By Bryan Vinson, Sr.
The subject of congregational cooperation; that is, cooperation between a plurality of congregations as distinguished from that between the members of one congregation, has been, and is, a very live one today among members of the Lord’s church. This interest has been provoked by the developments within recent years, and the controversy over what the scriptures teach as touching this matter. Charges have been made frequently and fiercely to the effect that some do not believe in the cooperation of congregations in the accomplishment of their mission. This is unfair because untrue. If true it would be eminently fair to so charge, but it is never fair to misrepresent the position of another. Despite the denials that have been made the charges persist, and many have been deceived thereby.
It is a curious thing to behold the uncooperative spirit and action of congregations who are so devoted to what they call congregational cooperation. Except a congregation cooperates the way they prescribe it shall be done, they, in turn, not only are very uncooperative but engage in a course of intense opposition to such a congregation. Thereby are they demonstrating themselves to be the ones who do not believe in cooperation as attested by their course of opposition to, rather than cooperation with, these congregations thus opposed. In the absence of establishing their particular type of cooperation to be the exclusively scriptural one there can be no justification for this course of the proscription of dissenting congregations. And this has not even been claimed much less established. To predicate the recognition of a congregation on the condition of meeting a humanly devised system of cooperation as between congregations is to create an ecclesiastical law of their own. The New Testament scriptures afford no directive or example of such a relation in the operation of congregations, as is currently being practiced and insisted on by the promoters among us.
That congregations did in the days of the apostles cooperate is recognized by all, but that they cooperated in the way that is being done now is the thing denied by many. To assume that such a form of cooperation is allowable does not entail the obligation nor license the treatment being accorded those who do not see fit to so function. Having “no pattern” as thus claimed by them forbids them making one which is being forced on the
churches of the Lord as essential to acceptance and recognition. May it be emphasized that only on the premise that there is a pattern, and it is the one which they are following can such action begin to be justified on their part. So, therefore, from their own position, they stand condemned by this proscriptive course.
Spiritual and Carnal Things Involved
That congregations in the first century cooperated is evident by the fact that they rendered assistance, materially, to those in a state of need. The apostle, in Romans 15:26-27, says: “For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things.” Ordinarily in the scriptures when the term carnal is employed it is used in an unsavory sense as contrasting that which it imports with the spiritual (I Cor. 3:1-4, II Cor. 10:4, Romans 8:7). Here, however it is not so used. The contrast is there, but in no way constitutes a reflection against the things carnal. The things that are carnal here are those physical and material necessities supplied for the succor of the poor saints in Jerusalem. Please note that the Gentiles (those in Macedonia and Achaia) had been the beneficiaries in things spiritual, which had come to them from the Jews. This is true by reason of the fact that the Jews first received the gospel; the apostles were Jews, and Christ, the author of the gospel, was also a Jew. The gospel did not originate with the Gentiles. Hence, the sense of indebtedness felt by the Gentile Christians on this score, arose from the duty created by having been thus favored in receiving the gospel. They did not, then, extend this material assistance as a form of evangelism, as some are mistakenly asserting today, but for the purpose of supplying a need from a sense of duty and gratitude. Those to whom they sent it were saints, and thus not in need of being converted.
But noticing the statement that these Gentile saints had been made partakers of their (the Jews) spiritual things, we raise the question: how was this done, or what is the proper distinction in this connection between things spiritual and things carnal? Certainly the things spiritual are not things material or carnal. They are the things of the Spirit, proceeding from the Holy Spirit to the human spirit, as distinguished from that which is material or fleshly. They consist of thought, ideas and knowledge as embodying the Truth as it is in Christ. Such things are immaterial. Thus they were partakers of these spiritual things by the means and through the medium of communication of thought. They had learned the truth, and become heirs together with the Jewish Christians. Thus the contrast is between things spiritual and carnal, immaterial and material; and the partaking of the former lessens not at all the possession of such by those they proceeded from whereas the latter did involve a parting with that communicated to the recipients of the material things. With respect to the former there is no church cooperation, inasmuch as the gospel was delivered to individuals by individuals: in the latter there was.
Another passage where the terms spiritual and carnal are employed similarly is found in I Cor. 9:11. Here we read: “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” The context reveals that Paul is speaking of the point of being sustained or supported by them while engaged in preaching the gospel to them. He had not sought nor secured such from the Corinthians, yet he was defending his right to have been so sustained by them. Here it is a case of an individual functioning in the act described as sowing spiritual things. As a matter of fact, no church can sow spiritual things; such is always to be defined as individual action in its final analysis. Certainly, in a qualified sense, a church can, but only in the sense that it is sustaining the one, or ones, who by the devotion of their time and talents are actually accomplishing such action of communication of truth either orally or in writing.
Today we are hearing the charge repeatedly hurled that some brethren do not believe it is scriptural for one church to send a copy of the New Testament to another congregation, supply a tent for a gospel meeting, or cooperate in assisting in any respect another congregation in any endeavor designed to promote the furtherance of the gospel of Christ. Don’t they know that everything which one church can extend or give to another church is physical, material or carnal? A copy of the New Testament, a tent, a songbook or anything else that can be procured, and even the money used to secure such things are all material. There is no human need which can be met by man on this earth, either for himself or as supplied by others, that is free of a material connection or dependency. When the gospel was in “earthen vessels” and not in writing, there was a degree of separateness and independency of the spiritual from the material, which does not currently obtain. Today we have the written Word, and everyone, therefore, is dependent on it, and thus the materials employed–paper and ink–are essentially related to the communication of the truth, or things spiritual. Therefore, it is but a resort to the obviously sophistical to quibble about whether a copy of the New Testament, a tent for a gospel meeting, etc., constitutes the supplying of physical or spiritual things when provided by one church for the need, or meeting the need, of another.
Whatever the material may be needed by one congregation which it is unable to supply for itself as being legitimate in meeting its own responsibility certainly may and should be supplied by those who are able. But this isn’t the issue, and all the sophistry which ingenuity can employ will not deceive the thinking and discerning among us. The issue is – can one church assume to do the work of the churches generally, and rightfully engage in it, and become the receiving church of funds of many in order to accomplish this assumed undertaking? This we affirm is destitute of any scriptural authority, and that such arrangements and operations rest solely on human wisdom. Furthermore, it constitutes a transgression of the legitimate province of the elders of a congregation to so function (Acts 20: 28; I Pet. 5:1-4). When any congregation, or its elders, assumes the oversight of the work of a television program elsewhere and calls on churches generally to support it, there is a transcending of its proper province of functioning.
Truth Magazine VI:5, pp. 15-17