In the next month or so, a Unity Proposal will be presented for consideration by the brotherhood of churches known as the International Churches of Christ. It seemed necessary to send out an article in advance of the upcoming Unity Proposal due to a prevalent disconnect among many of our churches. Following this paper we will publish a four page set of suggested group Bible studies that can be discussed among evangelists, elders and teachers and between regional church leaders. That series will also be published on www.DisciplesToday.net.
The current state of relationships between individual congregations in the International Churches of Christ ranges on a sliding scale from strong and collaborative to expectant but underdeveloped to neglected and even non-existent. Although many of our third world churches are still well connected and enjoying community in the first category, many of the other churches seem to fall in the middle categories and are currently exploring the possibilities of healthy and mature trans-congregational relations–an interdependence on each other as members of the body of Christ.
There is clear evidence in the New Testament that mature churches were intended to be led locally and maintain responsibility for their own affairs through either a team leadership (Ephesians 4:11-16), the elders (Acts 20:28-31), local evangelists (2 Timothy 4:2-5), or whatever form of local leadership was available in the church (Acts 13:1, Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24). At the same time it is obvious from the very writing of the epistles that the early churches were influenced by spiritual leaders from outside their local congregation. For the most part, that influence on their local ministry was according to their spiritual maturity (1 Corinthians, etc.) but established churches were not intended to be directed about most of their personal matters by those from a distance place.
Though the word never appears in Scripture, the locally directed model is sometimes described as self-governing, or “autonomy.” However, this word evokes a plethora of negative emotions for a number of disciples because of their previous experiences with mainline churches of Christ and other groups. And some groups have taken this concept to mean far more than mature responsibility. They have taken it to the level of “hyper-autonomy” — an isolated lack of connection with other churches.
Our churches have learned much from our shared trials, we have a unique opportunity at this hour to reevaluate and renew our relationships on the healthiest, biblical basis. We know that unity is largely about humility and relationships, not just a set of beliefs. In the New Testament, we see the strong bond which existed between the congregations and reputed leaders for solving problems when an impasse existed (1 Corinthians 4:14-21, 2 Corinthians 13:1-3), answering trans-congregational issues (Acts 15:1-5) or cooperating on widespread needs (Romans 15:25-29). This is commonly called “connectionalism” or interdependence.
It is apparent that many of the International Churches of Christ have, in the past few years, abandoned much of our positive connectional history as a reaction to the previous hierarchical model that was too often exclusively top-down, overly commanding and often out of touch with the local churches who were being dramatically affected by the decisions being made in another location detached from the situation. However unintentionally, in the 1990’s the family of God and the body of Christ models were supplanted by a corporate model that did not allow for maturation and natural growth of leaders and churches to take on more of their own responsibilities.
A process for change was initiated in November of 2002 with the disbanding of the World Sector Leaders group and the suggestion to reorganize and reconvene a representative council in May of 2003. Unfortunately, during extraordinary circumstances, the reactionary call to become completely autonomous was being heralded by some church leaders without the needed reflection and study. A tempered evaluation would have outlined both the strengths and weakness inherent in this radical shift of thinking and practice. The pendulum swung. In many cases we went from not allowing churches to grow up to assuming that “maturity” meant churches should be left on their own. This reaction led to what may be termed as “hyper-autonomy.” It is more a description of lack of relationship with other churches than it is an expression of maturity of the local church.
When any concept is emphasized repeatedly, and emphasized without context, without other principles to provide balance and in a world of turmoil and suspicion, that concept can easily take on a distorted meaning. Every dogma, no matter how correct, can be exaggerated. For instance, if we only emphasize Christ’s divinity and not his humanity, we have heresy.
With the rise of hyper-autonomy (which also has historical associations of Western individualism), we have seen a rise in self-sufficiency and pride. Furthermore, many disciples have felt equally hurt by the kind of decisions or indecisions made in isolation as they did during the last years of the hierarchical model. Switching between extremes does not lead to health and maturity. (For instance, Disciples Today previously posted an article, How Far the Pendulum Now?)
