Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 27, 1969

Is There A Pattern? (Congregational Cooperation)



Now that the sublime of "fellowship" it so much in the air, we think it may be MOM if brethren an ban a dear understanding of what "the bone of contention" has ban then past twenty years. What has broken the fellowship that once existed? The following paper was written some yes ago by the editor, and was published in tract form, but has not appeared before on these pages. Due to its length we will run it in two installments. (The tract may be purchased from the Gospel Guardian Company at $12.50 per hundred.)

Is there, or is there not, a "pattern" for congregational cooperation? Does the New Testament set forth any clear teaching as to the methods, arrangements, system by which faithful churches may cooperate with one another in spreading the gospel and caring for the needy?

This was one of the most vexing questions faced in the early days of the Restoration Movement here in our nation. The scholarly and godly Alexander Campbell insisted that there was no such pattern. "He believed the New Testament was not a code of laws, and therefore, while it was up to the church to preach the word, since the New Testament offered no plan, any plan within the bounds of reason was permissible on the grounds of expediency. On this ground Campbell was ever wont to defend organizations outside the local congregations doing the work of the church?' (Search for the Ancient Order, I-156.)

"...that the churches could and should cooperate was also evident. But, did the churches have scriptural authority to organize institutions and ecclesiasticisms separate and apart from the local church to do the work of the church? This was the real problem. Campbell's reply was in the affirmative and was defended on the ground of expediency." (ibid.)

Is there, or is there not, a "pattern" for congregational cooperation? That question must be answered by each generation and by each individual. It is a question that every conscientious follower of Christ will meet, sooner or later, in his efforts to serve the Lord. Brother Campbell's answer, arrived at the mature years of his greatest intellectual powers, led him to encourage, promote, and defend the American Christian Missionary Society. He was the first president of that organization; and remained convinced of its rightness and scriptural justification to the day of his death. He was convinced that "there k no pattern" and was willing to face God in the final day on that basis.

Other godly men, such as Jacob Creath, and later on Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb, were equally strong in their conviction that there IS a pattern. They opposed all societies and organizations separate and apart from the church which were intended to do the work committed to the churches. The division that came to God's people, growing out of this controversy, is perhaps known to all who read this treatise. Agreeing with brother Campbell were the vast majority of the disciples of his day (perhaps ninety percent or more), and the organization of the Awaken Christian Missionary Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849 marked the birth of a new religious denomination on the continent, the Disciples of Christ.

Current Answers

But the emergence of this new denomination did not really give a final answer to the question. It answered it all right for those agreeing with Brother Campbell. But among those opposing the Campbell position the question still remained, troubled and troubling. Even to this present day the conservative congregations (i.e. those bodies which oppose organized missionary societies as distinguished from those bodies which use and endorse them) are struggling with the problem. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that while the question is answered by each generation, it does not stay answered. The essential difficulty, the basic question seems to reappear every few years in a different guise and under different circumstances. Is there, or is there not a "pattern" for congregational cooperation?

Speaking for one community of thinking among the anti-society brethren, and expressing a very popular point of view, is Brother Guy N. Woods, on the editorial staff of the Gospel Advocate, and an ardent champion of most of the cooperative arrangements now in vogue among the Churches of Christ. In his tract entitled Cooperation in the Field of Benevolence and Evangelism he wrote:

"There is in the commission absolute authority for church cooperation. By cooperation, I mean the pooling of resources. It would take the resources of the Federal Government to carry out this commission with any degree of success whatever. There never was a New Testament church on earth that had sufficient means by which to carry out this commission unaided.

"...Besides, there is no exclusive pattern of church cooperation taught in the Bible. In the very nature of the case, a pattern means that there is only one way of doing a thing. And, it is highly significant that when there are several ways of doing a thing, no one way will meet all the demands of the case; and, hence, the Holy Spirit never gives a pattern in such cases. When men claim that there is an exclusive pattern of church cooperation taught in the Bible, they simply stultify their intelligence and presume upon the ignorance of their listeners."

