In regard to the universal Church, God first brought it into being and thereafter set apostles to minister to it (1 Cor. 12:28), but in regard to the local churches the order was quite otherwise. The appointment of apostles preceded the founding of local churches. Our Lord first commissioned the twelve apostles, and thereafter the church in Jerusalem came into existence. The Holy Spirit first called two apostles - Paul and Barnabas - to the work, and thereafter a number of churches sprang into being in different places. So it is clear that the apostolic ministry precedes the existence of the local churches, and consequently it is obvious that the work of apostles does not belong to the local churches.
As we have already observed, the Holy Spirit said, "Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." The service that followed the apostles' separation, which we generally refer to as their missionary campaigns, the Holy Spirit referred to as "the work." "The work" was the object of the Spirit's call, and all that was accomplished by Paul and his associates in after days, all that for which they were responsible, was included in this one term, "the work." (The term "the work" is used in a specific sense in this book, and relates to all that is included in the missionary efforts of the apostles.)
We must differentiate clearly between the work and the churches. These two are quite distinct in Scripture, and we must avoid confusing them, otherwise we shall make serious mistakes and the outworking of God's purposes will be hindered. The word "work" is not often used in the specific sense in which it is employed here, with the result that we have paid little heed to it. But the Spirit has used the expression in an inclusive way to cover all that related to the purpose of the apostolic call.
As the work of the apostles is to preach the Gospel and found churches, not to take responsibility in the churches already established, their office is not a church office. In the will of God "the church" and "the work" follow two distinct lines.
The work belongs to the apostles, while the churches belong to the local believers. The apostles are responsible for the work in any place, and the church is responsible for all the children of God in a locality. As members of the Body the apostles meet for mutual edification with all their fellow- members in the locality, but as ministering members of the Body their specific ministry constitutes them a group of workers apart from the church. It is wrong for the apostles to interfere with the affairs of the church, but it is equally wrong for the church to interfere with the affairs of the apostles' work. The apostles manage the work; the elders manage the church.
The reason why God called apostles, and entrusted the work to them, is because He wished to preserve the local character of the church. If any church exercises control over work in another locality, it at once becomes extra-local, and thereby loses its specific characteristic as a church. The responsibility of the work in different places is committed to apostles, whose sphere extends beyond the locality. The responsibility of the church is committed to elders, whose sphere is confined to the locality. An Ephesian elder is an elder in Ephesus, but he ceases to be one when he comes to Philippi, and vice versa. Eldership is limited to locality. When Paul was a Miletus he wished to see the representative members of the church in Ephesus. So he sent for the Ephesian elders, but no request was sent to the Ephesian apostle, for the simple reason that there was none. The apostles belong to different places, not to one place alone, whereas the sphere of the elders is strictly local, for which reason they take no official responsibility beyond the place in which they live. Whenever the church tries to control the work, it loses its local character. Whenever an apostle tries to control a church he loses his extra-local character.
Just as the apostles have spiritual but no official responsibility regarding the church, so the elders, and the whole church, have spiritual but no official responsibility regarding the work. It is commendable if a local church seeks to help in the work of the apostles, but it is under no official obligation to do so. There is a vast difference between spiritual and official responsibility. In the matter of official responsibility there are certain prescribed duties, but in the matter of spiritual responsibility there are no legal obligations; therefore any neglect of responsibility does not register as an official shortcoming, but it does register a low spiritual state. From an official point of view, the responsibility of the work rests upon the apostles. If the church fails in spiritual responsibility the apostles may have difficulties which they should not have, and the church will suffer spiritually. On the other hand, the responsibility of the church rests officially upon the elders; therefore the apostles should not take upon themselves to do anything directly there. They may and should assist the church by their counsel and exhortations. If the local believers are spiritual they will willingly receive such help, but should they be unspiritual and in consequence reject the proffered help of the apostles, their failure is spiritual and not official, and the apostles have no option but to leave them to their own resources.
There is a definite divine reason for the fact that the work is entrusted to individual apostles and not to local churches. But before we enter into that, let us examine the fundamental difference between the activities of a church as a body and the activities of a brother as an individual. It may be all right for a brother (or for several brothers) to go into business, but it would be all wrong for a church to do so. It might be quite in order for one or more brothers to open a restaurant or a hotel, but that would not be in order for a church. What may be perfectly permissible in the case of brothers as individuals, is not necessarily permissible in the case of a church as a company. The business of the churches consists in the mutual care of their various members, such as the conduct of meetings for breaking of bread, for the exercise of spiritual gifts, for the study of the Word, for prayer, for fellowship and Gospel preaching. The work is beyond the sphere of any church as a corporate body: it is the responsibility of individuals though not of individuals as such.
