Report of the Committee to Study Requirements for Local Church Membership [1986]

[1986 Yearbook, page 118]


On Wednesday, October 16, 1985, the 102nd Annual Conference of the Bible Fellowship Church passed the following resolution: `RESOLVED, that a committee of 7 be appointed to study the following question: Does the church have the right to levy extra-biblical requirements for membership? They shall incorporate in their study Acts 15 & 16 plus any other pertinent passages of Scripture’ (1985 Year Book, page 74). This paper is prepared for the consideration of the 103rd Annual Conference by that study committee which adopted as its name, The Committee to Study Requirements for Local Church Membership.

The committee determined to explore and examine the decisions made at the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15 & 16. The Council met to discuss the controversy concerning the salvation of Gentiles. A further controversy emerged, namely, fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers, people of diverse cultures. The controversies were resolved by the issuance of a letter which included a statement on the nature of salvation and four decrees intended to provide a basis for fellowship between these diverse groups. The committee applied itself to the study of both these decrees and the process by which these decrees were established believing that such a study might relate to the issue of membership requirements for the local church.


The committee could see immediately that the question posed to it contained a problem. The word `extra-biblical’ seemed to imply that the Annual Conference might be asking whether it is legitimate to maintain membership standards which have no basis in the Word of God. Knowing that this was not the intent of the question, the committee adopted the following statement to define its terms as well as delineate the area of its study:

There are three categories of commands and prohibitions: biblical, extra-biblical and unbiblical. By biblical we understand commands or prohibitions that are explicitly stated in the Bible. An example of a biblical command or prohibitions is, `You shall have no other gods.’ By extra-biblical, we understand commands or prohibitions that are implicitly stated in the Bible. An example of an extra-biblical statement is, `You shall not be a member of a secret oath bound society.’ By unbiblical, we understand commands or prohibitions which have no foundation in the Bible. An example of an unbiblical command is, `You shall not permit a member of a secret oath bound society to attend church.’

The focus of this study is on that group of statements which is identified as extra-biblical. The question can now be restated to read: `Does the church have a right to set membership standards which are based on implicitly biblical statements?’ Another way to state the question is, `Must membership standards be based on explicitly biblical statements only?’


I. The Issues – The Jerusalem Council had two issues with which it had to contend. The first issue related to salvation. At what point might a person be considered saved? This issue precipitated a crisis in the city of Antioch. Paul and Barnabas had preached the gospel as we know it – that by faith in Jesus Christ plus nothing else – we may be saved. Anyone who came by faith to God through Jesus Christ would be received by God and delivered from condemnation. However, other men came teaching that it was necessary to be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1). To these men, to be saved meant that a person must accept the law and keep the law before he could claim that he was saved. The second issue is revealed in the process of resolving the first. This issue related to the fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. It became apparent that the Jews could not accept the Gentile way of life, which included practices which the Jews abhorred (Acts 15:20). It is obvious that two cultures were colliding. If the church was to be one, they needed to overcome the collision of the two cultures.

II. The Resolution – There are two aspects in the resolution of the crisis that will prove helpful if examined. The first is the resulting decisions. The second is the process by which the decisions were made.

A. The Decisions

1. The salvation controversy – the question about the salvation of the Gentiles, while it was the central issue in the city at Antioch, appears to have been resolved rather quickly. The testimony of Peter and the further evidence of God’s work supplied by Barnabas and Paul seem to remove the controversy (Act 15:7-12). James takes the lead in analyzing what their testimonies mean. He can see that what they are saying is consistent with scriptural teaching (Acts 15:13-18). He proposes that there be no hindering of the Gentiles. The Gentiles were equal partners who shared an equal salvation. Both Jew and Gentile were joined by the knowledge that salvation is the gift of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The issue is resolved. To be saved, a person needs only to come by faith to Jesus Christ and he would be delivered, whether he were Jew or Gentile.

