received

We should consider three expressions about local churches in the plural. We read often of "churches of God." They belong to God because they are His by origin and they are His dwelling places. We read in Romans 16:16 of "churches of Christ." They are Christ’s by purchase; He has purchased us by His own precious blood. We read in 1 Corinthians 14:33 of "churches of the saints." That does not mean that the churches or assemblies belong to us but rather that N.T. churches are composed of saints, churches of the saints by composition.

I was shocked at a Bible reading over 50 years ago. A brother said something like this "Since the Lord Jesus tells us in the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13, "Let them both grow together until the harvest," I don’t think we should be so particular whether a person is saved or not when they come into the assembly." I thought that brother read his Bible more carefully than that. Our Lord Jesus interpreted that parable. He didn’t say the field is the church. He said in verse 38, " the field is the world." The wheat (which are genuine Christians) and the tares (which are only imitation Christians) should both be free to grow together in the world, but not in the church. To allow someone into the assembly whom we know is not saved would be an unequal yoke. We read clearly in 2 Corinthians 6:14, "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers."

"And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord multitudes both of men and women" (Acts 5:13,14). It is no wonder that no one wanted to join the disciples without the root of the matter in them since Ananias and Sapphira had dropped dead. There was a clear line of demarcation between saved and unsaved and there was great blessing.

It is a mistaken kindness to receive someone into the assembly if they are not saved. Being received could hinder them getting saved. In over 50 years of assembly fellowship and moving among many assemblies for over 40 years, I have talked with many who were once in assembly fellowship, found out they really weren’t saved, and later got truly saved. Almost every one of them spoke of how hard it was to give up being in the assembly.

I will tell about the first one. At a Cliff Street conference, I noticed a young married sister who used to wear lipstick but no longer did. I thought to myself, "She is likely to get some discouragement, so I’m going to give her encouragement." I said, "I believe it is pleasing to God that you no longer wear lipstick." She replied, "I believe it is pleasing to God too; last March I had an experience and since then I haven’t worn it." Later she had an opportunity to tell me of that experience. She had professed to be saved when she was a little girl. She knew for many months (while in assembly fellowship) that she wasn’t really saved. She told me how hard it was to give that all up and get genuinely saved. One thing that gave her comfort was "Most likely there are others in assembly fellowship in the same boat as I am. If I make a clean break of it and get really saved, it may help others."

I’m thankful to God that I met Mr. and Mrs. Buckley in the assembly at Pomona, California, in 1943. They told me a lot of things about assembly principles that have been a help to me. They came from an assembly in Glasgow, Scotland with about 40 in fellowship who all heard the testimony of any person who wanted to be received. I’m not saying that it has to be done that way. The overseers usually have the most to do with reception. But no person should be initially received without at least an opportunity for anyone in the assembly to let the overseers know something about the candidate for reception that may disqualify that person.

One man applied for fellowship in that assembly in Glasgow. He had an exceptionally interesting story of conversion. After he left, everyone in that assembly was happy to baptize and receive him. The late Alexander Lamb was there. Brother Lamb said, "that man has an excellent story of conversion. I can’t find anything wrong with his story but, for some reason that is not easy for me to explain, I’m not convinced that he is really born again." Since he expressed those misgivings, they decided that they would send two of the overseers to visit the man at his home. When they got there they found the man dead drunk, so needless to say, they did not baptize and receive him. He had a good story, but he did not have a life to go along with his story.

In the N.T. there are records of thousands who were saved, baptized, and received into assembly fellowship and there is no record of even one unbaptized person in assembly fellowship. The dying thief went home to heaven without getting baptized but he was never in assembly fellowship. Baptism is not a door into the assembly, but it is a step that should be taken before the door. Baptism is very closely connected with salvation in the N.T. We should not baptize anyone who wants to be baptized just because some relative is baptized or just because that’s what we do in the "Gospel Hall." The person should at least see that it is the Lord’s command or that the Word of God teaches it.

The first Thursday that I was saved, Mr. Edward Wilson gave me John Ritchie’s excellent booklet on baptism. When I read that, I could see clearly that the Scriptures taught that I should be baptized. I had also read "the Church of God" by Franklin Ferguson and "My Reasons for Leaving the Baptist Church" by George Landis. The Harvey’s (who brought me to the Cliff Street Gospel Hall) had warned me that the Cliff Street overseers have a reputation for being very careful that anyone coming into the assembly is truly saved.

When I told the Harvey’s that I wanted to be baptized and received into the assembly, they told me to tell one of the overseers and he would arrange a meeting of the overseers. Then it would be up to me to convince them that I was truly saved. I told brother Wilson, the one who had given me the booklet on baptism. I thought that he would be glad to learn that I wanted to be baptized and received. But he looked so glum and asked me "What do you want to get baptized for?" I wasn’t prepared for that! I replied "Because it is the Lord’s command." I was relieved to see him smile; that’s what he wanted me to say. When a person wants to be received into the assembly, it is not necessary for that person to know a lot about N.T. teaching on the local assembly, but it is very desirable to see submission to the Word of God.

(To be continued)

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The assembly is the church of God. It is the testimony for God in a dark and evil scene. Neither believers nor unbelievers can see the "inner reality." All any of us can see are the external signs, therefore there can be no testimony for God at all unless it can be seen in us. There is a terrible flaw in the modern reasoning that says, "I can do as I like, or dress as I please, or act in any way I want, for the external thing is unimportant, it is only the inner reality that counts." This is nonsense, but it is not new nonsense, for these were the exact words of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher (Acts 17:18). Let us make sure that the external order is according to the Word of God, but let us search our own hearts that the inner reality does truly correspond to our testimony (Psa.139:23-24).

Norman Crawford