By Mike Willis
In the last several years, brethren have witnessed churches becoming involved in any number of activities which they were not heretofore involved, though the denominations were involved in them for many years. Formerly gospel preachers mentioned this as one distinguishing point between the Lord’s church and human denominations. Today many churches of Christ could not be distinguished from the neighboring denominations on the basis of the programs of work in which they are involved.
Has God Given The Church A Mission?
The great God of heaven who planned the church from all eternity (Eph. 3:10-11) had a purpose for creating the church. He gave it a work to do. All of the work which God has given to the church, as collective work, is to be done through the local church. He has given no work to the universal church; he has revealed no officers or qualifications for officers for the universal church. Hence, when I speak of the work which God has given the church to do, I am speaking of the work which every individual local congregation has to do. What are those works?
Years ago, N.B. Hardeman wrote, “The work of the church can be stated under three heads: (1) the building up of every member in it; (2) the work of benevolence; (3) the preaching of the gospel to sinful humanity” (Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, Vol. V, p. 52). I believe that the Scriptures will sustain this statement. These are the works in which God has revealed that the local church is to be engaged. Let us look at them more closely.
1. The work of edification. The work of “building up every member” is the work of edification. In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul wrote that God had given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers for the purpose of “perfecting the saints.” This work is to be done so that the saints grow into mature men and no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:13-16). Hence, the early church was involved in the work of edifying its members.
Saints are built up through the study of God’s word. They must be fed the milk of God’s word that they may grow thereby (1 Pet. 2:2). Hence, when Paul departed from Miletus, he told the Ephesian elders, “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). The word of God is what builds a man up. The assembly of the saints has, as one of its purposes, the teaching of God’s word in order to edify the members (1 Cor. 14:12, 26).
Saints must exercise themselves in order to grow. The mature saint is the saint who, having studied God’s word, “by reason of use” has his “senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). By the study of God’s word, the Christian must grow to be able to discriminate between that which is good and that which is evil.
What are some programs of work in which the church may be involved to edify the saints? The Bible study programs, special meetings, lectureships, publication of bulletins, usage of tracts, etc. are just a few programs of work in which the church can be scripturally involved in helping to edify its members.
(2) The work of benevolence. The program of benevolence which was carried on by the local congregations discussed in the New Testament was that work of relieving the needs of the saints. Study Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 6:1-6; 11:27-30; Rom. 15:25-26; I Cor. 16:1-4; and 2 Cor. 8-9. Each of these passages shows that the early church relieved the needs of its own members. The program of relieving the needs of the poor of the whole world was never given to the church, so far as our New Testament records.
In carrying out this program of work, the local church may give money to one of its needy members, purchase groceries for them, pay a medical bill, pay for the education of the children of the members, etc. The local church may even find it necessary, on occasions, to purchase a house in which some of its poor can live. All of these works would reflect the local church discharging its obligations before God in the field of benevolence.
(3) The work of evangelism. The local church has an obligation to spread the gospel to the lost world around them. The early church sent gospel preachers to spread the word of God (Acts 13:1-2; Phil. 4:15; 2 Cor. 11:8). The work of disseminating the gospel to the world is one of the works which God has placed upon the church.
In carrying out this work, the local church may print a bulletin to mail to the community, conduct a gospel meeting, print an article in the local newspaper, support men to work in the community, conduct a radio and/or television program, etc. The local congregation should use every means at its disposal to spread the gospel in its community.
Does This Constitute A Pattern?
These are the only works revealed in our New Testaments in which the church was involved. Does this constitute a pattern? The answer to this question is either “yes” or “no.” If the answer is “yes,” then churches for all times are obligated to follow that pattern. For the church to be involved in programs of work other than those revealed in the New Testament is sinful because the church acts without authority in so doing. If the answer is “no,” then the church has no pattern of work revealed to it. Where there is no law, there can be no transgression (Rom. 4:15). Consequently, any program of work would be just as good and pleasing in the sight of God as any other program of work. The church which decided to use its resources to build a money-making business enterprise would be just as pleasing as the church which used its resources to preach the gospel, if there is no pattern revealed for the work of the church.
God has revealed a pattern for the work of the church. That work is (1) the work of evangelism, (2) the work of edification, and (3) the work of benevolence. For the church to become involved in things not connected with these works is sinful because it is contrary to the pattern revealed in the Scriptures.
These Things Are Not The Work Of The Church
In order to make this as clear as possible, I want to list some works in which some denominations and some liberal churches are involved which are not the work of the church as revealed in the Scriptures.
1. Social Reform. In the early twentieth century, many denominations became involved in trying to effect reforms in our society through participation with labor disputes. More recently, many churches have been involved in the work of improving the living conditions of the black race. Though I am sympathetic with the desire to improve the living conditions of any people, the Lord never gave the church the work of improving social situations in a society. Though slavery was practiced in the first century, though the government was corrupt in the first century, though living conditions were sometimes deplorable, and though many other social problems needed corrected, the New Testament churches never were involved in proposing revolutionary of renovation programs or any of these activities. Social reform and improvement were not the works which God gave the church.
