Please note that this article is the second article derived from a five-part teaching series on the Nature of the Local Church given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)
When seeking to build anything that will last, you have to carefully choose what to build it upon. Christ told a whole parable in order to press home this very truth (Matthew 7:24-27). If such a principle is important when building our houses, how much more important is it as we seek to build the household of God together.
We previously discussed the idea of there being eternal principles in God’s Word upon which Christ would have us build his church. Like the principles enshrined in the US Constitution, they are meant to instruct us how to order and organise our life together, not as a nation, but as a local church. The constitution of the local church.
However, unlike the US Constitution, these principles are not neatly laid out for us in a concise list. Instead, God has placed these founding principles within the Bible, intertwining them into poetry, prophecy and prose throughout the entire canon. Our task then is to study his Word in order to understand and obey it.
Undoubtedly the easiest place for us to start when considering how we should practice our life together as a local church is to look at the practice of the first local churches. The focus of our study together will be on the first and fullest picture of the local church given to us. As previously discussed, the vision of a local church given in Acts 2:41-47 plays a significant role in setting the standard and scene of local church life for the rest of the New Testament. It is by understanding these verses that we will gaze through the window of the practice of the early church to find the underlying principles running throughout the entire Bible.
The account opens in verse 41, where we are instructed about the creation of the local church. Note that I say the creation of the ‘local’ church, though I could perhaps also say ‘universal’ church. However, to say that the universal church was ‘created’ at Pentecost would require me to also include a number of clarifications of what I meant by that statement, that for the sake of time I have fleshed out in a separate article (see Pentecost: Creation or Continuation?).
However, regardless of where we place the beginning of the universal church, it is clear that Acts 2:41 documents the creation of the local church. While there are some elements in common with Jewish synagogues, at no point had Israelites gathered in such a distinctive way. Indeed, this distinctness will only grow with the incorporation of the gentiles into the church and the subsequent refocusing away from Jerusalem later in Acts.
There is also clarity over the process that resulted in the creation of the local church, a process with three clear elements presenting timeless principles for us to practice today. Verse 41 displays to us the principles of Reception, Baptism and Addition. Not only are these three clear in Acts 2, but they reappear throughout the rest of the New Testament, including within the great commission given by Christ to his church (Matthew 28:19-20).
1. Reception: Receiving the Word of God
How do you start a church? In an age of church planting, Christians could be forgiven for thinking that to do so requires a charismatic preacher, savvy advertising, a focus group, core team and funding. While these things may play an important role, they ultimately aren’t how you plant a church. However, a tendency for confusing how to start a church is cannot be limited to young and restless church planters. If you looked at older, more established movements today and tried to discern how they pursue church growth (rather than birth, given the general lower appetite for planting in such groups), you would note that a, if not the, primary method of church growth is through the movement of Christians between different churches. Indeed, perhaps for too long have many churches predominantly grown through the transfer of people from one church to another, rather than from one kingdom to another (Colossians 1:23). At Pentecost, Peter had no such option open to him. If he was to build a church in Jerusalem, he would have to start from scratch.
The first step to creating a church, is the first step to creating a Christian. After all, while a church is more than a group of Christians (as we shall see), it is not less than that. You need Christians to have a church, and if a Christian is created through the communication of the gospel, then we can expect a church to grow out of and as a result of the same.
The preaching of the gospel. The sharing the good news. That’s what we see in Acts 2. Peter is asked for a reason for the hope that is within him (well, the Spirit that is within them) (1 Peter 3:15) and he takes the opportunity not just to explain what is going on, but expound on what has happened by looking back both to the Old Testament and then the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:16-36). He shares with them the realities of the Gospel. But he doesn’t stop there, he also presses on to show them the response required by the Gospel. He calls for repentance and baptism (verse 38), and continues to exhort them to enter into this salvation (verse 40). It is this word, this gospel that three thousand souls in the crowd received . This was the first step in establishing the first local church.
Not only do we see such an event here, but we see this occur time and time again throughout the record of the early church. In Acts, it is clear that the expansion of the church is linked to the proclamation of God’s Word (Acts 4:31; 6:7; 8:4, 14, 25, 40; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5; 17:13). This was the practice of the early church, and it is a key principle for us today. In fact, it is perhaps the key principle of the local church, communicating God’s word is the most important thing a local church does. That’s why God has left his people on this earth – to communicate his gospel to a lost world. Jonathan Leeman summarises this by stating, ‘One thing is necessary in our churches – hearing God’s Word through preaching, reading, singing and praying.’ (Leeman, Reverberation, p.22). Therefore, in our constitution we can outline our first principle.
PRINCIPLE 1: Communication of the Word of God, and the reception of it by individuals, is the first step in establishing and expanding a local church.
I’ve said we need to distinguish between the practices of the local church and the principles we build our churches on today. We do this not by ignoring what the early church did, but looking through it, past the temporary practicalities, to the underlying timeless principles. So what is it that turns this from a practice for them to a principle for us? We only have to scratch the surface of God’s Word to see the principle behind this practice.
