Cooperative Ministry in the New Testament
Are churches independent or interdependent? I’d argue that the New Testament answer is “both.” That is, local churches are not subject to the authority of any external body or individual. And yet in order to fulfill their ministries, they must cooperate with each other in tangible ways. This article will explore New Testament precedents for cooperative ministry between local churches.
PETER AND JOHN IN SAMARIA
In Acts 8 Peter and John travel to Samaria. Philip the evangelist had been engaged in a great ministry there. When the apostles in Jerusalem hear of this work, they dispatch Peter and John to the city (Acts 8:14).
We ought not to see this as a presumptuous act on the part of the Jerusalem apostles, but rather as their glad participation in and assistance to the new Samaritan Christian experience. The new work “was endorsed, received, and enthusiastically participated in by the whole church.” Upon arriving, Peter and John pray for them, and the Samaritans then receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (8:17). After the Spirit falls upon the Samaritans, Peter and John return to Jerusalem after first preaching in other Samaritan villages (8:25), and even Philip is led by an angel to leave in order to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39).
The Jerusalem church did not attempt to govern the Samaritans from afar, but rather joined in the work in this new location, not to “supervise” it, but only to share with it what it had to give.
SENDING BARNABAS TO ANTIOCH
A second example of cooperative ministry concerns a church that will itself later commit to cooperative work. The stoning of Stephen had sparked a wave of persecution of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 8:1-3). That wave of animosity sent many Christians packing out of Jerusalem to other places. Fear of reprisal, however, did not cause them to be silent about their faith. Instead, they became powerful evangelists for the cause of Christ in places such as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, “speaking the message to no one except Jews” (Acts 11:19). Some daring men of Cyprus and Cyrene took a different approach in Antioch and preached the gospel to Gentiles. This was not an innovation, since Peter had already done the same thing at the house of Cornelius; but it is still the case that evangelism of the Gentiles was uncommon before this experiment. Luke writes that “the Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21 HCSB). Again, the Jerusalem church heard about this evangelistic effort and sent a favored son, Barnabas, to visit.
Sending Barnabas was an important decision. Had the Jerusalem Christians sent someone who might have been more questioning about Gentile conversions (and we know from later texts that there were such persons), this new work might have been damaged in its infancy. There might have developed two versions of Christianity from the very start due to polarizing attitudes about the first “Gentile church.” But they made the right choice. Barnabas was already known as an “encourager,” and in addition, he was a Cypriot Jew, so he would likely be sensitive to such a situation (4:36-37).
After arriving and being encouraged about this new fellowship, Barnabas exhorted them “to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of heart” (11:24 HCSB). Barnabas then traveled to Tarsus and fetched Saul to return with him to Antioch, and the two of them “met with the church and taught large numbers” for a year.
Certainly it is the case that Barnabas was sent by Jerusalem to check out this novel situation—a truly Gentile church. It was “only natural” for the Jerusalem church to show such an interest. Barnabas was sent to advise the Antiochenes and undoubtedly to report back to Jerusalem. But it is clear that Jerusalem did not micromanage the situation. Barnabas was not an apostle, and it is likely that Jerusalem did not believe an apostle had to go, since an apostle had already inaugurated Gentile Christianity with Cornelius.
Further, Barnabas took it upon himself to bring Saul (Paul) to Antioch to help him. Perhaps he had already heard of Paul’s growing interest in Gentile evangelism. That itself may have raised some eyebrows in Jerusalem, since earlier they had eyed him with suspicion (9:27), but again, they did not interfere in the situation. They had sent someone to help the new church, thus demonstrating their desire to help in any way they could, but those helpers stayed as the “teachers” only for a year and did not represent a permanent interference from Jerusalem in the Antioch church. It also appears that Paul and Barnabas “moved their membership” to Antioch. They were obviously not the permanent pastors there, but it was to this church that they returned after missionary endeavors, making this their base of operations for ministry.
THE “JERUSALEM COUNCIL”
The so-called “Jerusalem Council” constitutes a third time in which the Jerusalem church makes a contribution to other churches. Some “men from Judea” came to Antioch and were causing trouble. There is no evidence that the Jerusalem church had sent them. The church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the Christians there concerning the matter (Acts 15:2-3). This conference was initiated by Antioch, not by Jerusalem, so that this was not a matter of the “home church” dictating policy unsolicited. The Jerusalem church met, with elders, apostles, and the other members of the church all participating (15:4, 12, 22). The church in Jerusalem decided to send a letter to Antioch, answering their questions and making minimalist suggestions to them (“to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things”). They sent the letter “to the brothers” of the churches in question, not to the pastors (15:23). When the church at Antioch received the letter, they received it with joy because of its encouragement (15:31).
Several things are clear from this passage. One, this was not an episcopal mandate since it arose from questions raised by the church at Antioch and sent by messenger to Jerusalem. The apostles, of course, had multi-church authority, but only used that authority in situations where it was necessary. Their general tendency was to allow local churches to work out their own issues.
