By David Dann
The apostle Paul writes of the Lord’s “intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10-11). The New Testament makes clear to us the fact that God has a plan for the church. In fact, each lo- cal church is on a special mission from God. We find that every church is to be involved in the work of evangelism, edification, and benevolence (1 Thess. 1:8; Eph. 4:11-12; Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 5:3-16).
However, it is not enough to haphazardly approach these God-given tasks with the attitude that the “end justifies the means.” We must realize that there is a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) which must be adhered to as we strive to do the Lord’s work. We must be zealous to do the Lord’s work, but we must also be zealous to do it in the way that the Lord has prescribed. It is important for us to be aware of some dangerous practices that are a threat to our ability to carry out God’s plan for the church. Some threats to God’s plan for the church are:
1. Confusion over the “local church” and the “universal church.” The Scriptures use the word “church” in two dif- ferent senses. The Bible uses the word “church” to refer to the spiritual body of Christ that is made up of everyone who has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, whether living or dead (Eph. 4:4; 3:14-15; Col. 1:18). However, the word “church” is also used to refer to each local congre- gation of the Lord’s people meeting together to worship and carry out the Lord’s work (Acts 13:1; 1 Thess. 1:1). According to Paul, the local church consists of “saints in Christ Jesus . . . with the elders and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). The New Testament clearly sets forth the pattern by which each local church is to organize itself and properly func- tion as a collective body. On the other hand, the universal church has no physical organization, and never functions as a collective unit as far as the Scriptures are concerned. Man-made schemes that encourage thousands of churches to act on a brotherhood-wide level make a flawed attempt to activate the universal church. These brotherhood schemes.
2. Centralized control and oversight of the work of a plurality of churches. According to the New Testament pattern, each local church is responsible for implementing and overseeing its own spiritual work. The local church stands alone as the largest functioning body of Christians in a given area. As for the role of elders in controlling and overseeing the work of local churches, the apostle Peter instructs these men to, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Pet. 5:2). It is im- portant to notice that the elders are not told to shepherd several different flocks (churches), or the work of many different churches. They are only authorized to shepherd the church which is among them. In other words, each church is autonomous and independent of all others. Man-made schemes, such as television and radio programs, which solicit contributions from several churches, and place the control and oversight of the work of many churches under the eldership of a single church constitute a departure from the New Testament pattern. These schemes seek to centralize control of the work of many churches, which not only threaten God’s plan for each church, but is also a determined step toward denominationalism.
3. Failure to make a distinction between the work of the church and the work of the individual. Some insist that the local church, as a collective body, is authorized by God to do whatever an individual Christian is authorized to do. In other words, if an individual Christian can support and operate a college, then the church can do so as well. Or, if an individual Christian has authority to contribute to an orphans’ home, then the church has authority to do the same. However, the New Testament makes a clear distinc- tion between individual action and the collective action of a local church. While instructing Timothy with regard to the care of Christian widows, Paul writes, “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows” (1 Tim. 5:16). Paul draws a clear line between the work of “any believing man” (the indi- vidual) and the responsibilities of the church. While there are many worthwhile activities we may involve ourselves in as individual Christians, we must remember that God has a special plan for the church. Confusion concerning the work of the individual and the work of the church creates a threat to God’s mission for the church.
4. Recreation and social activities sponsored by the lo- cal church. Many churches have followed after the popular denominational trend of promoting social activities and recreation for their members. A good number of these churches have spared no expense in building facilities such as gymnasiums, “fellowship halls,” and “family-life centers,” to help them meet the social needs of the member- ship. The Lord’s money is used not only in providing such facilities, but also to cater to the various social activities that are regularly promoted by the local church. However, God’s plan for the church is spiritual in nature. In fact, the New Testament knows nothing of the church involving itself in social and recreational activities such as we see today. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). God’s plan for the church is placed in jeopardy when the church chooses to involve itself in recreational and social activities.
5. A misunderstanding of, and misapplication of “fel- lowship.” The term “fellowship” is one that is used in the New Testament to mean, “sharing together,” or “joint par- ticipation.” Some churches attempt to justify the practice of organizing and paying for social activities based on the assumption that such will provide a great opportunity for “fellowship” among the members of the church. But, ac- cording to the Scriptures, fellowship is a term that refers to spiritual activity, rather than social activity. Concerning the spiritual nature of fellowship, the apostle John writes, “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). The Scriptures never speak of fellowship with regard to social activities, dinners, or entertainment. While the Lord’s supper is referred to as “fellowship” (1 Cor. 10:16), the Corinthian brethren were sharply rebuked when they attempted to turn that “fellowship” into a social event (1 Cor. 17-22). God’s plan for the church is often compromised when brethren broaden the concept of fel- lowship to include social activities.
6. Supporting human institutions to do the work of the church. Some churches wish to carry out the work of evangelism through supporting a man-made plan such as a sponsoring church arrangement. Others seek to provide for the work of edification by financially supporting a Bible college. And still others seek to do their part in benevolence by donating sums of money to support orphans’ homes and homes for the aged. According to the New Testament, God’s plan is for each church is to carry out its own work in all of these areas (1 Thess. 1:8; Eph. 4:11-12; Acts 6:1-
7). If the local church can dispatch its responsibility in any area by simply sending funds to a human institution, then there is really no need for the church at all. However, God has given the church a special mission, and he expects the church to be faithful in carrying out that mission. It should be sufficient to note that if God wanted the church to work through human institutions then he would have provided instructions concerning this type of work. He has provided none. When a church supports human institutions to carry out its work, God’s plan for that church is severely threat- ened, if not entirely discarded.
“I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The Lord did not ask for the opinions of men when he set forth the New Testament pattern for the work of the church. Each local congregation has the God-given responsibility to carry out its work according to his plan. Are you helping or hindering the progress of that work?