Intercongregational Responsibilities

By Robert H. Farish

The local congregation is the only organization for church function which exists by divine authority. Each church is to be under the direction of its own elders. This is taught by the example of apostolic action recorded in Acts 14:23: “And when they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed.” Furthermore the Scriptures teach that elders are limited in their functions as elders to the church over which they have been made elders. Paul told the elders of the church of Ephesus to “take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops” (Acts 20:28). When this is studied in connection with the apostolic action of appointing elders in every church, it is readily seen that the elders are limited in their oversight to the local flock. Additional teaching on this point is in 1 Peter 5:2 where the elders are charged to “tend the flock of God which is among you” and are limited in their oversight to the “charge allotted to” them. The “charge allotted” by divine authority to elders is “the flock of God among you,” that is, the flock of which they are members. No arrangements are given in the Scriptures and, hence, no divine authority exists for any super organization through which a number of congregations are to function. There is no organization by divine authority through which a “brotherhood” or church universal work is to be accomplished. The church has no headquarters on earth. There is no scriptural authority for any man or group of men to direct a church universal or as some prefer to call it, a “brotherhood work.” Any time a “brotherhood work” is launched, either in benevolence or evangelism, it must be solely on the authority of human wisdom, for no authorization for such can be found in divine revelation. If a thing is without divine authority in its beginning, it does not become scriptural by being practiced. It makes no difference how well accepted and widely practiced a thing may be, that doesn’t make it right, for such is not the proper standard by which religious practices are to be measured. There is no statement, example or inference in the Scriptures by which a “brotherhood work” can be justified. It is without divine authority.

From the foregoing we have learned that the Scriptures teach that each church is to be under its own elders and thus each church is equal in rights and privileges and independent of all other congregations. Does this teaching rule out all types of intercongregational relationship? Are there no intercongregational. responsibilities? The examples of church action which are recorded in the New Testament are of distinct value in teaching the circumstances in which intercongregational action is required. The action of one congregation in relation to another congregation is generally referred to as congregational cooperation. The type cooperation which is currently receiving much attention is the sending of funds from one church to another church. In Acts 11:27-30 there is an account of the action taken by one congregation with reference to another or other congregations. This provides a fine study in intercongregational relationship. “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 own ability determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judaea: which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”

This account teaches that an emergency (“famine”) brought about this intercongregational action. A careful study of all the examples of congregational cooperation will reveal that the action of one congregation sending money to another congregation is an action which is limited to emergency situations. By emergency situation is meant a situation in which a church is a real object of charity.

The need which qualifies one church to receive funds from another church must be a need which is peculiar to the receiving church. There is no authority in the Scriptures for a church to assume a work either in evangelism or benevolence which is beyond its power to perform and claim that it is peculiarly its work by reason of having decided to be responsible for the oversight of that work. This is the procedure in the cases of the “sponsoring church.” Elders of a local congregation decide to assume some work of such magnitude as to be beyond the power of the church over which they are properly the overseers and call upon other churches to send to them to enable them to do this work which they have assumed. This, in brief, is the “sponsoring church” arrangement by which the elders of a local church extend their oversight beyond the scriptural province and function in the capacity of brotherhood elders. The human arrangement of the “sponsoring church” ignores the fact that there is no divine authority for one church to obtain funds by soliciting other churches except in an organization.

The case of intercongregational action which is related in Acts 11:27-30 rules out the “sponsoring church” arrangement for intercongregational action or congregational cooperation. In this case it is said that the “relief ” was sent to the elders. The “relief” was for the “brethren that dwelt in Judea.” It was the elders who had the oversight of “the brethren that dwelt in Judea” to whom the relief was sent. We have already seen that elders are limited in their tending to “the flock of God which is among you.” There is no authority in all the New Testament for one congregation to receive and disburse the funds of other congregations except in those cases where the receiving congregation is an object of charity and its elders receive relief, to distribute among those brethren over whom they have the scriptural oversight.

Each church is responsible for performing its own work through the divine organization, the local congregation. No central organization has been provided through which brotherhood action can be taken. In every case in the Scriptures where an intercongregational action is taken there is no “in-between” body; the action is always “between” the receiving congregation and the sending congregation or congregations. If there had been a need for a “sponsoring church” (or any sort of coordinating agency) to coordinate the churches actions, divine wisdom was capable of providing it. The fact that no such “in-between” coordinating agency was provided is evidence that God didn’t want it.

From this study, of intercongregational action, based upon this example recorded in Acts 11:27-30, is seen the fact of intercongregational responsibility. Every congregation has a responsibility toward any sister congregation which is an object of charity. The need is the thing by which the right to receive funds from other congregations is established. The ability of the members of the sending congregation is the thing that determines the extent of the responsibility of the sending church. This was the case with Antioch for it is stated, “and the disciples every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea.” That the disciples had a right to give “beyond their power” is seen from the approved example of the Macedonian churches of whom Paul wrote that “beyond their power they gave of their own accord” (2 Cor. 8:3). This however does not invalidate the principle that responsibility is determined by ability for in this same context the apostle tells the Corinthians, “For I say not this that others may be eased and ye distressed; but by equality; your abundance being a supply at this present time for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want; that there may be equality” (2 Cor. 3:13,14). Certainly the Macedonian churches had the right “of their own accord” to give more than they were required to give, even as the church in Jerusalem at one time had all things in common. But this does not mean that all churches for all times are required to so act. The apostle’s order with reference to the amount to be given is found in I Corinthians 16:1,2 “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I gave order to the churches of Galatia, so also do you. Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper . . . … This requires giving according to one’s prosperity or ability.

But sometime we hear quibbles made on the first day of the week collection. The argument is made that this collection spoken of in 1 Corinthians 16 is for an emergency situation and that it is for benevolence. They then ask how can the action of paying a preacher regularly out of this collection be justified?

The first thing which needs to be pointed out is that the apostle is not here introducing the first day collection as an item of worship but is simply ordering the churches to obtain their funds for benevolence through the first day of the week collection. True the time for the collection is revealed to us in 1 Corinthians 16 just as the time for eating the Lord’s supper is revealed to us in Acts 20:7, but in neither case can it be properly concluded that the act of worship had not been performed before that time. The fact of the collection is taught in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in breaking of bread and in prayers.” That “fellowship” here is an act of worship is seen in the fact that the other times in which they continued steadfastly are items of worship. The collection was a part of the worship of the church from the beginning and the church from this collection had been paying wages to preachers to support them in preaching the gospel (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 1:5; 4:15-18).

The scriptural rule is that the church is to obtain its funds for all its work through the first day of the week collection, the only scriptural exception being those cases where the emergency situation makes it right for needy churches to solicit funds from churches with “abundance.” In no case is there divine authority for the churches to obtain their funds by engaging in secular economic activities such as real estate, oil production, farming, pie sales or ice cream suppers.

We are on infallibly safe ground just so long as we do Bible things in Bible ways (Gospel Guardian, 2 Mar. 1961, pp. 660, 668-669).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 14, pp. 434-435
July 19, 1990