According to the present-day conception, three things are regarded as essential to the existence of a church, apart from the group of Christians who constitute its members. These three are a "minister," a church building and "church services." The Christian world would query the existence of a church if even one of these three were lacking.
What would one think nowadays of a church without a "minister"? Call him "pastor" or any other title you wish, but such a man you certainly must have. As a rule he is specially trained for church work, but may be either a local man of a worker transferred from some other place. Whatever his background and qualifications, he gives himself exclusively to the affairs of the church. Thus the churches are divided into two classes - the "clergy" who make it their business to attend to spiritual matters, and the "laity," who devote themselves to secular things. Then of course there must be church services, for which the minister is responsible, and the most essential of these is the Sunday morning gathering. You may call it a "service" or a "meeting" or whatever you choose, but such a gathering there must be at least every Sunday, when the church members sit in their pews and listen to the sermon their minister has prepared. You may term it "hall," "meeting-place," "chapel," or "church," but whatever you care to call it, such a place there must be. Otherwise, how could you ever "go to church" on Sundays? But what is considered as essential to a church nowadays was considered totally unnecessary in the early days of the Church's history. Let us see what the Word of God has to say on the matter.
"Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1). In not a single Scriptural church do we find any mention of a "minister" controlling its affairs; such a position is always occupied by a group of local elders. And nowhere do we get a clearer or more comprehensive presentation of the personnel of a church than in the verse just quoted from the Philippian letter. The church consists of "all the saints," "the bishops" and "the deacons." The "deacons" are the men appointed to "serve tables" (Acts 6:2-6), namely those who care exclusively for the business side of things. The "bishops" are the elders, who take the oversight of all church matters. (Acts 20:17,28, and Tit. 1:5,7 make this quite clear). And besides "the bishops" and "the deacons" there are "all the saints." These three classes comprise the entire church, and no other class of person can be introduced into any church without making it an unScriptural organization.
Let us glance for a moment at the deacons. They do not occupy such an important position as the elders, who rule the church; they are chosen by the church to serve it. They are the executors who carry out the decisions of the Holy Spirit through the elders and the church. Because the deacons have actually more to do with assembly life than with the work of the ministry, we think it sufficient just to make this brief mention of them.
There are two points in connection with the elders that call for special attention. Firstly, they are chosen from among the brethren. They are not workers who have a special call from God to devote themselves exclusively to spiritual work. As a rule they have their families and their business duties and are just ordinary believers of good reputation. Secondly, elders are chosen from among the local brethren. They are not transferred from other places, but are set apart just in the place where they live, and they are not called to leave their ordinary occupations, but simply to devote their spare time to the responsibilities of the church (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5).
And since all Scriptural elders are local brothers, if we transfer a man from some other place to control a church, we are departing from Scriptural ground. Here again we see the difference between the churches and the work. A brother may be transferred to another place to take care of the work there, but no brother can be sent out of his own locality to bear the burdens of the church in another place. The churches of God are all governed by elders, and elders are all chosen from among the local brethren.
It has been pointed out before that in God's Word there are local elders but no local apostles. When Paul left Titus in Crete, his object was not that Titus should manage church affairs there but that he should appoint elders in every place so that they could take charge of affairs. The business of the worker is to found churches and appoint elders, never to take any direct responsibility in the churches. If in any place an apostle takes responsibility for the affairs of the local church, he either changes the nature of his office or the nature of the church. No apostle coming from another place is qualified for the office of local elder; the post can only be occupied by local men.
Let us who have been called of God to the work be absolutely clear on this point, that we were never called to settle down as pastors in any place. We may revisit the churches we have founded and help the believers we formerly led to the Lord, but we can never become their "minister" and bear the responsibility of spiritual affairs on their behalf. They must be satisfied with the elders appointed by the apostles and learn to honor and obey them. Obviously it needs more grace on the part of the believers to submit themselves to others of their own number and of their own rank, than to yield to the control of a man who comes from another place and has special qualifications for spiritual work. But God has so ordained it, and we bow to His wisdom.
The relationship between the work and the church is really very simple. A worker preaches the Gospel, souls are saved, and after a short lapse of time a few of the comparatively advanced ones are chosen from among them to be responsible for local affairs. Thus the church is established! The apostle then follows the leading of the Spirit to another place, and history is repeated there. So the spiritual life and activity of the local church develops because the apostles are free to move from place to place preaching the Gospel and founding new churches.