Hyper-autonomy has undesirable and unintended consequences. In some cases, leaders who want their church to be autonomous from other influences end up being overly directive or controlling with members in their own congregations. Some of the leaders of our churches who declared their autonomy from outside influences were shocked when the people they led declared themselves autonomous from their self-sufficient elders or evangelist.
Decisions we make about the relationships among churches actually indicate our convictions about the church being the family of God and the body of Christ. Interdependence is a concept that puts in perspective a view of the church as the body of Christ. In fact, the apostle Paul helped the Corinthians with their self-sufficiency in 1 Corinthians 12. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Corinthians 12:21) Just as in the local church, a member cannot say “I don’t need you!”, one church cannot say to another church of same beliefs and heritage “I don’t need you!” How strongly do we truly believe “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:13). And consider the example of 2 Corinthians 8, where one church helps out saints in another church. Examples such as these serve as powerful reminders of our belonging to one body.
Rather than using the term autonomy, which has come to mean self-reliance in practice, maybe we should strive to be self-responsible or self-conscientious. These terms imply that when a local leadership has an ongoing problem, they are then responsible for obtaining help rather than just solving it within their own congregation. The concept of responsibility continues when a matter cannot be resolved from within. After all, we are one body. The hyper self-governing approach observed over the last few years implies we have to figure this out ourselves. However, it has become clear that a notable number of congregations have become exasperated and stuck in their efforts to move forward in a positive way.
“But We Have No Apostles!”
Various churches have adopted different models of leadership based on convictions, culture and needs. The hermeneutics (i.e., the science and methodology of interpreting texts) of the mainline Churches of Christ heritage hinders most interdependence of their congregations — from organizing or recognizing representatives, to interceding and, when needed, an interventionist role that the apostles obviously fulfilled in the first century. The apostles are not here today. But the needs are still there.
In the mainline churches various other means have developed to try to meet these needs — often by Christian colleges, journals, people with specialized skills, lectureships, missions organizations, etc. Yet the fierce theological commitment to autonomy hinders even the noblest of efforts. Many will privately acknowledge the limitations and problems with being so strongly separated.
The Unity Proposal Group surveyed numerous religious bodies to see what others had learned from years of experience and from the Scriptures.1 Nearly every model we found rightly stated that much of the service the apostles performed still needs to be filled–usually by a collective approach. This approach involves a group of qualified people with moral and relational authority acting as representatives and working in consensus to meet the same existing needs that were once met by the apostles and their first century coworkers (i.e., prophets, evangelists, and shepherd-teachers — Ephesians 4:11-13). Of course, today’s representatives could not have positional authority associated with the office of an apostle, nor does there exist anyone today with the same prophetic gift able to give us new revelation in addition to the already revealed Word of God — the Bible.
In the case of meeting the same needs met by apostles, we should state the obvious–we no longer have the apostolic ministry in our day. There were The Twelve, Matthias (who replaced Judas) and later Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. These were the apostles of Christ and they each met certain stringent qualifications in regard to their personal association with Jesus (Acts 1:21-22, Galatians 1:15-17, 1 Corinthians 15:7-9). They held an office, they were to be obeyed and it was authority from Christ. Perhaps even a greater number held this office, but those who did would have to be proven legitimate through “miracles and wonders” (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).
It is certain that we do not have the office of the “apostle” today. But that does not mean that many of the same needs do not exist in churches today. There is no reason that respected Christians cannot be helpful to each other through their experience, expertise, inspiration, moral authority and spiritual depth. Through personal relationships, preaching, teaching, mentoring of church leaders, spiritual books and other written materials, brothers and sisters can be quite helpful in strengthening many congregations. The Bible is full of examples of regional bonds.
Regional Bonds in the New Testament
What can we learn from the New Testament relationships about congregational interdependence and a congregation’s relationship to certain commended disciples?
First, we can publicly circulate responsibly written letters containing insight about our strengths and challenges.
