The churches in Scripture are intensely local. We never find any federation of churches there; they are all independent units. The position is quite otherwise as regards the workers. Among them we find a certain amount of association; we see here a little group, and there another, linked together for the work. Paul and those with him - as for instance Luke, Silas. Timothy, Titus and Apollos - formed one group. Peter, James and John, and those with them, formed another. One group came out from Antioch, another from Jerusalem. Paul refers to "those who were with me" (Acts 20:34), which indicates that while there was no organization of the workers into different missions, still they had their own special associates in the work. Even in the beginning, when our Lord chose the Twelve, He sent them out two by two. All were fellow-workers, but each had his special fellow- worker. Such grouping of workers was ordained and ordered by the Lord.
These apostolic companies were not formed along partisan or doctrinal lines; they were formed under the sovereignty of the Spirit, who so ordered the circumstances of the different workers as to link them together in the work. It was the Holy Spirit, not men, who said, "Separate unto Me Barnabas and Saul." Everything hinged on the sovereignty of the Spirit. As we have seen, the Twelve were divided into pairs, but it was not left to their personal discretion to choose their associates, it was the Lord who coupled them together and sent them forth. Each had a special fellow-worker, but that fellow-worker was of the Lord's appointing, not of their choosing. It was not because of natural affinity that they associated specially with some, nor was it because of difference in doctrine or practice that they did not associate specially with others. The deciding factor was always the ordering of the Lord.
We recognize that the Lord is the Head of the Church, and that the apostles were the first order "set" by the Lord in the Church (1 Cor. 12:18). Although they were formed into associations. having their special fellow-workers appointed by the Lord, still they had no special name, system, or organization. They did not make a company smaller than the Body to be the basis of their work; all was on the ground of the Body. Therefore, although on account of difference of locality and the providential ordering of their ways they formed different groups, still they had no organization outside the Body; their work was always an expression of the ministry of the Body.
The Lord is the Head of the Body and not the Head of any organization; therefore whenever we work for a society, a mission, or an institution, and not for the Bodv alone, we lose the Headship of the Lord. We must recognize that every individual worker and every company represents the ministry of the Body of Christ, each office held being held in the Body and for the furtherance of the work of God. Then, and only then, can we have one ministry - the upbuilding of the Body of Christ. If we recognized clearly the oneness of the Body, what blessed results we should see! Wherever the principle of the oneness of the Body operates, all possibility of rivalry is ruled out. It does not matter if I decrease and you increase; there will neither be jealousy on my part nor pride on yours. All carnal strife among the workers of God will be at an end once the Body is clearly seen as the principle of the work. But life and work in the Body necessitates drastic dealings with the flesh, and that in turn necessitates a deep knowledge of the Cross of Christ.
The early apostles were never freelances, they worked together. In the story of Pentecost we read of "Peter standing up with the eleven" (Acts 2:14). At the Beautiful Gate we see Peter and John working together, and again they were the two who visited Samaria. When Peter went to the house of Cornelius, six other brethren accompanied him. When the apostles went out it was always in companies, or at least in couples, never alone. Their work was not individual, but corporate. As to those with Paul at Antioch and elsewhere, it is untortunate that so much emphasis has been placed upon Paul as an individual, with the result that his fellow-workers are almost lost sight of. We see that at Troas Luke joined their company and was of one mind with Paul in considering that the Macedonian cry should be responded to, and later on when they returned from Macedonia they brought with them as fellow-workers Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus. and Trophimus. Later on we find Apollos, Priscilla. and Aquila joining them. Still later we find Paul sending Timothy to Corinth and encouraging Apollos and Titus to go there, and some time afterwards we see Epaphroditus joining them as a fellow-worker. And it is good to read at the head of Paul's epistles words like these: "Paul and his brother Sosthenes," "Paul and his brother Timothy," "Paul, Silas and Timothy."