The first question usually asked in connection with a church is, "who is the minister?" The thought in the questioner's mind is, "Who is the man responsible for ministering and administering spiritual things in this church?" The clerical system of church management is exceedingly popular, but the whole thought is foreign to Scripture, where we find the responsibility of the church committed to elders, not to "ministers" as such. The elders only take oversight of the church work, they do not perform it on behalf of the brethren. If in a company of believers the minister is active and church-members are all passive, then that company is a mission, not a church. The difference between the elders and the other members is that the latter work, while the former both work themselves and also oversee the others as they work.
Another thing which is considered of vital importance to the existence of a church is a church building. The thought of a church is so frequently associated with a church building, that the building itself is often referred to as "the church." But in God's Word it is the living believers who are called "the church'' not the bricks and mortar (see Acts 5:11; Mt. 18:17). The Jews always had their special meeting-places, and wherever they went they made a point of building a synagogue in which to worship God. The first apostles were Jews, and the Jewish tendency to build special places of worship was natural to them. Had Christianity required that places be set apart for the specific purpose of worshiping the Lord, the early apostles with their Jewish background and natural tendencies would have been ready enough to build them. The amazing thing is that not only did they not put up special buildings but they seem to have ignored the whole subject intentionally. It is Judaism, not Christianity. which teaches that there must be sanctified places for divine worship. The temple of the New Testament is not a material edifice; it consists of living persons, all believers in the Lord. Because the New Testament Temple is spiritual. Therefore the question of meeting-places for believers, or places of worship is of minor importance.
When our Lord was on earth He met with His disciples at times on the hillside and at times by the sea. He gathered them around Him now in a house, again in a boat, and there were times when He drew apart with them in an upper room. But there was no "consecrated" place where He habitually met with His own. At Pentecost the disciples were gathered in an upper room, and after Pentecost they either met all together in the Temple (Acts 2:46) or separately in different houses (Acts 2:46), or at times in Solomon's Porch (Acts 5:12). They met for prayer in various homes, Mary's being one of them (Acts 12:12), and we read that on a certain occasion they were assembled in a room on the third floor of a building (Acts 20:8). Judging from these passages, the believers assembled in a great variety of places and had no official meeting-place; they simply made use of any building that suited their needs.
"And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them... And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where we were gathered together. And there sat in the window a certain young man named Eutychus" (Acts 20:7-9). In Troas we find the believers meeting in the third story of a building. There is a delightfully unofficial air about this gathering, but this Troas meeting was a truly Scriptural one. There was no official stamp upon it but it bore the marks of real life in its perfect naturalness and pure simplicity. It was quite all right for some of the saints to sit on the window-ledge, or for others to sit on the floor, as Mary did of old. In our assemblies we must return to the principle of the "upper room." The ground floor is a place for business, but there is more of a home atmosphere about the upper room, and the gatherings of God's children are family affairs.
That is why in the Word of God we find His children meeting in the family atmosphere of a private home. We read of the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19), the church in the house of Nymphas (Col. 4:15), and the church in the house of Philemon (Philm. 2). The New Testament mentions at least these three different churches that were in the homes of believers. How did churches come to be in such homes? If in a certain place there were a few believers and one of them had a house large enough to accommodate them all, they quite naturally assembled there, and the Christians in that locality were called "the church in the house of So-and-so."
Everything must begin at the beginning. When a church is founded, the believers from the very outset must learn to meet by themselves, either in their own homes or in some other building which they are able to secure. Of course, not every church is a church in a "house," but a church in a "house" should be encouraged rather than considered as a drawback. If the number of believers is great and the sphere of the locality wide, they might need to meet, as the saints in Jerusalem did, in different "houses" instead of in one house. There was only one church in Jerusalem, but its members assembled in different "houses." The principle of "houses" still applies today. This does not mean that the whole church will always meet separately; in fact, it is important, and of great profit, for all the believers to gather together quite regularly in one place (1 Cor. 14:23). To make such meetings possible. They could either borrow or rent a public place for the occasion, or, if they have sufficient means they could acquire a hall permanently for the purpose. But we should try to encourage meetings in the homes of the Christians.
