Truth Between Extremes and Error Cooperation Among Churches
Ralph D. Gentry
Cooperation is defined: "Act, operate jointly with another" and "Concurrent effort." Someone has said, "Cooperation between congregations is not a requirement of God," but the following seems to indicate otherwise, even though the term "cooperation" itself is not found in the New Testament: "We are workers together with God" (I Cor. 3:9) (2 Cor. 6:1). The problem is not, may churches cooperate? But, how may they cooperate or what kind of cooperation is authorized in the Scriptures? Out of the controversy several different positions have come forth, which for practical purposes, may be grouped into two opposite extremes of error due to similarity in certain features.
In this category can be found at least two types, viz., the "Missionary Society" of denominationalism and the "Sponsored Church" method of some churches of Christ. These shall be discussed briefly in this order and then again in the last section of this article.
The Missionary Society is an organization other than the church, yet it is made up of delegates or representatives from the participating churches. It independently receives and disburses funds for the churches and is an extra organization through which the church operates. Such a society is not really a method of churches doing their work, but rather constitutes another organization which in turn employs methods of its own. It was conceived in the minds of zealous men desiring cooperation among the churches. I4 resulted in creating a monster assuming the place of Christ as Head of the church. Churches participating, whether voluntary or by compulsion, are surrendering control of functions belonging to them as the only organization God provided through which such work was to be done.
The sponsoring church type was conceived in the hearts of equally conscientious men, but is another unscriptural arrangement for church cooperation. This is the practice of some congregation assuming the oversight of a missionary effort (usually in a foreign land) and soliciting the resources of other churches to finance the project. Thus, "You pay for it and we'll control your resources and this will be cooperation without creating an organization other than the church." The error of this, as we shall see later, is in the exercise of unscriptural authority by the sponsoring church, that is, assuming what they have no right to assume .... control of the activities of another congregation.
Some churches truly do not believe in cooperating with other congregations. The charge is justified when we consider some examples of attitudes and actions among brethren.
In a city of several congregations there is the problem of gospel meeting dates conflicting and rendering such efforts more ineffective. One eldership was approached by another with the suggestion they work together so as to avoid these conflicts. And what was the reply? "You have your meeting whenever you desire and we'll do the same." Why such an attitude? The answer: Noncooperative.
A rival spirit is often evidenced by brethren supposing themselves in competition with brethren of another congregation. Proselyting is the way some hope to build up their number. Yes, we should try to grow, but not at the expense of sister congregations. We are in competition with the Devil, not with each other. This sort of spirit between congregations is often innocently born and cultivated through the practice of churches conducting competitive programs within their Bible classes. They are urged to out-do other classes and are given prizes or recognition in some way for having done so. This seems as a little thing and unworthy of notice, but it is a seed well watered by promoting brethren ambitious to be the largest congregation in the city and to dominate the smaller churches. Such programs can never increase the whole of the work. "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation . . ." (Matt. 12:25a).
Some reject cooperation between congregations by refusal to recognize and honor disciplinary action taken by another. They make of themselves a refuge for the disfellowshipped and thereby increase their number. Usually they hide behind the subterfuge that "other congregations can't tell us what to do." Of course each congregation is autonomous. But each congregation should honor said discipline until sufficient evidence is produced to declare a mix-carriage of justice toward the person or persons withdrawn from. Such could only be learned after a careful investigation and consideration of all the facts.
First, these observations: One or more churches may send money to another church or churches (Acts I 1: 27-30; I Cor.16: 1-4; 2 Cor.8:13-15,16-24; Rom.15:16f); One or more churches may send to an evangelist in the field (Phil.4:15,16; 2 Cor.11:8); A church may send a preacher to assist another church (Acts 11:22).
Therefore, one or more churches may send relief to one or more churches to assist in evangelism and/or benevolence. There need be no controversy over how sent, that is, if by the direct or indirect method. Why not? If Jerusalem could send the preacher, could they not have sent money with which to support the preacher? Yes, but why? If sent to the one in need, shall it not be sent to the church which is in need? Or is the preacher only in need and the congregation with which he labors not in need? If we can send help, we can send the means (money as a form of energy) to the church with which the evangelist labors. To assume such as contrary to scripture, is in effect, a separation of church and preacher so as to remove him from its membership and elders' oversight. Surely, the fact of Paul's receiving funds by the direct method is truly a fact of method only and due to special circumstances rather than a condition involving a binding example in every situation. Remember, that while in Corinth Paul did not want to receive wages from the church there for a very special reason (1 Cor. 9:12; 2 Cor. 11:9). If support for evangelism must be given directly to the evangelist, then, support in benevolence must be given directly to the person in need. If not, what makes the difference? Are they not both works of the church for which funds are raised the same way and handled by the same overseers?
