by Steven Chan
The Bible describes the relationship between believers as one of unity and harmony as they were bonded together in love:-
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need. And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.” (Act 2:44 -47)
In his letter to the brethren at Philippi, the apostle Paul encouraged them to strive/work together, united in one spirit with one soul:-
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ: that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear of your state, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27)
At the same time, the congregations of the Lord in the first century also cooperated or worked closely together in the work of evangelism as well as in benevolence:-
Cooperating in Benevolence (i.e. helping brethren in physical needs):-
“At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.” (Rom 15:25-27, ESV)
Cooperating in Evangelistic Work (via support for preachers):-
“And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.” (Phil 4:15 -16)
“I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way.”(2 Cor 11:8-9)
Cooperating in Doctrinal matters:-
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question… When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders… Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. (Act 15:1 -2, 4a, 22-23, ESV)
The afore-stated example does not imply that the Jerusalem church was exercising authority over the Antioch church. It merely illustrated that the early Christians and congregations worked closely to resolve doctrinal challenges that were faced by them. The truth that the Law of Moses was no longer binding and that circumcision was not a required step for salvation had already been clearly established but some Jewish believers were teaching otherwise and thereby confusing the believers: “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”(Acts 15:5) The discussion among the Jersualem brethren confirmed what the Antioch church had already believed.
Although the brethren cooperated or worked closely with one another, it was also evident that no church was above the other congregations, or that one group of leaders or elders had oversight over more than one congregation. Indeed elders were appointed in every church; “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23, ESV).
Elders were exhorted to take care of the respective flocks over which they have been made elders: “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood.”(Acts 20:28); “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Pet 5:2)
The autonomy of each congregation under its respective elders is evident. There was no one person, example the Pope, who exercises oversight over all the churches. Neither was there a Board or Committee exercising authority over all the churches. Each congregation cooperated with one another but no congregation was under the oversight/authority of another congregation.
So, it is good to witness the close cooperation of brethren/congregations during the recent Klang Valley Campaign for Christ, as well as the recent Evangelism seminar. Indeed we affirm the Bible’s declaration: “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psa 133:1). However, we need to be careful to avoid any effort that may fail to respect the principle of congregational autonomy.