Christians at Work in the Universal Church
The work under consideration in this article is that of the individual Christian. This is not an attempt to justify any activation of the church in a "universal" sense. The church in the "universal" or "relational" sense merely refers to all Christians of all time in every location who have been saved by the blood of Christ and have submitted themselves to His headship. It is not the sum of all local churches presently in existence. Thus, the "universal" church is relational in its nature, not functional.
As individual Christians, we share a relationship to one another regardless of our present location due to our common family in the new birth. The love and concern that comes with that family bond leads us to fulfill various responsibilities which we have to our brothers and sisters wherever they might be. Though the Lord established local churches to function corporately in ways prescribed by His will, He did not relegate all religious action to the joint work of a local church. Much of the work to be done in spiritual matters has been left to individual Christians. When engaged in such work, the individual Christian is not restricted to acting only within some diocesan border defined by geographic locality.
Regardless of the work or lack thereof done by the local church of which one is a member, each Christian has responsibilities that are individual in their nature. Among those responsibilities are several towards our brothers and sisters in Christ wherever they might be. Let us turn our attention to a few of these as shown by approved example and direct command in Scripture.
The word of God teaches that Christians have a responsibility to love brethren wherever they may be. Through inspiration, the apostle Peter commanded this of all Christians in giving the simple instruction, "Love the brotherhood" (1 Peter 2:17). In the previous chapter, it had already been made clear that the love commanded was a unfeigned love born from and nourished by the truth to which we have all been obedient (1 Peter 1:22-25). If that love for one another as brethren in Christ is initiated and sustained through the truth of God's word, surely it demands that brethren help one another grow in that truth at every opportunity.
The apostle Paul both exemplified and commended such a love towards all brethren. He serves as an approved example to us of one whose love for brethren throughout the world caused him to act in their best interest even when that action demanded the sacrifice of his own desires (see 1 Corinthians 9). Paul demonstrated that which John commanded about biblical love: it is shown "in deed and truth" (1 John 3:18). In speaking to the Ephesians, Paul commended them for "the love which ye show toward all the saints" (Ephesians 1:15). The same love was commended in those at Colossae (Colossians 1:4). Neither was Paul's love for brethren confined to present acquaintances. It stretched beyond those brethren presently known and urged others to have the same active love towards brethren unknown by face (Colossians 2:1-3).
It is not idle curiosity which leads faithful Christians to inquire about the work in the Philippines or eastern Europe. Many brethren have rightly sought such information so that they might respond out of love for their brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need of spiritual or benevolent help. It is contrary to Scripture when anyone urges individual Christians to limit their demonstration of love to the confines of a local geographic area or to the saints comprising the local church of which one is a member. The motivation of love for our brethren is one of the factors which causes us to fulfill many of the other responsibilities we have as individual Christians towards our fellow saints.
The approved apostolic example of Paul again teaches us of our duty in prayer for our brethren and our common work in Christ. Throughout his epistles, Paul declares the fact that he is constantly, specifically and universally praying for his brethren and their shared work in Christ (e.g. Romans 1:8f; 1 Corinthians 1:4f; Ephesians 1:15f; 3:14f; Philippians 1:3f; Colossians 1:3f; 1 Thessalonians 1:2f; 2 Thessalonians 1:3f; 2 Timothy 1:3f; etc.). It is obvious that a great deal of time was taken by Paul on a daily basis in praying for those in so many places with specific reference to so many needs and challenges. He prayed for those whom he know and those he did not know. His prayers were both of thanksgiving and petition, but showed an informed concern for brethren in various places. Paul was neither a watchdog nor a meddler in such action. He was fulfilling his obligation as an individual Christian towards his much loved fellow saints. The record of his example urges and teaches us about the duty we have in this regard.