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.Colossians 4:16
The circulation and sharing of letters implies trust, regional association and even camaraderie. Of course, there is obviously additional wisdom contained within documents authored and reviewed by more than one person. Now consider the following Jerusalem-Antioch bi-regional connection of Judea and Syria.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.Acts 11:27-30
Second, we need to know more about each other. Even though we do not have prophets, we do have Agabus types who can provide information that is useful from a global perspective. We need to know about our brother who was recently shot in Haiti and the tens of thousands of orphans due to AIDS in the African churches in our fellowship. We can be strengthened through trusted emissaries, and this should come as no surprise because we have seen how helpful this has been on so many occasions in the past.
Well-known disciples who are commended by God and the fellowship can be helpful in various ways. Missionaries help us stay encouraged and focused on our mission by giving reports broader than a church’s individual area and enlightening us on all that God is doing.
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.Acts 13:1-3
Barnabas and Saul went to many places and experienced great victories, as the following chapter in the Book of Acts revealed. Can we imagine the suspense and doubt that would have transpired if that particular follow-up visit had never occurred?
From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.Acts 14:26-28
Have we not felt the same sense of awe in the past when we were able to see videos of disciples giving their contribution in vegetables in Russia and seeing people baptized in Papua New Guinea? Reports on what has happened in various ministries helps to inspire and reward the faith of disciples. The mission supporters are comforted by the fact that their prayers, preparation and funds given to that cause really meant something. We can relate to the episode in Acts where disciples heard the impact that the gospel was making, and how having an extended visit from a particular missionary must have really bonded the Gentile churches.
Third, we can solve problems that are bound to happen similar to those in the first-century. The Jerusalem congregation (made up primarily of Jews and including believers who were Pharisees) and the Antioch congregation (made up primarily of Gentile believers) could have easily collided on many fronts. Fortunately, the Jerusalem and Antioch churches, key churches for the regions of Judea and Antioch, already had strong relationship ties through a brother like Barnabas who ministered significantly to both congregations.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.Acts 15:1-5
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter…Acts 15:22-23
More could be said on regional bonds. It is striking that nowhere does the New Testament record affirm or infer regional a spirit of ambivalence, hands off, or self-sufficiency. For even when the saints in one place were spiritually competent (Rome, Romans 15:14) surely congregations in other places tended to struggle perpetually (i.e, Corinth). The Bible neither hides these realities nor indicates that churches were just on their own. There was clearly an emotional, spiritual and physical link (connectionalism) within the early church that did not sacrifice local respect and an individual church’s need to manage their local affairs. This undoubtedly was driven by the fact that they were aliens in this world and knew that they needed each other.
Using the term autonomy is only technically correct in referring to a church’s distinct affairs but otherwise is utterly incomplete because it overlooks inter-church relations. It is inadequate by itself to simply speak of self-government because the church is more about being a body and being a family than about being a government.
A commitment to enthusiastic connectionalism and interdependence will correct much of our recent and detrimental isolationism. It will lead us away from the phenomenon called groupthink, when a group is so familiar with itself its members can’t appreciate ideas beyond themselves. Brothers and sisters from outside our own congregations can then help us, where appropriate, to mature and advance, but not because of titles and authority. Instead their influence will be a function of reputation: are they commended for their example? As brothers (and sisters) with high standards of authenticity and spiritual gifts are commended for various roles and tasks. Others who compromise the Gospel or who exhibit various forms of favoritism (cronyism, nepotism, etc) will rightly be corrected or marginalized. Those who live in the light, demonstrate a love for the brotherhood, respect others and are determined to build up the body of Christ will be invited and welcomed more frequently.
The possibilities from developing more healthy ligaments among our fellowship of churches are then endless. There are clearly regions in our fellowship where the connection between disciples, their leaders and nearby congregations is very healthy and functional. The body of Christ is being built up to maturity. Let us learn from them. At this hour, we are in need of a new, loving and respectful Declaration of Interdependence.
See the article Stimulating Healthy Interdependence for Regional Elders and Evangelists: Discussions for Regional Evangelists and Elders
1 We studied and discussed various forms including Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Episcopalian models and others.