By David Hartselle
A year ago, while sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Czechoslovakia, I spoke with another American preacher. I asked if he believed that Christians could scripturally worship God with mechanical instruments of music. He said, “Yes.” He then suggested that the Bible was not really a pattern at all but rather a “general guide.” Later, as I thought about our conversation, it occurred to me that many today, even some from “Churches of Christ,” view the Bible in much the same way – as a general guide but not a pattern. And yet, the Bible plainly admits to being a pattern, one that should be carefully followed. “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim.1:13). As we examine the New Testament, God’s pattern, we learn many things about the worship, work, and organization of Christians. This article will give emphasis to the scriptural organization and cooperation of God’s people. But it will also expose some of the unscriptural practices that have been started by our brethren.
Jesus chose to organize Christians very simply. His way is designed to exalt the wisdom of God Almighty (Eph.3:10). Early Christians were organized into local congregations; no earthly organization (head, council, treasury, . . .etc.) was given to the universal church. Rather, local churches were ideally to consist of elders (bishops), deacons, and other saints. Elders had the authority to “shepherd” only the congregation that they were members of (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet.5:13). Of course, all Christians – including elders – were under the headship of Jesus Christ (Eph.1:2123). Bishops had no right to establish a pattern where Jesus had not. And, all faithful Christians recognized that the writings of the Holy Spirit gave foundation to the church (Eph.2:1920; 3:36). God’s word prescribes that each local church, as well as each Christian, should do only the work that they are capable of doing. Their responsibilities in the work of the Lord extend only so far as their abilities, resources, and opportunities will allow.
Naturally, first century churches were active in spreading the gospel. The Jerusalem church chose a preacher, Barnabas, and sent him to Antioch to encourage the new Christians there (Acts 11:2224). Later, Antioch sent out both Barnabas and Paul to preach the gospel throughout Asia Minor (Acts 13:13). The Philippians were the first to send material assistance to Paul (Phil.4:1516). But eventually other churches supported Paul by sending “wages” directly to him (2 Cor.11:8). In a sense there was cooperation among these churches. Obviously, when different churches sent to the same man, Paul, for the same purpose then cooperation occurred. But in each case every church decided on its own whom, how much and how long they would support in the preaching of the gospel. (Of course, methods change. Today, local churches may use vehicles such as T.V., radio, newspapers, . . . etc. to spread the truth.) Each local church was autonomous and, therefore, independent from all other churches in making such decisions. No New Testament church ever sent to another church to assist it in preaching the gospel.
Physical emergencies did occur in early churches. At times, Christians were in need of the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, and shelter. The Jerusalem church experienced this from the very beginning. And some members of that church sold their property, laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to the needy saints there (Acts 4:3235). Eventually however, the Jerusalem church could no longer adequately care for its own. Therefore, other churches sent to the destitute at Jerusalem (Rom.15:26; 1 Cor.16:14). Some contributing churches knew that other groups were sending to Jerusalem. But the Scriptures present independence of action by each church. Also, the Bible reveals that such aid was sent to the elders of the destitute groups (Acts 11:2730). Again, this sending from one church to another was exclusively for the relief of saints from physical want. Furthermore, it was to occur only for a specified period of time. Paul addresses the limits on this giving while encouraging the Corinthian brethren, themselves in poverty, to follow through with their commitment to give to the poorer saints in Jerusalem.
For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that their may be equality (2 Cor.8:1314).
Equality from want is to exist among Christians. When it does, the sending from one congregation to another should cease!
In the mid 1800s brethren divided over the support of a human organization: The American Christian Missionary Society. Its mission was to take the gospel to the world more efficiently and effectively than local churches could. This society solicited and received funds from numerous churches. Its board of directors then decided exactly how the money was to be spent. When faithful brethren stood with open Bibles and asked for a pattern or principle for such practices, none was given.
Years passed and faithful brethren continued to follow the New Testament in doing the Lord’s work. But a century later, again problems arose. Some said that the missionary society was wrong because it is a human organization, separate from the church, which is true but only part of the problem. Many brethren who objected to the missionary society, introduced a new invention of human wisdom: the sponsoring church. Supporters of the sponsoring church argue that it is not a separate human organization but simply a church of the Lord directed by qualified elders. Consequently, they maintain it to be a scriptural arrangement. One of the earliest and best known examples of a sponsoring church was the Fifth and Highland congregation in Abilene, Texas (an organization: The Herald of Truth). The elders of this local church announced that they had decided to oversee a great work of taking the gospel to the whole world. The work was enormous and so was the cost. In fact, they could not pay for it out of their own treasury. So they appealed to all Churches of Christ to send contributions to this “great work.”
Since that time, there have been other such efforts. One recent “brotherhood work” was begun by the Sycamore Church of Christ in Cookeville, Tennessee. It was called “One Nation Under God.” The Sycamore church, like Fifth & Highland, assumed the responsibility to take the gospel to all. They planned, first, to target the United States and then later to push this effort around the world. The cost for the U.S. work, they estimated, would be $17 million. Sycamore pledged $200,000 and reported that some other congregations would send from $5,000 to $25,000 toward this project. The Sycamore elders gave several reasons why they decided to enact this plan. One of those reasons was: “We believed that God would help us accomplish something He had commanded us to do” (Sycamore brochure, 1990, page 2). But had God indeed “commanded” this local congregation to oversee such a brotherhood work? Let us briefly examine this statement.
God, of course, promises to help every congregation and Christian do what he has told them to do. But God gave every local church, no matter how large or small, the same responsibility to use its manpower and finances to support the spread of his Word. God judges based on what we do with what we have, not with what we do not have (Matt.25:2130; 2 Cor.8:12). God will not be displeased when a church uses its own money to preach the gospel to the best of its ability.
Furthermore, when one eldership asks other congregations to send to them in the sponsoring church arrangement, they take on more authority than Christ has given them. Brother Peter, himself an elder, commands that elders are to oversee the “flock that is among you” (1 Pet.5:2). Elders are not lawmakers and the scope of their authority and oversight extends only over a single congregation. When they receive funds from other churches they are making decisions about the use of other churches’ resources. Someone may say that the elders of the contributing churches gave of their own free will. Who gave them that authority? Could Abraham have relinquished his responsibility to sacrifice Isaac by asking his chief steward to do it? Of course not. God specifically told Abraham to carry it out! Neither can elders shift their God-given responsibility, in part or wholly, to another eldership. The Lord did not command the Sycamore elders, the Fifth & Highland elders, or any elders to assume such responsibilities.
Sometimes brethren will argue that it is simply a matter of methods. They will suggest that though God has said what to do (preach the gospel), he has not specifically said how to preach it. Though it is true that God did not specify every method to be used, this argument does not really meet the issue at hand. It is not a matter of “how” to preach the gospel but of “who” will oversee the work. And the “who” is the eldership in every local group of God’s people.
Why, insist on doing things according to the pattern? Are we a radical fringe? Are we cranks? No, rather we are people who believe that to do things God’s way is the simplest and best test of our faith in him. New Testament Christians did not have human institutions or sponsoring churches to carry out God’s work. They had only their zeal and faith that God would help them to do what he had commanded them to do – in the way he had directed. And it worked! For in that first century the gospel was taken to “every creature under heaven” (Col.1 :23).
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 19, p. 10-11
October 6, 1994