We are saved by responding to, receiving, God’s Word. Specifically God’s Word about Christ. ‘You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…and this word is the good news that was preached to you.’ (1 Peter 1:23-25). ‘We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.’ (2 Corinthians 4:2-3). ‘For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? …So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:13-17). ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…’ (Romans 1:16).
Communicating the good news of the Gospel is the most important thing we do as a church. It is the Word of God that does the work of God. It is through the Gospel that Christians are born and the church is built. Whether you are seeking to plant or grow a church, you need to share the Gospel. This isn’t just a practice drawn from the early church, this is a principle for every church, timeless and universal in its application.
If it is such a principle, we need to ask ourselves how it should be reflected in our practice. We need to ask ourselves at least two simple questions:
Do we know the Gospel?
You can’t share what you don’t know. Let’s not bluff our way with the Gospel. When we are asked what we believe, what we teach here at our church or what Christianity is about we should know the Gospel well enough to be able to summarise it in 30 seconds or a minute. After all, this is the truth that we have entrusted our lives, our futures, our hopes to. This is the truth that we would die for.
If we don’t know the gospel well enough to explain it simply and clearly, we need to seriously consider whether we believe it. Even childlike faith requires childlike knowledge. That’s why some churches ask those seeking to become members to explain the gospel to them in a few statements or minutes. We need to make sure that we all know and believe this. If we don’t, it isn’t just the future of our church at stake, but our eternal fates.
Do you know the Gospel? If you are unsure, or want to make sure that you have a way of explaining it clearly and succinctly, you can take a look at some resources at , or pick up ‘What is the Gospel?’ by Greg Gilbert from the bookstall.]
Do we share the Gospel?
Do you share what you know? If this is the only way that people become Christians and is the main way we should seek to grow our local church, ultimately we have to share the gospel.
Satan’s attack on the communication of the gospel is rarely a front assault, far more likely is internal sabotage. It would rarely been seen as acceptable to decide to stop sharing the Gospel as a church. However, we must take great care that it doesn’t become acceptable for us to only share part of the Gospel. At Pentecost, Peter stood up and told the crowd about both the realities and the response. We should do the same. We can stand up and share about God, Christ and Man and still fail to share the whole gospel. Nobody is saved by intellectually being made aware of the facts of the gospel. Only those who respond in faith and trust are saved. We need to tell people that they must respond. They must know both what God has done and what they must do.
We must always ensure that we answer the lingering question in their minds that they are just too embarrassed or seemingly polite to ask, the same question that they called out to Peter, ‘What shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37), that the Philippian Jailor cried out, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16:30). Never share anything about the salvation found in Jesus without answering that question. Don’t just tell them about salvation, tell them how it can be their salvation. We need to share the whole Gospel, both the realities and the response.
2. Baptism: Identifying with the Son of God
We have seen that people become Christians by receiving, responding to the Word of God. However, when you look at the practice of the early church, seen both here and through the rest of the book of Acts (8:12-17; 10:44-48; 16:32-33), you see that after responding in faith, Christians are then baptised. That was the practice of the early church, and I believe that should be our practice as well. However, I don’t believe that it should be our practice because it was their practice.
That’s the argument often used. We should be baptised because they were baptised. However, while it is attractive because it is simple, it is ineffective because it is simplistic. To make such a statement, isn’t just poor theology, it is also cheap theology. It is poor theology because, as previously discussed in our the article, it uses a principle of interpretation that you are not going to honestly apply throughout the Bible. There is a difference between practices and principles. Just because the early church did it, doesn’t mean that we must as well. It is cheap theology, because by using such an argument we are selling ourselves terribly short. The reason that we should get baptised after we believe is far more powerful than a simple allusion to what happened in the early church. It's like telling somebody to go to see a new movie at the cinema because the popcorn is really good, or to go and see a top quality art exhibition because the audio guide is user friendly. They might be supporting facts, but they shouldn't be the main focus.
I don’t primarily believe that it should be our practice because it was their practice. Rather, I believe that it should be our practice for the very same reason that it was their practice. That the principle behind baptism, the very nature of what it is, requires that we practice it in the same way that they did.
I hope to cover baptism in an upcoming series of articles, and don't have the time to cover it fully here. However, in summary, baptism is the immersion of a believer in water, symbolising faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour (1 Peter 4:18-22; Galatians 3:25-27), death to sin, burial of the old life and the resurrection to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). This is the definition of baptism, and it compels us who have been saved by Christ to identify with him by being baptised.
The link drawn in paedobaptist theology between physical circumcision in Israel and physical baptism in the church does not hold. Their theological reasoning is built on a misreading of Colossians 2:11-12, that links not physical circumcision and physical baptism, but spiritual circumcision and physical baptism. It is also built on a misunderstanding of the nature of the new covenant community. The new covenant community is not like that of the old covenant, it is not a mixed community but a pure community. It is not a national group, but an international group. Entry is not by physical birth but spiritual birth. That is what was promised in the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27). That is what is fundamentally new about the new covenant.