So on the one hand we see no trace of organized missions in Scripture, nor do we on the other hand see any workers going out on individual lines, each being a law to himself. Scripture gives no warrant on the one hand for an organized mission, nor does it on the other hand sanction freelance work: the one is as far from the thought of God as the other.
We need to emphasize this fact, that the apostles worked in association with others, but their companies were not organized. Their relationship one to another was only spiritual. The Lord united them, therefore they became fellow-workers. Some were together from the outset, others joined at a later date. They were one company, yet they had no organization, and there was no distribution of offices or positions. Those who joined them did not come in response to some "wanted" advertisement, nor did they come because they were equipped by a special course of training. On their journeys the Lord so ordered circumstances that they met. He drew them to one another, and being of one mind and one spirit, linked together by the Lord, they spontaneously became fellow- workers. The Lord was the One Who determined everything. He ordered; man only concurred. In such groups, none held special positions or offices; there was no director, or chairman, or superintendent. Whatever ministry the Lord had given them, that constituted their position. They received no appointments from the association. The relationship which existed between its members was purely spiritual, not official.
Before considering the question of spiritual authority, let us read a few passages of Scripture bearing on the relationship between the workers, as they throw considerable light on our subject. "Paul wanted to have [Timothy] go on with him." (Acts 16:1-4). "When [Paul] had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel to them." (Acts 16:9,10). "But those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed." (Acts 17:15). "Paul...determined to return through Macedonia. And there accompanied him..." (Acts 20:3-5). "We, going before to the ship, set sail for Assos, there intending to take in Paul: for so had he appointed..." (Acts 20:13-14). "If Timothy come, see that he be with you without fear... Set him forward on his journey in peace that he may come to me... But as touching Apollos the brother, I greatly desired him to come to you" (1 Cor. 16:10-12). "We exhorted Titus" (1 Cor. 8:6). "Titus...accepted our exhortation...And we have sent together with him the brother" (2 Cor. 8:16-18). "We have sent with them...our brother" (2 Cor. 8:22). "Tychicus, the beloved brother...I have sent unto you" (Eph. 6:21,22). "But I counted it necessary to send Epaphroditus" (Phil. 2:25). "All my affairs shall Tychicus make known unto you" (Col. 4:7). "Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas salute you" (Col. 4:14). "And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry" (Col. 4:17). "We...sent Timothy" (1 Ths. 3:1-2). "Be diligent to come to me quickly... Get Mark and bring him with you... But Tychicus I sent to Ephesus" (2 Tim. 4:9-13). "Trophimus I left at Miletus sick. Be diligent to come before winter" (2 Tim. 4:20,21). "For this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that were lacking, and appoint elders in every city, as I commanded you" (Tit. 1:5). "When I send Artemas unto you, or Tychicus, be diligent to come to me at Nicopolis: for there I have determined to winter. Send forward Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their journey diligently, that nothing be lacking for them" (Tit. 3:12-13).
The above Scriptures show us that among the workers of God dependence upon Him does not render us independent of one another. We saw that Paul left Titus in Crete to complete the work he himself had left unfinished, and that he afterwards sent Artemas, and Tychicus to replace him, when he instructed him to proceed to Nicopolis. On various occasions he appointed Timothy and Tychicus to do certain work, and we read that he persuaded Titus and Apollos to remain in Corinth. We observe that these workers not only learned to work in teams, but the less experienced learned to submit to the direction of the more spiritual. God's workers must learn to be "left," to be "sent" and to be "persuaded."
It is important to recognize the difference between spiritual and official authority. In an organization all authority is official, not spiritual. In a good organization the one who holds office has both official and spiritual authority. In a bad organization the authority wielded is only official. But in any organization, no matter whether the office-bearer himself has spiritual authority or not, the authority he holds in the organization is actually only official. What is the meaning of official authority? It means that because a man holds office, therefore he exercises authority. As long as the office-bearer retains his position, just so long can he exert his authority; as soon as he resigns office his authority ceases. Such authority is altogether objective, it is not inherent in the man himself. It is connected not with the person but merely with his position. If he holds the office of superintendent it follows as a matter of course that he superintends affairs, no matter whether he is spiritually qualified to do so or not.
