By Dudley Ross Spears
In most all of the discussions over the last several years, the divisive question of institutionalism and centralization has involved the work a local church must do. While the question has always been about Biblical authority the work of the local church has been a vehicle for expressing different attitudes toward Bible authority.
The work of the local church to many people in the church consists of just about “any good work” the brethren can think of – without qualification! This includes the general relief of suffering humanity, improving ghetto conditions, eliminating illiteracy, taking off excess weight (paging Ira North and the “slimnastics” program of the Madison church of Christ), and lots and lots of social programs. Kitchens in the church building indicate that some think the work of the church can be expedited by the culinary arts. With the influx of “Family Life Centers” which are nothing but gymnasiums with additional facilities some seem to think that through physical exercise and competitive sports the work of the church can be accomplished. I know of one church of Christ (?) that offers a modified version of a “lonely hearts club.”
The only way to know what the work of the local church is is to read what God has revealed about it. Has the Lord said anything about the work He wants local churches to do? If not, there is nothing to study. If so, we must operate within those things He has revealed. (Read 2 John 9-10; 1 Cor. 4:6; Acts 15:24). God’s mind and His eternal purpose are manifested to the high order of “principalities and powers in heavenly places” through the church. (Eph. 3:10).
By definition, the local church is the saved people who meet together in a specific locality to do the work God has assigned the church. The local church is the place where worship is collectively offered by Christians to God. The local church is a body of the saved who agree to work together under a qualified leadership which they select and who are called “elders” or “pastors” in the New Testament. These same people pool their financial resources in order to achieve their common work. Basically, the local church is a cooperative of the saved who are dedicated to doing God’s work in God’s way.
To further study this, look briefly at some definitions of the word church. Edward D. Morris wrote, “Kuriakos: The term Church, (German kirche; Scotch, kirk; and the Teutonic and Scandinavian languages generally) is derived from the Greek word kuriakos, . . . a derivative from kurios. It came, however, to be employed at an early date to designate the religious organization inhabiting such a building, and engaging statedly in such joint devotions; and this is the use and meaning here to be retained.”
Again, he says of Ekklesia. “The term applied in classic Greek to any assembly of persons called out, or called :ogether, for any specific purpose (Acts 19:32, 39), this :erm came early to designate a religious or a Christian assembly, and such an assembly, not as convened on a single occasion, but rather as in some way organized and having permanent existence.”
Morris says of the word Sunagoga, “The same transition appears in the parallel word, sunagoga, often employed in the Septuagint like ekklesia, to describe not merely the place of assembling, but a company of persons brought together for religious purposes, thus gradually coming to indicate a permanent religious congregation.”
These quotes are from Ecclesiology, Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1890, pages 13-14.
The definition given earlier in this paper is here defended. The local church is organized after a definite pattern. It is God’s divine order. It was organized to have permanent existence. Paul wrote to Titus and told him he left him (Titus) in Crete to “set in order things wanting and ordain elders in every city.” (Titus 1:5). When a thing is set “in order” it is organized. It becomes “set” and therefore is not merely an overnight thought. While Paul was telling Titus that things needed to be brought back to a good state of repair, he also makes us come to the inevitable conclusion that the church is a set order.
To the church in Colossae, Paul wrote of his joy in seeing their “order.” (Col. 2:5). This is a word that signifies a definite organization. W.E. Vine says, “. . . is used in Luke 1:8 of the fixed succession of priests; of due order, in contrast to confusion, in the gatherings of a local church, 1 Cor. 13:40); of the general condition of such, Col. 2:5 (some give it a military significance here). – Expository Dictionary.
The local church is to be under qualified elders where they oversee the work of that -one local church. (1 Pet. 5:2-3; Acts 14:23). When you study Acts 14:23 in connection with Titus 1:5 you can come to the right conclusion that God intends for every city where there is a local church to have elders in every local church in every city. The oversight of the elders of those local congregations is limited to the congregation that selected them to oversee. They have no authority over any part of the work, worship, lives or membership of other congregations.
The local church is to finance its own work and make up those finances by the members contributing regularly into a common treasury. (Acts 2:42, 44; 4:34-35; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). These passages teach that on the Lord’s Day, connected with other items of worship, each member is to give as he or she has been prospered, cheerfully and liberally, that the work (all of it) may be financed.
The work assigned to each local church is the same. The degree of responsibility in each local church is based on the same principle, viz., ability and opportunity which determine the responsibility. There is to be an equality in this respect among all congregations. Paul writes the local church at Corinth and tells them, “For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he does not have. For this is not for the case of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality.” (2 Cor. 8:12, 13, NASB).
The work of the local church consists of three things. The first is evangelism – causing the gospel to be preached. (1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Thess. 1:7-8; Phil. 1:5; 2:14-16). These verses teach that it is the local church that is given the duty of causing the gospel to be preached. Churches of the first century set up a pattern in that they either sent a preacher (Acts 11:22) or they sent directly to a preacher. (Phil. 4:13-17). This is the way they did it then – it should be done that way always. One writer comments, “Here, too, we see the simple manner in which the church in Philippi joined with Paul in the work of preaching the gospel. There was no `missionary society’ in evidence, and none was needed to accomplish the work the Lord has authorized the church to do. When men become dissatisfied with God’s arrangement and set up one of their own, they have already crossed the threshold to apostasy. Let us be satisfied with the Lord’s manner of doing things.” Annual Lesson Commentary, Gospel Advocate Co. 1946, page 341.
The local church is to do benevolent work, viz., relieving the physical needs and sufferings of those who are legitimate charges of the church. (1 Tim. 5:16; Acts 6:1-6). Churches of Christ in the first century provided for the needs of their own members when those members were in need. (Acts 2:44; 4:35; 6:1-6 and others).
The work of edification completes what the Lord wants local churches of Christ to do. This edification is self edification. (Acts 9:31). This is done by the use of teachers and preachers who are to instruct others in the word of God. Both men and women are to teach the word to members of the church. (2 Tim. 2:2). Elders are to feed the flock. (Acts 20:28). This makes the church grow stronger.
There is a conspicuous absence of evidence that the Lord intends for local churches to engage in politics, social reforms, athletic competition, or other recreational activities. I cannot read any Biblical injunction that would authorize local churches to sponsor bowling teams, softball teams, hay rides, banquets or craft classes. Yet I read almost daily of some local churches that think they are still the Lord’s churches engaging vehemently in these things.
There is no evidence I have found where one local church ever is authorized to operate through anything other than its own membership and with its own resource. Yet some local churches that evidently think they still belong to Christ try to work through human organizations of all sorts. Others try to operate through other “sponsoring” congregations which amalgamate the work of all the churches under the oversight of one church. Such practices are wrong for they destroy the identity of the church.
When one church oversees a work to which all local churches have the same obligation, and which is financed by them all, the overseeing church becomes agent for others. This destroys equality. When one church is the agent for many churches, the agent church must be subject to the principal. The independence of churches is ruined. The “sponsoring church” depends on contributing churches for money and the contributing churches depend on the sponsoring church for oversight of the work. If that does not destroy independence I fail to see how it could be done.
Years ago I read in an old Gospel Advocate, “Brethren, the word of God is still the seed of the kingdom. If we want this cooperation of churches and organizations, let us then plant the seed and be satisfied with the crop God raises.” Those are excellent sentiments today. Following that formula will bring us back to doing God’s work in the local churches the way God directs.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 39, pp. 634-635
October 2, 1980