June 22, 2018

Lesson Presented at the Nashville Meeting of 1-3 December 1988: Cooperation of Churches: What Does the Voice of Christ Say? (1)

By Ron Halbrook

Introduction: Focus on Christ

We should approach every religious discussion with this resolve,

For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

Our goal is not to exalt ourselves, any religious leader, any human institution, or any man-made tradition, but Jesus Christ and him alone! In him is all the fullness of "grace and truth"; in him, "all spiritual blessings in heavenly places"; in him, "the hope of glory"; in him, "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." "For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him. . . . Christ is all" (Jn. 1:17; Eph. 1:3; Col. 1:27; 2:3,9-10; 3:11).

I. Hear the Voice of Christ

A. Hear voice of Christ or of strangers? If Christ is truly "all" in our hearts, we will find him the answer to our every spiritual need. When the sheep hear the certain voice of the "good shepherd," they follow in full trust and unquestioning faith:

To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers (Jn. 10:3-5).

The Scriptures are the voice of Christ. Let us search them diligently and distinguish his voice from the voice of every stranger. Let us embrace his every word as true, as spiritual, as life-giving, and eschew every word of strangers as false, as carnal, as death-dealing (Jn. 6:63). The result will be "one fold, and one shepherd." The loving prayer of Christ will be fulfilled: "That they all may be one,- as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (Jn. 10: 16; 17:21).

The power we need today is the power of his word, not the power of human emotion, education, and eloquence.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and. also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith (Rom. 1:16-17).

Let our faith come from "hearing . . . the word of God" and our speech be "as the oracles of God" (Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 4:11). Our aim must not be carnal ease and security - not to "hold a pulpit" - not to establish, revive, or perpetuate some historical movement - not loyalty to a complex of human institutions. Rather, we must empty ourselves of worldly motives and submit to the rule and kingdom of God that we may know his "righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost" (Rom. 14:17). By submitting to his will and his Word, we may know "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" rather than creating some illusion of unity based on our own sophistry, diplomacy, and compromise (Eph. 4:1-6).

B. Two Possibilities.- Either Christ Gave a Pattern or He Did Not. Each of us, starting with myself, must face the sad and dreadful reality that someone is troubling Israel by "forsaking the commandments of the Lord" and perverting "the gospel of Christ" (1 Kgs. 18:17-18; Gal. 1:6-8). Either the voice of the Good Shepherd requires strict adherence to a pattern of church cooperation, or else it does not. If there is no pattern, there is no such thing as sin, digression, liberalism, or apostasy in the area of church organization and cooperation. If there is no pattern, we depart from the voice of Christ when we insist on a "conservative" stand in adhering to "the pattern" and when we protest "liberal" movements which depart from that standard.

But if Christ gave that pattern, to follow any other standard is to abandon the grace and truth of Christ and all spiritual blessings in him. In that case, the words used to justify such procedures are the voices of strangers and the cause of division. All pleas for a unity tolerating such apostasy are only the "good words and fair speeches" of deceivers (Rom. 16:18). No matter how well those pleas are cloaked in terms like grace, love, peace, liberty, progress, expediency, opinion, "adapting to the times," "cultural differences," "unity in diversity," a supposed "gospel" "doctrine" distinction, and the Bible "a love letter not a pattern" - no matter how many anathemas are issued against "antis," "orphan haters," "legalists," and "church splitters" - it is all Satanic sophistry and a twisting of the Scriptures "unto their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:16).

The dilemma is not resolved by simply exchanging charges and counter-charges. Jesus teaches us to ask the question of every religious practice, "Is it from heaven, or of men?" Let us search the Scriptures determined to let God be true and every man a liar (Matt. 21:25; Jn. 5:39; Acts 17:11; Rom. 3:4). With the Psalmist we say, "Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way" (Psa. 119:128).

II. Christ Gave a Pattern for Church Organization

A. He gave a pattern. By the inspiration of God Paul urged, "Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:13). Does the pattern of sound words require or prohibit anything in the organization and cooperation of churches? If not, any procedure or structure is permitted from the sponsoring church to the Boston setup to the Baptist convention to the Lutheran synod to the Presbyterian presbytery to the Episcopal diocese to the Catholic papacy - every form of church centralization from benevolent boards to missionary societies, from church supported colleges to publishing houses, and from denominational bureaucracies to Roman hierarchies. This freedom would apply to the work of churches in preaching to the lost, edifying saints, and helping destitute brethren.

The chief shepherd and overseer of our souls revealed through the Holy Spirit a perfect pattern for the work and organization of his people in local churches. In a chapter devoted to the organization of the church, including minute and detailed qualifications necessary for elders and deacons, Paul said,

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave itself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground, of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).

The things written are binding as a pattern by which to conduct the affairs of the church. New Testament teaching on this or any other matter has all the force of a living Apostle and of the personal presence of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 5:4; Col. 3:17; Matt. 18:20). All our professions of faith and love are vain and empty if we refuse his word on any matter. "And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Lk. 6:46)

B. Elders in Every Church. The Lord through his inspired Word ordained "elders in every church" in every city. One of Paul's letters is addressed "to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5; Phil. 1:1). Paul instructed "the elders of the church" in Ephesus,

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30).

Some today make the church non-essential, preach "the man not the plan," and say the world needs to hear about Christ rather than the church. But when Paul preached "the gospel of the grace of God" and "the kingdom of God," he talked about "the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (vv. 24,25,28). Those who preach Christ without the church do not preach Christ at all, for they do not preach the full meaning of his blood. Paul "fully preached the gospel of Christ" - "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (Rom. 15:19; 1 Cor. 2:2). In so doing, he did not preach the church before or without Christ, nor Christ without the church. The church is precious and essential to God whether or not it is to modern sectarians and liberals.

