By Irven Lee
It was Paul, a servant of God, who went to the wicked, idolatrous city of Corinth to plant the seed of the kingdom. Apollos watered and helped to establish the brethren. Several others went there to help in the work, and there came to be some worthy brethren at Corinth who helped one another. The immorality, idolatry, and the love of money in the city were well known, so Paul was there with a sense of weakness, fear, and trembling, but he faithfully preached Christ and Him crucified. He taught the same gospel there that he taught “every where in every church. Aquila, Crispus, Gaius, Stephanas, and Justus we names we may know. Silas, Timothy, and Titus are also mentioned in connection with this work.
It should be no surprise to learn that the church at Corinth had problem because the evils of an am tend to come into the church. Even the church as a body did not deal with the fornicator as quickly as it should have done (1 Cor. 5:1-13). The fact that the apostle had occasion to rebuke the brethren for this matter, and for several other serious problems, did not prevent his addressing his letter to “the church of God which is at Corinth.” It was in error, but he loved the brethren and set about to bring about proper corrections.
Paul found others who could be persuaded to join with him in bringing about the needed changes in their course. It would be hard to find a church now with more grievous problems than could be found in that church. The apostle wrote it, sent others, and went himself because it was sick. The changes were to be brought about by teaching rather than by pressure tactics. It was time to “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2). The word is the seed of the kingdom, and it includes the milk and meat for edification.
It is very obvious that churches at Ephesus, Philippi, and Thessalonica were not asked to withdraw from Corinth, nor were men forbidden to go there to preach. We do not know how much they knew about the situation in Achaia. Each church would have its own work and its own problems to face. No church in other provinces would know the people involved and the details of the problems to handle the sins of the brethren at Corinth. The wisdom of God is evident in ordaining elders in every church and in asking them to “tend the flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:1-5).
It seems that some may right weak churches rather than try to help them, and to agitate for division rather than working for peace. The apostles’ effort was to bring peace where there was envy and strife. Even Corinth was not a hopeless case. The elders at Ephesus were not asked to withdraw from the fornicators at Corinth, nor were they asked to withdraw from the church at Corinth for failing to ad as quickly as it should have acted in purging out the leaven of wickedness. The elders at Ephesus were to tend the flock which was among them. They were certainly not obligated to try to destroy the sick church in southern Greece!
Individual disciples from various places might go to a church which was endangered by worldliness, false doctrine, or envy, but they would not go as official representatives of the churches from which they came. They were not official fact finders, nor were they there to deliver threats from other churches. The churches in the days of the apostles were not tied together in some sort of association, synod, conference, or convention. Each moved in its local capacity alone.
Each church was aware of the spread of the gospel in other areas and rejoiced in this fact. Greetings and encouraging words could be sent through Paul’s letters and, no doubt, by other means of communication. Such greetings were not meant to indicate approval of sin and error in the church to which they sent their salutation. Their message of encouragement did not indicate that after thorough investigation of the distant church they had found it to be without problems or dangers. No church in the days of the apostles felt any obligations to meddle in the decision making process of other churches, or to handle the discipline of an erring disciple in another community.
Even in this article, I could send greetings to any brethren anywhere who might read it. I could also say that the church here at Jennings Chapel where I preach regularly is happy to know that good men are doing good work in many places. We do pray for our brethren in difficult situations, and especially for those we help to support. We could, of course, cease to send greetings and to pray for them. We send funds to preachers in North Carolina, Kentucky, Washington, and to the Republic of South Africa. We might learn of some situation that would cause us no longer to help one or more of these men. We have absolutely no plans to try to make the local decisions for the churches where these men work. They are not “missions” under the “mother church” here.
In a well-established church with elders where we may live and worship, there are men who are over us in the Lord. We are to know them, obey them, and esteem them highly for their work’s sake (1 Thess. 5:12; 3:1; 1 Tim. 5:17-20; Heb. 13:7,17). We have no such relationship with elders that live and work in other areas. They are not overseers over us. They do not watch for our souls and will not have to give account for us. An elder or any one. else from some distant place might have personal contact with one of us at some time, and if he observes an error in us he would be free to teach, reprove, rebuke, or exhort us. He could and should avoid our error. He, as an individual, might be aware of danger to the brethren where he lives and warn them.
If I observe the ungodly life of some man in the community, I could talk with him frankly about his behavior and the reaping that will be sure to come. I could not threaten to divorce him because I am not married to him. The elders in one place are not in charge of discipline in another area and should not pretend that they are.
When there are rumors that a member of the church is immoral, the elders in that community may find it difficult to learn the truth in the matter and act as they should. If there are elders in another area that think they are to investigate every matter and take official action, they may in their lack of information take vigorous action in favor of the fornicator who has deceived them and against good elders who have done their duty. It would be far better for these distant elders to tend the flock of God where they live (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-5).
The churches of Macedonia might send funds to Paul or other worthy workers, or they might send relief to the poor saints at Jerusalem or at other places. They could mention their interest in the church at Rome and joy in the report of its great faith. This would be pleasant and helpful fellowship. They could cease their giving when there was no longer a need or no longer an opportunity to send funds. If some unworthy behavior showed up in those who had been receiving the funds, those giving could withhold further gifts. That would be all they could withdraw. They never had the oversight or authority to command those brethren in other areas.
When good Bible students who have fought many worthy battles for truth decide that they must act officially on every church problem, their worthy influences becomes a disturbing and hindering factor in every community in which they attempt to take decisive action. If there has ever been any good results come from such meddling in the affairs of other churches it is not evident. If one church divides that should not lead to powerful forces to divide all churches within a large area.
The wisdom of God is evident in His leaving every church independent and autonomous. If one church goes down into apostasy it does not necessarily pull several others down with it. If numbers of churches were organized as a synod, conference, or an association the whole diocese would likely digress together. We are not all under some diocesan bishop. Let us all give thanks to God for this, and let each of us decide never to seek to take charge of many churches. In trying to reach out to all as judge, one destroys his good influence and does harm to many churches. The Lord is looking for doers of the law and not judges. Brethren over yonder are as capable of handling local problems as is any one of us. This tendency to enter into this aspect of judging is spreading and is doing much harm.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 2, pp. 46-47
January 19, 1984