When I get cantankerous with the family, my good wife of 23 years, Judy, deliberately enunciates, "Co-op-erate." It's her way of reminding me to work together with the family. Being cooperative is simply a willingness or ability to work with others. The word "cooperate" comes from two Old Latin words meaning, "Two work, to perform, or to produce together." "Cooperation" is coming together or joining together with others as partners, friends, and companions.
The word "cooperate" is not found in our standard English translations but the concept is rooted in the nature of what it means to be a child of God and a participant in the community of his people.
The word "church" gives us some difficulty. The Greek word "ekklesia," often translated as "church," actually means "congregation" or "assembly," i.e., the people of God.
The people of God constitute the community of believers gathered together by God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The ekidesia may encompass all the disciples everywhere, as it does in Colossians 1:18, "He is the head of the body, the church."
The ekidesia also describes the community of believers which has been gathered from the inhabitants of a specific area. The community meets but it is a church prior to and apart from assemblies. The ekidesia also refers to the saints from a particular household (Romans 16:5). It can refer to saints in a particular city like "at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1). The ekidesias (plural) refers to the people of God of a certain region, like the province of Galatia (Galatians 1:2). The singular can be used as well to describe the saints of a large region, as in Acts 9:31 where our best manuscripts say "the church (singular) throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria."
Paul Minear explains:
"Whether referred to in the singular or the plural, the entire covenant community is considered a single unity because it has been gathered or summoned by the one God. Because the ecclesiai belong to Christ, and to God, they constitute together a single reality-a world-wide covenant community, which is embodied in localized form wherever a congregation exists" (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, I, "Church," p. 608).
Over one hundred expressions designate the church in the New Testament. All of these describe the people of God. The word "church" in the New Testament always refers to people.
Saul persecuted the church at Jerusalem. He did not persecute an incorporated entity that existed separate and apart from or in distinction to the people who made it up. He destroyed the church by going from house to house and dragging off men and women into prison (Acts 8:3).
What is the church? It is nothing more, nothing less, exactly the same as the people of God.
Saul did not persecute the treasury, the corporate structure, or an invisible, supra-people entity. He did not persecute some institution that was in any way different than the people of God.
We are Christians because we are born again in Christ. God adds all the saved to his people, the ekidesia. Christians share a common relationship with Jesus Christ twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The church is in relationship with Jesus at all times. Without him we can do nothing. We are in a relationship with him at all times wherever we are and whatever we do.
Baptism puts us into Christ and his body. Salvation and being a part of God's people occur simultaneously. The Lord's Supper celebrates the community nature of the church.
The "church" is not a corporate entity that exists separate from the people of God. It does not come into existence at ten o'clock on Sunday morning and go out of existence when the last amen is said and the disciples disperse.
In New Testament times, the scattered Christian groups did not fashion some corporate organization to federate themselves with others. Christians were not linked organizationally with those in another area except that they were all members of the body of Christ. Neither did the saints in a local area form some supra-people organization.
Every person in the church is a member of the body of Christ. He does not belong to himself any more. He belongs to Jesus. His own body is a member of Christ and this determines what he can do with it (Romans 12:4). In the new body of Christ, we are members one of another.
We relate directly to Jesus as Christians, not as congregations of Christians. He said, "I am the vine-you (disciples, not some corporate entity distinct from disciples) are the branches" (John 15:5).
We are saved one by one. We obey God one by one. We die one by one. We will be judged one by one.
There is no such thing as congregational salvation, congregational obedience, congregational worship, congregational death, or congregational judgement apart from the salvation, obedience, worship, death, and judgement of the members who make it up. General Motors Corporation is bigger than all the people who work for them. The corporation exists separate from the people. Not so with the church. The church is no bigger than the people who make it up. As the body of Christ we are linked to Christ individually and joined to each other in mutual, functional dependence.
When Paul came into a town and found no other believers, he was the church at that place at that moment. When he converted people one by one, they became part of the church one by one. There were two, then three, then four, and so on. At salvation, these believers constituted the church. They did not need to obey any other commands or perform any other actions to become the church. Because of their salvation, they were the church.
Whatever was right and spiritual for Paul to do when he was by himself was right and spiritual for his first convert and him to do together. They were the church at that place. When there was another convert, whatever was right and spiritual for the previous two to do, was right and spiritual for the three of them to do, and so on. Soon there were twenty disciples, then thirty, forty, one hundred, two hundred, five hundred, and one thousand. Whatever pleased the Lord and was right and spiritual for Paul alone to do, was right, spiritual, and pleasing for a thousand to do together.
The will of God is unified. Because we relate to Jesus as believers, and not as corporate institutions or smaller bodies of Christ in organizational institutions called "churches," then whatever one Christian can do to fulfill universal Christian responsibility then hundreds and thousands of Christians can do together to fulfill Christian responsibility.
God has not given commands and examples for all individual Christians to obey that are not likewise commands and examples for all Christians everywhere acting together to obey. One false, misleading conception is that there are commands for all individual Christians to obey that groups of Christians acting together cannot obey.
God has no commands for all individual Christians to obey which a group of Christians gathered together may not obey. Those who disagree should do four things: (1) Mark every verse of the New Testament either "individual only," "assembly only," or "both," so the remainder of us will not be condemned because we cannot distinguish whether God is speaking to "individuals only," "congregations only," or "both." (2) Name one universal command that all Christians must obey that the assembly of Christians cannot likewise obey. (3) Name one universal command that all assemblies of Christians must obey that individual Christians must not obey. (4) Explain how assemblies of Christians function without working in, through, and by the individuals who comprise them.