Upholding the same point of view is a tract entitled.

"Where There Is No Pattern," and written by President Athens Clay Pullias of David Lipscomb College. Also another publication "Questions and Issues of the Day in the Light of the Scriptures" by brother Batsell Barrett Baxter, nationally known preacher of the Herald of Truth program, defends the same thesis. These brethren unquestionably speak the prevailing sentiment of present day churches of Christ; theirs is the majority point of view.

It is quite obvious that in the twentieth century, and among the conservative disciples, Alexander Campbell's contention that "there is no pattern" controls major support — exactly as it did in the nineteenth century and among the liberal disciples.

The Difference

If this be the case, one might ask why do not the conservative Churches of Christ accept and set up their own organizations and societies comparable to the Missionary Societies of the past century? What holds them back?

The question is fair. And the answer is fairly simple. The catastrophic division which rent the church a century ago was a tragedy which has left its mark. The very expression "missionary society" has a chilling and frightening effect in the ears of a conservative — even to the third and fourth generation! The heartache and bitterness of that long ago struggle will not soon be erased. The "Missionary Society" is wrong, wrong, WRONG!! Our fathers and our grand-fathers have told us so. It split the church; it is evil. Any "separate organization" to do the work of the church is of Satan, and must be avoided at all costs...

Consequently, an entire generation has come along passionately believing in the inherent evil and wrongness of the Missionary Society, but having no adequate understanding at all as to WHY it is wrong. And not knowing why the Missionary Society is wrong, this generation has unconsciously accepted and embraced the most fundamental error which gave birth to the Missionary Society — Campbell's dictum that "there is no pattern for congregational cooperation." Shunning the form of the Missionary Society like the plague, they have enthusiastically received the substance of it in a dozen subtle ways which we shall demonstrate presently. In word they have anathematized the principle of the Society; indeed they have accepted it. Vehemently declaiming against making the church universal a functional body, they have effected arrangements and systems that do that very thing.

The Church Local And Universal

In order to have any adequate understanding of this problem, it is necessary to give close and thoughtful study to the nature and structure of the New Testament church. The word "church" occurs first in the Bible in Matthew 16:18, where it is used in its general or universal sense. This "church" includes all the saved of earth; this is the "church" universal. The same usage is given the "church" in Paul's beautiful comparison in Ephesians 5:22-33: "Wives be in subjection unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ also is the head of the church, being himself the saviour of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love you wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."

This "church" is a relationship to Christ. It has no organization. It has no geographical boundaries. It has no meeting place on earth. This "church" has no mission, no function; it is not a functional body. We could get almost exactly the right concept of this use of the word if we substituted the phrase "the saved ones" in every place where the word "church" (in this universal sense) is found in the Bible. The word denotes and defines a relationship of each saved individual to the Lord. The idea of organization, work, mission, activity is not there.

The Local Church

There is a second basic sense in which the New Testament uses the word "church," and that is in reference to some particular congregation or congregations. When Paul wrote, "The churches of Christ salute you" to the Romans (Romans 16:16), he was referring to certain specific congregations, to certain groups or bodies of people who were banded together as a continuing congregation. This meaning of the word is found often in the Sacred writings: "Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there . . ." (Acts 13:1.) "And when they had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed." (Acts 14:23.) "Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth." (I Cor. I:1-2) The Revelation of John has specific messages to "the church in Ephesus" (2:1-8); "the church in Smyrna (2:8-11); "the church in Pergamum" (2:12-17), etc. These are all local congregations, each one with its own organization, work and responsibility.

This local "church" is functional. It can act as a unit, one body, in whatever area one may consider — whether as worshipping, or exercising discipline (I Cor. 5:4), or practicing benevolence (II Cor. 8:1); or preaching the gospel. (Phil. 1:5; 4:15; II Cor. 11:8.) In all these activities the congregation acts as a Collective Unit — every member participates, to be sure, but the final action is an act of the church.