The grand edifices of today with their lofty spires speak of the world and the flesh rather than of the Spirit, and in many ways they are not nearly as well suited to the purpose of Christian assembly as the private homes of God's people. In the first place, people feel much freer to speak of spiritual things in the unconventional atmosphere of a home than in a spacious church building where everything is conducted in a formal manner: besides, there is not the same possibility for mutual intercourse there. Somehow, as soon as people enter those special buildings, they involuntarily settle down to passivity, and wait to be preached to. A family atmosphere should pervade all gatherings of the children of God, so that the brothers even feel free to ask questions (1 Cor. 14:35). Everything should be under the control of the Spirit, but there should be the liberty of the Spirit too. Further, if the churches are in the private homes of the brethren, they naturally feel that all the interests of the church are their interests.
Still further, the meetings in believers' homes can be a fruitful testimony to the neighbors around, and they provide an opportunity for witness and Gospel preaching. Many who are not willing to go to a "church" will be glad to go a private house. And the influence is most helpful for the families of the Christians. From early days the children will be surrounded by a spiritual atmosphere and will have constant opportunity to see the reality of eternal things.
So the Scriptural method of church organization is simple in the extreme. As soon as there are a few believers in a place, they begin to meet in one of their homes. If numbers increase so that it becomes impracticable to meet in one house, then they can meet in several different houses, but the entire company of believers can meet together once in a while in some public place. A hall for such purposes could either be borrowed, rented, or built, according to the financial condition of the church; but we must remember that the ideal meeting-place of the saints is their own private homes.
Meetings connected with the work are arranged along totally different lines, and are entirely under the auspices of the workers. They are on the principle of Paul's own hired house in Rome. As we have seen, when Paul reached Rome a church was already in existence there and the believers already had their regular gatherings. Paul did not use the meeting-place of the church for his work, but rented a separate place. In Troas he only stayed for a week, so he rented no place there, but simply accepted the hospitality of the church. When he went away the special meetings he had been conducting there ceased, but the brethren in Troas still continued their own meetings. If a worker intends to remain for a considerable period in any place, then he must procure a separate center for his work and not make use of the church's meeting-place. Frequently such a center will demand more extensive accommodation than the meeting-place of the church.
Before we consider the question of meeting, let us first say a few words concerning the nature of the Church. Christ is the Head of the Church and "we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another" (Rom. 12:5). Apart from Christ the Church has no head: all believers are only members, and they are "members one of another." "Mutuality" expresses the nature of the Church, for all the relationships among believers are of one member to another, never of a head to the members.
When we recognize the fundamental difference between the nature of the work and the local church, then we shall easily understand the Scriptural teaching concerning the meetings which we are about to consider. There are two different kinds of meetings in Scripture - the church meeting and the apostolic meeting. If we are to differentiate clearly between the two, we must first understand the different nature of church and work. If we fail to realize the distinction, we shall constantly confuse the church with the work. In the early church there were meetings which were definitely connected with the churches, and others that were just as definitely connected with the work. In the latter only one man spoke, and all the others constituted his audience. One stood before the others, and by his preaching directed the thoughts and hearts of those who sat quietly listening. This type of meeting can be recognized at once as a meeting connected with the apostolic work, because it bears the character of the work. There is no stamp of "mutuality" about it. In the church meetings, "each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation" (1 Cor. 14:26). Here it is not a case of one leading and all the others following, but of each one contributing his share of spiritual helpfulness. True, only a few of those present take part, but all may. Only a few are actual contributors to the meeting, but all are potential contributors. The Scriptures show these two distinct kinds of meetings - apostolic meetings, which are led by one man, and church meetings, in which all the local brethren are free to take part.
The apostolic meetings may be divided into two classes - for believers and for unbelievers. The meeting which was held immediately after the Church came into existence was an apostolic meeting for unbelievers (Acts 2:14). The gatherings in Solomon's Porch (Acts 3:11) and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) were of the same nature, and there are still other records of similar meetings in the Book of Acts. They were clearly apostolic meetings, not church meetings, because one man spoke and all the others listened.