Two, this was not the first “presbytery” meeting, in the sense meant by Presbyterians. The only persons present were Paul and Barnabas from Antioch and the brothers, elders, and apostles of the Jerusalem church. For this to be a meeting of the presbytery, the churches of Syria, Cilicia, and Galatia would have needed representation. “In all that took place congregational involvement and action are present at every turn.” Yet, at the same time, the Jerusalem church is involved in assisting the churches of Syria and Cilicia in solving a problem.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT, PERSONAL HELP, AND TEAM MINISTRY
The New Testament demonstrates other kinds of cooperative ministry as well. Financial support for other churches factors highly in several of Paul’s letters (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 8-9), and in Acts (Act 11:27-30). In Acts 11 Paul and Barnabas take the collection gathered by the believers in Antioch and bring it to Jerusalem. This is probably the year AD 46, as Josephus relates that a famine hit Judea especially hard that year, and this visit probably corresponds to Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:1-10 about his going to Jerusalem “because of a revelation” (see Acts 11:28). The church at Antioch would later (Acts 15) seek help from the Jerusalem church in solving a dispute, but here, earlier on, the Antioch believers contribute to the physical needs of their brethren to the south.
Later, on Paul’s third missionary journey, he is deeply concerned again about financial needs among the Jerusalem Christians. Each letter he wrote on that journey mentions the problem (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 8-9). In Romans 15:26 Paul refers to the gift already given by the Macedonian and Achaian Christians as a “koinonia,” literally, a “fellowship.” The word can be translated as “contribution,” but there is “certainly an allusion to the word’s common use in Paul to denote the loving intimacy of the Christian community.” Paul solicits the help of every Christian church he can in coming to the aid of their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Churches are to take opportunity to help other churches when the need arises.
In Romans 16:1-2 Paul commends Phoebe, who is from Cenchrea, to the church in Rome and encourages the Roman Christians to receive her and assist her in any way they can. Paul refers to her as a “servant,” (diakonon), which could either mean that she was a great worker from Cenchrea, or that she was a “deaconess.” It is likely that Phoebe carried this letter to the Roman church, and so Paul is introducing her to them. He commends her to them and encourages them to receive her ministry. He also urges them to “assist” her in any way possible. We simply do not know the reasons why Paul selected her to carry the letter. She may have been making the journey to Rome for other reasons, business or otherwise, and so Paul simply asks her to do him this service. What is apparent is that she will have some opportunity to serve the Roman church while she is there, and they will have an opportunity to minister to her. This is an example of someone from one church going to another church to do works of service.
In a similar way, Timothy assisted Paul with his work in Derbe and Lystra (Acts 16:1-5). Timothy was from Lystra, was probably converted during Paul’s first missionary journey, and had been ministering in both Lystra and the nearby town of Iconium, as is clear from the statement in the text that the brothers from both Lystra and Iconium “spoke highly of him” (Acts 16:2 HCSB). This already shows that this man, though he was likely a member of the church at Lystra, had also been serving in another church which was not his own. Now Paul enlists his aid in ministry “from town to town,” and so they engaged in a ministry together through which “the churches were strengthened” (16:5 HCSB). Here again is a man who is not an apostle, but who will have an extremely active ministry through the coming years, serving churches all over the region.
Paul enlisted others as well to his ministry cause, including Luke. In Acts 16 Paul reaches the city of Troas, and here, for the first time, the author of the book uses the first person plural (“we”) in recounting the narrative, since Luke joined Paul at Troas. Troas is likely Luke’s “home church” and now he becomes another traveling companion with Paul and a member of the “ministry team.” A careful reading of the account makes it clear that Luke accompanied the missionaries to the city of Philippi, but then appears to have been left by Paul in Philippi, since the “we” section ends as the others head on to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1) and only resumes when Paul returns to Philippi (20:6).
Paul likely left Luke there so that he could help the church that now included Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and others, grow and achieve stability. Paul himself could not remain since he had already been arrested there and imprisoned by the authorities. That the church achieved stability is clear from the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, in which he greets the church, together with its “overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1). Once again, we see that a person who was a member of one church, Luke from Troas, could engage in ministry outside of his own congregation, and yet still not supplant the ministry or leadership of that local congregation.
INDEPENDENT YET INTERDEPENDENT
I could adduce more examples from the New Testament, but this ought to be enough to establish the point. The early churches were independent bodies under the Lordship of Christ, but they were also interdependent.
They assisted one another in ministry, they sought advice from one another when faced with difficult situations, and they sent money to help one another when there was a need. They sent and received ministries from individuals from other churches, assisted in pastoral training one of another, and in general were interdependent congregations which, though they stood on their own feet on most occasions, were always willing both to give and receive ministry and assistance when it was agreeable both to the sending and receiving churches. Whatever institutional form it takes, churches today should work to assist each other and further the work of the gospel in these same ways.
1 John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, ed. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 218.
2 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 240.
3 Polhill, Acts, 271.
4 Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 402.
5 Daniel Akin, “The Single-Elder-Led Church: The Bible’s Witness to a Congregational, Single-Elder-Led Polity,” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Polity, ed. Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 31.
6 Robert L. Reymond, “The Presbytery-Led Church: Presbyterian Church Government,” in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Polity, ed. Chad Owen Brand and R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), 95-109.
7 Akin, “The Single-Elder-Led Church,” 31.
8 Longenecker, “Acts,” 405.
9 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 903.
10 Moo takes the word to mean that she was a deaconess, but adds that the structure of such “offices” was not well-developed at this time. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 917. Harrison demurs, noting that the word “deaconess” is not used here. Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 161.
11 Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 988.
12 Polhill, Acts, 342.
13 Longenecker, “Acts,” 458.