2. The fellowship controversy – The words which James spoke at the Jerusalem Council showed that another more practical problem existed. The `theological’ issue was solved quickly. The `practical’ issue was not solved so easily. The lifestyle of the Gentiles was not consistent with the lifestyle of the Jews. Historically, many Jews had rather strict dietary laws and strong convictions about being separated from surrounding pagan cultures. They tended to despise other peoples who were not as `pure’ in their lifestyle as they were. Now, by their common faith in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles are drawn together. It was all well and good to believe that Jesus Christ was the one way of salvation, but the matter of the way they were living would create a point of contention. James could see a potential conflict if it were to appear that what the Jews have taught is suddenly abandoned (Acts 15:21). He proposes that a letter be written to the Gentiles calling them to abstain from certain practices (Acts 15:19-20).

a. The four decrees – Several questions arise concerning the proposal of James. Why were these four items chosen? It is clear that these four prohibitions, things contaminated by idols, fornication, what is strangled, and blood, had a basis in Old Testament law and were of central importance to Jews who wanted to maintain a separation from surrounding pagan culture. The question, `Why these four only?’, cannot be answered with any sense of assurance. Why the four were proposed by James can only be answered with caution. It is clear at this point that dietary laws were now to be superseded. Jesus Himself had declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). That message was carried to Peter on the day before he would preach the gospel to Cornelius (Acts 10:9-16). Peter, who was present at the Jerusalem Council, had been told that he ought not consider unholy what God had cleansed. It would thus appear that three of the four prohibitions were outdated. The prohibition against fornication was clearly a principle of the Old Testament and continued in the New. The presence of fornication in the list of prohibitions seems unnecessary since anyone with any contact with Scriptural teaching would know that fornication was condemned.

There are several possibilities that may explain what the four decrees have in common.

(i) One possibility is that each of the four speaks to an aspect of pagan worship. The dietary prohibitions relate to sacrifices made at pagan temples. Fornication relates to any practice even remotely attached to sexual rites that were part of the worship. In other words, the four prohibitions called for Gentiles who came to faith in Christ to separate from any attachment to pagan worship that would compromise their faith in Christ.

(ii) Another possibility is that the four were chosen because the Jews would not accept the Gentiles if they continued their practices which the Jews considered unclean. The dietary prohibitions were mentioned so that Gentiles would not offend the Jews in their eating practices. The prohibition against fornication was necessary because fornication was a commonly accepted practice among Gentiles, not even viewed as sin by those who were influenced by Greek culture and taught to believe the body counted for nothing. According to this model, the proposal is made to overcome Jewish resistance to receiving Gentiles into fellowship.

It is difficult to ascertain with certainty why these four prohibitions were suggested. It would appear that at least three of the four decrees are extra-biblical statements using the definition given above.

b. The authority of the decrees – The next question that arises concerns the authority of the Council and the weight of the proposal to call Gentiles to recognize the four prohibitions. The Council accepted the proposal of James and prepared a letter that would embody the proposal and which would be circulated among the Gentiles. It seems clear that those who sent the letter believed that the four prohibitions were obligatory. That becomes clear because of several facts. First, they believe that the Holy Spirit had led in the selection of the four prohibitions (Acts 15:28). They claim divine authority for their proposal. Second, they identify the four prohibitions as `essentials.’ There was a recognition that these `essentials’ were a burden or weight upon the Gentiles. Yet, they were considered essential. The Greek word translated `essentials’ (NASB) literally means `things which are necessary.’ The use of this word indicates that the Jerusalem Council did not consider the four prohibitions to be suggestions or good ideas. They considered them obligatory. Third, in Acts 16:4, the word `decree’ is used. This word, from which the word `dogma’ is derived, is a word that signals that authority stood behind what was delivered to the churches.

