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. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out.
Someone asked me a question recently, “I’ve been taught that one does not join a church, that the Lord adds to the church. So why does the Bible say that Paul (Saul) “tried to join the disciples”?
It’s true that the Lord adds to the church (Acts 2:41, 47). We tend to point that out to show a contrast between the New Testament church and man-made churches, some of whom oftentimes vote on whether a person is part of their church. Another reason is to show the contrast between the New Testament church and those in man-made churches who often say that they decided to “join” this or that church because they liked the music, the programs, etc.
So why does the New Testament basically say that Paul, a few years after his conversion, basically tried to “join” the church which was at Jerusalem?
This is an example from the New Testament of something which happens all the time today. Christians often seek to become members of a church. They do this either after they obey the gospel and are baptized into Christ, or when they move to a new area. This is a good thing, for both them and the church.
Yet the question still remains. Why do Christians try to join a church and become its members if they were already members since the Lord added them to the church when they were baptized?
Other questions arise. What is church membership? Is church membership really necessary? Why should one become a member of such-and-such congregation? How will it help? What obligations would one as a member have? How exactly does one become a member of a church?
The answers to these questions can be found by basically looking at how the Bible describes the church, which is done in two ways: from a universal perspective and from a local perspective.
The Universal Perspective
Jesus said he would build his church, singular (Matt. 16:18). This would be the church worldwide. Paul called it the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23). He went on to say that there is one body (Eph. 4:4), which means there is only one church. He then said that Christ is the Savior of the church which is his body (Eph. 5:23). Thus, Christ will be your Savior only if you are a part of his body, his church, of which there is only one.
From a universal perspective, there is only one church. It consists of all Christians. Jesus is its head.
Its members are blessed with salvation, as alluded to earlier (Eph. 5:23). In fact, we who are “in Christ” are blessed by God “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3), such as forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7).
Its members are also obligated to bear fruit by sharing the gospel and growing spiritually (John 15:1-2; Eph. 4:15). Each member of the body has a different function, and all are to exercise that function in whatever way they can to help the church grow spiritually and evangelistically (Rom. 12:4, 6), all while loving each other in the brotherhood (1 Pet. 2:17).
One becomes a member of the universal church when the Lord adds you to it, which happens at baptism (Acts 2:41, 47). We are all baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13), which would be the body of Christ which is his church (Eph. 1:22-23). When one obeys the gospel through faith, repentance, and baptism, they are added to the church which belongs to Christ (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3-5; Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 12:13).
Once that happens, they are ready to become members of the church from a local perspective…
The Local Perspective
When the New Testament describes the church in a local sense, it’s basically talking about a group of Christians who live in the same locale who meet and work together (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1; Rom. 16:16; Gal. 1:2; Acts 9:31; 1 Cor. 1:2). The New Testament also indicates that Christians placed membership in local churches, i.e., they became members of a local church (Rom. 16:1, 5; Col. 4:9).
When you’re in a local church, you become part of a family (Matt. 12:48-50; Mk. 10:29-30; 1 Tim. 5:1-2). God wishes that the members of a local church encourage each other, help those who are weak, bear each other’s burdens, and comfort each other (1 Thess. 5:14; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:4). He wants us to exhort each other to remain godly and faithful, motivating each other to even more love and good deeds by assembling together and encouraging each other (Heb. 3:12-14; 10:24-25). If we see a fellow Christian caught up in sin, we are to help them lovingly come back to faithfulness (James 5:19-20; Gal. 6:1). If they persist in unrepentant sin, we must withdraw fellowship from them (Tit. 3:10-11; 1 Cor. 5).
Going back to Acts 9:26-28, we see from this passage how one becomes a part of the church from a local perspective. Paul had already been added by the Lord to the universal body of Christ when he had obeyed the gospel through faithful, penitent baptism (Acts 9; 22). Later, he came to Jerusalem and “tried to join the disciples” there. In other words, he tried to become a part of the local church which met at Jerusalem. At first, they didn’t want him to be a part of them (understandably, considering his past). However, Barnabas vouched for him, resulting in his acceptance (vs. 27-28).
We are commanded to imitate Paul (1 Cor. 11:1). He actively worked to become part of a local church. We must do the same.
God especially wants us to be a part of the universal body of Christ. Have you been baptized into Christ?