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Different churches hold different views about church organization and work. Most denominations have central headquarters, governing bodies, or centralized earthly organizations of some kind. Most support missionary or benevolent societies. Many are involved in Social Gospel works, such as entertainment, recreation, sports, parties, etc.
We seek to understand exactly what work Jesus wants His church to do and how He wants it to be organized and governed. Did He authorize the church to support central organizations, earthly headquarters, or missionary and benevolent societies? Did He establish the church to provide entertainment, recreation, and fun, or did He want it to focus on spiritual work in worshiping God and saving lost souls? Please consider the teaching of the Scriptures.
Sometimes God states directly what He wants us to do or to believe (1 Cor. 14:37; John 14:15; Matt. 28:20). Specific instances of such teaching are the commands to be baptized (Acts 10:48), to love (Matt. 22:37-39), and to have the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Sometimes God does not expressly say to do a thing, but gives instances of Christians doing it with God's approval.
1 Peter 2:21 -- Jesus left an example; we should follow His steps. [Matt. 16:24; 10:25; 1 John 2:6]
1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9 -- We should also imitate the example of inspired men. [1 Cor. 4:16,17; 1 Thess. 1:6,7]
Lessons we learn this way are: baptism by immersion (Acts 8:35-39), Lord's supper on the first day (Acts 20:7), plural elders in each congregation (Acts 14:23).
Sometimes truth is not directly stated but necessarily follows from what is stated. Note some examples in the Scriptures:
Matthew 19:3-9 -- Gen. 2 said that, in marriage, two become one. Jesus concluded that a third party was not allowed, so divorce is not allowed (except on grounds of fornication).
Hebrews 7:11-25 -- The Old Law prophesied a priest of the tribe of Judah, but the law itself allowed only priests of the tribe of Levi. This necessarily meant there would be a change of the law. [See also Matt. 22:23-32; Acts 17:2,3; 10:1-11:18; 15:6-21; 1 Cor. 15:12-19.]
Some lessons we learn this way are: the church is to assemble (Heb. 10:25), therefore we may provide a place (building); before baptism one must believe and repent (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), so we should not baptize babies since they cannot do these things.
When we study a subject, we must consider lessons taught by any of these teaching methods.
Matthew 15:9 -- Man-made laws make worship vain.
Colossians 3:17 -- All we do must be done by Jesus' authority.
Galatians 1:6-9 -- God's curse is on those who teach things different from the gospel.
2 John 9 -- If we wish to have God, we must abide in the teachings given by Jesus.
Our service is intended to please and honor God, but human wisdom cannot discover what pleases Him without revelation (Jer. 10:23; Isa. 55:8,9; Prov. 14:12; 3:5,6). God has told us in the gospel everything that pleases Him (2 Tim. 3:16,17; 2 Pet. 1:3; John 16:13). Therefore, if we practice anything not taught in the gospel, we are displeasing to God. [Rev. 22:18,19; 1 Pet. 4:11]
Everything we do must fit the definition or fall within the meaning of God's instructions. When God wants man to do a thing in a particular way, He chooses terms that are specific or narrow in meaning. We displease Him if we do anything not included in the meaning of these specific terms.
On the other hand, God sometimes decides to leave man free to choose from alternative ways of doing a thing, so He instructs us in words that are more general or inclusive in meaning. We are then free to choose any alternative that fits the definition of God's instruction. Consider some examples:
Genesis 6:14 -- God authorized Noah to "make" an ark of gopher wood. Since God specified "gopher wood," metal, or pine would have been wrong because they are different materials from gopher wood. However, God was not specific regarding what tools to use. Had Noah used a hammer or saw he would still have just been "making" an ark. This would have been acceptable because it fit God's instructions.
Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 -- God specified the elements for the Lord's supper and the day it should be done. Any other elements or any other day would be unauthorized. But God did not specify the time of day, so it can be done any time on the first day.
Ephesians 5:19 -- Since God specified "singing," any other kind of music (playing instruments) is unauthorized. But singing parts (soprano, bass, etc.) fit the meaning of "sing."
If we truly favor having Bible authority for all we do, then we must oppose all practices for which we have no Bible authority.
A "local church" has all the following characteristics:
(1) It is a group of Christians from a certain area or locality (1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2); and
(2) They have a set of rules, the gospel, which guides the body (Eph. 1:22,23; 5:23,24); and
(3) They have a work or function to be accomplished by the group (see below); and
(4) They have a system for overseeing the work (elders -- Acts 14:23; 20:17,28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3); and
(5) They have funds belonging to the group to carry out its work (1 Cor. 16:1-4; Acts 4:32-5:11; Phil. 4:14-18; 2 Cor. 11:8,9); and
(6) They have an identifiable membership -- i.e., there are Biblical guidelines for determining who is or is not a member of the local church (Acts 9:26-28; 1 Cor. 5; Matt. 18:15-17; Heb. 13:17).