2. Recreation. God never gave the church the work of providing recreation for the young or the old people. Many denominations and denominational churches of Christ hire a “youth minister,” giving him the job of keeping a full schedule of recreational programs for their children. Churches spend thousands of dollars of the Lord’s money to erect “fellowship halls” in which the members can assemble for recreational programs. Some churches are building “family centers” which include gymnasiums and other recreational facilities. God has not given the church the work of providing recreation for its members.
3. Business. God never gave the church the responsibility to enter the business world to make money. Many churches have purchased money-making businesses such as Burlington Mills, Christian Brothers Distilleries, and any number of other businesses. The Catholic Church holds interest in many businesses operated in the United States and other parts of the world. The Bible does not reveal that the church ever went into a money-making business venture.
4. Secular Education. Many, churches are in the business of providing secular education for the world and its members. Many denominations own “church schools” which are supported by contributions from the local denominations. The liberal churches of Christ are doing the same; schools such as David Lipscomb, Abilene Christian University, Harding College, and a number of others are receiving support from the churches of Christ. God never authorized any church to be involved in the work of secular education.
5. Politics. The work of the church is not that of politics. The Catholic Church was involved in politics for years; more recently, the Protestant denominations have tried to influence the politics of our country. The modernists have been influencing American politics for years. Now, when the conservative Moral Majority decides to enter the political arena, they are crying for separation of church and state! So a of the churches of Christ are entering politics in trying to clean up television. Though I am sympathetic to their goals, we must remember that God has not given to the church the work of political involvement or supervising public morals. Though we may work individually in politics as each of us judges best, the church as such cannot scripturally be engaged in politics.
6. Medicine. The Lord never authorized the church to be involved in the work of building hospitals and medical clinics or the work of supporting doctors and nurses. Though these are good works which we can and should be involved in as individuals, they are not works which God has placed upon the church. For years the denominations have been building their hospitals; around the country, there are hospitals reflecting this work–Baptist Hospital, Methodist Hospital, St. Elizabeth Hospital, etc. More recently, some brethren in the church have started calling upon churches to pay the bills for erecting and maintaining hospitals in foreign countries (if it is right to do it in Nigeria, it is certainly right to do the same thing in America). There is no scriptural evidence where any church ever used its contribution to build medical facilities.
Is This New To You?
To some people this article will be startling; they have never read anything like this before. The churches where they worship are involved in all of these works (this includes some churches of Christ). However, those who have been pleading for the restoration of the ancient order of things have been preaching this for years. In 1942, N.B. Hardeman wrote,
Now, may I ask, what is the purpose of the church of the Lord? Suppose I discuss the negative side first. I may say some things with which you do not agree, but I bid you hear me regardless. I do not consider it a part of the work of the church to try to run the government. I am taught in the Bible to be subject unto the powers that be, just so far as I think they do not conflict with some law of God. Again, I say to you, with caution and thought, that it is not the work of the church to furnish entertainment for the members. And yet many churches have drifted into such an effort. They enlarge their basements, put in all kinds of gymnastic apparatus, and make every sort of an appeal to the young people of the congregation. I have never read anything in the Bible that indicated to me that such was a part of the work of the church. I am wholly ignorant of any Scripture that even points in that direction. Furthermore, it is not the work of the church to try to adjust labor troubles, or to supervise our social conditions. It was never intended that the church should run politics, stop wars, supervise public morals, or to be any kind of collecting agency to pile up a large sum of money. The church should not go into the banking business (Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, Vol. V, pp. 50-51).
We are preaching today what N.B. Hardeman was preaching then. Some of our brethren have departed from the plea to restore the New Testament church in order to involve the church in many activities for which they can give no Scripture.
The tactic of these liberals is simple: just label the work a “good work” and send the bill to the church! The result is that the church becomes a collecting agency for every human institution which someone among us decides is doing a “good work.” Colleges, orphan homes, unwed mothers homes, reform schools, hospitals, and who knows what else are now looking to the church for money to pay their bills.
Brethren, we need to be reminded of the work which God has given the church. The Lord only authorized the church to do the works of evangelism, edification, and benevolence. For the church to be involved in any other activities is sinful. Brethren may persuade the church to become involved in feeding and clothing humanity and providing good homes for them. However, if every man in the world lives in a beautiful home, wears expensive clothing, is educated well, and has good health, without the gospel he will still die and go to hell. The work which God has given to the church is more important than improving man’s conditions on the earth; the church is to be involved in spreading the word of God – taking the soulsaving gospel to a world doomed to hell. Let us not become diverted from this revealed program of work!
Truth Magazine XXIV: 45, pp. 739-741
November 20, 1980