By inspiration, Paul also delivered direct commands telling us to pray for our brethren and our common work as he did. After describing the armor of God necessary for each Christian to be properly equipped, he gives the following addition to the attire:
"... with all prayer and supplication praying at all seasons in the Spirit, and watching thereunto in all perseverance and supplication for all the saints, and on my behalf, that utterance may be given unto me in opening my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak" (Ephesians 6:18-20).
Notice the repetition of the word "all" in declaring our responsibility. As we wear the armor of God, we remember with all prayer and supplication at all seasons with all perseverance all the saints. Such a command leaves no doubt that we must constantly, specifically and universally pray for our brethren and the work we share in Christ.
While working with the brethren in Alvin, Texas for many years, it was my privilege to see this responsibility fulfilled in a way which touched me and helped me. In over eleven years there, I cannot remember praying with the saints where the work of Christ and brethren in other places were not mentioned in prayer. Two good brethren, Tom McMillan and Johnie Jermain, frequently mentioned specific brethren in other places and asked God's blessings upon them. Though I am no longer in the same locality, I have no doubt that I and others are remembered by them on a constant basis. True love for our brethren demands nothing less. Prayer for our brethren all over the world and their work in Christ further binds us together as a family with a common cause whose separation is only temporary as we head toward the common goal.
A love for others will cause us to bring others unto Jesus. In the first chapter of John's gospel, we see such a love at work in two individuals. Upon learning about Jesus from the preaching of John the Baptist, Andrew "findeth first own brother Simon" and "brought him unto Jesus" (John 1:35-42). After being called to follow Christ, Philip found Nathanael and brought him to Jesus (John 1:43-51). When first century followers of Christ were so totally changed and blessed by coming to know Christ, they naturally shared that rich blessing with those they loved. A failure to do so would have been unthinkable.
In New Testament times, the gospel was spread throughout the world within a few short years. Was that solely due to apostles like Paul and John who tirelessly worked in teaching the lost? No, the book of Acts shows us that individual Christians who were not apostles carried that gospel to the lost wherever they went. When a great persecution arose against the saints in Jerusalem, we are told that many were scattered to other places. Did they leave the truth behind in Jerusalem? No, the Scripture tells us, "They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word" (Acts 8:4). Following the well known account of Peter taking the gospel to a Gentile named Cornelius, we are told about the action which had been taken by unnamed Christians who had also taught both Jews and Gentiles in other areas. The record says:
"They therefore that were scattered abroad upon the tribulation that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to none save the Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:19-20).
It was by those with a deep love for Christ and a deep love for the lost that the gospel was spread throughout the world within the first century. Individual action played a major role in the effort.
While local churches have a responsibility in evangelism as they function together as a collective, we must not forget that much of the evangelism which needs to be done is our responsibility acting as individual Christians. Efforts by local churches to support evangelists in reaching the lost are scriptural and need to be increased (2 Corinthians 11:8; Philippians 1:3-8; 4:14-16). However, let us never forget that we have an individual responsibility in this matter as well (Galatians 6:6). When no teaching of the lost gets done unless the local church establishes a "personal work program," there is something lacking in our individual love for Christ and the souls of men. The best program in the world to convert the lost is for an individual motivated by love for Christ and a love for a lost friend or loved one to sit down with an open Bible and teach that lost person the gospel. That is the responsibility each of us has in our personal life as a Christian.
Just as we have a responsibility to share the truth with those outside of Christ, we also have an obligation to edify our fellow saints by sharing the truth with them. As we assemble together in the church, there is a clear instruction, "Let all things be done unto edifying" (1 Corinthians 14:26). However, the responsibility of edification stretches beyond the assembly of the local congregation. In Romans 15, the same individuals instructed to bear the infirmities of the weak and not please self were also told, "Let each one of us please his neighbor for that which is good, unto edifying" (Romans 15:1-2). Amidst other individual responsibilities required of the saints in Ephesus, Paul reminds them as follows: "Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying" (Ephesians 4:29).