But in divinely constituted companies of workers there is no organization. Authority is exercised among them, but such authority is spiritual, not official. The reason why Paul could direct others was not because of his superior position but because of his greater spirituality. If he had lost his spirituality, he would have lost his authority. In an organization those who are spiritual do not necessarily hold any office and those who hold office are not necessarily spiritual, but in Scripture it is otherwise. It is those who are spiritual that direct others, and if those others are spiritual, they will recognize spiritual authority and will submit to it. In an organization its workers are obliged to obey, but in a spiritual association they are not, and from an official point of view no fault can be found with them if they do not obey. In a spiritual association there is no compulsion.
Apart from the question of spiritual authority there is also the question of different ministries. All servants of the Lord are in the ministry, and each has his own special ministry. In an organization positions are allotted by man, but in spiritual work ministries are appointed by the Lord. Because of difference of ministry, we must on the one hand obey the Lord, and on the other we must obey the brethren. Such obedience is not on the ground of their superior position but because their ministry differs from ours, and yet both are intimately related. If the head is moving the tips of my fingers, the muscles of my arms cannot take an independent attitude and refuse to move with them. The principle of being one in the Body necessitates the closely related members to move with one another. In moving with the other members we are not really obeying them; we are obeying the Head. In many things we can claim a direct guidance from the Head, but in just as many things the Head moves others and we simply move with them.
All positions held by God's ministers are spiritual, not official. Alas! men have only seen half the truth, so they try to organize the work and appoint a director to superintend the service of others, but his directing is based upon his position in the organization, not upon his position in the ministry. The reason why Paul could direct others was because the ministry committed to him by the Lord put him in a position of authority over them, and the reason why Titus, Timothy and Tychicus could submit to being directed was because the ministry committed to them by the Lord put them in a position under his authority. Much of the directing of the present is based upon neither depth of spirituality nor greatness of ministry.
Today we must learn on the one hand to maintain a right relationship with our fellow-workers and on the other hand to be guided by the Holy Spirit. We must maintain both relationships, and also maintain the balance between the two. In the first and second epistles to Timothy there are many passages which illustrate how fellow-workers should cooperate and how a younger worker should submit to an older. A young Timothy ought to obey the commands of the Holy Spirit, but he ought also to receive the instructions of an elderly Paul. Timothy was sent out by Paul, Timothy was left by Paul at Ephesus, and Timothy obeyed Paul in the Lord. Here is an example for young servants of God. It is most important in His work to learn how to be led by the Spirit and how, at the same time, to cooperate with our fellow-workers. The responsibility must not be wholly upon Timothy, neither must it rest wholly upon Paul. In the work Timothy must learn to fit in with Paul, and Paul must also learn to fit in with Timothy. Not only must the younger learn to submit to the instruction of the elder, but the elder must learn how to instruct the younger.
God's servants must work together in companies, but there is a kind of co-working which is to be avoided, that is, co-working in a man-made organization which restricts its members so that they cannot really respond to the leading of the Spirit. When workers are entirely subject to the direction of men their work is not the outcome of a spiritual burden placed on them by God but merely the doing of a piece of work in response to the dictates of those holding higher positions than they. The trouble today is that men are taking the place of the Holy Spirit, and the will of men in official position is taking the place of the will of God.
The teaching of God's Word is that, on the one hand. human organizations must not control the servants of God: on the other hand, His servants must learn to submit to a spiritual authority which is based on the difference of ministry. There is no organized cooperation, yet there is a spiritual fellowship and a spiritual oneness. Individualism and human organization alike are out of line with the will of God. We should seek to know His will not independently but in conjunction with the other ministering members of the Body. The call of Paul and Barnabas was on this principle. It was not a case of two prophets and teachers only, but of five, waiting upon God to know His will. Acts 13 gives us a good example of a working company, all the workers being mutually related, and the guidance of one confirmed by the others.
