By Guthrie Dean
How should congregations cooperate? In short, what is scriptural church cooperation? Three general answers have been given: (1) Campbell, McGarvey, Pendleton, et al, taught that it was right for congregations to cooperate through the Missionary Societies. (2) Certain Texas brethren (following the Civil War) developed the concept of congregational cooperation which centralized the work under the eldership of one congregation, to whom other congregations contributed. This is essentially the type of cooperation which has been revived in our day under the name of “sponsoring church” cooperation. It was finally rejected by the churches of the past generation as being no different in principle from the Missionary Society. (This is the kind of cooperation involved in the Herald of Truth, Campaigns for Christ, and other modern promotions.) (3) The third kind of cooperation which has been advocated was that “congregations of the Lord, working in their individual, local, and independent capacities were truly `cooperating’ in the work of the Lord.” They might all cooperate under certain conditions to a given work, but they did it directly, and never turned their funds over to some intermediate agency (either society or congregation) to spend for them. David Lipscomb was the chief defender of this type of cooperation, and gradually as the issues were discussed pro and con, brethren generally came to a clear, positive, and definite understanding that this was the only kind of cooperation taught in the New Testament.
No one is questioning the right or even the responsibility of church cooperation. But we believe that the cooperation authorized in the Scriptures does not allow or justify the sponsoring church or institutional type of cooperation as practiced by some churches today.
The Scriptures Authorize a Pattern for Congregational Cooperation
“Now in these days there came down prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great famine over all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius. And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea; which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:27-30).
Foy E. Wallace comments on Acts 11:29-30: “But every article of late with even an attempt to deal with this issue had referred to the case of Antioch in Acts 11:29-30 as a solid example of centralization practice. It is not an example of what is being done. Even a casual reading of the case will reveal the loose thinking and careless writing in evidence in some of the papers. The passage reads: `Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the – hands of Barnabas and Saul.’ The first thing to observe is that the disciples in Antioch sent the relief to the elders where the brethren dwelt in Judea. One writer said the Antioch disciples sent the money to the church in Judea-no, that is not what it says. We might as well speak of disciples in Tennessee sending something to the church in Texas. There were churches in Judea and they `sent it to the elders,’ obviously where the brethren that needed the relief dwelt. There is not so much as an intimation in this passage that money was sent to the elders of the church at Jerusalem for all Judea. This passage does not even mention Jerusalem nor elders in Jerusalem. It merely states that relief was sent to the brethren that dwelt in `Judea,’ and that it was sent to the `elders’ by Barnabas and Saul. Where in Judea? The elders where the brethren dwelt. So the passage certainly does specify what elders and where. Acts 11:29-30 is not a case in point for what some brethren are promoting in the way of a general eldership as a board of benevolence and missions for all the churches” (Torch, Vol. 1, No. 2). This passage does not justify brotherhood elders, state elders, district elders, area-wide elders, or anything of the sort. Elders attempting to oversee any work to which other churches are equally related are overstepping their bounds of scriptural oversight.
On Acts 11:29-30, McGarvey writes: “The manner in which the elders of the churches in Judea are here mentioned, without a previous notice of their having been appointed, shows the elliptical character of Luke’s narrative, and it results from the circumstance that he wrote after the churches had been fully organized, and all of the officials and their duties had become well known. The elders, being the rulers of the congregations, were the proper persons to receive the gifts, and to see to the proper distribution of them among the needy” (Acts of the Apostles, pp. 230-231). He had no trouble understanding that the passage under consideration refers to elders of the church, rather than “sponsoring elders” of the church in Jerusalem. Similarly, Matthew Henry writes: “They sent, it to the elders of the churches in Judea” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, p. 459).
The fact that there were “churches in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14), led the scholar David Thomas to write: “The elders were those that were regarded as the most experienced members of the various churches; and Barnabas and Saul were deputed to take the contributions to them, and entrust them with the distribution as their discretion would dictate” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 184).
R.C. Lenski states regarding the relief in Acts 11:2930: “When the relief became necessary, Barnabas and Saul were the commissioners who were sent from Antioch to the elders in Judea to administer the needed help . . . . The relief was sent, we are told, `to the elders.’ This term comes as a surprise since Luke has not mentioned elders; but he is writing from his own later standpoint and for a reader who knew what elders were. We might call them pastors. They had charge of the congregations in all their church affairs and attended to the services, the teaching and the spiritual oversight” (Commentary on Acts, p. 462).
Truth Magazine XXII: 17, pp. 279-280
April 27, 1978