The second kind of meeting is mentioned in the First Epistle to the Corinthians:
"If therefore the whole church be assembled together, and all speak with tongues, and there come in men unlearned or unbelieving, will they not say that ye are mad? ...What is it then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for the edifying of all. If any man speaks in a tongue, let it be by two, or at the most three, and that in turn; and let one interpret but if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern. But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. For you all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted; and the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets; for God is not the God of confusion, but of peace; as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Cor. 14:23,26-33)
This is obviously a church meeting, because it is not one man leading but each gifted one contributing to the meeting as the Spirit directs. In this kind of meeting any gifted member of the church may be preacher and any may be audience. Nothing is determined by man, and each takes part as the Spirit leads. It is not an "all-man" ministry, but a Holy Spirit ministry. The prophets and teachers minister the Word as the Lord gives it, while others minister to the assembly in other ways. Not all can prophesy and teach, but all can seek to prophesy and teach (1 Cor. 14:1). One brother may speak at one stage of the gathering and another later. You may be chosen of the Spirit to help the brethren this time, and I next time. Everything in the meeting is governed throughout by the principle of "two or three" (1 Cor. 14:27,29). Even the same "two or three" prophets are not permanently appointed to minister to the meetings, but at each meeting the Spirit chooses any two or three from among all the prophets present. The stamp of mutuality is clearly upon all the proceedings.
There is only one verse in the New Testament which speaks of the importance of Christians meeting together; it is Heb. 10:25: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as you see the day approaching." Here again it is not a case of one man exhorting the entire assembly, but all the members bearing equal responsibility to exhort one another. The church meeting has the stamp of "one another" upon it.
There are several purposes for which the church meets, as recorded in Scripture. First, for prayer (Acts 2:42; 4:24,31; 12:5); second, for reading (Col. 4:16, 1 Ths. 5:27, Acts 2:42, 15:21,30,31); third, for the breaking of bread (1 Cor. 10:16,17, Acts 2:42; 20:7); and fourth, for the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14).
The last type of meeting is a church meeting, for the phrase "in the church" is used repeatedly in the passage which describes it (1 Cor. 14:28,34,35). Of this meeting it is said that all may prophesy. How different from one man preaching and all the others sitting quietly in the pew listening to his sermon! Meetings where activity is one-sided do not come within the scope of the church, for they lack the distinctive feature of all church gatherings.
Today, alas! this style of meeting is the chief feature of the churches. No meeting is attended with such regularity as this one. Who is considered a really good Christian? Is it not one who comes to church fifty-two Sunday mornings in the year to hear the minister preach? But this is passivity, and it heralds death. Even he who has attended "church" fifty-two Sundays in the year has not really been once to a church meeting. He has only gone to a meeting in connection with the work. I do not imply that we should never have this kind of meeting, but the point is that such a meeting is part of the work and is no part of the church. If apostolic meetings take the place of church meetings, then the church members become passive and indolent, always expecting to he helped, instead of seeking, in dependence upon the Spirit, to be helpful to the other members. It is contrary to the New Testament principles of mutual help and mutual edification. Individual responsibility has been lost sight of, and passivity has hindered the development of spiritual life throughout the churches.
Further, to maintain the Sunday morning preaching, you must have a good preacher. Therefore a worker is needed not only to manage church affairs but also maintain the meetings for spiritual uplift. It is only natural, if a good address is to be delivered every Sunday, that the churches hope for someone who is better qualified to preach than recently converted local brothers. How could they be expected to produce a good sermon once a week? And who could be expected to preach better than a specially called servant of God? So an apostle settles down to pastor the church, and consequently the churches and the work both lose their distinctive features. The result is serious loss in both directions. On the one hand, the brethren become lazy and selfish because their thought is only centered on themselves and the help they can receive, and on the other hand, unevangelized territories are left without workers because apostles have settled down to be elders.
Since so much havoc has been wrought by introducing a feature of the work into the churches and thus robbing both of their true nature, we must differentiate clearly between meetings that belong specifically to the work and those that belong specifically to the church. When God blesses our efforts in any place to the salvation of souls, we must see to it that the saved ones understand, from the outset, that the meetings which resulted in their salvation belong to the work and not to the church, and that they are the church and must therefore have their own church meetings. They must meet in their homes or in other places to pray, study the Word, break bread and exercise their spiritual gifts; and in such meetings their object must be mutual helpfulness and mutual edification.
Each individual must bear his share of responsibility and pass on to the others what he himself has received from the Lord. Such gatherings of local believers are true church meetings.
