Dallas, Texas – Study of Issues, July 13, 1990: Church Cooperation

By Tom M. Roberts


In the area of church cooperation, non-institutional brethren have been falsely labeled as “non-cooperative” when, in fact we believe and practice church cooperation. Institutional brethren, on the other hand, have claimed to practice church cooperation when, I believe, you practice a form of centralized control. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that “church cooperation” is not a Bible phrase, but one that has been discussed widely among brethren since the time of Alexander Campbell and the Millennial Harbinger. I believe the concept to be authorized if properly defined and limited by biblical principles. However, it must not be allowed to become a “catch-all” phrase which is stretched to include every kind of centralized control.

I will be making two major arguments that I ask you to consider that will establish the principles and limits of church cooperation. First, an argument from design or structure. Secondly, an argument from the restraints of the biblical pattern. There will be nothing new from a biblical standpoint in these arguments, but they will be an affirmation of things which are being denied by many in our generation.

1. In arguing from design or structure, I take the position that the church, as God designed it, is perfectly and sufficiently able to fulfill the mission and purpose for which it was designed. Ephesians 3:10,11 states that the church, by its existence, makes known “the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This “eternal purpose” provides the ideal body of Christ in the Scriptures by which we measure ourselves and our labors.

To illustrate: we understand that the human body has design that imposes limits upon man in keeping with God’s purpose for him. Man lives in an oxygen atmosphere because that is the way God made him, with lungs. He does not live under water because God did not give him gills. Thus, design implies both function and limitation.

Even so, the church of Christ has a certain design and the structure of that design suggests the operation of the church as well as the limitations in keeping with the design. How did God design the church? It is structured in two senses: universal (general) and local.

A. The church general is described in Hebrews 12:23 where we read: “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” This is evidently the church of which Jesus spoke when he promised to build it in Matthew 16:18. Likewise, Peter had this same church in mind when he said in 1 Peter 2:17, “Love the brotherhood.” In these instances, no local church is under consideration, but all the saved of God, considered as “brothers” in the distributive sense. This use of “church” speaks of relationship only; it expresses fellowship.

The general assembly of saints has no earthly headquarters, no treasury, no corporate work. It can never meet on earth. When one sees the universal church as composed of churches, the result is a “church-hood” instead of a local church, a treasury larger than the local treasury, a corporate work for the universal church and some arrangement to tie the churches together (voluntary, of course). Failure to understand that one cannot harness or make operational the universal church has led to the monstrous hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Likewise, the ACMS/UCMS made the same mistake. The restoration began to flounder on this exact point. There should be no doubt that the sponsoring church is making no less than the same tragic mistake, seeking to organize the church universal from “brotherhood” to “church-hood” with the attendant overseeing eldership and pooled treasury of many churches. Such cannot be done without restructuring the church and denying God’s structure, even as the Disciples of Christ have done. It should come as no surprise to see the Boston/Crossroads/Discipling movement carry the sponsoring church to its logical conclusion by creating a hierarchy of churches: country, city and pillar churches. The pillar church is only the sponsoring church spelled differently. It would be interesting to hear a sponsoring church advocate debate the pillar church advocate. How would you prove a pillar church to be unscriptural? I know you believe it to be wrong, but how could you prove it wrong when you occupy the same ground in the sponsoring church? Boston is more willing to accept the consequences and preach against local autonomy while the sponsoring church takes away local autonomy while claiming to believe in it. Whether one calls it a diocese, a pillar church or a sponsoring church, the difference is in degree, not kind.

The “essential elements of a sponsoring church” include:

1. Many contributing churches send to a sponsoring church.

2. The sponsoring church has exclusive control of the work by its overseeing eldership.

3. Thus, the work of many churches is supervised by the elders of one church (equality is destroyed).

4. The arrangement is one of church-hood; a collectivity of churches. It parallels the Boston plan.

One example of this concept being currently taught is material used by the White’s Ferry Road church in Louisiana which likens the general assembly to a corporation like Sears or Shell with all the attendant levels of control. It is impossible to have that arrangement without levels of control. Brethren, whether it is the corporation board, the diocesan bishop, the pillar church or the sponsoring eldership, it is centralized control by definition and practice, and a violation of design. This is not the structure God gave the general assembly of saints.

