"Paul and Timothy, servant of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons..." (Phil. 1:1).
In our world today, we hear of mega-mergers, hyper-marts, metroplexes and one-world political ideologies. These terms are indications of the current thinking of "the bigger, the better." Whether political, economic, religious or otherwise, trends are representative of movement toward massive alliances in structure.
In Europe, numerous nations are merging into a "common market" which will wield greater financial and political clout in world affairs. The "Euro-dollar" will replace currencies in the separate nations, yielding to an acceptable currency throughout the Common Market Alliance.
Politically, Americans are faced with an encroaching federal government which grows in power over the states.
Economically, mergers of large companies have resulted in huge corporations having multi-billion dollar budgets and world-wide influence as "Mom and Pop" businesses vanish and small businesses struggle to stay alive in an atmosphere of vast conglomerates.
In religion, denominational bodies form an amalgamation of churches in which the sum of the whole is greater than any single part. Illustrative of this is the Roman Catholic church as a massive super-structure which dominates each and every local Catholic church. Not vastly different, Protestant bodies have headquarters, conventions, synods or councils which oversee and control member churches. Local autonomy, a bench-mark of New Testament congregations, does not fit well with these modern trends and it should come as no surprise that many American churches reflect a trend toward a federation of churches.
the New Testament closed, local autonomy of churches was a revealed truth as well as an accepted practice. Our opening text, Philippians 1:1, reveals the only structure known to churches of Christ: a local congregation having bishops, deacons and saints. Limiting oversight to a single church, presbyters (elders, pastors, shepherds, bishops, overseers) were restricted to the "flock of God which is among you" (1 Pt. 5:2). These men who were selected according to scriptural qualifications (1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1) exercised oversight of the local church of which they were members and nothing larger or smaller than the local church existed as an organizational body. Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, et al, all had local churches totally independent from one another and without inter-congregational ties. Each church conducted its own affairs internally as though it were the only church on the face of the earth. Diocesan (and larger) arrangements were developed centuries after the inspired age, being created as the great "falling away" occurred (1 Tim. 4:1ff; 2 Tim. 4:1ff; Acts 20:28-30). In fact, as the apostasy slowly advanced, it took its shape and form from the Roman Empire which was a monolithic, totalitarian dictatorship. The first denomination which formed as a post-apostolic departure from the Biblical pattern was the Roman Catholic Church, patterned after the Roman Empire itself with a supreme pontiff, mirroring the emperor, himself. In America, denominational departures from the New Testament pattern often followed democratic ideals with a convention or caucus arrangement instead of a more totalitarian form of government. Obviously, those religions that divorce themselves from a New Testament "pattern" (Heb. 8:5) are guided by cultural forces that are peculiar to each society. Protestantism is a more representative form of government than Catholicism, but each reflects a mirror-image of the secular government from which it arose, rather than a divine arrangement handed down from the apostles.
churches of Christ, calling for a return to New Testament Christianity in doctrine and practice, have not been immune to these subtle forces of change. Having struggled successively during pioneer America days to escape the tentacles of super-organizations found in denominational hierarchies by restoring independent congregations, brethren floundered backwards as they instituted missionary societies and inter-congregational alliances larger than any given local church. Confusing centralized control with co-operation, pioneer and more modern departures have used evangelistic, benevolent and edification activities to bind congregations into societies larger than local churches. Brotherhood-wide activities that incorporated treasuries of many churches necessitated brotherhood offices, totally without scriptural precedent or authority. One notable instance of such practices was the Herald of Truth Radio and Television Ministry, headquartered at the Fifth and Highland Boulevard church in Abilene, Texas, but overseeing funds from thousands of churches. Though it was hotly debated as to whom was actually in control, the board of directors or the board of elders, there was no doubt that the pooled funds required an oversight which was larger than any single congregation. Local autonomy was not possible in such an arrangement.
More cultic than others in the church of Christ, the Boston Church of Christ (a.k.a. Crossroads, Discipling Movement) has deliberately distanced itself from congregational autonomy, embracing "pillar churches" and congregational oversight by centers of influence with the ultimate control at Boston.
While no one body or group has attained ascendancy over the "church of Christ" per se, violations of autonomy are rampant. Congregations, colleges, missionary societies and various institutions regularly invite local churches to pool their resources under a sponsoring eldership, board, cabinet or committee which will oversee that particular work. Voluntary loss of autonomy is no less a loss of autonomy, we might add. As each congregation delegates its authority to others, the loss of autonomy (self-government, under Christ) is real and actual. Pooled resources relate to pooled authority and pooled decision-making, rather than separate and private control.
issue of Watchman Magazine is dedicated to recalling the sound foundation upon which the Lord's church rests and the structure that defines it. A local church of Christ is the largest and smallest organizational unit of individual Christians to do the work God has assigned to the church. The structural design of the church is no less important than the design of the work and worship of God's people. We should violate the autonomy of the local church no quicker than we would violate the worship which God designed. Some, however, who would resist inserting a piano into the worship of the church do not hesitate to thrust a brotherhood arrangement onto the local church. Why, we ask, is one violation worse than the other.