The sphere of the work, unlike the sphere of the local church, is very wide. Some of the workers are sent to Ephesus, some go to Paul at Nicopolis. some stay on in Corinth, some are left in Miletus, some remain in Crete, some return to Thessalonica, and others go on to Galatia. Such is the work! We see here not the movements of the local church but of the work, for the movements of the local church are always confined to one locality. The church is local, the work extra-local. Ephesus, Corinth and Rome are all the concern of the workers. The church only manages the affairs in any given locality, but the workers of God regard as their "parish" the sphere which the Lord has measured out to them.
In Scripture the workers were formed into companies , but that does not imply that all the apostles formed themselves into one company and placed everything under one central control. That all the apostles should combine into one company is not shown in the Word of God. It is quite in order for scores of men, or even hundreds, who have received the sanie trust from God, to join together in the same work; but in the Scriptures we find no centralization of authority for the control of all the apostles. There is a company of apostles, but it is not great enough to include all the apostles. That is Romish, not Scriptural.
The parties referred to in Phil. 1:15-17; 2 Cor. 11:12,13,22,23; Gal. 4:17 all indicate that the work in the early days was not centralized. Had it been centralized, those groups could not have remained in existence, for they could have been dealt with effectively. The Scriptures show that in divine work there is no universal organization or central control, which accounts for the fact that the apostle had no authority to deal with those groups of people who were creating such difficulty in the churches.
The explanation is this; God does not wish the power of organization to take the place of the power of the Holy Spirit. A good organization often serves as a poor substitute for the power of the Holy Spirit, by holding a work together even after all its vitality is gone. When life has departed from the work and the scaffolding of organization still supports it, its collapse is prevented; but that is doubtful gain, for a splendid outward organization may be blinding God's servants to a deep inward need. God would rather His work be discontinued than that it go on with such a counterfeit for spiritual power When the glory of God had departed from the temple He Himself left it to utter ruin.
Central control has many evils. It makes it easy for God's servants to disregard the leading of the Spirit, and readily develops into a Popish system, becoming a great worldly power. It is a Scriptural fact that they are formed into companies, but they are not formed into one single company.
Many are called to work for the Lord, but their sphere of service is not the same, so it follows that their associates cannot be the same. But the various companies must all be identified with the Body, coming under the Headship of the Lord, and having fellowship among themselves. The Word of God does not warrant the forming of one central company, neither does it warrant the forming of various scattered, unrelated and isolated companies. Each company should recognize what God is doing with the other companies and should extend fellowship to them, acknowledging that they are also ministers in the Body. Under the ordering of God they may work in different companies, but all must work as one Body. The extending of the right hands of fellowship implies a recognition that other people are in the Body, and we are in fellowship with them, working together in a related way, as becomes functioning members of the same Body. "When they saw that I had been intrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcision...and when they perceived the grace that was given unto me, James and Cephas and John, they were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship, that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision" (Gal. 2:7-9). The unrelated, scattered, disrupted and conflicting organizations in Christendom, which do not recognize the principle of the Body and do not come under the sovereignty and headship of Christ, are never according to the mind of the Lord.
The question naturally arises, how should workers and working associations cooperate? To one company God gives one kind of ministry, and to another an altogether different form of ministry. How should the various groups co-work? We must note two fundamental points in regard to the work:
1) The first responsibility of every worker - no matter what his ministry or what his special line of work - whenever he comes to a place where there is no local church, is to establish one in the locality.
2) Should he come to a place where a local church already exists, then all his teaching and all his experience must be contributed to that church, that it may be strengthened and edified, and no attempt should be made to attach that church to himself or to the society he represents.
