LOCAL AUTONOMY, UNDER CHRIST
by Frank Walker
The most glorious period of the Church's history is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Thirty-four years of unity and love centered in the greatest missionary work of all time. Those early churches and ministers set the pattern for us all. They had local autonomy, but that did not make them independent of one another. In their missionary work they were one. They were "workers together with him" (2 Corinthians 6:1). This took in every local church, every member, and every minister of the churches.
It took a united people with a vision beyond the local church to obey the great commission -to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15,16), "in Jerusalem" (in the hometown), "and in all Judea" (in the whole state), "and in Samaria" (in other states), "and unto the uttermost parts of the earth" (foreign lands) (Acts 1:8).
The very nature of their work and the greatness of that work made loving cooperation a must. The New Testament churches set a wonderful example. They had the same care one for another. Not only individually, but the local assemblies or churches had that care for the welfare of other local churches. In God's great plan, the local churches are to a great degree dependent upon each other. Smaller and less fortunate churches need help from others.
Today with many of the Churches of God small in membership, there is real need of cooperation for more effective preaching of the Word. Modern methods give us great opportunity to reach multitudes by means of the internet and the printed page. This sowing of the seeds of truth needs a follow-up program of personal and public evangelism.
To do this type of work as it should be done, there is a great need of financial support from many local churches and brethren. Supporting our local church work is needful, but that is not enough. The work must begin at Jerusalem, or at home. Jesus' command is to "Go ye unto all the world and preach the Gospel." This takes us beyond our local churches. It usually means cooperation of churches to effectively carry out this part of the program.
Local Autonomy and United Action
Too many feel that in local autonomy each church goes its own way, without plan or thought of any missionary work beyond what the local church can do alone. This is a mistake. The New Testament churches cooperated. If we are one in Christ then we must cooperate as far as needful to carry on an effective missionary program. Since the New Testament scriptures teach local autonomy, such cooperation of churches in a given missionary program must always be voluntary.
The Churches Cooperate
One outstanding example of cooperation of the churches is in the offerings taken in time of drought for the poor saints in Judea. This had its beginning at Antioch, when God warned of a "great draught" coming, "to send relief unto the poor saints" in Judea. "Which they did and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul" (Paul).
It did not stop in the local church at Antioch, but it became a great united project among most all of the Gentile churches in the years ahead. The churches in Galatia took part; also the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). The churches in Macedonia and Achaia all took part (Romans 15:25-28). The churches of Macedonia revealed the true spirit of fellowship and cooperation in this matter. Read it in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5. Paul tells how that in great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. "For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power, with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering of the saints." This was such an outstanding example of cooperative service and sacrifice to meet the needs of the hour that Paul and "the churches" sent Titus to the Corinthian church to encourage them to follow this example and thus prove their love (Read 2 Corinthians 8:6-19, 24).
This was not one church program, but many local churches were gladly cooperating. Paul in his zeal wanted each one to measure up to their Christian obligation, willing and freely (Read further about it in 2 Corinthians 9:1-8). In so doing, their blessings and their influence were greatly enlarged to the glory of God (verses 9-14).
New Testament Churches Support Its Ministry
The local churches of the New Testament times did unite their efforts in support of the ministry where needful, but they still retained local autonomy. Let us take Paul and Barnabas for examples. To start with, God said to the Church at Antioch, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (Acts 13:1-4). This was the start of a great missionary work among the Gentiles. At first only this one local church at Antioch was supporting it, but it proved to be a very fruitful period before they reported back to this home base (Acts 14:26-28. Read Acts chapters 13 and 14 for the whole story).
This was only the start. Churches that were raised up under their ministry were expected to help support and enlarge this ministry. Antioch helped start the work, but it became a large work supported cooperatively by the local churches raised up in the areas of Paul's ministry.
A few texts will prove this point. First, what is the New Testament order for the support of the ministry? Read 2 Corinthians 9:1-14. "God hath ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the Gospel." Paul had not used this "power" over the Corinthian Church (others had), but he had worked and taken wages from other churches for the support of his missionary company (Read carefully verses 5-7,11,12).
Other churches were supporting Paul's ministry. "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service." He even mentions help coming from Macedonia (2 Corinthians 11:7-9. See also 1 Corinthians 16:17).
Next turn to Philippians 4:10-19. From Rome Paul was happy "that now at last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity" (verses 10-14). Even though Paul did not at the time need the help sent - he was not in want - yet he commended the church very highly, "not that I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account" (verse 17). This service rendered in support of Paul as he labored for two years in Rome, teaching in his own hired house, was "an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God" (verse 18).
Paul did not hesitate to request that they help certain others who had labored together with him in the gospel (verses 1-3). God's New Testament promise to those who are faithful in supporting the Gospel work is given in Philippians 4:19, "My God shall supply all your need..."
The verses above show that Paul expected the local church at Philippi, not only to take care of the local work, but also to wholeheartedly support the workers who were carrying the Word of Truth to the regions beyond. There was a time when this local church was the only one that was faithfully supporting Paul's ministry (verses 15,16). "No church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only."
Again we see the New Testament plan that each local church must freely so its part in supporting God's great work of preaching the Gospel to every creature.
Note also that while commending this one church for its faithfulness, Paul strongly infers by the words, "No church...but ye only," that other churches should have been doing their part, too. One church may be called to help start a missionary project, but as it grows it calls for the loving cooperation of more and more churches and individuals. "The love of Christ constraineth us." "We are ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
The Need Today
The need is great today as we face the end of this age. God's judgment will soon fall upon this world. A mighty cooperative missionary program is needed among the ministers and churches of God today. Time is running out! We are God's watchmen.
With the internet and printed page, a good fellowship program - with oneness of purpose, through the power of God - and a real New Testament cooperative work of the churches and leaders of the churches, we can reach many honest-hearted people before it is too late. Local, regional, and general cooperation can do the work. Will we answer the call now, and let God use us in a mighty way? We must work together!
By the grace of God we will keep the bible pattern in both local autonomy and in general cooperation.
From ACTS magazine - Jan/Feb 2018 - a publication of the General Council, Churches of God (Seventh Day) Merideian, ID, USA