Those who argue fat the direct method (funds to evangelist only, as opposed to sending to the church with which he labors) only, under every circumstance, are guilty of setting aside the eldership as having little or no responsibility toward the evangelist who labors with them. But it is insisted, "The only example we have of sending funds for evangelism is that of sending directly to the man in the field." I do not argue against the binding force of apostolic examples or even of one such example. Yet, I maintain one example is not to be regarded as exclusively binding when such an interpretation is in opposition to other statements of fact relative to the same matter. The fact that it is scriptural for an evangelist to receive funds from the congregation with which he labors (I Cor. 9:9-14) is to be coordinated with the aforementioned example. The fact that elders are also overseers of this preacher's work is to be considered before we talk of said example excluding funds being sent to the church in need. Sending funds to a congregation that a preacher may work with and be supported by that congregation is in harmony with their duties, and is in keeping with the principle of church autonomy. The fact of Paul receiving funds directly from other churches is binding only in that it excludes funds being sent to persons and places other than those in need. Beyond this it ought not to be pressed.
But I believe there is a confusion of terms in today's discussion of this issue. The sponsoring church set-up has been called the indirect method of support. Actually, such is not an indirect way of supporting an evangelist. But, rather, it is a direct way of supporting the sponsoring church which in turn directly supports the evangelist.
But why has such a position (to evangelist only) been taken? Because of opposition to the unscriptural church-sponsored type of cooperation as presently practiced. In such a case the "indirect method" (through the sponsoring church) must not be employed. Why not? To illustrate: Churches claim to oversee the preacher and his work with another congregation. This they cannot scripturally do. Such an evangelist is a member of the church where he labors and not of a "home congregation" perhaps thousands of miles away. Should such an eldership be overseeing his work, they control directly and/or indirectly the congregation where he labors. I wonder if such foreign missionaries regard themselves as having evangelistic oversight, subject only to the diocesan elders of the sponsoring church? Or, are they subject to two congregations or do they sustain a membership at large status?
The difficulty has arisen over a misunderstanding and an abuse of elders' authority in missionary work. Elders may "sponsor" only that which is a work within the congregation with which they labor and to which they bear the oversight (I Pet.5:2). This work may be supported by contributing churches sending funds to said elders and thus give over the responsibility to the receiver thereof for its control and use. They may support but not "sponsor" (control--assume responsibility and oversight) the work of another congregation, lest they become brotherhood elders. Sponsoring churches today are assuming too much authority, hence, become "middle agencies or boards" to which objection is properly voiced. Hence, the opposition to the "indirect method" (7) of supporting an evangelist.
If nothing more or less than forwarding of funds of contributing churches was involved, there could be no wrong. (Note: Such would be indirect support of the evangelist). Each contributing church will then exercise only such control as necessitated in either choosing to send or not to send support, pending reports as received from the evangelist or the congregation with which he labors. No principle of autonomy is then violated either by having brotherhood elders or an extra organization. Remember: Paul was not under the oversight of any one or more churches which contributed to his support, even though they sent directly to him while he labored with other churches from which he received no support.
Now, could cooperation among churches be abused and become sinful? Yes! When and/or how? By the receiving church assuming work and oversight of another congregation and by thus doing, violating congregation self-rule. The point wherein the receiving church ceases to become a needy church and becomes one ambitiously attempting to oversee the affairs of others and grow at other's expense can be seen by an acquaintance with their affairs and tactics. A church which pleads for money to support their work, but who in turn sends its own to the work of other congregations and to human institutions, is in my judgment, insincere in its cry for help and is, therefore, unworthy of support. It does not constitute a church in need and the very purpose for support and transfer of funds in annulled. A church that assumes work admittedly designed to benefit contributing churches and pleads for it on that behalf can but be desirous of becoming a brotherhood agency in a universal action. This is in evidence when contributing churches are told such work is in fulfillment of the great commission and is their duty to give to such a program because it is a nation wide effort. If this is the purpose of such cooperation, it is the church universal activated in a single eldership. It then becomes one church overseeing the work of another. It is the abuse of sending money to other churches that constitutes the wrong. It is abuse in the aforesaid fashion. The abuse, in principle, justifies the complete centralization of all work of churches of Christ, hence, denominationalism or even Romanism.
Truth Magazine VII, 10, pp. 17-19