(7) They mutually agree and understand that they intend to be a local church (Acts 9:26-28; 1 Cor. 1:2; plus all references above).
Now note the spiritual emphasis in the work of local churches.
The gospel teaches that, in general, man's spiritual needs are more important than physical needs -- Matthew 16:26,27; John 6:63,27. Meeting a person's physical needs has only temporary benefits; meeting his spiritual needs has eternal benefits (See also Col. 3:1,2; Lk. 12:15-21; Matt. 4:4; 10:28).
Notice how this spiritual emphasis applies to the church:
The Founder, Owner, and Head of the church emphasized man's spiritual needs. Jesus shed His blood to save men spiritually (Eph. 1:7; Lk. 19:10; 5:32; Matt. 20:28; 26:28). But He purchased the church with that blood, and He is now the head of it (Matt. 16:18; Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:22,23; 5:23-25).
The membership of the church consists of people who have been spiritually saved and who seek eternal life (Acts 2:47; 20:28; Eph. 5:23,25; Col. 1:12-14).
The church is the only institution God established to meet the spiritual needs of mankind. Everything we can now do to help people physically, we could have done had Jesus never died and established the church. But none of man's spiritual needs can be met without Jesus' death and without the church He purchased.
The church is entered at the point of baptism by a spiritual birth (John 3:3,5; Rom. 6:3,4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Acts 2:38,47; 2 Cor. 5:17).
The primary work of the highest leaders in the church (apostles and elders) is spiritual (Acts 6:2-4; 20:28; Heb. 13:7,17).
The church is a spiritual house, a kingdom not of this world -- 1 Peter 2:5; John 18:36. We are a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices. This is far more important than physical concerns -- Matthew 6:33. [Cf. Rom. 14:17; 2 Cor. 10:3-5.]
The church is fundamentally spiritual, created to help men be saved and have eternal life. We will see that this emphasis is reflected in the work of local churches.
Note the work Jesus authorizes the church to do:
1 Thessalonians 1:8 -- This church sounded forth the Lord's word.
Acts 11:22-26; 13:1ff -- Churches sent preachers to teach the lost.
Philippians 4:14-18 -- Churches supported preachers financially (cf. 2 Cor. 11:8,9; 1 Cor. 9:1-18).
1 Timothy 3:15 -- The church is pillar and ground of the truth.
1 Corinthians 14:19,23-26 -- Churches conducted public worship assemblies to edify the members (cf. Heb. 10:24,25.)
Ephesians 4:16 -- All the members work to build up the body.
(See also 1 Corinthians 5; Matt. 18:15-17; 2 Thess. 3:6-15.)
This includes: Studying God's word (see above), prayer (1 Cor. 14:15; Acts 2:42), Lord's supper (1 Cor 11:17-34; Acts 20:7), singing (1 Cor. 14:15; Heb. 2:12; Eph. 5:19), collection (1 Cor. 16:1f; 2 Cor. 8&9).
Acts 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 16:1,2 -- Collections were taken to aid needy saints (cf. Acts 2:44f; 6:1-6; 11:27-30; 2 Cor. 8 & 9).
Local churches should help certain physically needy members, but their emphasis should be on man's salvation and eternal life.
Romans 1:16 -- The gospel is God's power to save all men.
2 Thessalonians 2:14 -- Men are called by the gospel.
John 12:32; Matthew 11:28-30 -- Jesus draws men to Himself by inviting them and teaching them (cf. John 6:44,45).
Acts 17:2,17; 18:4,11,19; 19:8,9; 24:24,25 -- The apostles converted the lost by telling them the message of Jesus. They never offered carnal promotions to get people to listen. [Acts 5:42; 8:4,5,25,35; 13:5,16; 14:1,7,21; 16:13; etc.]
The greatest motivating power we have is the story of God's love, Jesus' death, and the hope of eternal life (1 John 4:19; 5:3; Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 1:18-24; Heb. 4:12,13; Jas. 1:21; Rom. 10:14-17).
Many churches offer fun, food, entertainment, and excitement to attract people. Why don't they just offer $10 to all who come?
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 -- Our weapons are not fleshly, but have power to lead men to Jesus.
