First, we must not use the model of Catholicism to determine church cooperation. Catholicism constitutes, if you will, the apostate church concerning which Paul prophesied (cp. Acts 20: 28-31, 2 Thes. 2: 1-10, I Tim. 4: 1-6). Paul warned that the falling away from the church Jesus built and the apostles established would come from within; particularly, within the eldership. Men would arise from the eldership who sought power and control and history affirms that this is precisely what happened, all the way to the appointing of the Pope, the ultimate power (Acts 20: 28-31). One respected church historian wrote:
"All the churches, in those primitive times, were independent bodies; or none of them subject to the jurisdiction of any other…Nor does there appear in this first century any vestige of that consociation of the churches of the same provinces, which gave rise to ecclesiastical councils, and to metropolitans…" (Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, pg. 72).
"During a great part of this century (first century, dm) all churches continued to be as at first, independent of each other, or were connected by no consociation or confederation. Each church was a kind of small independent republic, governing itself by its own laws, enacted or at least sanctioned by the people. But in the process of time it became customary for all the Christian churches within the same province to unite and form a sort of larger society or commonwealth; and in the manner of confederated republics, to hold their conventions at stated times, and there deliberate for the common advantage of the whole confederation" (Ibid, pg. 116).
As the truth seeker considers the subject of church cooperation, it is evident that elders only exercised rule in the local church that appointed them and of which they were a part (cp. I Pet. 5: 1-4). This group of men who met certain qualifications served in local churches (I Tim. 3: 1-7; Tit. 1: 5-11). The Spirit led historian stated:
"23: And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed" (Acts 14).
Subsequent to the original apostasy, many circumstances of falling away have involved the distortion of the government of the local church and unscriptural congregational cooperation, really consociation. This has primarily happened, in my observation, so that greater control could be gained over the local churches. Denominationalism, another case in point, that for the most part came out of Catholicism, retained lesser nuances of universal control through their boards, headquarters, alliances, etc. Alas, the Lord’s church has been seen to cyclically and regularly go astray, first by distorting the polity of the local churches. Schools, which innocently began, soon access church budgets and gain control and exercise doctrinal and moral influence. Foundations in their ostensible desire to start preaching the gospel, such as the Guardian of Truth Foundation, gain greater control through the recruiting of preachers and, thus, serve as a source detrimental to autonomy. Then there is the ever present group of brethren who claim to desire, "Greater works be done, efforts that one local church simply cannot do." Hence, forms of congregational cooperation are introduced that are without Bible authority.
May local churches cooperate without violating the autonomy of each local church and if so, what is the nature of the cooperation?
David Pharr wrote in the Spiritual Sword the following:
"The fundamental error of the missionary society in the eighteen hundreds was not that churches wanted to cooperate in evangelism but that an organization was formed which presumed to speak for the brotherhood" (Spiritual Sword, 2010, p. 23, dm.).
"We believe in the scripturalness of congregational cooperation and the right of churches to financially support and endorse programs which are under the auspices of other congregations..." (Ibid., p. 22).
"We have seen in our own times how cooperative efforts have gone afoul, as for example Herald of Truth, as well as in the case of certain schools" (Ibid.).
Rather than forming a conglomerate or head
(sponsoring) with a descending
order arrangement, establishing exterior missionary societies, or other human
conceived machinery under the guise of "congregational cooperation," the early
local congregations functioned in an independent fashion. While preaching
for the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: "I robbed other churches, taking
wages of them, to do you service" (2 Cor. 11: 8). Notice that "other churches"
sent to Paul, not to some sponsoring church, which in turn distributed the
monies, and "other churches" did not even send to the Corinthian church.
Pharr attempts to apparently justify such
arrangements as the Herald of Truth when he wrote, "Without such
cooperation there are opportunities for good works that otherwise might be left
undone." Such attempts to justify involve human rationale and by using
such, anything can be allowed! "Good works" alone, moreover, do not stand
automatically approved, they must be authorized of God (cp. Matt. 7: 21-23).