There is no Scriptural precedent for such work being undertaken by a church as, for instance, hospitals, or schools, or even something on a more definitely spiritual plane such as foreign missions. It is perfectly in order for one or more members of a church to run a hospital or a school or to be responsible for mission-work, but not for any church as a whole. A church exists for the purpose of mutual help in one place, not for the purpose of bearing responsibility of work in different places. According to God's Word, all the work is the personal concern of individual brothers called and commissioned by God, as members of the Body, and not the concern of any church as a body. The responsibility of the work is always borne by one or more individuals.
The important point to note is that the Body of Christ in its ministry-aspect is not represented by local churches but by individuals who are the gifts given by God to His Church. A local church has not been chosen by God to represent the Body where ministry is in view. When God wants any representatives of the Body to express its ministry, He chooses certain individuals, who are the functioning members, to represent that Body. The whole thing is clear in the last part of 1 Cor. 12.
It was never the thought of God that His Work should be done on any other basis than that of the Body, because it is actually the natural functioning of the Body of Christ. It is the activity, under the direction of the Head, of those members who possess special faculties. The local church represents the Body in its life-aspect, and the functioning members represent the Body in its ministry- aspect. The local church is called to manifest not so much the service as the life of the Body, while the apostles, prophets and teachers as such are called to manifest not so much the life as the service of the Body.
But let it be clearly understood, by individuals we do not mean individuals as individuals, but as functioning members representing the Body. God has never sanctioned that anyone take up an individualistic line in His work. Free-lancing, without due coordination with other members of the Body, has never been a divine mode of work. This cannot be too strongly emphasized; nor can it be too strongly emphasized that in His work God uses individuals to represent the Body, not local churches. Therefore, while the work is the responsibility of individuals, it is not the business of just any individual who cares to take it up, but only of such as are called and sent forth by God and are equipped with spiritual gifts for the task.
If our work is that of an apostle, it must be clearly distinguished from the local church. It may seem quite unimportant to some that any distinction be made between the work and the church. They may think it of no consequence that the work be in the hands of individual members, not the whole church, and that the apostles be responsible only for the work, not for the church, but the principle is a Scriptural principle and its outworking is of great importance and has tremendous effects, as we shall prcsently see.
The church in Rome is a good illustration of the foregoing. Before Paul visited Rome he had written to the church there expressing an intense desire to see them (Rom. 1:10,11). From his letter it is obvious that a church had been established in that city prior to his arrival. When he actually reached Rome the church there did not hand over local responsibility to him, nor did they say (as a church today probably would), "Now that an apostle has come into our midst, he must take over the responsibility and be our pastor." Instead we find this amazing record in the Word, "And he remained two whole years in his own hired lodging, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, with all freedom and without hindrance" (Acts 28:30,31, Darby). Why did Paul live in "his own hired dwelling" and preach and teach from there and not from the already existing church? Why should he not have preached and taught in connection with the church? The Word does not state the reason why Paul hired a house and preached and taught there, it only mentions the fact. The fact is that he did rent a house and did preach and teach there, and that fact is enough for our guidance. Further, God has made it clear that he was under no necessity to do so. No pressure whatever was brought to bear upon him, for he acted "with all freedom and without hindrance."
Then what is the meaning of the hired house? We must remember the divine economy of words in Scripture, and we must realize that neither the occurrence nor the record was accidental. All that is written there is written for our learning, and even a seemingly casual remark may enfold a precious lesson. Moreover, this book is the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, who moved under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, so the record in question is also one of the acts of the apostles and is therefore not a chance happening but an act under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Here in two short sentences we have an important principle, namely, that the apostolic work and the local church are quite distinct. A church has already been established in Rome, so the members must have had at least one meeting-place, but they did not request Paul to take control of the local church nor did they make their place of meeting to be Paul's center of work.
