Membership and Fellowship

The baptism of the disciples with the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost marked a new departure in God’s ways; entirely new things were then and there established. In the first place the “one body” became an accomplished fact. Secondly, the Apostle’s fellowship came clearly into view. Membership is in Scripture connected with the former, not with the latter.

Between the one body and the Apostle’s fellowship the closest connection exists, yet are they quite distinct and distinguishable things. The one was, and is, a fact of a spiritual nature only to be apprehended by faith, the other, a fact of an historic nature, though based upon spiritual realities, capable of being apprehended by ordinary powers of observation, at least in its beginnings before human failure had marred it.

The one body is an actual existing fact on this earth. It is the body of Christ, sometimes spoken of as His mystical body, though incorrectly as we believe, since the word mystical tends to infer that it is something lying in the region of pure theory, or something hidden in the heavens, and thus to obscure the fact that it is an existing thing on this earth. This truth is clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 12, where we find members feeble or honoured, suffering or rejoicing, as the case may be. These experiences are actual, not theoretical, and are clearly upon earth and not in heaven.

The one body was formed by the baptism of the Spirit: this 1 Corinthians 12:13 shows. Seeing that this baptism took place on the day of Pentecost it may be wondered why the fact was not revealed, and stated in Acts 2. But a very essential feature is that the body embraces both Jews and Gentiles, and hence it was appropriate enough that the revelation of the fact should wait until Gentiles too were baptized into the body. In Acts 2:15-17, Peter treats the reception of the Spirit by the Gentile Cornelius and his friends as a baptism of the Spirit, and it was after this and through Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, that the truth was revealed, though the body had existed from the day of Pentecost.

The fact that, though the one body existed from Pentecost, its existence was not recognized apart from the subsequent revelation as to it, which revelation, like all others, needs faith for its reception, just proves what we previously asserted, viz., that the one body is a fact of a spiritual nature only to be apprehended by faith. That three thousand souls had on the day of Pentecost received the new teaching of the Apostles and, consequently, consorted with them in their society and fellowship, was a fact of another order, capable of being apprehended apart from faith.

In 1 Corinthians 12 the salient point as to the body is its oneness, and this oneness is based upon the truth that it is formed by one Spirit, and is therefore of an organic nature with nothing of the artificial about it. The one body is therefore the fruit of an act of God. It is His workmanship. We did not make ourselves children of God. We were born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). Equally so, we did not make ourselves members of the body of Christ. That, too, was not of the will of man but of God. It comes, therefore, under that declaration which applies to all God’s works of a spiritual nature, “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever” (Eccl. 3:14). No human opposition nor failure can touch it. It abides today.

And its unity abides today: this can be said with equal certainty. The multiplied divisions of Christendom have not in the least affected it, though they have grievously marred the fellowship which was so fair in apostolic days. “There is one body.” Those words are as true today as when penned to the Ephesian believers.

Let us, then, again emphasize this oneness. There has been but one body all through the ages, and there are not two, in any sense whatever, today. It is very necessary to ponder this in all its bearings lest, in some subtle sense, which we hardly discern, we do after all entertain the thought of more than one. Some who firmly believe in one body, and would utterly repudiate the thought of two opposed bodies, which might be expressed diagrammatically by two circles side by side, might yet be very inclined to contend most stoutly for the same thought in a guise which might be expressed by two circles, one large and one small, the smaller within the larger especially if in the diagram the circles were not concentric, and the centre placed in the middle of the little one.

Into this one body are “we all” baptized (1 Cor. 12:13). Here all saints are in view—all who have received the Spirit of God. The body in its universal aspect is before us. The words with which verse 12 closes—“so also is Christ”—prove this. The body is identified with and bears the name of the Head, but, then, that is the body viewed universally and not in any restricted or local sense. Elsewhere, however, the body is viewed locally in this Epistle, as, for instance, verse 27 of chapter 12. In this verse “the” should be omitted, and we read, “Now ye are body of Christ, and members in particular”. That is, the whole assembly in Corinth, comprising every Spirit-sealed person in the place, bore that character. In chapter 12:17, the local aspect of the one body is also evidently in view.

When, therefore, we view the Church as the one body—the body of Christ—we are considering it as set by an act of the Spirit of God, in pursuance of the Father’s counsels, in certain relations with Christ: relations which involve a very high and wonderful place of privilege, and, further, which are intended to profoundly affect our lives, and particularly our behaviour one to the other. In other words, proper Christian fellowship is largely, though by no means exclusively, carried out in the light of the truth of the one body.

The Apostles’ fellowship of which we read in Acts 2 was of course proper Christian fellowship. It came into evidence on the day of Pentecost through three thousand souls receiving the Apostles’ doctrine, and that doctrine was the Apostles’ as received from the Lord Jesus Christ. “I have given them Thy word” were His words as recorded in John 17. The full character of the fellowship, however, hardly appears to have come out at once. We turn to the Epistles for that.