B. On the other hand, the only functional arrangement whereby the church operates collectively is the local church, with elders and deacons (Acts 14:23; 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1,2). Each church is to be independent, equal, sufficient and autonomous (self-governing). This is God’s design, structure, collectivity, God’s team, God’s working arrangement to do the work of the church. The design implies both function and limitation. This is, in the words of Robert Turner, the “harness” which God made in which the church is to work for God.

He said, “But a team of horses can not be worked with a single harness. The size or scope of oversight, the scope of the organizational structure, must equal the size and scope of the overseen. When two or more churches are linked together in any project (act collectively), the elders who direct the project must act as double or multiple harness with respect to that project. Calling them ‘local elders,’ as indeed they may be in one capacity, does not alter what they are doing in their role as overseers of the larger working unit. Nor have we changed what they are doing by giving them this position ‘voluntarily.’ So we have changed God’s plan for government or polity. We have made diocesan elders” (Plain Talk, “Pattern and Apostasy,” Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 4).

Brethren, God did not design both the local church and the sponsoring church. The structure is different and antithetical. The local church is independent, equal, autonomous and sufficient. The sponsoring church is dependent, unequal, central in government and insufficient.

Though the local church has fallen into disfavor by those who think in terms of national and international projects, the Scripture clearly defines the local church as God’s choice to do his work. Paul declared that the gospel was preached “to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23) without a single sponsoring church, pillar church or overseeing eldership. God’s way works, if we will use it.

II. The other major argument which I hope you will consider carefully is one of authority: the biblical pattern.

A. Coming under increasing ridicule in this age of New Hermeneutics, the pattern principle is eminently scriptural, A denial of patterns has far-reaching results. I ask, brethren, are you ready for patterns to be forsaken? Are you really aware of the consequences of saying “There is no pattern”?

Listen carefully: Where there is no biblical pattern, there can be no sinful practices, no limitations. Anything goes! Are we not seeing the results of this in our midst today with the New Hermeneutics, the denial of binding examples or necessary inferences, the jeering at the silence of the Scriptures, compromise on every doctrinal position, and unity summits with sectarians? The distinctiveness of the Lord’s people is tied to the biblical pattern! Do away with it and you do away with the Lord’s people in this generation.

Compare modern attitudes with that of the writer of Hebrews: “. . . even as Moses is warned of God when he is about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern that was showed thee in the mount” (Heb. 8:5). Again, Philippians 3:17: “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” Or, 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.” Or, Philippians 4:9: “The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” Consider 1 Corinthians 4:17. “For this cause have I sent unto you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who shall put you in remembrance of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every church.” Not the least of things to consider are the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:20: “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I command you.” Thus, a pattern consists of all that God has stated on a subject and is put there through divine wisdom to be followed.

But “no patternism” is a two-edged sword that those who would use it must learn to their sorrow. When brethren deny that there is a pattern, they make themselves vulnerable to any and every denominational attack. If one claims no pattern in church cooperation, he can no longer deny the practice of the Catholic Church, the Christian Church or the Boston Church. Deny there is a pattern in worship and the Christian Church will take you apart on the music question. Deny there is a pattern in the work of the church and someone will build a theme park like Jim and Tammy or like Six Flags as a work of the church. Would it be sinful?

That some do indeed reject patterns is proved by the following quotes:

We are to have fellowship one with another and the Lord gave no pattern for congregational cooperation. How then can one violate a pattern that does not exist? (G.K. Wallace, Gospel Advocate, 5/3/56).

Remember, that “no patternism” is a two-edged sword. If there is no pattern, there is nothing sinful. So where is the sin with the missionary society, the pillar church, the Catholic church?

“Those within the Restoration Movement who have written on the subject usually have assumed that at least some of the New Testament examples are binding. In contrast, the New Testament seems to provide no basis for this conclusion. Neither churches nor individuals in the New Testament are presented as patterns to be identified in specific details. There is no evidence that the New Testament writers exercised selectivity in choosing particular actions or patterns to be copied” (Milo Hadwin, The Role of New Testament Examples as Related to Biblical Authority, Foreward, p. v). No basis for any New Testament example to be binding? Neither churches nor individuals are presented as patterns to be identified? Brethren, are we even in the same ball park or reading the same Bibles? This is “no patternism” gone to seed. What about Paul telling Titus to “show yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned. . . ” (Tit. 2:7,8)?