Every apostle must learn to live in "his own hired dwelling" and work with that as his center, leaving the responsibility of the local church to the local brethren. The work of God belongs to the workers, but the church of God belongs to the locality. The work is movable; the church is stationary. When God indicates that an apostle should move, his work moves with him, but the church remains. When Paul thought of leaving Corinth, the Lord showed him he had further ministry for him in the city, so Paul remained for eighteen months - not permanently. When Paul left Corinth his work left, but the church in Corinth continued, although the fruits of his work were left in the church. A church should not be influenced by the movements of the workers. Whether they are present or absent, the church should move steadily forward.
The work of the apostles and the work of the local church run parallel; they do not converge. When the apostles are working in any place their work goes on side by side with the work of the church. The two never coincide, nor can one ever be a substitute for the other. On leaving a place an apostle should hand over all the fruit of his work to the local church.
The principle of Paul living in his own hired house shows clearly that the work of the church is unaffected by the presence or absence of an apostle. After Paul's arrival in Rome the work of the church went on as before, independently of him. Since it was dependent on him neither for its origin or its continuance, it would be unaffected by his departure.
Suppose we go to Kweiyang to work, what should be our procedure? On arrival in Kweiyang we either live in an inn, or rent a room, and we begin to preach the Gospel. When men are saved what shall we do? We must encourage them to read the Word, to pray, to give, to witness and to assemble for fellowship and ministry. One of the tragic mistakes of the past hundred years of foreign missions in China is that after a worker led men to Christ, he prepared a place and invited them to come there for meetings, instead of encouraging them to assemble by themselves. Efforts have been made to encourage the young believers to read the Word themselves, pray by themselves, witness themselves, but never to meet by themselves. Workers never think of reading, praying and witnessing for them, but they do not see any harm in arranging meetings for them. We need to show the new converts that such duties as reading, praying, witnessing, giving, and assembling together, are the minimum requirement of Christians. We should teach them to have their own meetings, in their own meeting-place. Let us say to them, "Just as we cannot read the Word or pray or witness for you, so we cannot take the responsibility of preparing a meeting-place for you and leading your meetings. Your meetings are your responsibility, and a regular assembling of yourselves is one of your chief duties and privileges."
As for ourselves, while we go on working and keep our work distinct from the work of the church, we must go and have fellowship with the believers in their various local gatherings. We must go and break bread with them, join with them in the exercise of spiritual gifts, and take part in their prayer meetings. When there is no church in the place to which God has sent us, we are only workers there, but as soon as there is a local church we are brothers as well as workers. In our capacity as workers we can take no responsibility in the local church, but in our capacity as local brothers we go and meet with all the members of the church as their fellow-members.
As soon as there is a local church in the place of our labors, we automatically become members. Here is the chief point to observe in the relationship between the church and the work - the worker must leave the believers to initiate and conduct their own meetings in their own meeting-place, and then he must go to them and take part in their meetings, not ask them to come to him and take part in his meetings. Otherwise we shall become settlers in one place and shall change our office from apostle to pastor and when eventually we leave, we shall require to find a successor to carry on the church-work. If we keep "church" and "work" parallel and do not let the two lines converge, we shall find that no adjustment will be needed in the church when we depart, for it will riot have lost a "pastor" but only a brother.
"Self-government, self-support and self-propagation" has been the slogan of many workers for a number of years now. The need to deal with these matters has arisen because of the confusion between the church and the work. In a mission when people are saved, the missionaries prepare a hall for them, arrange for prayer meetings and Bible classes, and some of them go as far as to manage the business and spiritual affairs of the church as well. The mission does the work of the local church Therefore it is not surprising that in process of time problems arise in connection with self- government, self-support and self-propagation. Believers must pray themselves, study the Word themselves and assemble themselves, not merely go to a meeting-place prepared by others and sit down and listen to others preach. Going to a mission- compound or mission-hall to hear the Word is not Scriptural assembling, because it is in the hands of a missionary or of his mission, not in the hands of the local church.
When a servant of God reaches a new place his first business must be to found a local church, unless there is already one in existence, in which case his one concern must be to help the church. The one aim of the work in any place is the building up of the church in that place. All the fruit of a worker's labors must go to the increase of the church. The work in any place exists for the church alone, not for itself. The apostle's goal is to build up the church, not to build up his work or any group of people that may have sent him out.