In the Corinthian assembly true fellowship was gravely imperilled. Corinth was second only to Athens in its love of philosophies with their attendant schools of teaching, and the tendencies prevailing in the world crept into the Church. This resulted in their forming parties, or schools of opinion, around favourite teachers, parties which, if unchecked, would have developed into open divisions. Four things, indeed, seem to have marked the Corinthians, which successively and progressively mar true fellowship:
1st. Worldliness (chaps. 4:8, 5:1-2, and 6:11-18 in the second Epistle).
2nd. Men far too prominent in their thoughts to the obscuring of what is of God (chaps. 1:20, 3:21, 4:6).
3rd. Schools of opinion formed round the teachings of certain of these men (chaps. 1:12, 3:4).
4th. A tendency with the leaders of the parties to evolve peculiar and distinctive doctrines, even false ones (chaps. 4:6, 15:12).

Confronted with these evils the Apostle Paul in his two Epistles sets before them as a corrective the true character of Christian fellowship. He alludes to it three times, in chapters 1:9, 10:16-22, and 13:14 of the second Epistle.

In the first place it is the fellowship of God’s Son. It is not here “with” but “of”, that is, the fellowship is formed around Him, He is its unifying centre; and upon it His character is impressed. 1 Samuel 22 may be taken as an illustration. From the time of David’s sojourn in the cave of Adullam a fellowship began to gather about him. It was his fellowship. It was not Abiathar’s, though Abiathar by a combination of circumstances was brought into it. David was its unifying centre, and his character was stamped upon it. Abiathar or any other of David’s followers might have been laid low by one of Saul’s javelins, and the fellowship have remained unimpaired, but had David been smitten to death the fellowship would have been at once dissolved.

In the second place the character of Christian fellowship is determined by the death of Christ, of which the loaf and the cup in the Lord’s supper are the symbols. His death was not only the highest expression of His love, but also the consummation of the breach between Himself and man after the flesh, and man’s world. By His death, His fellowship, which is that of the Apostles, stands disconnected from Jewish sacrifices and fellowship as much as from that of heathen idolatry, as 1 Corinthians 10 shows.

In the third place it is the communion or fellowship of the Holy Ghost. Not only have we all been baptized into one body by the Spirit, but we “have been all made to drink into one Spirit”. Every one called to the fellowship of God’s Son has drunk of the living water of which John 4 speaks, and, consequently, has within him that well of water springing up to eternal life. Christian fellowship is not, therefore, merely an association which finds its centre in an outside Object, even when that object is so great and glorious as Christ; it is one which also palpitates with an inward spring of vitality and power in the Spirit of God. Here were the Corinthians making little circles round various teachers which should throb with admiration of the teacher in question. To such, the Apostle says, “the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all”. He had previously told them “All the saints salute you”, and bidden them “Greet one another with an holy kiss”. Did they respond? Anyway, to get away in mind from the confined and stuffy atmosphere of sectarianism into the fresh currents of the Spirit is a blessing indeed.

The Apostle John in his first Epistle supplements the above by telling us of the vast range of spiritual treasure which is held in common by all those brought into the Apostle’s fellowship. The Apostles started with the knowledge of the Word of life, and of the life itself which had been manifested to them in Him. Thus their fellowship was with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. All this they gladly communicated to all brought into their fellowship, so that they, too, might hold it in common with themselves, and share in the fullness of joy which it brings. It is clear, therefore, that Christian fellowship does not consist only in an association of an outward kind, but involves also the most blessed intercourse and mutuality of Divine knowledge and affections which all are brought to share with the Father and the Son, and with one another.

For a brief moment at the beginning of the Church’s history there was perfect agreement between the membership of Christ’s body and the fellowship of the Apostles. The truth that was of a spiritual nature and only to be apprehended as revealed to faith, found an accurate representation whereby it was displayed before men. We do not, however, travel far into the Acts of the Apostles before we find discrepancies between the two appearing, and soon there are to be found a number within the circle of the Apostles’ fellowship, whose membership of Christ’s body was open to question. We refer to the Judaizing teachers of Acts 15:1. In Galatians 2:4, Paul alludes to these as “false brethren unawares brought in”. Notice they were “brought in”, and hence he calls them “brethren”, but he stigmatizes them as “false”.

“Brought in”—to what? we may well ask. Not into the body of Christ, for the Holy Ghost makes no mistakes in His actings, and that is His work. Brought into the circle of apostolic fellowship yes; for even while Apostles were still personally on earth, errors of reception were committed, and the circle of their fellowship—the visible Church on earth—was no longer a faithful transcript of the one body of Christ.

Now that we are near the end, with the Church’s home-call before us, it is important for us to remember that all the failure and break-up so sadly manifest, is only in the sphere of fellowship—the sphere of membership remains untouched. It is also important for us to remember that the responsibility rests as much as ever on every saint, to walk according to the Apostles’ fellowship, though the only way in which we possess the Apostles today is in their writings—the New Testament. To commence to deal with how this may be done would carry us beyond the proper limits of the present article.

F.B.Hole

Extracted from “Christ and the Assembly”