In addition to directly providing edification to their brethren, first century Christians also manifest their love for brethren in other places by urging them to receive faithful brethren who might aid in edification. An example of this can be seen in the case of the brethren in Ephesus. After Apollos was more accurately taught in the way of the Lord, the Scripture relates the following:
"And when he was minded to go over into Achaia, the brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him: and when he was come, he helped them much that had believed through grace" (Acts 18:27).
It is obvious that the church in Ephesus could not force an action upon the brethren in Achaia. However, Christians who loved their brethren in Achaia knew that Apollos could help edify them. Therefore, they wrote the brethren in Achaia to urge them to receive Apollos. No local autonomy was violated and no individuals acted in a way to seek a place as brotherhood directors. It was simply a case of brethren loving their fellow saints in other areas and seeking to help them by urging them to receive a brother who could aid in their common work in Christ. It might be added that a parallel action of urging them not to receive a brother who could harm in their common work would also be authorized as a proper manifestation of love for those fellow saints.
When individual Christians today have a love for their fellow saints, they will do the same things exemplified in first century Christians with God's approval. Efforts to improve Bible classes and other methods of edifying the saints within local churches are necessary, but the work of edifying cannot stop at the doors of the church building. Brethren who love one another will open their Bibles in private homes and seek opportunities to edify their brethren on an individual level as well. When we have the proper love for brethren in other places, we will take advantage of opportunities to edify them as well. True love for our brethren will cause us to share teaching of truth and encourage our brethren to receive only those who will aid in the teaching of that truth.
The book of Jude is a case study in the responsibility of Christians to defend the truth. The writer begins the epistle with the well-recognized exhortation to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). The reason for that need to so contend for the faith is then stated in detail. The saints addressed were reminded of the devastating effects of teachers of error and the destruction brought by the false doctrines and sinful actions of such teachers (Jude 4-16). The writer then reminds the readers that they must keep in their minds the words spoken by the apostles in order to avoid the effects of error and have the following benefits:
"But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (Jude 20-21).
The responsibilities of the individual Christian mentioned earlier are consistent with the responsibility to defend the truth. Paul's love for Timothy and the brethren Timothy could teach caused Paul to warn of the errors and name the sources of that error from Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus and others (1 Timothy 1:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 4:10, 14). Paul gave a defense of the truth to the brethren in Colossae and refuted specific errors confronting them despite the fact that he had not been among them previously (Colossians 2:1-23). What motivated him to do so? His love for them as brethren and his desire for progress in the cause of Christ motivated Paul to so act. The same could be noted of John's warnings to Gaius in 3 John as well as other examples given in the New Testament.
Individual Christians who love their fellow saints and who have concern for the cause of Christ will do their best to defend the truth against the onslaught of error in our time as well. When they do so out of such approved motives, their actions are not to be condemned as evidence of autonomy being violated, a feeling of self-importance, self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, brotherhood watchdogs, a pack of snarling cur or other disparaging terms. When error is taught, it is scripturally authorized for faithful Christians to speak up in defense of the truth at home or away as they have opportunity to do so. Those who speak disparagingly of such actions show a lack of love for their brethren and the cause of Christ.
During the controversy over institutionalism, faithful brethren had a love and concern for souls endangered by error in other places. As a result, they routinely sought out opportunities to reach their brethren who were straying into unauthorized practices. Bulletins were sent to the members of congregations which were supporting human institutions from the treasury of the church. Brethren wrote letters and made visits to their fellow saints who were going beyond the pattern of truth. Were those attempts to defend the truth proper? The principles of Scripture already noted show that such actions were indeed approved. Why is it that some who once engaged in these efforts to defend the truth, now condemn analogous efforts to defend the truth regarding fellowship, divorce and remarriage, the literal nature of the creation account, or other doctrinal matters? Bible love for our brethren and proper concern for the cause of Christ will motivate faithful Christians today to defend the truth when it is under assault, not condemn those who follow the Bible pattern by so doing.
e-mail this author at HarryO@ij.net
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