What is the relationship between your local church and every other church in the world?
In the companion piece to this article, I consider what makes different local churches independent from one another. Here we consider how they should integrate.
To understand how and why our churches should cooperate, it is worth taking a second to step inside the U. S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, while the ominous storm of angry Muslim students brews just outside the embassy gates. You probably know that the mob eventually broke into the compound, and fifty-two Americans spent 444 days as hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Yet don’t focus on what eventually happened; focus on what it would have been like to be inside the embassy while the fury was still building. What would you be doing in those moments?
Presumably, you would be on the phone in a frantic search for friends. The U. S. State Department, the nearby Canadian Embassy, the Swedish Embassy in town, even sympathizers in the Iranian government—you would be grabbing for whatever friends you could find.
What you would not do is assume that your little embassy compound, floating like a storm-embattled boat in the middle of the seething urban sea that was Tehran, sat fine all by itself. You would not try to “go it alone!” as if the fate of the U.S. government’s diplomatic mission in the world depended upon your embassy’s shoulders.
Yet strangely, this is the attitude that many of our local churches maintain as we seek to undertake God’s mission in the world. We know we are sojourners and aliens. We know other embassies and friends are “out there.” We know the world, the flesh, and the devil oppose us like a bloodthirsty mob—“for your sake we are being killed all the day long” (Rom. 8:36). But too easily our churches undertake Christ’s mission all by our lonesome. We go it alone.
Just consider: does your church cooperate with other local churches in evangelism and missions, in discipline, in counseling, in mercy ministry, in prayer? Or, honestly, does it do its work fairly independently?
A BETTER APPRECIATION FOR FAMILY TIES
Open the Bible and you will find a better appreciation for family ties among the apostolic churches. They shared love and greetings:
- “All the churches greet you” (Rom. 16:16).
- “The churches of Asia send you greetings” (1 Cor. 16:9).
- “All the saints greet you” (2 Cor. 13:13; also, Eph. 4:22).
- “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints” (Eph. 1:15; also Col. 1:4).
They shared preachers and missionaries:
- “With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Cor. 8:18).
- “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church” (3 John 5-6a).
They supported one another financially with joy and thanksgiving:
- “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” (Acts 15:25-26).
- “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor. 9:12; also, 2 Cor. 8:1-2).
They imitated one another in how to live the Christian life:
- “…you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess. 1:7).
- “For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14).
These apostolic testimonies of shared love and support between the earliest churches are matched by apostolic exhortations. They were told to greet one another:
- “Greet the church in their house” (Rom. 16:5).
They were instructed to love one another by caring for one another financially:
- “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
- “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men” (2 Cor. 8:24).
They were cautioned about whom to receive as teachers:
- “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
- “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves” (2 John 7-8a).
They were exhorted to pray for other churches and Christians:
- “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18).
They were exhorted to imitate other churches in steadfastness and faith:
- “Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4).
The topic of the relationship between churches gets difficult, of course, because it involves different ideas of authority between churches, which is where denominations divide from one another.
But wherever you come down on the question of authority between churches, it is important to recognize that our local congregations should in some measure be integrated with one another. And your church will best fulfill the Great Commission when its life is connected in relationship and awareness with other churches.
It’s worth seeing several things churches share in common and the practical implications these connections have for our corporate lives.
WE SHARE THE SAME CHRIST
Notice, first, that different Christians share the same Lord and Christ, as comes through in Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth…called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2; cf. 2 Cor. 1:1).
Different churches call upon the same Christ. They are possessed by the same Lord.
Think about what this means: the fact that we have the same Christ, Lord, and King means our many churches are bound together as a distinct body politic, or kingdom, or nation. Just as a common parent makes for familial unity, so a common Lord makes for a kind of political unity. Paul can therefore describe the Ephesians as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Fellow citizens belong to a common nation.
Different denominational traditions make this political unity visible differently. Connectionalist churches put it into practice through presbyteries and bishoprics. As a congregationalist, I find the metaphor of an “embassy” useful here because this Christian “nation” is actually spread throughout the nations of the world, and every individual Christian should be accountable to his or her own embassy. But whichever polity we adopt, we can all agree that churches at least invisibly share a kind of political or national unity together because of our one King.
Practical implication 1: All Christians should care about how our churches are structured, since polity makes this political unity visible. And polity is how Christians are made effectively accountable to our common Lord. Polity is the tool that disciplines us for righteousness.
Practical implication 2: Like a nation, our names and reputations are all bound together, even when we belong to different denominations. Do you know how obnoxious Americans overseas have given rise to the concept of the “ugly American”? In the same way, when one Christian church presents a poor witness in the city, every Christian church in that city suffers. When one church presents a positive witness, every church benefits. We therefore share an interest in one another’s spiritual welfare.