The "church" in the sense of all the saved in Christ has no boundaries or formal organization but involves a daily, personal, spiritual relationship with Christ (Matt. 16:18). He is our supreme Lord and King in every sphere and activity of life. To be "in Christ" is to be in "the church, which is his body" (Eph. 1:3,22-23). This is the "one body" of Ephesians 4:4. As head of this body, he ordained that his people meet for regular worship and work, with elders to oversee and deacons to serve (Eph. 4:11; Phil. 1:1). This simple arrangement or orderly organization is designed to cultivate spiritual strength among the saints, to protect them from spiritual danger, and to coordinate their spiritual labors. Elders have authority to rule in making judgmental decisions to carry out all the work Christ gave to the local church and only that work. They oversee with the tender love of a pastor or shepherd leading his sheep, or of a husband and father leading his family (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:17).

C. Each Church Had Its Own Treasury. From the beginning of the church, Christ ordained that Christians give out of their prosperity into a common fund or treasury to be used for the work of the church (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 5:4; 11:29; 15:3(1)). This fellowship in giving occurred on the first day of each week, as did fellowship in the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 16:1-2; Acts 20:7).

D. Each Church Independent and Autonomous. Every church of Christ has a common Lord, a common faith, a common worship, and a common work, but each church is independent and autonomous under Christ in terms of structure and organization. Each church maintains its own treasury and carries out is own program of work. The elders at Ephesus were to oversee, pastor, or shepherd "the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers" - which was the church at Ephesus and nowhere else (Acts 20:28). Peter commanded elders to pastor or shepherd "the flock of God which is among you," addressing "the elders which are among you" in every church in every city "throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Pet. 1:1; 5:1-2). The elders in one church are never given authority in the New Testament to oversee the affairs of another church, neither in part nor in whole.

This pattern of independent and autonomous churches is not some temporary cultural adaptation or a mere carryover from the synagogue system suitable for Jewish churches in an embryonic state. Rather, this pattern is found throughout the New Testament age. That pattern was taught to Jews and Gentiles alike. It was established by inspired men, "the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following" (Mk. 16:20; 2 Cor. 12:12). "The present truth" includes independent and autonomous churches and was recorded and preserved in order that we may "have these things always in remembrance" (2 Pet. 1:3,12-15).

E. Churches Cooperate Without Centralizing Their Work. Independent and autonomous churches in the New Testament age cooperated without creating any centralized mechanism or machinery. In evangelism, at times a single church supported a preacher. After Paul established a church at Philippi, it alone supported him while he preached in Thessalonica. Philippi alone had fellowship with him "once and again," using Epaphroditus as their messenger (Phil. 4:14-19; cf. Acts 17:1-9). (See chart on Phil. 4.)

Philippians 4:15-17 (Acts 17:1-9)

Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity. Not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account.

Later when Paul preached in Corinth, several churches in Macedonia sent Silas and Timothy as their messengers to send support to Paul. He told the Corinthians, "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them to do you service" (2 Cor. 11: 8-9; Acts 18:5). (See chart on 2 Cor. 11.)

2 Corinthians 11:8-9 (Acts 18:1-17)

I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service. And when I was present with you, and wanted, I was chargeable to no man: for that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied: and in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome unto you, and so will I keep myself.

Some brethren make the mistake of jumbling Philippians 4:15 together with 2 Corinthians 11:8 in an effort to make Philippi a centralizing agent or sponsoring church for the "other churches." That would mean funds from various churches in Macedonia would travel up the road to the northeast to Philippi in order to pass through the Philippian treasury and travel back down the same road, passing back through the cities of origin, and on southward to Corinth in Achaia.

In benevolence, independent and autonomous churches cooperated to supply the temporary or emergency needs of destitute churches without creating any centralized mechanism. The church in Antioch learned of a famine in Judea and sent "relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: . . . sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:27-30). Some brethren theorize that Antioch sent funds through the elders and treasury of the Jerusalem church to get help to other churches in Judea. If there were other churches in Judea at this time (as there later were; 1 Thess. 2:14), Acts 11 is parallel to David sending gifts "unto the elders of Judah" by sending to the elders in the various cities of Judah (1 Sam. 30:26-31; see chart on Acts 11).

We also read of churches in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia selecting Paul and other messengers to carry relief on another occasion to "the poor saints which are at Jerusalem" (Rom. 15:26; cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9; Acts 24:17). Some have pretended to find in these messengers an organization overseeing a plan of cooperation for the churches. But if these messengers went beyond the instructions of the church to simply deliver the relief, and constituted themselves a missionary society or benevolent board to oversee the work of churches, they usurped the place of the churches and their elders (2 Cor. 8:19,23).

We have seen two applications of the principle of autonomy in the local church: (1) sending support to a preacher in the field and (2) sending to a destitute church.

We can note other Bible principles which have two applications (see chart on 1 principle: 2 applications.)

One church can send funds to another in benevolence when the receiving church is destitute, but the pattern does not provide for one church to send funds to another in evangelism. We can understand that as easily as we understand an alien sinner is to be baptized, but the pattern does not provide for his pardon through prayer, and the qualifications for elders and deacons cannot be mixed together.


1. "'Being brought on their way by the church." The word pro pempo means "to send forward, bring on the way . . . to set one forward, fit him out with the requisites for his journey" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the NT). It is to "help on one's journey with food, money, by arranging for companions, means of travel, etc., send on one's way" (Arndt & Ginrich, A Greek-English Lex icon of the AT). It is so used in Acts 15:3; 1 Cor. 16:6,11; Tit. 3:13; 3 Jn. 6.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 16, pp. 496-499
August 17, 1989