Ephesians 6:10-18 -- Because we fight a spiritual enemy, we have spiritual armor. That armor is sufficient. No carnal weapons are included. [Rom. 14:17]
1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2:1-5 -- We save men by preaching Jesus' death so their faith stands in God's power, not in man's wisdom. If men are not interested in that message, we have nothing else to offer (Acts 13:46).
John 6:26,27,44,45,63,68 -- When people came to Jesus for food, He refused to feed them but told them to seek eternal life. Men can only come to Him by hearing and learning. His words are spirit and life, but fleshly appeals profit nothing.
Clearly, Jesus and His apostles refused to use physical appeals, such as many people use today. The Bible thoroughly rejects the concept that "the end justifies the means" (2 Sam. 6:3-7; 1 Sam. 8 & 15; Lev. 10:1-3; Matt. 7:21-23).
God is spirit (John 4:24). His kingdom is spiritual. Man's greatest need is spiritual. Our enemy is spiritual. Our eternal reward is spiritual. Therefore, God gave us spiritual drawing power -- the gospel. The church should not use carnal appeals, not because we are negative people, but because we believe in the power of the gospel.
Some people say that whatever individual Christians may do or are commanded to do, the church may do likewise. But note some passages that distinguish church work from individual work.
Matthew 18:15-17 -- When a brother sins against us, we must act first as individuals (v15), then several individuals (v16). The church does not act till after the individuals did their part (v17).
Ephesians 4:28; 1 Corinthians 16:1,2 -- Individuals are commanded to get their income by working in a business (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10). But churches get their income from contributions.
2 Corinthians 9:6,7; Acts 5:4 -- An individual's money is under his control, not the church's control. He is commanded to decide how much to contribute. The church cannot tell him how much to give, nor can he (alone) decide how the church will spend its funds.
Matthew 5:42 -- Individuals are taught to make loans to help the needy. Churches help by giving, not by loans (Acts 4:35; 1 Tim. 5:16).
1 Timothy 5:4,8,16 -- Individuals are commanded to care for needy relatives. The church is responsible to care, not for these people, but for those who have no one to help them. When people follow God's plan, individual work will be distinct from church work.
Hebrews 13:4; Genesis 1:28; Ephesians 6:4 -- Individual Christians may marry, bear children, and discipline those children. What Scripture authorizes local churches, as such, to do these things?
Consider other examples. Individuals may wear the names of men, such as Paul, James, David, Alexander Campbell, etc. May local churches (1 Cor. 1:10-13)? Individuals may play instruments of music and sing secular songs (Luke 15:25; 1 Cor. 14:7; Matt. 11:17). Individuals may wash in water for purposes other than remission of sins (Acts 9:37; Luke 7:38). May local churches, as such, do these things?
The church is not just one member, but an organization of many members functioning as a unit (1 Cor. 12:14). A business corporation does not necessarily do all the things done by the individual employees of that company. So also the Bible distinguishes the church as a unit from the individual members.
Sometimes the work of the church is similar to that of members, but just because a passage authorizes or requires individuals to do a thing, that does not prove the church is authorized to do the same.
Some churches practice the "Social Gospel," involving the church in material pursuits which God gave to individuals, not to the church.
Individuals may, and often should, participate in these for their own good and that of their families (Eph. 4:28; 2 Thess. 3:7ff; Acts 18:2f; 1 Tim. 5:8; Matt. 22:21). But what passage authorizes local churches to own, operate, or sponsor businesses, hospitals, colleges, schools, day-care centers, or political campaigns?
Again, individuals may, and often should, be involved in these for themselves and their families (1 Tim. 4:8; 5:8; Mark 6:31; 1 Cor. 11:22,34). But what passage authorizes local churches to organize or sponsor ball teams, gymnasiums, boy scouts, camps, parties, carnivals, stage productions, concerts, kitchens, and dining facilities?
The church is a spiritual body to preach the gospel and care for certain destitute members. It should not be diverted to pursue "Social Gospel" interests. Individuals have additional duties that God never gave to the local church. If we believe that the church should maintain its spiritual emphasis and should practice only what is authorized, then we must object when individuals shift their responsibilities to the church.
Local churches do have a definite responsibility in benevolence, but the Bible places limits on that responsibility.
Ephesians 4:28 -- Men are commanded to work.
2 Thessalonians 3:10 -- Those who refuse to work should starve. Local churches should not care for able-bodied people who could care for themselves. [1 Thess. 4:11,12]
1 Timothy 5:4,8,16 -- Individuals should care for their needy relatives, but the church cares for those with no relatives. Many churches violate this rule by caring for people who have relatives that ought to care for them. [Cf. Gen. 3:17-19; Matt. 15:4-6; Esth. 2:7]
Luke 10:25-37 -- Love for neighbor teaches individual Christians to help any needy people, as we have opportunity.