Again, “We have approached the area of hermeneutics with the idea that the early church had a complete set of documents which we know as the New Testament. And that they searched those Scriptures to determine God’s pattern in church organization, structure, and practice. I submit to you that is an incorrect assumption” (Bill Swetmon, The Nashville Meeting: A Discussion of Issues Which Have Divided Brethren, “Hermeneutics, ” Audio tape, Riverside Productions, Arlington, Tn., MN8-05, 1988). So we now learn that it is incorrect to look for patterns in church organization, structure and practice. Brethren, what about elders, local autonomy, the Lord’s supper, singing, the reign of Christ and other distinctive marks of the Lord’s kingdom? This writer says that not only do we not have a pattern, but that the “early church,” the New Testament church, did not have any patterns.

Again I say, if there is no pattern, there is nothing sinful. We might as well stop being the church of Christ and join the nearest denomination. “No patternism” is alive and well on the planet earth and in the church of Christ. It is wrong and sinful, but it is with us to this day.

B. Is there a pattern in church cooperation? I maintain that there is, that it is identifiable and understandable.

Let’s begin in our search for the pattern by defining some of our terms to be sure we don’t assume that which needs to be proven.

The word before us that gives us the most problem is “cooperation.” It means “to act or operate jointly with another or others; to concur in action, effort or effect” (Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary). Please note that two kinds of action are defined under cooperation whereas most only see one. There is joint action – which is collective action. However, there is also concurrent action – which is independent action. The Bible teaches independent action of churches and not collective action.

A parallel can be seen in the word “music.” There are two kinds of music: vocal and instrumental. Do you believe in music in worship? Yes, but vocal music, not instrumental. Do you believe in cooperation of churches? Yes, but independent action, not collective.

Collective action is “characteristic of the experience in common or the united action of the members of an aggregation or group, distinct from that of individuals” (ibid.). Thus, collective action of churches suggests “church-hood” with a new harness, larger than local eldership. The sponsoring church and the pillar church is collective action, not independent action.

Brethren, I call to your attention that many of you are defining cooperation in only the collective sense with no consideration that this does not fit the Bible principles of church cooperation. Rather, the Bible idea is concurrent action, independent action.

This recognition of independent action among churches is fully acknowledged by another word, not so common among us, yet worthy of consideratoin. It is “coordination.” A “coordinate” is “one that is equal in importance, rank, or degree, no subordinate” (Grolier International Dictionary). “Coordination” is “consisting of a number of things of equal rank, or of a number of actions or processes properly combined for the production of one result” (Oxford English Dictionary). Brethren, this describes the biblical action of churches working together. It respects the autonomy, independence and equality of each church. It is the same as the “concurrent” definition of cooperation but not the same as “joint action” definition. This drives to the heart of our controversy. We must “speak as the oracles of God” and the use of cooperation as to allow joint/collective action is not biblical in precept. Independent, concurrent, coordinate action is biblical.

C. Let me show you the practical use of the definitions we have considered. In the chart on Cooperation in Evangelism, we have six churches that are engaged in evangelism and all are cooperating.

Churches A and B are cooperating concurrently, independently, by coordinating their efforts as equals by sending wages to Preacher A. But, churches C, D, E and F are also practicing cooperation. They are collectively pooling their funds under the oversight of Church F in an unequal, dependent, non-autonomous arrangement. By using this arrangement, churches C, D, E and F could just as easily be identified as a missionary society if Church F were changed to a Board. We could call Churches C, D, E and F the city churches and the pillar church under this arrangement. If 3 churches can pool their resources under one eldership, why not 300? 3000? Why not every church? It took 600 years to build the Roman church, but the principle began exactly the same way. Is history not repeating itself in front of our eyes?

The biblical pattern that applies to evangelism is plainly taught in the Scriptures. Note that it incorporates the equality, independence and autonomy of every church. The pattern permits:

1. A church sending teaching to another church. No loss of autonomy is involved since each church has the equal responsibility to teach the gospel to the whole world. The fact that one church teaches another church does not diminish its ability, responsibility, equality, independence or autonomy. However if one church gives up its funds to another church to do what the first church should be doing, there is a loss of equality, independence and autonomy.

a. Acts 11:22-23 – Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch.

b. Acts 13, 14 – Missionary journeys.

c. Acts 15 – Jerusalem sent teaching to other churches.

d. Colossians 4:16 – epistles sent from church to church.