Practical implication 3: Since we share an interest in one another’s spiritual welfare, we should pray for one another, encourage one another, financially support one another as opportunity allows, and generally do what we can to support one another’s ministries. This in turn means there should be an openness to informal relationships with other churches, particularly between church leaders. Having knowledgeable relationships facilitates more specific prayer, encouragement, and aid.
WE SHARE THE SAME CONFESSION
Different Christian churches also share the same gospel confession, even when they belong to different denominations. Think of how Paul exhorted “the churches of Galatia”: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:2, 9).
John, too, expected every church to embrace a right doctrine of the incarnation (1 John 4:1-3).
Practical implication 4: Churches should partner in learning from one another and teaching one another. If you and I believe in the same truth, might we not both possess some insight to help one another understand that truth better? I listed several examples above of how the earliest churches did this in the sharing of preachers and missionaries.
In our day, there are lots of ways this can be done: through attending or hosting conferences; through supporting seminary education; through working to equip other church leaders with biblical understanding in a host of ways, from writing books to starting a local ministerial association (to supporting 9Marks!).
Practical implication 5: Churches should work to learn from other churches from across time. The great creeds have something to teach us, as do the various controversies of the past. My church often recites a historic creed on Sunday morning.
Generally, pastors should teach their people to be readers and to be thoughtful. And churches should generally care more about history than we might expect from the population at large.
Practical implication 6: Churches should encourage one another to conform to the same pattern of life, just as the apostolic churches imitated one another (1 Thess. 1:7; 2:4; 2 Thess. 1:4). Paul, sure enough, sought to “remind [the Corinthian church] of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:7); and he often insisted on a common rule “in all the churches” (1 Cor. 14:33b-34; also, 7:17, 11:16, etc.).
This implication, too, points to the value of multi-church conferences, books, or ministerial associations. But it particularly highlights the need for pastors to build relationships with one another beyond their own churches, as they seek to grow in wisdom in the nitty-gritty areas of pastoral practice. How do you deal with this tough pastoral counseling situation? I hope you have a pastor friend or two to call, or even a group with whom to discuss it.
Practical implication 7: Churches should work to supply capable pastors or at least supply-preachers to struggling churches who lack them. I know of a number of churches who, when they work to plant or revitalize another church, agree to pay the pastor’s salary in that other church for the first couple of years. And they do so without asking to exercise any authority over that other congregation! It is a gift.
WE SHARE THE SAME COMMISSION
Different churches also share the same calling and commission. All of them are “called to be saints” or holy-ones (1 Cor. 1:2). All of them are commissioned to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-19). All of them are tasked with guarding the name and reputation of Christ through church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-20).
Practical implication 8: Churches should help one another with membership and discipline. As a congregationalist, I do not believe one church can exercise authority over another. But I have watched our church work well together with other congregations in the transfer of members, as well as in the exercise of discipline. For instance, when one individual whom our church had disciplined tried to join a nearby church with whom we have a relationship, that church turned to us for guidance. Our church has done the same when individuals who were disciplined by other congregations tried to join our church. Our church does not believe that it is bound by the other church’s decision, but we would be foolish not to make enquiries. Working together in matters of membership and discipline helps us make and oversee Christ’s disciples and so fulfill the Great Commission.
Practical implication 9: Churches should work together in missions and evangelism. This can happen locally, as when our church partners with nearby churches (from different denominations) to lead evangelistic Bible studies at lunchtime in the business district. Or it can happen nationally and globally, as when the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention pool their money to send missionaries overseas.
Practical implication 10: Churches can partner together in their mercy ministry work. Paul’s example of collecting from a number of churches to support the church in Jerusalem, as mentioned above, provides the most obvious biblical example. Churches today also do well to look for ways to support sister churches with fewer resources at their disposal. This helps Christ’s kingdom and serves the Great Commission.
Cooperating in, compiling, and coordinating resources for mercy ministry among non-Christian neighbors can also help churches fulfill the Great Commission and live as holy ones who are salt and light in the world.
It was not until 2:15 in the morning of December 18, 1944, that the orders came for the 422 and 423 regiments of 106th Division of the U. S. Army to retreat westward toward St. Vith, Belgium from their position in the German forests of Schnee Eifel. By then it was too late. The German Army had successfully executed a pincer movement, surrounding and cutting off the two American regiments. By the next day over 7000 American soldiers found themselves as German prisoners of war.
Now imagine an army regiment trying to do their work alone, without relating to other regiments or the larger division or battalion. It would be foolish.
The army analogy breaks down insofar as the division or battalion command belongs to Christ in heaven. But whether or not you are a congregationalist or a connectionalist, it should be clear that the work of our churches depends upon other churches, like one regiment depending upon another.
How can your church practically support the work of other local churches?
(Click here for “A Church and Churches: Independence.”)
Jonathan Leeman, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, serves as the editorial director at 9Marks and is the author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. You can follow him on Twitter.
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