Wherein lies the failure of missions today? They keep the results of their work in their own hands. In other words, they have reckoned their converts as members of their mission or of their mission-church instead of building them into or handing them over to the local churches. The result is, the mission extends all the while and becomes quite an imposing organization, but the local churches are scarcely to be found. And because there are no local churches, the mission has to send workers to different places as "pastors" of the various companies of Christians. So church is not church and work is not work, but both are a medley of the two.
An apostle should go and work in a certain place if the local church invites him, or if he himself has received a revelation from the Lord to work there. In the latter case, if there is a church in the place he can write notifying them of his coming, just as Paul notified the churches in Corinth and in Rome. These are the two lines which regulate the work of an apostle - he must either have a direct revelation of God's will, or an indirect revelation through the invitation of a church.
Wherever an apostle goes he must learn to bear his own responsibility, having his own hired dwelling. It may be all right to work in a place living as the guest of the local church, but it would not be right to impose upon them to take advantage of their hospitality over an extended period. If a worker expects to stay for any length of time in one place, then he must have his own center of work, and he must not only bear his own personal responsibilities but also all responsibilities in connection with the work. A local church must bear entire responsibility for its own work, and so must the worker for his. Of course, if the church is spiritual its members will recognize their spiritual responsibility and will be willing to assist in material ways so that the work of God may go forward, but the worker should take nothing for granted.
When an apostle comes to a place where a local church already exists, he must never forget that no church authority rests with him. Should he desire to work in a place where the local church does not wish to have him, then all he can do is to pass on to some other part. The church has full authority either to receive or reject a worker. Even should the worker in question have been used of God to found the very church that rejects him, he can claim no authority in the church on that account.
Should he know unmistakably that God has led him to work in that place, yet the local church refuse to welcome him, if they persist in their attitude, then he must obey the command of God and go and work there despite them. But he must not gather believers around him, nor must he on any account form a separate church. Even if the local church refused to receive him, and his work had to be done without its sympathy and cooperation or even despite its opposition, still all the results of his labors must be contributed to that church. The sole aim of all work for God is the increase and upbuilding of the local churches. If they welcome the worker, the result of his labors goes to them; if they reject him, it goes to them just the same.
If we are truly led of God surely we can trust God to open doors for us. If a church receives us, let us praise Him; if not, let us look confidently to Him to unlock closed doors for the reception of those truths. If God himself does not remove the obstacles in our circumstances, then we must quietly remain where we are, and not have recourse to natural means, which will assuredly work havoc in the Church of God.
All God's servants are engaged in the ministry of building up the Body of Christ, but it does not follow that all ministries are the same. Everyone has a different line of ministry. Time and again God has raised up some new witness, or group of witnesses, giving them fresh light from His Word, so that they could bear a special testimony for Him in the particular time and circumstances in which they live. All such ministry is new and specific and is of great value to the Church, but we must bear it well in mind that if God commits a specific ministry to any man relating to certain truths, he must not make his particular ministry or his particular line of truth the basis of a new "church." No separate "church" must be formed to bear a separate testimony. The work of God does not sanction the establishment of a church for the propagation of any particular line of teaching. It knows only one kind of church - the local church.
When a specific ministry has been raised up of God to meet a specific need in His Church, what should be the attitude of the minister? Whenever a new truth is proclaimed it will have new followers. The worker to whom God has given fresh light upon His truth should encourage all who receive that truth to swell the ranks of the local church, not to range themselves around him. Otherwise the churches will be made to serve the ministry, not the ministry the churches, and the "churches" established will be "ministerial churches," not local ones. The sphere of a church is not the sphere of any ministry, but the sphere of the locality. Wherever ministry is made the occasion for the forming of a church, there you have the beginning of a new denomination.
If the Lord delays His coming and His servants remain true to Him, He will certainly raise up new ministries in the Word. He will open up special truths to meet the specific needs of His children. Some of the hearers will question the truths, others reject them and others condemn, while there will be those who gladly respond. What should the attitude of Gods servants be? They must be fully persuaded in their own minds that there can only be one church in one place, and that all truth is for the enrichment of that church. If in the local church a number of people receive their teaching, then they must still remain there. No divisive work must be done in the local church. Those who receive the truth may use their spiritual teaching and spiritual power to help their fellow-members, but they must not use any divisive methods to support the truth they have embraced. If we always bear in mind that the churches of God are only formed on the basis of locality, much division among .the children of God will be avoided.
