The Works Assigned to the Local Church
Richard J. Boone
I am honored to participate in this issue of Watchman Magazine and I thank brother Roberts for the invitation. While I am honored on the personal level, of far greater significance is: (1) the opportunity of this avenue to teach, and (2) the important theme of this special issue. My specific assignment is "The Works Assigned to the Local Church" to which I now proceed.
Is the "local church" authorized and functional in the New Testament or is it a result of human imagination and tradition? This might seem too fundamental a question for some, yet for others it is totally valid. We must first establish that local churches are valid before we can profitably discuss the works assigned to them. My appeal is "What does the Scripture say?" (Rom. 4:3).
One becomes a Christian when he, based on learning from Scripture (Rom. 10:17), believes that God is (Heb. 11:6), believes that Christ is the Son of God (Jn. 8:24; 20:30-31), confesses that faith (Mt. 10:32-33; Rom. 10:9-10), repents or turns away from sin, first in mind then in action (Acts 2:38; 17:30-31) and is baptized (immersed) into Christ "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38 [cp. Mt. 26:28]; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21). When one does this from the heart (Rom. 6:17), he then becomes a child of God and is added to the body of the Lord, the church (Acts 2:47; Ephes. 1:22-23). He is individually a member of the universal church (all the saved of all the earth of all ages), a disciple of the Lord (1 Cor. 12:27).
One's spiritual relationship does not end at this point, though. Just as God placed the fleshly solitary into families (Psa. 68:6), He also ordained that His spiritual children grow and function in a family the local church. This relationship consists of Christians in a locality regularly worshiping and working together to fulfill the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Lk. 24:46-47). Thereby Christians are "members of one another" (Rom. 12:5) and have many responsibilities to "one another" (there are several "one another" instructions to Christians in the New Testament).
We read of such families (churches) in various localities in the New Testament. The church at Jerusalem is distinguished from the church at Antioch (Acts 11:22,26). We read of local assemblies at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:1-2; 2 Cor. 1:1), Ephesus (1:1), Philippi (1:1), Colosse (1:2), Thessalonica (1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:1), Smyrna (Rev. 2:8), Pergamos (Rev. 2:12), Thyatira (Rev. 2:18), Sardis (Rev. 3:1), Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7) and Laodicea (Rev. 3:14). Of necessity these are local churches or the references to various locales are senseless.
Did local churches really exist in New Testament times? Yes! God in His infinite wisdom (Ephes. 1:8; 3:10-11) designed the local church arrangement whereby Christians can grow and help one another. The local church, though not replacing the individual disciple, is an integral part of accomplishing God's work in this world.
The continuing reality of sin (Rom. 3:9,19,23) impresses us that the gospel, God's power to save, is still needed (Rom. 1:16-17). How will lost people be saved except through the gospel? Teaching is the key! Three texts come to the forefront about teaching.
The Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:1-20; Mk. 4:1-20; Lk. 8:4-15) is a fundamental and instructive passage. Of several lessons in this parable, one is vital: "Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed..." (Mt. 13:3-4; Mk. 4:3-4 [also v. 14]; Lk. 8:5). This is "the parable of the sower" (Mt. 13:18), not just the hearers. Both for His disciples and the multitudes, Jesus taught a basic lesson about His kingdom: its establishment and growth would be accomplished through teaching.
John 6:44-45 says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Therefore, everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me." Drawing people unto the Father isn't that what evangelism is all about? Notice how that happens hearing, learning, coming. Hearing implies teaching, sound substance, and listening. Learning implies understanding and application to self. When combined with the good and honest heart, people are thereby drawn to God.
These and other pertinent passages, taken cumulatively, help us to understand the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Lk. 24:46-47): "Go preach/teach" From the beginning of His ministry to its very end, Jesus emphasized teaching by man to man for His kingdom to grow and thrive. In light of this, what can local churches collectively do (assuming independent, autonomous arrangements) to accomplish this work?
