The Expository Files

Determining The Scriptural Work Of A Local Church

New Testament Church Series #9

To the churches in Ephesus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, Christ said, "I know thy works", and all are reminded that He likewise "walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks" (or churches, see 1:20). Clearly, God expects local churches to work: praise or condemnation is based upon their work or lack of it and He is concerned about and knows what they are doing and whether or not they are doing anything at all (Rev. 2-3). Therefore, anything pertaining to the work of a congregation of God's people should be of great concern to us. Two of the questions we should ask ourselves when discussing this subject are "what are the legitimate activities in which a local church may participate and how do we make that determination?" Not just any work is scripturally legitimate and not every standard for defining those activities meets with God's approval.

The work of a local congregation can't (or shouldn't) be determined by finding what individual Christians are justified in doing. If this is a proper method of determining local church work, then there is nothing to stop congregations from opening any for-profit business enterprise that is legal and moral; after all, individual Christians are justified in doing so (1 Thess. 4:11-12). Where would we draw the line if this were a legitimate
consideration? Some local churches claiming to be "of Christ" have demonstrated effectively that there is no "line" and are offering "services" that rival those of the local YMCA. This is consistent with their philosophy, but surely not acceptable to God. Remember our study regarding "church" being a collective noun: there is a vast difference between an individual Christian acting and a collective of Christians acting and the authority for collective activity is not found in the authority for individual activity.

Nor should we look to what is being done in the religious world generally or even in other churches of Christ and "learn" from them. Some brethren have ignored the lesson they teach their children: don't follow the crowd. Some Asian churches might have used Ephesus as justification for their activities. But had they done so they would have become "fallen" just as Ephesus had (Rev. 2:5). The Jewish people found out the hard way that wanting to be like others around them met with God's disfavor (1 Sam. 8:5-f). The principle of "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil;..." (Ex. 23:2) is one we would do well to learn.

Contrary to what some believe, Eph. 4:12, does not give us "a divine program of work or activity" for local churches; no one passage spells it out in such a neat fashion. There are two things which should help us determine what works a local church of Christ can scripturally make provision for.

1. The only way to arrive at an accurate conclusion is to read through the New Testament and find every passage we can where it is clear that a collective of saints is making provision for some activity. Notice what we find (listed in no particular order of importance).

Worship (1 Cor. 14). When saints came together in the church (1 Cor. 11:18) they made provision for singing and praying. From Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 we gather that this singing was limited to praise to God and spiritual edification to one another. One gets the distinct impression from 1 Cor. 14 that assemblies for worship were to be taken seriously and conducted in a manner conducive to solemn reflection upon spiritual matters.

Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34). One particular aspect of worship was peculiar to every one of their first day of the week assemblies (Acts 20:7): proclaiming in a solemn and dignified manner the Lord's death until He returned (1 Cor. 11:17-34). This is the only type of eating we can find local churches making provision for in the first century; other kinds were to be done at home (1 Cor. 11:22).

Evangelism (Phil. 1:15-16; 4:10-20; Acts 11:22; 13:1-3; 15:3; 2 Cor. 11:8-9). Just as individual saints felt an obligation to "preach the word" (Acts 8:4), we find that when they formed collectives they sensed the same responsibility. As we shall learn in our next study, they did this independent of one another with no organizational arrangements larger than their local assemblies. With this simple arrangement, "the gospel...was
preached in all creation under heaven" (Col. 1:23) well before the end of the first century.

Edification (1 Cor. 14). Note the frequency with which "edification" is found in a chapter describing what occurs "when the whole church be assembled together" (vss. 23,26). Building one another up through teaching God's word was obviously a practice of first century saints. This should make us think twice before we have local churches providing for teaching regarding current events, economics and other such purely secular matters.
Interesting and profitable as they might be, we read nothing to indicate local churches provided for such.

Benevolence to saints (1 Tim. 5:16; 1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8-9). Taking care of needs such as those caused by famine and other circumstances over which there is little, if any, control, is a legitimate activity for local churches. But, as we shall see in a future study, there is good evidence to support the conclusion that collective benevolence is to be limited to other local congregations and those who are saints. To act otherwise, regardless of our good intentions, would cause local churches of Christ to become no different from the Salvation Army.

2. The passages above help to illustrate our next point. In trying to determine what activities are appropriate for local churches to provide for, attention should be given to the words "of Christ" in the phrase "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16).

"Of Christ" suggests "belonging to Christ" in a special or "peculiar" sense. Because the various individuals who comprise a local church belong to and are peculiar to Christ, it shouldn't surprise us to find in the above passages that the works they, as a collective, make provision for are likewise "peculiar" to their relationship with Christ.

We have many relationships and obligations before we become Christians and there are numerous legitimate organizational arrangements that provide for these activities that we can help to form and be a part of. Recreational activities, general benevolence, getting together for purely social purposes, civic responsibilities and a host of other such things are excellent works and should be of interest to Christians.

But when we become God's special people (1 Pet. 2:9) we take upon ourselves the special responsibilities that we have outlined above. And there is a special collective -- and only one collective -- that God has ordained to provide for these activities: the local church---"the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Why form a church and say it is "of Christ" and then engage in activities that are not "of Christ?

Let us as citizens, parents, human beings, be concerned about the various activities and responsibilities that belong to and grow out of those relationships and, as our interests dictate, become a part of the various organizations that provide for activities pertaining to them. But as Christians, let us understand that we are "of Christ", that we have responsibilities that are "of Christ" and that a local church that is truly "of Christ" will limit its activities to those which are "of Christ". Let the local church be what God intended it to be and provide for what He meant for it to make provision for. This is the pattern we find and that we should be satisfied with.

By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.9; September 1998