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Solutions for an Identity Crisis

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Acts 9 tells of Saul’s conversion to Christianity. It is a gripping story about the church’s fiercest persecutor, his encounter with the risen Lord, and an about-face transformation that produced the church’s greatest evangelist. Saul’s conversion was so remarkable that he even adopted a new name, Paul the apostle.

But when Saul tried to place membership with the church at Jerusalem, there was a problem: “And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). Saul faced an identity crisis–he now identified himself as a Christian, but he was having trouble convincing his brethren. And until they were comfortable with his claims, his work would be extremely limited in the kingdom of God.

What did the leaders of the church at Jerusalem do? I think it is important to point out what they did not do first:

  • They did not ignore the problem and tell those concerned that their fears were unwarrented.
  • They did not kick Saul out because his case was too much trouble.

The apostles at Jerusalem did not sweep the problem under the rug. If they had, they might have lost the author of thirteen of the inspired books of the New Testament.

A study of what the apostles did do will help elders today, as they consider how they will assimilate prospects from various backgrounds and locations into the congregations they oversee.

1. We notice that someone in the church made friends with Saul when he visited the congregation. Barnabas seems to be the only person who believed Saul’s story. This is why he was nicknamed “Son of Encouragement” by the apostles (Acts 4:36). As in the case of so many others, Barnabas reached out to a person who needed a friend and gave him much needed support.

If a church will not make her visitors feel welcome, she will not grow. On the other hand, if a congregation has a welcoming climate that attracts visitors, she will see terrific results. Visitors usually make a judgment about a church within five minutes of their arrival to services. Time is of the essence. Churches that want to grow must make their guests a priority.

2. We also see that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem met personally with Saul. We are told that “Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles” (Acts 9:27). How could they form an opinion about this man based on hearsay? That wouldn’t be fair. They needed to speak with him personally and privately so they could ask him the tough questions: “Are you Saul who guarded the coats of those who stoned Stephen?” “Did you persecute Christians in the past?” “Why are you here?” “Have you changed?”

This part is important. The apostles’ job was not to make a decision. Their role was identification. There is a difference. If my wife makes a grocery list and sends me to the store, my role is not one of decision. I am supposed to identify the objects on the list, purchase them, and bring them home. If I try to change my role to one of deciding what we need at home, my wife will not be very happy. And if momma’s not happy….you know the rest.

What is an eldership’s responsibility when visitors express the desire to place membership with their congregation? It is not to decide at that point whether they should be in the Lord’s church. Do we not teach that the Lord adds souls to His church? (Acts 2:41, 47). An elder’s job is to compare the prospect’s experience with the Scriptures, thereby identifying his position with respect to the Lord’s church. If that person believes in the Lord to the point of repenting of his sins, confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, and being baptized for the remission of sins, the Lord has already made a decision–that person is a part of the body of Christ (Acts 2:38). If the person in question has not obeyed the gospel, then he cannot be identified as a member of the church of Christ.

Maybe in discussing things with a prospect the elders uncover sin. If this is the case they are forced to identify the prospect as a wayward brother in Christ and should counsel him to make a confession before the church (Jas. 5:16; 1 Jn. 1:9; 5:16-17).

I have heard of elderships that do not meet with prospects before they place membership. How do they watch for the souls of their flock if they no nothing about them? (Heb. 13:17). In my view a brief, open interview with each prospect is not just a good idea; it is part of an elder’s job.

3. Back to Acts 9, we notice also that Saul willingly shared his experience with the apostles. He had already spoken with Barnabas, and Barnabas “declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). Saul had followed his conscience (Acts 23:1), and he had nothing to be ashamed of.

When this kind of frank discussion takes place between the eldership and every member, the air is clear and the work can begin. Look at Saul’s actions following his acceptance before the apostles at Jerusalem: “So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). Through Barnabas’ encouragement, the sound leadership of the apostles, and, most of all, the love of Christ, Saul became a staunch defender of the truth.