The list is endless of the works local churches can do in scriptural methods to teach the lost. Consider this partial list: correspondence courses, tapes of sermons on specific/requested subjects, various tracts which can be distributed, daily Bible phone messages, theme-specific gospel meetings, day services during gospel meetings (morning; lunch-time; etc.), using the local preacher for an evangelistic meeting (visitors from a community would be more likely to hear the preacher who lives in their area), targeting a specific area of a community for work (Acts 1:8), sending a preacher to an area to evangelize (Acts 11:22), supporting men to travel various places to preach (Phil. 1:3-7; 2 Cor. 11:8), utilizing the Internet (websites), etc. As I lengthen this list, the possibilities abound. I have just barely touched the hem of the garment! We must remember that we are responsible before God to teach, not for the results (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
An equally-important task for local churches is edification of Christians. By that I mean the combination of time, teaching and application (Heb. 5:12-14) to bring babes in Christ to spiritual maturity (Ephes. 4:11-16). It is just as much a part of the Great Commission as evangelism (Mt. 28:20).
Acts gives insight as to how Christians can be brought to spiritual maturity. Acts 2:42 specifies four things: (1) continuing steadfastly in apostolic doctrine; (2) fellowship; (3) breaking of bread, which I understand here is a reference to the Lord's Supper; and (4) prayer. Can a babe in Christ come to maturity without any of these? The works of the church at Antioch are beneficial to observe. They received faithful men, Barnabas and Saul, who gave encouragement and needed instruction (11:23-26). Note the emphasis on teaching here! Those at Antioch were disciples, learners (v. 26). This church served as a training ground. John Mark, Barnabas' cousin, was given the opportunity to grow and help (12:25-13:5). Antioch saw the need to train John Mark and his potential, desired to do the work necessary to train him, were of sacrificial spirits who were willing to endure the "less-than-mature" efforts of a young person in training, and were patient while the growth occurred. They gathered to hear of the spread of the gospel in other places (14:26-28). They did not ignore doctrinal and practical problems that arose (Acts 15:1-3). As a result of the Holy Spirit's decision in Jerusalem (v. 28), the disciples in Antioch rejoiced, were encouraged and strengthened in the Lord (vv. 30-32). Jerusalem, Antioch and several other New Testament churches are enlightening on how churches today can accomplish their work of edification, and the good results that come from this important work.
Hopefully without infringing too much on another's article, I want to focus some attention on the work elders can do in edification. It has been my observation that we have neglected an important aspect of elders' work edification of Christians in teaching and practice. Elders are men (1 Tim. 3:1) who by reason of submission to God's will and spiritual maturity (1 Tim. 3:6), along with their godly wives (1 Tim. 3:11), have raised their children to be faithful Christians (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6). They have experience! From this experience comes much help in bringing babes in Christ to maturity. As the elder holds fast to sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9), he is able to instruct and encourage other Christians. If necessary, even convict when sin enters the picture (v. 11). This involves his dealings with Christians on all levels the weak, sick, broken, driven away, and lost (see Ezek. 34:1-6). Because of sound judgment that comes from sound teaching and experience, let us not overlook the important work that elders can do in bringing saints to maturity (Ephes. 4:11-12).
Consider some specific suggestions for a local church to bring saints to maturity. Decent and orderly worship services, designed to bring the creature to the Creator, are absolutely vital. Organized and balanced Bible-class curriculums are of great impact. Gospel meetings can be targeted to the needs of members as well as those who are lost. Corrective discipline, though unpleasant, is done to save the sinner and keep a local church pure (Mt. 18:15-17; Rom. 16:7-18; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thes. 3:6ff; Tit. 3:10-11; Ephes. 5:25-27; etc). Various efforts to teach and train, outside of regular Bible classes and assemblies, have been used quite effectively by churches for years. This could include older men teaching younger men, older women teaching younger women, or general open classes with specific topics. This is just a brief sample of what local churches can collectively do to equip saints.
The Bible unquestionably teaches that we are to be concerned about and assist our fellow-men with their needs (Jas. 1:27). But do local churches, as such, have a responsibility in this realm? Yes!
Several passages show local churches at work in this realm. The church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32,34-37; 6:1-6), the church at Antioch (Acts 11:27-30), the church at Corinth and the churches of Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9), the churches of Macedonia and Achaia (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8-9) and the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 3:14-15; 5:16) were active in or instructed about benevolent actions. However, we must note some specifics about the cases cited here.