c. The limitation of the decrees – The Council at Jerusalem considered the decrees obligatory. Yet, as the history of the New Testament unfolds, it seems clear that the decrees were limited in their scope. This observation arises out of the fact that Paul is silent about these decrees in subsequent discussions about Gentile practices. In two portions of Scripture, the matter of Gentile eating practices is raised. The first section is in I Corinthians 8-10. The second section is Romans 14-15. In both portions of Scripture, Paul faces the issue of eating habits and how certain opinions are creating division among believers. Paul clearly teaches that both eating or not eating may be legitimate in different circumstances. He proceeds to give guidelines to lead those who need to make decisions in such matters. One such guideline is that if such a practice will harm another believer in come way, then a person should refrain from that practice. What is significant is that in the discussions of I Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15 there is no mention of the Jerusalem Council. The question of eating meat offered to idols might have been answered easily by referring to the decision of the Council. Yet there is no reference to the decrees.

What is the significance of this silence? It seems to be evident that while the decrees were considered obligatory they were also considered limited geographically and temporally. The apostle Paul who was present at the Council did not teach that the decrees were binding upon all men everywhere for all time. We believe that the decrees were given to be the solution to a problem that existed because of the initial clash of Jewish and Gentile culture.

d. Summary – The church was facing a problem as two cultures began to clash. Recognizing that the church of Jesus Christ is to be one, the Jerusalem Council sought a way to overcome the growing division. They established four prohibitions that they considered to be essential if there was to be fellowship between the two cultures. Subsequent teaching and practice showed that these decrees would not be binding upon all men at all times.

B. The Process of Resolution

Almost as important as the decisions themselves is the process by which the decisions were made.

The following people or groups of people were represented at the Jerusalem Council: Paul, Barnabas, representatives of the church at Antioch, apostles, elders, Pharisees, Peter, James, the church of Jerusalem, Judas and Silas (both of Jerusalem). The letter sent from the council recognizes the presence and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in what was done. It is obvious that such a group of people presented a contrast of personality and outlook. It is clear that there was some tension because of the issue to be faced. These observations only heighten the sense of wonder that such a diverse group could come to a consensus.

1. The process – The question to be addressed at this point is, `How did they do it?’ The text shows that there was much discussion with an abundance of the give and take required when two contrasting views need to be reconciled. The discussion centered around the apostles and elders (Acts 15:5-6), who carefully listened to the various points of view and testimonies. It is James, acknowledged to be a key leader in the church of Jerusalem, who actually voices the proposal for a solution which responds to the concerns of the two parties. That proposal was approved by the apostles and elders who are willing to take responsibility for it (Acts 15:23). It would require that those who maintained the opposing points of view will need to surrender cherished opinions and convictions. The proposal was presented to and accepted by the church at Jerusalem who in turn selected representatives to communicate the decision. In summary, the leaders of the church formulated a solution which recognized the concerns of the contrasting views. The participants in the Council willingly received this solution and made the appropriate concessions. The leaders in this process were confident of the Holy Spirit’s presence and direction as they resolved the problem that threatened to divide them. The church received the news of solution with joy.

2. The attitudes – The record of the Council of Jerusalem gives little insight into the behind-the-scenes- deliberation and discussion. It is appropriate to ask what kinds of attitudes would allow two groups of people, who are strongly convinced of the correctness of their views, to blend those two views into a common agreement. To answer that question, it is necessary to go beyond Acts 15 to Romans 14 and 15 where many of the same issues are being discussed. In these chapters the Holy Spirit is teaching how to maintain unity when there are differing opinions and convictions. Although maintaining unity is difficult, it is possible since this passage teaches how to do it.

With regards to extra biblical issues, there are several principles that arise from Romans 14 and 15.

a. There must be a commitment to unity. Underlying all that is written in this section of Scripture is the commitment to be one. Only when the threat to break fellowship is put away can there be a whole hearted commitment to the search for a way to maintain unity.

b. There must be firmness of conviction. Each party must be convinced that his position is based upon the Word of God. They must not hold these convictions in a way that is arbitrary, cantankerous, stubborn or belligerent.

c. There must be mutual respect. Each party must recognize that the other is sincerely convinced about its position. The desire to be judgmental or to win the argument will be laid aside. The two parties must respect each other’s views and not demand change.

d. There must be a genuine concern about the other party. The person who does not share a certain point of view is not an enemy but a brother or a soldier in the same army. Two different points of view can co-exist when the two parties show genuine appreciation for each other.


