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People of God - Lesson 10

A Study by Robert F. Turner

The Work of the Local Church

The writer of Hebrews urges brethren to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:24,25). “Love and good works” is a broad definition of the work each “team” of saints is expected to accomplish, but when we examine details of love and good works in the Scriptures we find they are far different from the “church socials” of today. The Acts of the Apostles is a history of the early church. Let us look at that history, and a few other scriptures, to see why these saints assembled.

Congregational Action in the New Testament

They “were together, and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44,45) to render assistance to needy saints. They assembled together to pray (4:31; 12:12). They were assembled to select servants for church work (6:2-6); for instructions in divine matters (11:26); to hear reports of a preaching tour (14:27); to hear discussion regarding God’s will for Gentiles, and be party to a letter about God’s will (15:12,22,23); while others gathered to receive that letter (15:30,31). They came together to break bread [i.e., to observe the Lord’s Supper – cf. 1 Corinthians 11:18,20] (20:7); to withdraw fellowship from a sinner (1 Corinthians 5:4,5); to edify one another in spiritual matters (1 Corinthians 14:26); and to teach and admonish in worshipful songs (Colossians 3:16).

Check these passages, and let them tell you something about the approved work of saints acting collectively. They worship God together, cooperate in learning more of His will, and in taking the truth to others. They take an open stand against sin, and they give alms to saints who are in need. Did you notice the absence of church ball teams, banquets, holiday socials, or church-sponsored coffee breaks?

Another way to look for the work of the local church is to see how Bible churches used their money. I once talked with a man who was a member of a local church that did not believe in having a “church treasury.” He said they only collected funds when there was some need . . . and when I asked for an example, he cited one time when hail broke several windows of their meeting place. I told him we also only collected funds when there was some need — but we found a constant need to promote the Lord’s cause and take the gospel to the world. To this end we printed and distributed tracts, preached the gospel over the radio, supported gospel preachers in several fields, cared for indigent members, etc. A church pools resources (for collective action) by gathering funds that can be exchanged for such work. Let us look again at the history of some Bible churches to see how they used their resources.

To assist brethren in want they sold lands and houses, and laid the money at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37). Later, Paul instructed churches regarding sending relief to saints far away (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). The local church supported preachers who spread the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:8; Philippians 4:15). They cared for “widows indeed” (1 Timothy 5:3,16 KJV); and supported elders (overseers) who labored in word and doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17,18). Not one church kitchen, social fellowship hall, or gymnasium. Amazing! How do you suppose they got new members? Or found joy (Philippians 4:4-7)?

The Spiritual Nature of Church Work

There seem to be two major divisions of church work in the above — things for which the church could spend its collective resources: namely, self-maintenance (worship, self-edification, and care of their own needy) and world work (preaching to the world, assisting other needy saints). Of course this is only an outline, and does not specify the details that must be considered. But it gives insight to that which is the authorized function of a local church. It is a spiritual institution, especially designed to meet spiritual needs. This does not mean it is wrong for individual saints to have social fellowship, sports activities, a place in the business world, etc. Such activities are even regulated by God’s word “as unto the Lord” discussed in a previous lesson. But the local church, like a fire department, is financed for special reasons. Imagine a fire department, needing a new fire truck, but using its allocated tax money to sponsor a ball team. I knew of a church that built an auditorium and a gymnasium, but did not have sufficient funds to build classrooms and buy needed equipment for them.

At this point we are often asked, “Where is the Bible authority to build any kind of church building?” Authority to assemble is also authority for a place of assembly (borrowed, rented, or built), but we know even this can be abused. The place, its furnishings and equipment should be suited to the use God authorized (see above), not a monument to pride nor a place for fun and frolic. When the Corinthians misused the Lord’s Supper — making a common meal of it — Paul asks, “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Their place of assembly was not under consideration — early churches often worshiped in their homes. And there was nothing wrong, per se, in a common meal. But they were confusing a worship assembly and function (sacred communion with the Lord, vv.23-29) with a domestic function, and that was sinful.

Individual Activity vs. Church Activity

Bible evidence indicates a distinction must be made between individual obligations of a Christian and those of the church acting collectively. In 1 Timothy 5:16 we read, “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.” (“Those who are really widows” — or “widows indeed” in the KJV and ASV — must have special characteristics, according to 1 Timothy 5:3-10.) Here is an obligation of certain individual saints that is not the obligation of the local church unit.

Another passage showing a distinction in “the church” and individual saints is found in Matthew 18:15-17. One brother should go to another who wronged him, and seek to correct the matter privately. Failing this, he is to take one or two more, “that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” Here are a plurality of brethren working on a spiritual problem; but the passage continues: “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.” The “church” is more than just a plurality of brethren. That distinction must be remembered in studying the work of the church. “But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” The “church” becomes an extension of those original individual efforts for fairness.

This passage also shows the local church is an entity — it can hear, and speak, and it can function as a unit. While people of God as individuals are to glorify God in all their activities (1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Peter 4:10,11), the local church is the only organized unit of saints recognized in God’s word to accomplish His work. True people of God will not organize other than local churches to do the collective work God has assigned them. Evangelism is a work of the church; but local churches overstep divine authority when they organize a “missionary society” and pool church funds in this human organization to carry the gospel to the world. Now, ignoring for the moment the scriptural objects of church benevolence, how can we think church may organize a benevolent society to carry material assistance to the world? Such an organizational concept is erroneous, regardless of emotional appeals.

We have shown that individual saints have God-approved civic, social, and domestic obligations that are not obligations of the local church. But some who agree with us on those distinctions find it difficult to include benevolent obligations in the list. Some cite Galatians 6:10, “Let us do good to all [people], especially to those who are of the household of faith.” But the context (6:1-9) shows individual donors are under consideration, as does the following context regarding circumcision (6:11-18). Others cite 2 Corinthians 9:13, “and [unto] all [people].” Again, the context of this assistance to “poor saints at Jerusalem” is well established (Romans 15:25-27,31; 2 Corinthians 8:4,14; 9:1,12). Paul even says the Gentile givers had been made “partakers of their [the recipients’ — saints’] spiritual things,” and should minister to them [saints] in material things” (Romans 15:27). In 2 Corinthians 9:13,14, the recipients “glorify God” and “pray” for the givers — hardly the response of unbelievers. General benevolence is the responsibility of individual saints.

For a comparison check the usage of “unto all” (eis pantas) in 2 Corinthians 9:13, see 1 Thessalonians 3:12: “The Lord make you increase and abound in love one to another and to all [people], just as we do to you.” Then v.13: “so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints.” “Eis pantas” (unto all) does not rule out other saints. See Philemon 5, “toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints” (eis pantas hagious). I believe the Scriptures limit benevolent work from the church treasury to assistance of needy saints; so that the chief collective work of the saints can be the spreading of the gospel and the worship and edification of those who become the people of God. Clearly, churches are to be independent and autonomous, not forming “teams” of churches that pool their funds in missionary or benevolent projects under some “board” or “sponsoring church.” Alms to a church in need (2 Corinthians 8:14) is a far cry from sending funds to a church with abundance, and allowing its elders to control and supervise those funds.

Study Questions

1. Why did New Testament Christians assemble? How did they use resources?

2. How does this tell us the work of the early churches?

3. Why should this determine the work of the churches today?

4. Explain some New Testament distinctions in individual and church obligations.

5. What was a basic error in the Corinthians’ use of the Lord’s Supper?

6. Name works of self-maintenance and world works of early churches.

7. Explain Bible authority for providing a place of assembly.

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