Matthew 25:31-46 -- We will be judged according to our efforts in helping needy people. (Eph. 4:28; Acts 9:36-39; 20:34,35; etc.)
James 1:27 -- Individuals should help orphans and widows.
Note: Context shows this refers to the work of individuals, not of local churches: (v19 -- "every man"; v23 -- "any...he...a man...his"; v24 -- "he...himself...his...man he"; v25 -- "he...this man...his"; v26 -- "any man...his...his own...this man's"; v27 -- "himself"). The one being addressed is a "man" (v19,23,24,25,26) who has a "natural face" (v 23), "tongue" (v26), "heart" (v26), and a "self" (v24,27). Clearly this refers to an individual. To apply this to the church is to misuse the passage.
Galatians 6:10 -- We should do good to all men, especially Christians. The verse does not define the "good" we are to do, but the context discusses helping people serve God (v1-9). To know what other works are "good," we must study other Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16,17).
Again the context is discussing work of individuals, not local churches. "We" in v10 means: v3 -- "a man...himself...he...he...himself"; v4 -- "every man...his...he...himself alone...not another"; v5 -- "every man...his own"; v6 -- "him...him"; v7-9 -- "a man...he...he...his ...he...us...we...we." V7-9 are discussing our eternal destinies, a matter that is determined individually, not congregationally.
These verses discuss individual work. To learn what the local church is to do, we must examine verses discussing church work.
Some people believe the church should help people in general.
Acts 2:44,45 -- "all that believed" (1 Tim. 5:3-16)
Acts 4:32-5:11 -- "them that believed" (4:32)
Acts 6:1-6 -- "number of the disciples (v1)
Acts 11:27-30 -- "unto the brethren" (v29)
Romans 15:25-27 -- "unto the saints...saints"
1 Corinthians 16:1-4 -- "for the saints"
2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1,12 -- "to the saints"
All passages about music in worship specify "singing." We do not play instruments because playing is never mentioned. Likewise, baptism is specifically for those who believe and repent. We do not baptize babies because they are not the ones God specified to receive baptism. Likewise God said Christians should receive church benevolence, but He never mentioned non-members. So we conclude non-members should be helped by individuals, but not by the church.
"All" means the whole group discussed in context ("men" is italicized -- added by KJV translators). It means all humans everywhere only if context so indicates (cf. Heb. 8:11f; Gal. 2:14; 1 Tim. 5:20).
"Unto them and unto all" shows "all" contrasts to "them." "Them" means the needy saints at Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:3; Rom. 15:25; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1). "All" means the whole group of which the "them" were a part -- all "saints." This harmonizes with the context and with the other passages on church benevolence we have studied.
Individuals should fulfill their duties, not shift them to the local church. In this way we keep the church free to do what God ordained it to do: to emphasize helping people be saved, while maintaining a limited role to help certain needy members.
Ephesians 1:22,23 -- Christ is Head over all things to His body, the church. He made all the rules, and they have been recorded in the Bible (see also Eph. 5:22-25; Col. 1:18; 2 Tim. 3:16,17).
Hebrews 8:1 -- Jesus is now in heaven (cf. Acts 1:9-11; 2:33). Therefore the headquarters of the church must be in heaven. Jesus' church has no earthly head, headquarters, or universal officers.
Acts 14:23 -- Each local church, as it matures, should appoint a plurality of qualified men to serve as elders (also called bishops or pastors). [Cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9.]
Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1-3 -- The elders oversee or shepherd the local church. Since each church should have its own elders, each is sufficient to supervise its own work. Since each eldership oversees the flock "among them," no group of men has the right to oversee or to make decisions for more than one local church. Each congregation functions independently, guided by its own officers.
The pope is earthly head of the Roman church. Under him, cardinals, bishops, etc. supervise the work of many local churches. Protestant denominations have centralized headquarters, councils, societies, and officers that supervise the work of the local churches. All such arrangements violate local church independence and oversight.
A century ago, Jesus' church divided when men introduced missionary societies under a board of directors. The board received funds from churches, then it decided what preachers would be supported, when, where, how much, etc.
This was unscriptural because supervision of church work was shifted from the elders of local churches to the officers of a separate man-made institution. The funds and work of churches were centralized, thereby violating the independence of local churches. No New Testament church ever donated funds to any man-made institution.
More recently, Jesus' church has again divided because men have formed institutions such as orphan homes, widows homes, etc., having boards of directors. Churches donate funds to the board, which in turn decides who to help, when, where, etc.
