Some years ago I was in a discussion with a brother, now a bishop in ACNA, who praised a certain then famous evangelical leader as “the most apostolic leader I have ever known,” and then said, “but I wouldn’t take communion from him.” I was stunned. I found the two statements impossible to hold together. If the grace of God was given to that man to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, with true apostolic grace, how could someone deny God’s grace given to him to celebrate communion? There is only one answer, it seems to me, he has set up a standard for communion which stands over against the grace of God. I think my brother’s position was and is untenable, and contrary to the truth as it is in Jesus. But it does reveal a common confusion
How does the Lord Jesus determine who is and is not a part of his church? Whom does he recognize? First as a Christian, and then when his church is present?
To open these questions we must ask what do the Scriptures reveal? Who is a Christian? It seems beyond debate that when someone came to living faith, they had to be baptized. Consider the first converts on the day of Pentecost, or the Ethiopian Eunuch, or the experience of Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 2:41; 8:38; 9:18). Is it conceivable that they were not now considered as belonging to the Lord? Would he not call them his own? Were they not now called by his name?
What then of the church in the beginning? When is it present? If a few were true believers and baptized, was the church of Jesus Christ present? Who would dare say “No”? When converts were made by Barnabas and Paul in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia (cf Acts 13:13-14:18), was the church not yet present? Can men and women in whom the Spirit of Jesus lives, when they gather, not constitute his body?
Further evidence abounds in the Scriptures. There was a church in Lydia’s house, and that of Aquila and Priscilla, and also in that of Gaius, of Nympha, and of Philemon. ( Acts 16:5; Rom 16:5, 23; Col 4:15; Phlm 2 ) It seems incontrovertible that the church grew organically from household to household in the early centuries, and in time it out organized the Roman Empire. Does anyone dare say this was not “the Lord’s doing?” And should it not be “marvelous in our eyes?” (Mt 21:42)
My readers may say to me, “But what about the rest of the story?,” and I will grant it. The apostles appointed leaders once there was a sign of stable life. (Acts 14:23) It is no doubt reasonable to conclude as well, that those recognized leaders took responsibility for the ordering of the future baptisms and for the Lord’s Supper. But is there any evidence that more was required of them than the maturity of faith and character delineated in the Pastoral Epistles? When our fathers were struggling with these questions in the 16th century Reformation, they enunciated a clear definition of the church, for which see Article XIX of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. Would that be acceptable to the Lord Jesus?
Next Week: What Does the XIXth Article Mean Today?