2. A church may send teaching anywhere, as evidenced by:

a. 1 Thessalonians 1:8 – word sounded forth everywhere.

b. Acts 13, 14 – missionary journeys.

3. A church may support its own evangelist.

2 Corinthians 12:13 – only Corinth did not support Paul.

4. One church may support a preacher elsewhere.

a. Philippians 1:3-5 – Philippi had fellowship with Paul.

b. Philippians 2:25,30; 4:14-18.

5. Several churches may independently and directly support a preacher anywhere. 2 Corinthians 11:8.,9 – Paul took wages of churches.

Note: No principle permits collective action. No principle permits pooling of funds. The sum total of all these Scriptures teaches concurrent, independent, autonomous action that is coordinated between churches that are equal.

Also please note: Every church in the world is equally related in evangelism and can never have an abundance which it may surrender to another church. However, in benevolence, one church may be unequal to another because of greater need and may require sending funds in order that “there may be equality.”

D. This leads us to the distinct pattern for benevolence. God foresaw that tragedies sometimes destroy the desired equality among churches (famines, etc.). Therefore he provided a plan for benevolence to restore that equality (2 Cor. 8:13).

Such does not permit a permanent sponsoring church that becomes an international “receiving and disbursing church” for the “church-hood.” This is a planned inequality for which there is no biblical authority.

Note the pattern for church cooperation in benevolence:

1. Each church raises its own funds by free will, first day of the week offering of its own members (1 Cor. 16:1-2).

2. Each church selects its own messengers (1 Cor. 16:3-4; 2 Cor. 8:19,23).

3. Each church sends to the church in need (1 Cor. 16:3).

4. Churches may send to another church when the needy church cannot care for all its own members (Acts 11:27-30).

5. Churches may send to other churches when the needy churches cannot care for all their own members (1 Cor. 16:14; 2 Cor. 8,9; Rom. 15:25-28).

6. The purpose of sending from one church to another is “that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 8:13).

7. No one church ever acted as a “Receiving and disbursing church” for other churches beyond its own local numerical needs.


a. It was temporary – to restore equality.

b. The receiving church was in need and the need was among its own local, numerical membership.

c. There was no pooling of funds.

d. This teaches cooperation (independent, autonomous and equal action); a coordinated effort, not centralized control.

E. To illusrate the pattern on benevolence:

1. Churches A and B help needy church F by concurrently, equally and autonomously coordinating their efforts of cooperation.

2. Churches C, D, and E help needy church F but unequally, dependently, collectively and with a loss of autonomy since Church E takes the oversight (harness) of funds from many churches.

3. All 6 churches are cooperating, in the broad sense of the word. Churches A and B are cooperating concurrently. The others are acting collectively.

F. Some have asserted that there are examples of churches sending to churches, so why does it matter if it is in evangelism or benevolence? I would reply that there are examples of aliens being baptized so why not baptize both aliens and erring Christians? This is a classic case of mixing apples and oranges to come up with a bad case of confusion.

There is a pattern for salvation for the alien. There is a pattern for salvation for the erring Christian. We don’t baptize the erring Christian nor teach the alien to repent and pray. Such is mixing the patterns like applies and oranges and we know that will not work in math or religion.

There is a pattern in evangelism and a pattern in benevolence. We should no more mix the patterns here than in the plan of salvation.

Conclusion: As stated so often, “We be brethren.” But, just as the past has revealed departures from the faith of God, we must labor to keep this from happening again. Cooperation among churches of Christ is possible so long as we understand the Bible definition and usage. Let it be clear, though, that those who believe in and practice collective action of churches with overseeing elderships can never logically object to any form of collective action. Open that door and in walks the Christian Church, the missionary society, the Boston Church and the Catholic Church. It is just a matter of degree, not kind. Already, as we speak, the “One Nation Under God” plan for evangelism sponsored by a church in Tennessee would harness all of the churches in America together. When will “One World Under God” be planned by a single church? In contrast, local churches across the country are conducting thousands of gospel meetings independently and concurrently, requiring no such central oversight of pooled funds and yet converting the lost as Jesus has taught. God’s way works.

Let’s use God’s design in both evangelism and benevolence according to the pattern set forth in God’s word so that we may pray, as Jesus taught: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 22, pp. 682-683, 690-692
November 15, 1990