These are unscriptural for exactly the same reasons the missionary societies are. Responsibility to oversee church work is shifted from the elders of local churches to the officers of a separate man-made institution. The funds and work of local churches are centralized, thereby violating the independence of local churches. No New Testament church ever donated funds to any man-made institution.
In principle, such boards are the first step toward a denominational government. If some work of some churches can be centralized under a board, why cannot ALL the work of ALL the churches be centralized in the same way? There is no consistent stopping place.
We oppose all forms of centralized organizations because we firmly support local church supervision and independence.
Acts 11:22-24 -- One congregation sent a preacher to preach to another congregation (cf. 13:1-3).
Philippians 4:14-18 -- One congregation sent financial support to a preacher, sending it through a messenger (4:18; 2:25).
2 Corinthians 11:8,9 -- Several churches sent support to a preacher by means of messengers.
Each church decided for itself whom it would send, whom it would support, when, where, how much, etc. Churches did not donate funds to another church, but funds were sent to the preacher.
Acts 11:27-30 -- Disciples in Antioch sent a gift to brethren who were in need due to a famine. The gift was carried by messengers to the elders of the churches where the needy people were members.
1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8 & 9; Romans 15:25-27 -- Many congregations sent to relieve needy saints in Jerusalem. Each sending church chose a messenger(s) to carry its contribution directly to the needy church (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:16-23).
Let us summarize the principles for church-to-church donations:
* Churches donated funds to another church only if the receiving church was unable to care for its own needy, destitute members (Acts 11:28,29; Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:13-15; 9:12)
* The purpose of the gift was to relieve needy members in the receiving church. Churches with abundance sent to relieve members who were in need compared to the sending churches -- 2 Cor. 8:13-15 (9:12; Acts 11:29). The purpose of church-to-church donations is as clear and binding as the purpose of baptism, communion, etc.
* The contributing was temporary, lasting only till the emergency circumstance was relieved -- 2 Cor. 8:14 (note "now at this time"). The need was capable of being satisfied so the receiving church would no longer be in need. The receiving church intended to overcome its problem and become financially independent again ("their abundance may also be a supply for your want").
* In this way, local church independence and equality were maintained (2 Cor. 8:13-15). Each church was free from destitution, but no eldership controlled the affairs of any other church. Each eldership maintained its authority to oversee the affairs of the local church (as described earlier in 1 Pet. 5:1ff; etc.).
If we support scriptural cooperation, we must oppose cooperation that centralizes the work, funds, or oversight of local churches. Missionary and benevolent societies, as described above, violate this pattern of cooperation. No faithful churches cooperated in these ways.
This is an arrangement for supervising a work that is the responsibility of many churches, but one eldership "assumes the oversight" of the work. However, they know the church where they serve cannot finance the work, so they ask for donations of funds from other churches.
Works done in this way include radio and TV programs, orphan homes, campaigns for Christ, area-wide workshops, support of preachers in a foreign field, national literature distribution, etc.
* The receiving church is capable of meeting the needs of its own members. Sometimes the receiving church is even capable of sending donations to other churches.
* The purpose of the gifts is not to relieve destitute members in the receiving church. Churches with abundance are not sending to relieve a needy church. It is often the reverse: often sponsoring churches are wealthy, and contributing churches are relatively poor.
* The arrangement is not intended to be temporary. The elders assume the work knowing they cannot afford it, and never intending that they will afford it.
* The result is inter-dependence, centralization, and inequality. The sponsoring elders oversee more than the work of one local church. They oversee the centralized funds of many churches to do a centralized work (not a local need), which is just as much the responsibility of the sending churches. Each church is no longer overseeing its own work independently from other churches. The responsibility to oversee the work has been shifted to the sponsoring elders.
An on-going relationship is established in which the sending churches depend on the sponsoring church for oversight, and the sponsoring church depends on the sending churches for money.
This too is a first step toward centralized government. If one church can oversee some of the funds to do some of the work for many churches, why cannot one church oversee ALL the money to do ALL the work for ALL the churches? Where do you draw the line Scripturally? Remember that the Catholic hierarchy began with elders assuming more than local authority: the Pope is the bishop of one church who oversees the work of all the other churches.
We oppose sponsoring eldership "cooperation" because we believe churches should work independently as the gospel shows.
People who favor Scriptural church work and organization, must oppose all unauthorized changes in these areas. Does the church you attend stand for the truth in these matters? Years ago, nearly all non-instrumental churches of Christ would have practiced as we have learned in this study, but in recent years they have drifted.
Yet many local churches have stood for the truth, and there is probably such a church near you. We invite you to stand with us.
Copyright 1980,David E. Pratte; www.gospelway.com
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.