We baptise believers not because the early church did, but because of what baptism is. This is illustrated and supported by the practice of baptism in the New Testament, the fact that the New Testament writers assume that all believers are baptised (Romans 6:1-4; 1 Peter 4:18-22) and the testimony of church history that first records infant baptism long after the death of the apostles and only later introduces a theology for it.
PRINCIPLE 2: Identification with the Son of God through baptism is the following step for those who receive the Word of God.
3. Addition: Joining the People of God
Having received the Word of God in faith and identified with the Son of God in baptism, these new Christians joined the People of God. It is important at the outset to distinguish between addition to the universal and local church. At the moment of conversion we undergo a spiritual baptism and are added to the universal church (1 Corinthians 12:13). This is then followed by our physical baptism and addition to the local church.
These three thousands new believers were added to the company of around 120 followers of Jesus to form a new group (Acts 1:15; 2:1), a group that God would continue to add to day by day (Acts 2:47). This group was more than a group of Christians, it was a local church. This is what we see them called and call themselves throughout the book (Acts 8:3; 11:22, 26; 12:1, 5; 14:27; 15:3-4). When we become Christians we should get baptised and join a local church.
PRINCIPLE 3: Addition to the localised People of God is the final step for those who receive the Word of God and involves mutually understood membership in a distinguishable group.
What is it that means this is not only a practice of the local church, but a timeless and universal principle that should shape our practice today? We shouldn’t join local churches when we become Christians because that is what the first Christians did, but rather because of what the local church is.
Michael Lawrence summarises this point perfectly by stating that ‘it is through the local church that we can experience the reality of the universal church to which we have been joined’ (Conversion, p.42). Just as we who have been declared righteous must now pursue righteousness in our daily lives, we who have been declared members of the universal church must pursue membership with an actual group of Christians, a local church. The realities of the universal church are expressed by the local. Paul demonstrates this in 1 Corinthians 12 when having spoken about the realities of the universal body of Christ (verses 12-26), he turns to the Corinthians and declares their gathering to be the body of Christ (verse 27). He does the same in Ephesians 2, having expressed the citizenship of the universal church which is being built up into a holy temple (verses 19-21), he specifically says that the Ehoesian church is being built up into a dwelling place (verse 22). Michael Lawrence comments on this by stating that ‘the universal church shows up, puts on flesh, in the local’ (Conversion, p.42).
Not only does our membership of the universal church draw us into membership of a local church, but the nature of the local church draws us in. What is the difference between a church and a group of Christians? A group of Christians are Christians that happen to find themselves in the same locality. A local church is more than localised Christians. We will see next week that a local church is a group of Christians partnering together to be an expression of the universal church in a location. This is what is meant by the term ‘church membership’, which is defined nowhere but described everywhere in the New Testament.
Take the term ‘trinity’, originating from a Latin term and used to describe the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The trinity is not in the Bible, that is the term is never used in the Bible. However, it is a term we have adopted to describe what we believe is in the Bible. Throughout the Bible we have countless statements defining the relationship between the three persons of the Godhead. Nowhere is the idea of the trinity fully defined. Rather, we must draw the various statements together and when we do that, we call it the doctrine of the trinity.
Church membership is the term usually used to describe the numerous statements that are made through the Scriptures regarding our rights and responsibilities as Christians individually and towards one another. It actually is more scriptural than the idea of trinity, given that we are told that we are members of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) and members of one another (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25). However, no matter what you call it, whether it be partnership or fellowship (both reasonable alternatives), it is clear that in order to be obedient to what we are instructed to do in the New Testament, we must have mutually understood membership in a distinguishable group.
We are instructed to obey our leaders and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17), respecting and esteeming highly those who are over us (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Whereas our leaders in turn are told to care for the church of God (Acts 20:28), shepherding us willingly (1 Peter 5:2) knowing that they will give an account for watching over our souls (Hebrews 13:17). We are instructed to exhort one another every day to against the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13), to stir up one another to love and good works and to continue meeting together more and more (Hebrews 10:24-25). We are told to judge false doctrine and reject false teachers (Galatians 1:6-9), build each other up using our gifts (1 Corinthians 14:26) and to discipline each other for unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). These rights and responsibilities to one another all come together to form what is known as church membership. Unless you have a mutually understood membership in a distinguishable group, you cannot be obedient to how we are instructed to live our Christians lives in the New Testament. An isolated Christian cannot be an obedient Christian. As members of the same body, we rely and require each other.
John MacArthur summarises it well, ‘Although Scripture does not contain an explicit command to formally join a local church, the biblical foundation for church membership permeates the New Testament. It can be seen most clearly in the example of the early church, existence of church government, exercise of church discipline and exhortation to mutual edification.’ (Biblical Doctrine, p.797). Michael Lawrence similarly concludes, ‘Church membership at its biblical core is our affirmation and oversight of one another’s professions of faith and discipleship to Christ, which we do through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.’ (Conversion, p.60)
Practices and Principles
Reception, Baptism and Addition. We have seen that all three were practices of the early church. However, more importantly they are timeless and universal principles for us to build our local churches on today.