If a worker goes to a place where there is no church and founds one there for the propagation of his particular doctrine, then we cannot cooperate with him because he is building up a sect and not a church. On the other hand, should a worker go to a place where there is already a local church, and instead of contributing his teaching and experience to its upbuilding, seek to make it a branch-church of the society to which he belongs, then again it is impossible for us to cooperate, because he is building up a denomination. The basis of fellowship in in the church is the common possession of life in Christ and living in the same locality. The basis of cooperation in the work is the common aim the founding and building up of local churches. Denominational affiliations do not hinder us from reckoning anyone as belonging to the Body, but the aim of the denominational extension will certainly keep us from any cooperation in the service of God. The greatest harm a worker can do is, instead of establishing and edifying the local churches, to attach to his society the believers he finds in a place, or to form those brought to the Lord through his labors into a branch of his particular denomination.
Paul came from Antioch to Corinth and there he preached the Gospel. People believed and were saved, and soon there was a group of saints in Corinth. Into what kind of church did Paul form them? Into the church in Corinth. Paul did not form an Antiochian church in Corinth, but simply established a church in Corinth. Thereafter Peter came to Corinth and preached the Gospel, with the result that another group of people believed. Did Peter say, "Paul came from Antioch, but I am come from Jerusalem, so I must set up another church. I will establish a Jerusalemic church in Corinth"? No, he contributed all those he led to the Lord to the already existing local church in Corinth. After a while Apollos came along. Again people were saved, and again all the saved ones were added to the local church. So in Corinth there was only one church of God; there were no schismatic denominations.
Conditions have greatly changed since the days of the early apostles. Christianity has lost its original purity, and everything connected with it is in a false and confused state. Despite that fact, our work today is still the same as in the days of the early apostles - to found and build up local churches, the local expression of the Body of Christ. So if we are in a place where there is no church we should seek the Lord's face that He may enable us to win souls for Himself and form them into a local church. If we are in a place where there are missions, or churches, standing on sectarian or denominational ground, but no church standing on the ground of the Body and the locality, then our duty is just the same, namely, to found and build a local church. Many will still persist in the old ways, hence the persons standing on clear church ground may be far fewer than the total number of Christian in the locality. But the area of the ground on which they stand is just as wide as that on which the church ought to stand, so it is still our duty to maintain that ground. We can only cooperate with those who are building up the Body of Christ as expressed in local churches, and not with those who are building up something else.
Here is the most important principle in the work of God - a worker must not seek to establish a branch of the church from which he goes out, but to establish a church in the locality to which he comes. Wherever he goes, he establishes a church in that place. He does not extend the church of his place of origin, but establishes the church in the place of his adoption. Since in Scripture all churches are local, Jerusalem and Antioch can have no branch-churches. We cannot extend one local church to another locality, we can only form a new church in that locality. The church which they established in Philippi is the church in Philippi. The churches which they established in other places are the churches of those different places. What is the place in which I intend to work? It is the church in that place I must seek to establish.
Now there are two kinds of workers, namely, those who stand on Scriptural ground and those who stand on denominational or mission ground. But even with those who stand on denominational or mission ground, the principle of cooperation is just the same - the one aim of founding and building up the local church.
The work of evangelization is primarily for the salvation of sinners, but its spontaneous result is a church in the place where such work is done. The immediate object is the salvation of men, but the ultimate result is the formation of churches. The danger which confronts the missionary is to form those he has led to the Lord into a branch of the society he represents. Since workers represent different societies, they naturally form different branches of their respective societies, and the consequence is great confusion in the work and churches of God. The immediate aim of the various workers is no doubt the same, but there is a lack of clarity and definiteness regarding the ultimate issue.