When viewed cumulatively, the following points about local church involvement in benevolence are revealed. First, the needs were created by circumstances beyond the control of those involved (Acts 2:1-5,42-47; 4:32,35; 6:1; 11:28; Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1,3; 2 Cor. 8:3,14; 9:1,12). These were not situations were someone imagined or created a need for others to fulfill. Second, the purpose of this benevolence was to satisfy basic necessities of life, not to enrich others monetarily or supply frivolous wants (Acts 2:45; 4:35; 6:1; 11:29-30; Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:13-14; 9:12). Third, this benevolence was to Christians. Local churches were not the "Apostolic Times Red Cross" for the world (Acts 2:45; 4:32; 6:1; 11:29; Rom. 15:25-26; 1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1,12). Finally, notice from these passages that local churches accomplished this work without any type of outside organization to assist them. The church, as God designed it, is fully sufficient to do its work (Ephes. 4:11-16).
1 Timothy 5:1-16 also deserves attention. First, note that family members are given primary responsibility to care for their needy widows (vv. 4,8,16). Second, while there may be times when Christians have temporary needs (previous paragraph), there is a limitation placed upon churches in this text to those who are "really widows" (v. 16). (Also consider that if one will not work, he is not to eat [2 Thes. 3:6]. Furthermore, should we support a Christian who persists in ungodly living [1 Tim. 5:6]?) Long-term or permanent assistance can be given only under certain circumstances (vv. 9-10; see "enrolled," ASV). Thereby, churches are not burdened with those who are not their responsibility so they can see meet the needs of those who are their responsibility (v. 16).
Individual Christians have the responsibility to see to the needs of others (Jas. 1:27). The collective work of local churches, however, while including benevolence, is not primarily benevolence (Acts 6:2,4,7). Benevolence by local churches is to be done only within the parameters established by God's word. To do otherwise is to prostitute the focus, efforts and resources of local churches for less nobler purposes.
How times have changed, especially regarding views toward the work of churches! The development and curse of the social gospel among churches (meeting man's social needs, supplanting his spiritual needs) is easily documented historically. Sadly, this has impacted churches of Christ.
Paul told Timothy that the church was not to be burdened. If a local church can be burdened by caring for people not its responsibility, then it can be burdened by work that is not its responsibility.
It is not the work of local churches to raise children, yet many churches operate day-care facilities as if nothing is wrong. It is not the work of local churches to provide recreation and entertainment, yet churches have their "family-life centers" (glorified name for "gymnasium") and provide various activities. It is not the work of the local church to educate people, yet schools for primary, secondary and continuing education drain churches of their energy and resources. We could go on with such a list, but I believe these examples sufficiently make the point.
"You are against raising children, recreation and entertainment, and educating people!" No, I'm not. They should be handled in the relationship where God placed them the home, with parents taking these responsibilities without pawning them off on local churches (Ephes. 6:1-4, Tit. 2:3-5, 1 Cor. 11:22,34; etc.)! God never purposed or taught that churches should care for man's social needs. The real work of local churches is of far greater significance!
Within churches of Christ in the last 50 years a division has occurred over the relationship of human organizations to the church. The sufficiency (capability) of local churches to do the work God assigned them is the real issue. Ephesians 4 and other passages affirm that the local church is fully able to evangelize the world, edify saints, and meet legitimate material needs of Christians. There is no need for any type of outside entity missionary society, college, or benevolent home. In fact, in many instances these organizations become machinery that runs the involved churches. The tail then wags the dog!
Furthermore, the sponsoring-church arrangement in evangelism (one church planning or assuming a work, then receiving funds from other churches to finance it) burdens the local churches which support it and violates their autonomy (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Such an arrangement is, in fact, the infant stage of Catholicism's hierarchy. Of greatest importance is the tacit admission that local churches, as such, cannot evangelize the world, though they accomplished the formidable task in Paul's day (Col. 1:23).
Because it is God's arrangement, local churches have a vital part in accomplishing God's work on earth. (I do not intend for this statement to discount individual discipleship.) Local churches, when properly instructed and motivated, can do much to teach the gospel to the lost, bring saints to perfection (maturity), and help brethren in need. Let us not waste our time, work and resources on activities, regardless of how noble they might seem, that are not our responsibility. Let us be about our Father's business (Lk. 2:49). If we can accomplish that, we will have little time to focus on anything else.
e-mail this author at RichJBoone@aol.com
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