Editor’s note: This series comes from a sermon given at a conference on discipleship for Chinese house church leaders. It was shared by a house church pastor who leads an urban church of young professionals and university students.
This sermon has been translated and edited from its original version.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.
Discipleship and the Administration of the Sacraments
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Acts 2 teaches that the sacraments are for those who are baptized into the church, because they believe in the gospel and repent of their sins. Baptism signifies a beginning: believers’ union with Christ and the beginning of their relationship with God, as well as the beginning of their relationship with the church. Communion, on the other hand, reflects an in-depth relationship with Christ and the church. Christians are baptized once, but receive communion again and again. Baptism proclaims a beginning, but communion affirms the continual development of this relationship.
Baptism as the Gateway Into the Church
Baptism is like the gate of the church as she opens her doors to welcome those who believe in the gospel and want to commit to the life of the church. Baptism signals a believer’s membership in a local church. Are you baptized? If so, then you are a Christian. If you aren’t baptized, then you are not a Christian, and cannot be a member of a church yet.
However, we have to take into account another crucial issue. The members of a local church are usually comprised of some who get baptized in the church, and others who transfer their membership from other churches. Sometimes a person who transferred into my church may insist that they have the right to receive communion because they were already baptized. Once I was administering communion and there was an individual I did not recognize. He stood up to receive communion and I said, “I am sorry, I cannot allow you to partake today. If you plan to worship at our church, you may partake next time. First let’s talk, and then I will invite you to communion.” He got very upset. He said, “I was baptized, so why won’t you allow me to take communion?” I replied, “How could I know what type of baptism you have received? Was yours a baptism from Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Eastern Lightning? You are telling me you have been baptized, but how can I know what type of baptism it was?” This person became very irritated.
When a person wants to join your church, even if he or she was baptized, you must still check whether that person really understands and believes in the gospel, and has been regenerated by the power of the gospel. If that person has, he or she is welcome into your church as a member. Consequently, baptism indicates a believer’s membership in a local church. Nowadays, most local churches have implemented a membership process to make sure that people who join the church do in fact believe in and have been renewed by the gospel.
Some churches, though, carelessly offer baptism. You might see a pastor announce that it is the day of baptism, and anyone who is willing can be baptized. A visitor might be at church for the first time, and is then urged by his friend to be baptized. He is confused, but is hastily pushed to the front, where the pastor says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now you are a Christian!” If your church practices this type of baptism, I seriously doubt your church walks in the truth. By careless baptism, your church disregards the gospel. The Bible tells us to baptize those who believe the gospel and repent of their sins. Beware! If your church wishes to increase the number of attendees or show off a fervent atmosphere, and then irresponsibly baptizes people without assessing belief, this jeopardizes the gospel. The unconverted “Christians” may cause trouble if they join the church in this way.
Communion and Membership: Discipleship That Guards the True Church
Only spiritual people can discern spiritual truths. Only true Christians can genuinely commune with other true Christians. If someone joins the church, but they are not born again and do not understand the gospel, they are actually in a hostile relationship with the church and with other brothers and sisters. These false Christians may cause discord and friction within the church. If your church is always bickering and falling out over trifling matters, you have to examine whether the church is administering the sacraments according to the Bible.
But when communion is administered according to scripture, it will enhance the relationship between church members. For example, if a member commits sin and does not repent, we should withhold communion and suspend their relationship with Christ and the church. The church should not carelessly withhold communion, because this indicates that the person’s relationship with Christ and the church has been cut off. Some pastors enjoy withholding communion; if a believer is disobedient, their communion privileges might be withheld for two months. This is wrong, because communion declares that the person’s relationship with Christ and the church has been severed. Strictly speaking, once a person has been denied communion for a period of time and yet still does not repent, they should be excommunicated. An unrepentant person does not have a relationship with the Christ and the church.
Communion demonstrates our communion with Christ and the church. The Lord’s Table has bread and wine, which are foods. In Chinese culture, if you and I are in a good relationship, we will go out to eat together at a restaurant. Why do Chinese people love eating out? Because eating together strengthens our relationship. These issues indicate the significance of the sacraments. Apostle Paul warned the church in Corinth that they did not administer communion properly. The Corinthian church had a meal before the Lord’s Supper. Because of factions among church members, some ended up hungry, while others got drunk. Instead of eating and enjoying the meal together, they divided into different groups.
Is your church’s communion like that of the Corinthian church? If so, then you cannot administer communion in remembrance of the Lord. This type of behavior indicates a breakdown of relationship. It discriminates and dismisses some among you. That is not of the gospel. Jesus Christ has already accepted the poor, the rich, the weak, and the strong into him. By his grace in salvation, all of us have been received into him and all relationships have been restored. If we humiliate other Christians, if we sin and do not repent, we are guilty of profaning the Lord’s body and damaging to the church.
If a local church does not implement a membership process, it is like a city without walls. The boundaries of that church are unclear, and the Christians living in it are not safe. Moreover, if that church intends to do one-on-one discipleship, this may lead to some crises. Without membership as a screening mechanism, everyone is viewed by default as a church member. A true believer may establish a discipling relationship with a false one.
Local churches must confirm the eligibility of each member according to the gospel. This is to ensure authentic fellowship and proper discipleship. If a local church does not set up a membership process, false believers will certainly blend into the church. This would result in a lack of genuine fellowship and mutual understanding. The church would be like the secular world, full of strife and contention. Thus, church membership is closely related to the sacraments administered by the church. We also see that effective discipleship must be done under sacramental discipline, which can prevent a member from training an unrepentant person.
There are many heretical groups actively working in our city. Some come from South Korea; some are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They like to visit Three-Self Patriotic churches and seek opportunities to get potential disciples for their own groups. If someone shows interest in the gospel, or is a new believer, these heretical groups invite them to their homes and urge them to study a book or to study the Bible. In this way, these groups seduce many new believers or seekers. If a relatively large church does not have membership eligibility, this type of church will become a target for these cults. Many church members have been carried off by heretics, yet their church leaders are not even aware of this crisis.
These heretics know more about discipleship than the church. Those types of church leaders do not oversee the members, nor develop a proper, scriptural understanding of discipleship and the church. If your church does not uphold the sacraments or enforce church membership, the practice of discipleship is a potential danger to your church, which may have terrible consequences.
Translation provided by Jane and the China Partnership team.
 In a Chinese context, baptism indicates a bold affiliation with Christ. Western Christians are often hesitant to say that all who have been baptized are genuine believers, because many may be baptized for familial or cultural reasons. But in China, low levels of cultural Christianity and the public nature of baptism means baptism is perceived as strongly identified with genuine faith in Christ.
How might the presence of false believers among a group of Christians impact discipleship?
How can the church safeguard herself against false believers in her midst?