What do we say as we attempt to extrapolate truths that apply to congregational cooperation? In terms of preaching the gospel and edifying the saved, the only congregational cooperation, if you will, of which we read is concurrent in its essential nature rather than organizational and synergistic. The "other churches" of 2 Corinthians 11: 8 that supported Paul where he preached at Corinth "cooperated" in a concurrent sense. They each directly sent support to Paul. However, in this "cooperation" arrangement, there is not a scintilla of organizational tie that could threaten the autonomy of each of the contributing churches or, even, of the church at Corinth. The church in Thessalonica "sounded out the word of the Lord" (1 Thes. 1: 7, 8). As each local church to the best of their ability and opportunities sought to corporately do its work in being "the pillar and ground of the truth" in the preaching of the gospel, they cooperated. All other arrangements and cooperation such as seen in Catholicism, denominationalism, and the many efforts of "brethren" to improve on the Lord’s pattern are not only in defiance to biblical congregational cooperation, but they also create a circumstance that makes local churches potentially vulnerable to all sorts of distortions and perversions. Man rather than respect congregational cooperation, has effected congregation corruption by placing congregations in proximity positions that has allowed evil influence and control, both doctrinally and morally (see addendum 1).
As seen, churches or congregations concurrently cooperate in preaching by sending to the preacher at a specific location (Phili. 4: 14-16). In the matter of benevolence, a church or churches may send to the needy church or churches, as seen in Acts 11: 28-30, all things equal and understood. Since fellowship is conditional, a potentially receiving church may check with a church where the prospective member maintained membership (cp. I John 1: 7ff., cp. Acts 9: 26, 27, Acts 18: 27, 2 Cor. 3: 1). In all such circumstances, though, it must be realized that each local church determines, based on the scriptures applied to a given circumstance, for itself those whom they should or should not fellowship. I would consider a simple notifying of other congregations in the area as to a special gospel effort by one local church a means of cooperation. Local churches, however, have no right trying to determine for another church or churches who will conduct their preaching, who will serve as their elders, etc. Such is not cooperation, but the violation of church autonomy. A congregation or congregations are acting without authority in their efforts to cooperate by helping to build a place in which another church may meet or even as a church, trying to dictate a meeting place for another church. Such would not come under "benevolence," not the benevolence that appears limited to the basic necessities of life and would not fit the pattern of simple congregational cooperation (cp. I John 3: 17). These negative instances also provide possibilities of control and polity interference. Notwithstanding good intentions, one church does not have the right to order another church to denounce a certain doctrine or practice, even if the doctrine is false (individuals may function to warn and instruct other churches (cp. Acts 15, Rev. 2, 3). We do not ever read of "area wide fellowships," usually such "cooperation" involves an unscriptural concept of "fellowship" (meals, dinners, games, etc.). The Internet poses temptations for such churches to cooperate in a way opposed to the cooperation principles seen in the New Testament. For instance, some of the church Web rings and Web sites that are created to represent local churches in an area are what I have in mind. Mind you, I am not referring to Web sites that may provide mere directory information, but sites that state the doctrinal position and often even assign unscriptural works to area churches, such as general benevolence, along with contact information (church benevolence is in the New Testament limited to "needy saints," Romans 15: 26, 27).
I have in this article attempted to illustrate both scriptural and unscriptural forms and ways of congregational cooperation. Relative to any perceived or considered cooperation, the initial question should be, "Is this perceived church cooperation scriptural, is it expedient, and does it in any way, even potentially violate the autonomy of another church (see addendum 2)? (Related reading would be, "The Herald of Truth," "The Review of a Statement".)
Addendum 1: You will observe that while seven local churches were located in Asia Minor, while five had moral and doctrinal problems, two were free of such matters (Rev. 2; 3). Even the five with problems were not simple duplications, as would likely be the case had they been organizationally bound.
Addendum 2: There can conceivably be work done that might be too great for one local church. I mention such with no small amount of caution. When I preached in East Texas in the 70's, we did some saturated teaching that was too financially challenging for just one local church. However, each church maintained its autonomy and no circumstance was produced that could threaten the autonomy of each local church. The church where I preached, for instance, purchased radio time for one week and another local church purchased time for the next week. The elders of one local church had nothing to do with any time other than the week that church provided the program and at the beginning of each aired program, it was clearly mentioned who was bringing the program, etc. Such was independent and concurrent action. There were no sponsoring churches or exterior organizations. I only mention such to illustrate how churches are not as limited as some would have us believe.