By Guthrie Dean
The Scriptures Authorize One Set of Elders to be over the Work of that One Church Only
We refer to this arrangement as “congregational autonomy.” Any time any part of the work or resources of one church are placed under the supervision of elders of another church (for a “cooperative” brotherhood work), in that case and to that extent the one church is relinquishing its autonomy to another church.
What the Bible Says about the extent of elder’s oversight:
(1) Acts 14:23 — “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” When fully organized, each church has its own elders (Phil. 1:1).
(2) Acts 20:17 — “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” To the Ephesians elders, Paul said, “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” (20:28). It is obvious, then, that those elders were over the flock at Ephesus only. Surely the Holy Spirit had not placed them as elders over more than the one flock at Ephesus. The local flock was the extent of their oversight.
(3) 1 Pet. 5:1-3 — “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not be constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” Verse 3 in the American Standard reads, “Neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples to the flock.” There are several self-evident truths in the above passage. To a particular set of elders, Peter writes: (a) The elders which are among you, (b) Feed the flock of God which is among you, (c) Taking the oversight (thereof), (d) Neither as being lords over the charge allotted to you.
There is no way such a passage could be construed to mean that those local elders were authorized to oversee or to become the “sponsoring church” for part of the work of another flock. The elders were among the brethren in the church to whom Peter writes. They were to “feed the flock” among them. They were to take the oversight of it. And the work and oversight of the one church only was the extent of the “charge allotted to (them).” If anyone believes otherwise, the burden of proof is upon him. The language of 1 Pet. 5:1-3 is plain. Local elders over the work of the local church only. To become the “sponsoring church” with “sponsoring elders” over the work of more than the one flock is to violate the obvious truth in this passage.
What Others Have Said About Sponsoring Churches and Sponsoring Elders and Congregational Autonomy
Truth is not determined by what men say, but that you may know what others have taught on the subject, I shall quote from a few brethren who have written in the past.
David Lipscomb: “A Christian, one or more, may visit a church. . .to stir them up to a faithful discharge of their duties. But for one or more to direct what and now all the churches shall work, or to take charge of their men and money and use it, is to assume the authority God has given to each church” (Gospel Advocate, 1890, p. 295). — “All such concentration of power is destructive of the activity and true liberties of the church. It tends to exalt the elders of one church and degrade and dishonor those of the other” (Gospel Advocate, Dec. 3, 1931).
H. Leo Boles: “There was- no common fund for churches, no `central church’ with a treasurer to receive the funds from the other churches, no general treasury to take care of the funds, no call from any church to other churches to help them do the work which fell in their province to do” (Gospel Advocate, Nov. 10, 1932). — “No church consulted any other church. They did not form any organic cooperative plan or union with other churches. Each church, guided by the instruction from God that it had, acted upon its own independent responsibility” (Gospel Advocate, Nov. 10, 1932).
C. M. Pullias: “But men would take this glory from God and bestow it upon themselves by combining small things. For instance, one would yoke a number of local congregations together to do a given work. This destroys the congregational independence and sets up the very thing that God sought to avoid in arranging nothing larger than the local congregation through which to work and worship” (Tidings of Joy, July, 1919).
F. W. Smith: “There is not the slightest intimation in the New Testament of any organization for any purpose whatever other than the local congregations, which were independent of each other” (Gospel Advocate, July 22, 1920).
F. B. Srygley: “The work of the elders stopped at the church in which they lived and labored. The elders had no authority to take charge of the missionary money or any other money or means of any church except that one over which they were overseers. Elders of one church should not try to get hold of the money that has been contributed by others to direct for them in foreign fields or other places” (Gospel Advocate, Dec. 31, 1931).
Foy E. Wallace, Jr. : “History is repeating on ecclesiastical organization. It comes now in the form of the little church working through the big church-which is centralization. It amounts to little elders turning the responsibility of their work over to big elders — which is diocesan in principle ….With one eldership of one church taking over the work of many elders of many churches, and with this centralized eldership overseeing workers by the dozens who are not even members of the church where these elders are suppose to elder, what will be left of the local autonomous organization of the New Testament church?” (Gospel Guardian, Vol. I, No. 2, p. 3). — “For one church to help another church by relieving an emergency there, where the elders elder, is one thing; but making the elders of one church a `board of elders’ through which all other churches can operate in doing their missionary and benevolent work is another thing-a cocky thing at that. This idea of a `centralized eldership’ is more than `half-cocked’, it is a mis-fire. Any church able to build a half-million dollar cathedral does not need the kind of help mentioned in Acts 11:29, 30” (Gospel Guardian, Vol 1, No. 44).
Summary of Church Cooperation in the Area of Evangelism
While Paul preached to the church and to others in Corinth, “other churches” cooperated with one another and Paul by sending “wages” to him (2 Cor. 11:8). They sent his “wages” directly to him (Phil. 1:5; 2:25; 4:15-16; 2 Cor. 11:8-9).
The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to preach and to teach the word to the church and others in Antioch (Acts 11:22). Therefore, it is scriptural and right for churches to cooperate in sending and supporting gospel preachers all over the world. Brother Foy E. Wallace Jr. expressed some truths that I think are appropriate just here: “When we criticize these deviations from New Testament principles in the organization .and work of the church it does not mean that we oppose the work. All of the effort to foment feeling and plant prejudice against men who plead for adherence to `the stipulated conditions of the New Testament’ by charges that we are anti-foreign-mission, anti-Christian-education, and anti-cooperation will not prevail in the end. Many sober minded brethren are already seeing the light on these issues and many others will as we shall continue to set forth these principles. It is the same battle over the same issues that had to be fought fifty years ago” (Torch, Vol. 1, No. 2).
The sponsoring church idea is not taught in the Bible, nor is there anyone who can justify it by the Bible. To say that we are anti-cooperation because we do not accept the unscriptural sponsoring church arrangement is to completely mis-state the case.
I believe the following chart will help all to see what the real differences are. The chart is copied from Brother Clint Spinger’s book: Church History and Present Issues.
Truth Magazine XXII: 20, pp. 326-327
May 18, 1978