Meetings connected with the work are only a temporary institution. But the assembling of the believers for fellowship and mutual encouragement is something permanent. Even should the believers be very immature, they must learn to content themselves with what help they receive from one another and must not always hope to be able to sit down and listen to a good sermon. They should seek revelation, spiritual gifts, and utterance from God. If their need casts them upon Him, it will result in the enrichment of the whole church. Meetings of recently saved believers will naturally bear the stamp of immaturity at the beginning, but for the worker to take over the responsibility of such meetings will stunt their growth, not foster it. It is the condition of the church meetings, not of the meetings connected with the work, that indicates the spiritual state of a church in any locality. When an apostle is preaching a grand sermon, and all the believers are nodding assent and adding their frequent and fervent "Amens," how deeply spiritual the congregation seems! But it is when they meet by themselves that their true spiritual state comes to light.
But how can the local believers be equipped to minister one to the other? In the apostolic days it was taken for granted that the Spirit would come upon all believers as soon as they turned to the Lord, and with the oncoming of the Spirit, spiritual gifts were imparted through the exercise of which the churches were edified. The usual method which God has ordained for building up the churches is ordinary church gatherings, not the meetings conducted by the workers. The reason why the churches are so weak nowadays is because workers seek to build them up, through the meetings under their care, instead of leaving it to their own responsibility to edify each other through proper church meetings. Why has it come about that the church meetings of 1 Cor. 14 are no longer a part of church life? Because so many of God's people lack the experience of the Spirit's oncoming, without which a meeting conducted along the lines of 1 Cor. 14 is a mere empty form. Unless all those we lead to the Lord have a definite experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon them, it will be of little use instructing them how to conduct their church meetings, for such meetings will be powerless and ineffective. If the Holy Spirit is upon the believers, as in the days of the early Church, He will give gifts to men, and such men will be able to strengthen the saints and to build up the Body of Christ. We see from Paul's first Corinthian epistle that God so equipped believers with spiritual gifts that they were able to carry on the work of building up the churches quite independently of the apostles. (This does not imply that they needed no further apostolic help. They decidedly did.) Alas, that nowadays many of God's people set more store by God's servants than by His Holy Spirit! They are content to be ministered to by the gifts of a worker instead of seeking for themselves the gifts of the Spirit.
In 1 Cor. 14, where a church meeting is in view, apostles have been left out of account altogether! There is no place for them in the meetings of a local church! When the members of a church assemble and the spiritual gifts are in use, prophecy and other gifts are exercised, but there is no mention of apostles for the simple reason that apostles are appointed no place in the meetings of the local church; they are appointed to the work of outreach. When the local church meets, it is the gifts that are brought into use; office has no place here, not even that of an apostle.
Apostles, as apostles, represent an office in the work and not any particular gift. In the organization of the church they have no place at all, because their ministry as apostles was not for the churches but for the work. As we have already observed, apostles had no say in the management of the business affairs of any local church and it is clear that God did not even intend that they should bear the responsibility of the spiritual ministry in the churches. God gave gifts to the local brethren so that they could be prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, and, thus equipped, could carry the burden of spiritual ministry in the locality. Apostles do not bear responsibility either for the spiritual or material side of affairs in any church. The elders are responsible for the local management, and the prophets and other ministers for the local ministry.
Then have apostles nothing to do with the local church? Surely! There is still plenty of scope for them to help the churches, but not in the capacity of apostles. On the business side of things they can help indirectly by giving counsel to the elders, who deal directly with the church affairs. On the spiritual side in the church meetings they can minister with any spiritual gifts they may possess, such as prophecy or teaching. Their apostolic office is of no account in a church meeting for the exercise of spiritual gifts, but as brothers they can minister to their fellow-believers by the use of any gift with which the Spirit may have endowed them.
Not only apostles but even elders as such have no part in the meetings. In this chapter (1 Cor. 14) elders have no place at all. They are not even mentioned. We have already pointed out that elders are for office, not for ministry. They are appointed for church government and not for ministry. Office is for government and gifts are for ministry. In the meetings which are for ministry, it is those who have been gifted by God that count, not those who hold office. So in the church meetings it is the prophets, teachers and evangelists who take the lead, not the elders. They are the gifted ones of the church.
We must differentiate between the work of the elders and the work of the prophets and teachers. Their work is different but they are not necessarfly different persons. It is quite posssible for one person to act in both capacities. The elders are those who hold office in a local church; the prophets and teachers are the gifted ministers in a local church. The elders are for church government at all times; the prophets and teachers are for ministry in church meetings. But though the elders cannot minister as elders, yet if they are also prophets or teachers they can minister in that capacity. Indeed, it is almost imperative that elders be prophets and teachers, otherwise they cannot rule the church effectively.