A Comparison

By way of comparison, consider the Caucasian race. This race is NOT an organization; but rather a relationship. All members of the Caucasian race are related by a common ancestry. But there is no governing body for the race; there is no way by which the Caucasian race may enact laws, make treaties, enter into negotiations with anybody about anything. The Caucasian race is NOT a functional body. But this same Caucasian race is composed of many nations — America, England, France, Russia, Spain, Italy, Turkey, etc. Now, these nations ARE functional bodies; they have their own organizational arrangements by which each one can act independently of all others. Each nation has the right to enact laws, make treaties, levy taxes, and perform all the sovereign acts of any self-determining body.

If we will let the Caucasian race represent the Church Universal, and let each member nation of that race represent some Church Local, we may have a fair concept (not fully accurate in all particulars, of course) of the differences between the two usages of the word "church" in the Bible.

The Universal Church is a kingdom of citizens (Eph. 2:19); a family of children (Rom. 8:14-17); a building of stones (I Peter 2:5); a body of members (I Cor. 12:12); a vine with branches. (Jno. 15:1-6.) This "church" is made up of individuals who are "in Christ." It has no universal overseers; it has no universal treasury; it has no collective action.

This Universal Church exists is "in heaven and on earth" (Eph. 3:15); the local church is limited to the earth. (Phil. 1:1.) The Lord "adds" to the Universal Church (Acts 2:47); but faithful Christians may "join" the local church. (Acts 9:26.) We enter the Universal Church by baptism (I Cor. 12:13); but are accepted into the local church by consent and agreement. (II John 10.) The Universal Church has one Shepherd (Matt. 23:8); the local churches have lesser shepherds. (I Peter 51-2.) Against that Universal Church Satan can not prevail (Matt. 16:18) either against its building or its eternal existence; against the local congregations he may and often does prevail. (Rev. 2:5.) The Universal Church has to do with the relationship of saints with God; the local church has to do with the relationship of saints with saints.

The Catholic Error

The development of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is a long and sad story. But there was one basic error lying at the bottom of the whole structure — and that was the concept of a functional Universal Church. Over a period of nearly a thousand years, by changes and deviations almost too small to be noticed when taken separately and individually, a gradual centralization of authority was built up. The New Testament picture is that of many congregations, completely independent of each other, having no ties to each other save the spiritual ties of love and good will as common children of one Father. Each congregation had its own elders, its own treasury, and its own program of work. There was no "pooling" either of resources, of authority, or of activity.

In contrast to this, the Catholic concept developing through the centuries, envisaged a "Universal Church" composed of all congregations of Christians, giving respect and deference to, and working under one visible and supreme head — the Papacy. This concept called for a centralized director of the congregational activities, for the pooling of resources, for the acceptance by each congregation of the "control and oversight" of a part of its work by some body or person or agency outside the local congregation. The difference between the New Testament concept and the Catholic concept may be graphically contrasted in the following diagrams:

Chart Goes Here The Denominational Error

It is a tragic and ironic fact of religious history that the "Catholic concept" of the Church Universal as a functional body had become so deeply embedded and fixed in the medieval mind that when Martin Luther led his mighty rebellion against the vice and corruption and perversions within Catholicism, it never occurred to him (nor to the other Reformers either!) to challenge this basic fallacy of church government. The simple New Testament teaching of independent congregations, acting separately and with full powers of self-government, apparently never became clear at all either to Luther or to any of his contemporaries.

Consequently, we find each of the great denominations accepting and perpetuating on a denominational basis the same fundamental concept of some sort of centralized arrangement through which the entire denomination can function as a unit. Some of these organizations are very close-knit, as for example in Methodism; others are only loosely tied together in a confederation, as for example the Baptist churches. But even with the Baptist denominations they have their recognized authorized agencies, conventions, and other denominational arrangements through which the various congregations can participate in denominational activities. While it is true that many of the conventions and associations only offer "recommendations" to their constituent congregations, it is a recognized fact that few congregations are willing to go contrary to, or ignore, the "recommendations."

(to be continued) F. Y. T.