Our previous studies have focused attention upon the work God's people do individually. Now our attention turns to a study of the work God's people do congregationally, i.e., the work the local church does as its members do together the things commanded and permitted to be done together as a congregation. This involves to a large degree how the church may spend its money since the treasury is the one thing that involves every member. Much of the work the congregation does is done through their money at work.
It appears there are three reasons for the organized existence of the local church. First, it exists to afford saints with their local identity opportunity to worship God together (Acts 2:42-44; 20:7; 1 Cor.10,11,14; Heb.10:25). Second, the congregation exists to enact disciplinary measures, both instructive and corrective, that preserve the sanctification of the saints. This involves edification, exhortation, admonition, reproof, rebukes and even withdrawals when necessary. Third, the local church exists to do a limited work. (It may be said that the worship and discipline of the local church come within the scope of its work.) In meeting its requirements in these areas, the local church is under .the oversight of its own officials (elders) who rule in all aspects of its endeavor.
All work in which God's people become involved must be scriptural whether performed by the individual or the congregation. Scriptural means, "of, pertaining to, contained in, or according to, the scriptures" (Webster). Scriptural work, then, must be in harmony with and authorized by the scriptures, otherwise it is without divine authority. Scriptural authority for God's work may be either specific or generic. Designated works with specific legislation regarding their performance become commandments, and designated works without specific legislation regarding their accomplishment grants liberty to the participants in performing them.
Every congregation should be concerned about the scripturalness of its work. God expects His people to be zealous of good works (Tit.2:14), yet He has ordained and revealed in the Scriptures the works to be performed (Eph.2:10; 2 Tim.3:16-17). For these works congregations shall be judged. The Lord judged the seven churches of Asia according to their works (Rev.2-3). Sardis was condemned as dead because of incomplete works (Rev.3:1-2). Should we not expect the Lord to judge congregations thusly today? He knows our works also and will judge accordingly (cf.Matt.7:22-23).
Knowing God's Will
It becomes imperative that we know God's will concerning the work to be done. There are three ways to know God's will. First, we know His will by expressed statements. This is a forthright declaration of His mind (1 Cor.2:16). Second, we know His will by considering approved examples (Phil.4:9). Examples that are approved, i.e., examples that do not violate other biblical principles or find rebuke elsewhere in the Scriptures, reflect commands, acceptable practices and conduct. Third, necessary inferences are the unstated necessary parts of statements and examples which are understood without statement. By these three ways we come to know God's will. In fact, these are the ways we come to understand anything.
To illustrate, let us suppose you say to your son, "Son, get in the car and go to Convenient and purchase a package of weiners like those I purchased there yesterday." A number of things are expressly stated and specified. Obedience will demand compliance in all areas of specification. One thing reflects a command based upon an example set the previous day, and a host of things are necessarily inferred that are not stated. For example, you did not tell your son to open the car door, sit down, close the door, insert the key in the ignition, turn the steering wheel, or any number of other things that might be necessary to driving the car. All of these things were necessarily understood and included within the statement. So it is with the word of God. By expressed statements, approved examples and necessary inferences we come to know God's will.
Work Generically Authorized
A number of passages generically authorize the local church to work. These passages have many times been used to teach the exclusive work of the local church. We believe this to be a misuse of the passages though we do believe them to generally include the work of the local body.
Matthew 28:19-20. This account of the Great Commission teaches the apostles to go teach, baptize and, then, to teach those baptized to "go teach." There is a twofold responsibility bound upon the apostles of our Lord and those whom they converted, namely; evangelize and edify. This is responsibility placed upon God's people both individually and congregationally as the various examples of His people at work demonstrate.
Ephesians 4:11-13. This passage has often been used to prove that God has given the local church a threefold responsibility: evangelism, edification and benevolence. While the local church has responsibility in all these areas, as we shall see, this is not the intended point in this text. The NIV seems to convey the true meaning of the passage. "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining the full measure of perfection found in Christ." The passage teaches that these officers were given to prepare God's people to perform works of service that would bring them to maturity. The officers mentioned were not all local officials but, since local officials are included in the number, we must understand that the local church and its work are included. Two things which assist in bringing the church to maturity are evangelism and edification.
1 Thessalonians 1:6-8. This passage shows the Thessalonians became examples to all that believed in Macedonia and Achaia which lifted a great burden from Paul and his co-laborers. How they accomplished this is not clear. The work could have been accomplished individually, collectively, or both.
1 Timothy 3:15. In this passage Timothy was instructed by Paul how to behave himself "in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." It is doubtful that Paul's statement was intended to instruct Timothy in his behaviour in the local church alone, yet it is clear the local church is included due to the nature of the instruction given Timothy throughout the epistle regarding his work as an evangelist within the local church. The local church then has a duty to perform as pillar and ground of the truth.
A Necessary Distinction
Some may say, "I see no difference between the church and the individual. Whatever the individual can do the church can do." As previously pointed out, confusion over this matter has been responsible for many errors. The advocates of general benevolence, institutionalism, instrumental music, etc., have used this argument to promote their innovations.
A careful study of a few selected texts will show that the Scriptures make a distinction between individual and congregational responsibility that must be understood. Let us see the difference. In Matthew 18:15-18 the Lord outlined a three step procedure to be followed in dealing with brethren who sin against us. First, talk privately with the guilty brother. Second, if he refuses to repent, take witnesses for a second talk. To this point, the individual is doing his personal work. Third, if he refuses to repent after the second attempt, tell it to the church. It was individual action until the third step, then it became congregational. We can see the difference.
In 2 Corinthians 11:8 Paul mentions that he robbed other churches (local) taking wages of them to do the Corinthians service. Did he mean he was receiving support from individuals, or did he say what he meant? Paul often received assistance from individuals and recognized them for their service (cf. Rom.16:3,6,9,23; 2 Tim.1:16-18). He made a difference between churches and individuals.
When it comes to the Lord's Supper we usually see the difference. We understand the Lord's Supper is to be observed in an assembly of the whole church come together upon the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor.11:18-34). To deny this principle would ultimately lead to the destruction of the local church. If there be no distinction between what the individual and the church practices, then why may not the Christian observe the Lord's Supper at home on the first day of the week? If this doctrine were accepted the local church would soon cease to exist because, like it or not, the Lord's Supper is the one thing which usually keeps the brethren coming. There is a difference, however, and the Lord's Supper is to be observed by Christians when they come together to do together the things commanded to be done together in an assembly of the saints.
Our study of this point would not be complete without mentioning 1 Timothy 5:16. This passage is clear. Christians have responsibilities which are not and can not become the burden of the local church. If individual Christians are to provide the care of widows who fall their lot and the local church is to only be charged with the permanent care of widows indeed (1 Tim.5:9-10), then the local church cannot and must not involve itself in doing the work that the individual is to do. Thus the doctrine that teaches churches may do anything individuals may do is false.
In this study, we have sought to show that God's people have a limited work to do congregationally and that this work too must be authorized by the Scriptures. In our next study we shall show from the Scriptures specific works the local church is authorized to perform working through the local treasury under the oversight of the local bishops.
This article originally appeared in Guardian
of Truth magazine, December 1, 1983.
This page is © Copyright 1998 by Alex Ogden, All Rights Reserved.
This page was last updated on Tuesday, October 20, 1998.