A local church of Christ is a fellowship of individual Christians who, from Jerusalem onward, have banded themselves together into a body of believers to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in an organized manner. While our relationship to Christ is very much a personal and individual relationship in one sense (that of an individual Christian, Acts 2:47; 11:26), there is a proper corporate, community aspect of our relationship realized through the local congregation. As God gave structure to the human body, He also gave form to the church. This form is seen in separate and equal congregations rather than a world-wide conglomerate of churches. The church universal is composed of all the saved Christians of the world (Heb. 12:23); it is completely a relationship with Christ and other Christians, having no corporate structure, work or treasury. The only entity (living organism) which God designed to work as a community is the local church.
This simple truth is vastly overlooked and under-rated in our world of mega-mergers. What can a congregation of a few saints do as compared with the Roman Catholic Church or the Methodist Church? Many assume that the local church is not big enough, equipped enough or prosperous enough to be as effective as today's super-churches. It is not unusual to hear of those in the church of Christ, who, when they plan, plan a brotherhood work. Visions of thousands of churches working together in some kind of a vast array discourage implementation of any work through a single congregation. Inherent in such thinking is the faulty notion that bigger is better, that God's work can only be accomplished by a merger of churches. We need to learn all over again that God has never worked as men think He should work (Isa. 55:8-9). As Gideon learned that God has a plan that excludes human boasting, we need to learn that God has placed His work in local churches all over the world. Yes, this is contrary to human wisdom, but so has it ever been (1 Cor. 2:1-16). We don't need to change the corporate structure of the local church to be effective in the work of God.
local church at work is the best possible way to accomplish God's work because God planned it that way. Under this arrangement, the gospel was "preached to every creature under heaven" (Col. 1:23). Today's sponsoring churches and mega-mergers have not been able to accomplish the same task, even with modern media advantages. Paul related that Jesus Christ ascended on high, leaving behind gifts to men to ensure the perfection of His work. Ephesians 4:7-16 assures each of us that the Lord planned the church to be effective by design. To ensure the propagation of the word, Jesus "gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers" (v. 11). Apostles and prophets continue their effective work through the revealed scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Evangelists, pastors and teachers continue their work today as they expound on these scriptures and "equip the saints" (v. 12) "for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." As this is accomplished, saints in every local place will form congregations (Acts 9:26-28; Phil. 1:1) that will be effective in reaching out to the lost and strengthening the saved.
It should be noted that the work of individual Christians is not in competition with nor opposition to the local church, but rather, complementary. There are many effective things that individual saints will accomplish as they live their lives under the authority of Christ as husband, wives, citizens and disciples. Not all spiritual activity is confined to the local church; individual Christians have an active life in service of the Lord on a daily basis, in addition to the corporate membership. But individual saints are not complete unless they extend fellowship to other Christians in the local church. Much damage has been done by those who contend for an exaggerated individualism that outlaws the local church. We repeat: there is no competition between the work of an individual saint and the corporate structure of the local church, the body (1 Cor. 12:14). Each relationship has a place in the life of a Christian and one is not complete without the other. While one becomes a Christian first and a member of the local church later, it is God's design that individual saints "come together" (1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18; 14:23, etc.) in assemblies of saints for discipline, worship and edification.
Fellowship with other saints outside of local churches was both commanded and practiced by New Testament Christians. Instances of this can be seen in benevolence and evangelism. As emergencies arose, local churches cooperated in benevolence by sending funds to needy churches, even while respecting the parameters and limits of each local church (1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8, 9). The gospel was sent throughout the Roman Empire as individual churches supported evangelists, fellowshiping them as they went everywhere preaching the word (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:15) . Some criticism has been unduly leveled against evangelists as meddlers and brotherhood watchdogs simply because they go from place to place preaching the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). However, there is biblical precedent for such evangelism and the gospel is free from the constraints of local church autonomy. Arguments by some seem to indicate that sin can be protected within the confines of a local church and evangelists have no right to decry sin if not a member of that local body. But the gospel is not so constrained and sin cannot hide behind congregational walls. Local churches never have autonomy to do that which is unauthorized by God and sin is always subordinate to the gospel. While respecting the limits of autonomous churches, we must never allow that same autonomy to be a pretense behind which sin is allowed to hide and flourish.
There are many things to be accomplished in a local church. There is the work of evangelism, edification and benevolence. Elders are appointed by God to oversee the local work and deacons are appointed to serve its needs in a special way. Worship is designed by God to lift up praises to Himself and to allow saints to glorify His name, expressing the deepest emotions of a human heart. The local church is a place of ministry, a place to be busy, a relationship of the spirit and a home for kindred souls that encourage one another. As we reassure ourselves about the place of the local church in God's kingdom, let us determine to be effective in the way that God has designated, trusting in His wisdom. Are you a Christian? Do you belong to Christ "from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4:16)? Much of this is realized in the local church and the fellowship shared by children of God. We encourage our readers to be content with God's arrangement and to be effective as willing servants, fit for the Master's use.
Email Tom Roberts
Return to Watchman front page