To the question, `Does the church have a right to set membership standards based on implicit biblical statements?’, the committee answers, `Yes’. This answer is based on Acts 15 in which three of the four decrees can only at best be considered implicit teaching of the Scripture at that point in history.

However, that answer must be qualified. The committee recognizes that the decrees were given to solve a problem at a particular place and time. Accordingly, they were limited both in reference to geography and time. Membership standards must not be elevated to an authority equal with the Scripture. Unlike Scripture, membership standards will need evaluation, periodic revision and re-application to new needs.

COMMITTEE: Keith E. Plows, Chairman; William R. Singletary, Secretary; James R. Batchler, Jr., L. James Roberts, Jr., Robert W. Smock, Richard E. Taylor, John Vandergriff


Having concluded a presentation of the principles contained in Acts 15, the committee will endeavor to show how these principles can be related to the issue of total abstinence from alcohol. The committee recognizes that it is going beyond its assignment at this point but desires to show how these principles can be applied to this divisive issue.

I. The Problem – The problem which we face can be stated in the briefest terms. The problem is not whether we condone the use of alcohol under certain circumstances. The problem concerns whether we may require total abstinence from alcohol as a requirement for membership. More particularly, our problem is that there are two points of view among us. Some say it should be a requirement. Some say it should not. These two points of view need to be examined.

A. The point of view which favors requiring total abstinence from alcohol as a condition for membership. Those who hold this point of view believe that it is an appropriate biblical position for a church to take. There are several reasons which cause them to stand firmly upon their position:

1. There are the biblical statements which warn about the use of alcohol.

2. There is evidence that the use of alcohol can lead to destructive results.

3. There is the need to maintain a quality of life that will cause the church to be above reproach and pure in the midst of this sinful culture.

B. The point of view which does not favor requiring total abstinence from alcohol as a condition for membership. Those who take this point of view believe it is inappropriate for a church to make such a requirement for the following reasons:

1. While the Bible condemns drunkenness and warns against the use of alcohol, it does not forbid the use of alcohol under every circumstance.

2. We must condemn what the Bible condemns but we must not go beyond what the Bible says.

3. To require abstinence from alcohol as a requirement for membership is to bind men’s consciences in an area where God has not bound them.

II. The Attitudes – We believe that any attempt to find a solution to the problem must recognize that the process of finding a solution is as important as the solution itself. If the process does not recognize the lordship of Christ and the need to be one as a body, then the solution will be a faulty one. We suggest that those who hold the two points of view need to take up the attitudes maintained in Romans 14 and 15.

A. There must be a commitment to unity. Those who have counselled with couples experiencing marital discord know that there will be no solution if the couple clings to the option of divorce. Divorce must be rejected as an option and followed by a recommitment to oneness. It is important for us to do the same as a church. When we have determined that we will not be divided, then we will apply our efforts to finding a solution that will keep us as one the way our Lord intended.

B. There must a firmness of conviction. Those who hold the two points of view must have done their homework and now what they believe. Actually, the many previous studies of the alcohol issue have fairly well clarified the thinking of most of us.

C. There must be mutual respect. It is perhaps to this area that most of us need to be drawn. All impure desires must be laid aside. We must not be judgmental or desire simply to be on the winning side. The truth is that the two parties must each be responding to the statements of Scripture as they read these statements. We are not facing a situation where men are being arbitrary or cantankerous. There are two points of view in which those who hold them are endeavoring to do what they read in the Scripture. This means that there must be respect for each other. Such respect will be revealed in the nature of our dialogue.

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