This is a point on which my fellow-workers and I cannot see eye to eye with many of God's children From the depths of our hearts we thank God that in the past century He has sent so many of His faithful servants to China, so that thosc who were sitting in darkness should hear the Gospel and believe in the Lord. Their self-sacrifice, their diligence and their godliness has truly been an example to us. Many a time, as we looked at the faces of missionaries suffering for the Gospel's sake, we have been moved to pray, "Lord, make us to live like them." May God bless and reward them! We acknowledge that we are utterly unworthy to have any part in the work of God, but by the grace of God we are what we are, and since God in His grace has called us to His service, we cannot but seek to be faithful. We have nothing to criticize, and much to admire, as far as the Gospel-work of our missionary brethren is concerned, yet we cannot but question their methods in dealing with the fruits of such work. For in the past hundred years it has not resulted in the building up of local churches but in the forming of missionary churches, or of branch-churches of the various denominations which the missionaries represented. In our opinion this is contrary to the Word of God.
Permit me to mention a personal incident. Some time ago I met a certain missionary in Shanghai who asked me if it would not be possible for me to cooperate with his Mission. Not knowing quite what to say, I did not commit myself. Later on I came across him in another part of the country, and again he repeated his question and asked if I had anything against the Mission. I answered: "I dare not criticize your Mission, though I do not believe it is according to the full thought of God. I believe it was God's will to establish it so that the servants of God in western lands could come to China to preach the Gospel. I have nothing to say regarding the Mission as a body, for the Scriptures speak of companies of workers, and if you feel it should be organized, should have officers, and should hear a specific name, you must answer to God and not to man for that. Who am I that I should criticize the servants of the Lord? But while I do not criticize, I cannot copy, because God has not revealed that as His will and way for me. Regarding the Mission as a mission, I have nothing to say, but I have serious questions regarding the churches formed by the mission. To illustrate, you represent the 'X' Mission. Now, do those saved by your instrumentality become the 'X' Church, or do they become the church of the particular locality in which they live? It may be all right for missionaries to belong to the 'X' Mission, but it is all wrong for them to form the fruits of the Mission into the 'X' Church. The Word of God has not definitely forbidden the forming of an 'X' Mission but it clearly does not sanction the founding of other than local churches."
Then I mentioned the apostolic examples, pointing out that they always sought to found or build up churches in the locality of their labors with the fruit of such labors. They never used such fruit to form branches of the companies in which they worked, otherwise the Church of God would have been rent by numerous factions from its very inception.
"If we are all out to establish local churches," I said, "then there is every possibility of cooperation. It is permissible to establish an 'X' Mission, but it is not Scriptural to establish an 'X' Church. Suppose your 'X' Mission coming to T-- establishes an 'X' Church; thereafter various other missions come to T--, each establishing a separate mission 'church.' That would be the same as Paul establishing an Antiochian church in Corinth, and Peter coming along shortly after and establishing a Jerusalemic church there. On such a basis cooperation is impossible, for we should be disregarding the pattern which God has clearly shown us in His Word - the establishment of local churches.
"If we come to a place to found a church, then it must be local, intensely local, without anything extraneous to rob it in the slightest of its local character. If you come to T-- with the establishing of the church in T-- as your one aim, and I come to T-- with the establishing of the church in T-- as my one aim, then cooperation will be no problem. Even if a hundred and one missionaries, representing a hundred and one Missions, all come to T-- with this as their one aim, to establish the church in T then there will be no possibility of sectarianism, and cooperation will be a matter of course. If the aim of the 'X' Mission is only to preach the Gospel and the extension of the mission - the cooperation is not possible. If a worker seeks on the one hand to preach the Gospel, and on the other hand to extend his own society, it is impossible for us to co-work." Whether or not a man is out to establish local churches determines whether or not we can cooperate with him. No matter to what mission a man may belong, if he comes to a place not seeking to establish his own "church" but a church in the locality, then we are perfectly willing to work with him. Although we are not a mission, we are quite prepared to cooperate with any mission if they have no private end in view, but only the one end which God has shown as His will regarding His work.
May God grant us grace to see that His churches are all local churches.