The point to be remembered is that church meetings are the sphere for the ministry of the Word, not the sphere for the exercise of any office. It is for the exercise of gifts unto edification. Since both apostleship and eldership are offices, one in the work and one in the church, so both of the officers as such are altogether out of the meetings. But God will be gracious to His church to give it gifts for its upbuilding. The church meetings are the place for the use of these gifts for mutual help.
All meetings on the "roundtable" principle are church meetings, and all meetings on the "pulpit- and-pew" principle are meetings belonging to the work. The latter may be of a passing nature, and not necessarily a permanent institution, whereas the former are a regular feature of church life. A round-table enables you to pass something to me and me to pass something to you. It affords opportunity for an expression of "mutuality," that essential feature of all relationships in the church.
The Book of Acts shows clearly the example God set for His Church in the beginning. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers... And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they did take their food with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2:42,46). Such were conditions in the early days of the Church's history. The Apostles did not establish a central meeting-place for the believers, but these "continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers." They moved from house to house having fellowship with one another.
We can now draw conclusions from the three points we have considered. 1) Wherever there is a group of believers in any place, a few of the more mature are chosen from their number to care for the others, after which all local responsibility rests upon them. From the very outset it should be made clear to the new converts that it is by divine appointment that the management of the church is entrusted to local elders and not to any worker from another place. 2) There is no official meeting- place necessary for the church. The members meet in one or more houses, according as their numbers require, and should they be obliged to meet in several houses, it is well for the whole church to congregate from time to time in one place. For such meetings a special place could be procured either for the occasion or permanently, according to existing church conditions. 3) The church meetings are not the responsibility of the workers. Local believers should learn to use the spiritual gifts with which God has entrusted them to minister to their fellow-believers. The principle on which all church meetings are conducted is that of the "round-table," not of the "pulpit-and-pew." But to make such meetings of definite value it is essential that the believers receive spiritual gifts, revelation and utterance. Therefore the workers should make it a matter of real concern that all their converts experience the power of the outpoured Spirit.
If the examples God has shown us in His Word are followed, then no question will ever arise in the churches regarding self-government, self-support and self-propagation. And the churches in the different localities will consequently be saved much unnecessary expenditure, which will enable them to come freely to the help of the poor believers, as the Corinthians did, or to the help of the workers, as did the Philippians.
In the earlier chapters of this book we have already seen what the ministry, the work and the local churches are. In this chapter we have seen the connection between the ministry and the local church, and also the difference between the church and the work. Now we can consider more minutely the relationship between the ministry, the work and the churches, in order to see clearly how they stand, how they function, what their respective spheres are, and how they are interrelated.
In Acts 13 we saw that God had established one of His churches in a certain locality, then He gave gifts to a few individuals in that church to equip them to minister there as prophets and teachers, so that the church might be built up. These prophets and teachers constituted the ministry in that church. When in life and in gift these ministers had reached a certain stage of spiritual maturity, God sent two of their number to work in other places, and history repeated itself in the churches established by these two apostles.
Do you not see here the relationship between the churches, the ministry and the work? 1) God establishes a church in a locality. 2) He raises up gifted men in the church for the ministry. 3) He sends some of these specially equipped men out into the work. 4) These men establish churches in different places. 5) God raises up other gifted men among these churches for the ministry of building them up. 6) Some of these in turn are thrust forth to work in other fields. Thus the work directly produces the churches, and the churches indirectly produce the work. So the churches and the work progress, moving in an ever-recurring cycle - the work always resulting directly in the founding of churches, and the churches always resulting indirectly in further work.
As to the gifted men raised up of God for the ministry, they labor both in the churches and in the work. When they are in their own locality they seek to edify the church. When they are in other places they bear the burden of the work. When they are in the local church they are prophets and teachers. When they are sent to other places they are apostles. The men are the same, at home or abroad, but their ministries differ according to the sphere of their service. The prophets and teachers (and pastors and evangelists), whose sphere is local, plus the apostles, whose sphere is extra-local, constitute the ministry.