Let me illustrate the relation between various ministries and various local churches. One man is a florist, another a grocer. The most obvious way for them to extend their business is to establish branches in various districts. The florist opens branch-shops to sell flowers, and the grocer opens branch-shops to sell groceries. This is just like the various ministers trying to establish "churches" according to their ministry. God's plan for His Church is on quite a different line. It is not that the grocer and the florist each seek to open as many branches as they possibly can in order to sell their respective commodities, but that the grocer or the florist, arriving in any place, opens a departnient store, and having duly established that, he contributes his goods to it, and other tradesmen coming along contribute their wares to the same store. A department store does not just deal in one line of goods, it has a varied stock. The thought of God is not that we should open branch florist shops or branch grocery stores, or stores that specialize in other lines, but department stores. His plan is that His servants should just establish a local church, and then contribute their different ministries to that church. The church is not controlled by one ministry but served by all the ministries.
As apostles our first concern on arrival in a place which has no church is to found one there. As soon as it has been formed we should seek to serve it with whatever ministry the Lord has entrusted to us, and then leave it. We dare to exercise our ministry faithfully, but having done so, we dare to leave the church open to other ministry. This should be the attitude of all God's workmen. We should never cherish the hope that only "our" teaching will be accepted by any church. There must be no thought of dominating a church by our personality or by our ministry; the field must be left clear for all God's servants. There is no need to build a wall of protection around "our" particular "flock" to secure them against the teachings of others If we do so, we are working along popish lines. We can safely trust God to protect our ministry, and we must remember that for "the perfecting of the saints" the varied ministries of all God's faithful servants are necessary. Local responsibility is with the elders; they must watch the interests of the flock in the matter of ministries.
It must not be inferred from the foregoing that God has no other workmen but apostles and the various ministers of the Word. Those who work in the ministry of the Word are only a section of God's servants. The work is not the only work. God has many servants who are bearing the burden of various works of faith, such as schools, orphanages and hospitals. Looked at superficially, their work does not seem as spiritual as the work of the apostles or ministers we have just referred to, but in reality it is. Although such faith workers do not go forth as apostles or teach the Word like the special ministers, yet they are used just as definitely as the others to strengthen the Church of God.
George Muller's orphanage is just such a faith work. It has resulted in the salvation of many souls. The question arises, Where should the fruits of such a work go? Not into an orphanage "church," but into the local church. A work such as that is not a unit sufficiently large to form a church. It is the city which is a church unit, not an institution. No matter how prosperous a work of faith may be, and no matter how many souls may he saved through it, no church can be formed on such a basis.
Several years ago I was in Tsinan. Some brothers in Cheloo University asked me if I thought it time for them to commence a meeting for the breaking of bread. I asked, "Do you represent Cheloo University or Tsinan city?" They answered, "Cheloo." "Then I do not think it is right," I said. Of course they wanted to know why, so I explained "The Word of God sanctions the forming of a church in Tsinan, but not in Cheloo. The sphere of Cheloo is too narrow to justify the existence of a separate church."
The fruits resulting from various institutions of faith must not be retained by such institutions. All must be handed over to the local church. Workers must not argue that because they have been the means of salvation to certain souls therefore they have a special claim upon them and special responsibility for them, and consequently withhold them from uniting with their fellow-believers in the locality. Even though there may be regular prayers and preaching and a variety of meetings in connection with a Christian institution, those can never serve as a substitute for church fellowship, and no such institution, however spiritual, can be regarded as a church, since it is not founded on the divinely appointed basis of locality. Christians engaged in efforts of this kind must not pride themselves on their successful work and think it will serve well as a church, but they must humbly join in fellowship with all the other members of the Body of Christ in the place where they live.
All the various God-given ministries have one aim, the establishing of local churches. In the thought of God only one company of people exists, and all His designs of grace center in that one company - His Church. The work is not a goal in itself, it is only a means to an end. If we regard our work as an end, then our purpose is at variance with God's, for His end is the Church.
There are three things which we must bear clearly in mind. 1) The work is the special concern of the workers, not of the churches, and the sphere of any work is not wide enough to justify its being regarded as a church. 2) All workers must be humble enough to take the place of brothers in the local church. In the sphere of their work they hold the position of God's servants, but in the sphere of the church they are only brethren. 3) The goal of all work is the establishment of local churches. If we make our work the basis of a separate unit of God's people, then we are building up a sect, not a church.