In the fourth chapter of Ephesians we see that the sphere of the ministry is the Body of Christ, which may be expressed locally as a church, or extra-locally as the work. It is for this reason also that apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers are linked together, though actually the sphere of an apostle's work is quite different from that of the other three. But all belong to the one ministry, whose sphere of service is the Body of Christ. Those who have been gifted use their gifts to serve the Church by serving the church in their locality. Those who have both gifts and apostolic commission serve the Church by serving the churches in different localities.
God uses these men to impart His grace to the Church. Their various gifts enable them to transmit grace from the Head to the Body. Spiritual ministry is nothing less than ministering Christ to His people. God's thought in giving these men as a gift to His Church was that the Lord Jesus Christ, personally known and experienced by them, might through the gifts of the Spirit be ministered to His people. They were given to the Church "for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ."
Thus in the ministry we have the prophets and other ministers using their gifts to serve the local church, while the apostles by their office and gifts serve all the churches. The ministry of these two groups of men is of great importance, because all the work of God - local and extra-local - is in their hands. That is why God's Word declares that the Church of God is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
In the offices instituted by God we have the elders occupying the chief place in the local church, while apostles hold no office at all there. Apostles, on the other hand, hold the chief office in the work while the elders have no place there. Apostles rank foremost in the universal Church and elders rank foremost in the local church. When we see the distinction between the respective offices of apostles and elders, then we shall understand why the two are constantly linked together (Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23). Apostles and elders are the highest representatives of the Church and the churches.
In the local church there are two departments of service, one relating to business management, the other to spiritual ministry. Offices are connected with the management of the church and are held by the elders and the deacons. Gifts are connected with the ministry of the church and are exercised by the prophets and teachers (and evangelists). The elders and deacons are responsible for the management of the church, while the prophets and teachers concern themselves chiefly with the meetings of the church. Should the deacons and elders also be prophets and teachers, then they could manage church affairs and at the same time minister to the church in the meetings. It should be repeated here that elders as such are appointed for church government and not for meetings to edify the church. In 1 Cor. 14, where meetings are in view, elders do not come in at all. Elders, in order to be effective, should also have the gift of a prophet, teacher, pastor, or evangelist, but it must be remembered that when they minister in the meetings they do so not in the capacity of elders but as prophets, or teachers, or other ministers.
So the ministry, the work and the churches are quite different in function and sphere, but they are really coordinated and interrelated. The fourth chapter of Ephesians speaks of the Body of Christ, but no discrimination is made there between the churches, the work, and the ministry. The saints of the churches, the apostles of the work, and the different ministers of the ministry, are all considered in the light of and in relation to the Body of Christ. Because, whether it be the local church, the ministry, or the work, all are in the Church. They are really one; so while it is necessary to distinguish between them in order to understand them better, we cannot really separate them. Those who are in the different spheres of the Church require to see the reality of the Body of Christ and act relatedly as a body. They should not, because of difference of responsibilities, settle themselves into watertight compartments. The churches are the Body expressed locally, the ministry is the Body in function, and the work is the Body seeking increase. All three are different manifestations of the one Body, so they are all interdependent and interrelated. None can move, or even exist, by itself. In fact, their relationship is so intimate and vital that none can he right itself without being rightly adjusted to the others.
This is most important. In the previous chapters we have sought to show their respective functions and spheres. Now the danger is lest, failing to understand the spiritual nature of the things of God, we should not only try to distinguish between them but sever them into separate units, thus losing the interrelatedness of the Body. However clear the distinction between them, we must remember that they are all in the Church. Consequently they must move and act as one, for no matter what their specific functions and spheres, they are all in one Body.
So on the one hand we differentiate between them in order to understand them, and on the other hand we bear in mind that they are all related as a body. All must be on the ground of the Body. The church is the life of the Body in miniature; the ministry is the functioning of the Body in service; the work is the reaching out of the Body in growth. Neither church, ministry, nor work can exist as a thing by itself. Each has to derive its existence from, find its place in, and work for the good of the Body. All three are from the Body, in the Body and for the Body. If this principle of relatedness to the Body and interrelatedness among its members is not recognized, there can be no church, no ministry and no work. The importance of this principle cannot be over-emphasized, for without it everything is man-made, not God-created. The basic principle of the ministry is the Body. The basic principle of the work is the Body. The basic principle of the churches is the Body. The Body is the governing law of the life and work of the children of God today.