Any way that individual Christians can function together to obey Christian responsibilities binding on all of them individually is a way that a group of Christians in one locale can function together with groups of Christians in other locales to obey Christian responsibilities.
All the rewards and blessings of God are given to all disciples who obey Jesus, whether there by one, two, ten, fifty, or fifty thousand. Whether each person obeys by himself alone, separate and apart from the other believers in the area, or whether he obeys along with, or in conjunction with other saints in his area, is inconsequential to God as long as his will is obeyed.
Equally so, all punishments due to breaking God's law apply to every person who breaks them, whether they do it singly or in conjunction with one, two, five, or ten thousand others.
All Christians are disciples whether they assemble atlocations on the eastside, southside, northside, or west-side. All are accountable to Christ regardless of locale. Christians desire to relate to other Christians. All Christians share in the nourishing Spirit (Romans 11:17). All share in the blessings of the gospel (I Corinthians 9:23). All share in God's grace (Philippians 1:7). All are companions and brothers in the suffering and the kingdom (Revelation 1:9).
Can a group of Christians who meet on the northside of town decide to meet one Sunday with their brethren who meet on the southside of town? Can they in that service partake of the Lord's Supper? Can they share together in the body and blood of Christ? If they can, then they can share together in anything Jesus wants his disciples to do. The Lord's Supper is the most intimate act of fellowship we enjoy. If we can share the supper together, we can share in any ministry together. Could we take up a collection? Could we agree to give this money collected to some good work, whether it be benevolent or evangelistic? If any of this is wrong, then it is wrong for any disciple or disciples to ever visit any other group of disciples and take the Lord's Supper with them or give any money to their treasury. If it's right for one member, or two members, or three members from one local area to fully participate with a group of disciples in another area, then it is right for four members to do the same, and for five, six, seven, and so on until every members worshipped and worked together.
If any objector claims this is wrong, he must tell us the number of disciples at which it becomes wrong. This is right because it is nothing but cooperation within the body of Christ.
If group A can meet with group B and share all acts of worship, could group A the next Sunday meet in it's own place and take up the collection and send it over to group B to do the same benevolent or evangelistic work they did the week before when they assembled together? This is exactly what occurred the week before, except now the groups are geographically separated. Geography has nothing to do with spirituality, service, and correctness of practice.
This brotherly cooperation is not a matter of law and legalistic detail but a matter of love and judgment. The spiritual principles that guide a disciple in his relationships to other disciples are the same principles that guide the disciple when he is (1) with a group of disciples, (2) when he functions in relationship to disciples elsewhere, and (3) when the group of disciples he associates with locally decides to associate with other groups of disciples elsewhere.
In these matters, God has not given hard and fast rules but love and a sound mind (I Timothy 1:5). Jesus commands, "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). Paul commands, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality" (Romans 12:10-13). We obey these individually and/or with other Christians. Is it wrong for a group of Christians to simultaneously obey command of God? At what number does it become wrong? Nowhere in any dispensation has the number of people acting individually or jointly had any bearing on the morality or orthodoxy of any practice.
Someone says, "Is there no rule or pattern? If not, then nothing can be wrong."
Exactly. If there is no rule or pattern, everything goes.
But there is a pattern for the churches of Jesus Christ. What is it? Who is it?
It's someone we do not know very well because according to some "we cannot locate the work of the church from the gospels."
No wonder then, like at Laodicea, Jesus knocks at the door of his own churches and pleads, "Please let me in (Revelation 3:20).
We have constructed a theology that says the church cannot act like Jesus. We, who are his people, are forbidden from following him.
Jesus says, "I am the way and the life" (John 14:6). He says, "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:15). Peter reminds us, "Christ left us an example that we should follow in his steps" (I Peter 2:21). Jesus speaks, "Any one who has faith in me will do what I have been doing" (John 14:12). "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15).
What are disciples of Jesus to do, whether alone, individually or in cooperation with other disciples?
We are to bear fruit for Jesus. Our aim is to reproduce the emphasis, tone, love, outreach, mercy, and teaching of the ministry of Jesus. When our lives are like his life, the world will say of us, "These men have been with Jesus, and we cannot deny it" (Acts 4:13).
We are to become like him. We sing individually and congregationally "0 To Be Like Thee, Blessed Redeemer," "More About Jesus Would I Know," "Have Thine Own Way Lord," "Jesus Is All The World To Me," and "0 Master Let Me Walk With Thee."
T. W. Manson phrased it so well, "There is only one essential ministry in the church, the perpetual ministry of the Risen and ever present Lord Himself and all other ministries are derivative, dependent and functional."
What did Jesus do? Once a group came to Jesus and said, "Are you really the Messiah or should we look for another?" He said, "Go back and report what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor (Matthew 11:2-5). Jesus said, "What I'm doing and preaching proves who I am." Today the world says, "Are you really the church of Christ or should we look somewhere else?" Like Jesus, we must say, "What we are doing and preaching proves who we are.
In Luke 4:16-22, Jesus further describes his ministry from Isaiah 61:1-3:
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the
brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion-to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."
Of course, by the will of God the miraculous works of both Jesus and the apostles are no longer functional in the church, but the emphasis on service, love, kindness, mercy, compassion, and truth is permanently the focus of the Christian life. In our time and culture, these scriptures may be applied through compassionate assistance in day care centers, Christian schools, and Christian camps. We minister for Jesus to the alcoholics, the Aids victims, the pregnant unweds, the divorcees, the lonely, the aged, the abused and neglected children, the hungry, the illclothed, the homeless, the unattractive, and the lost. The blood of the cross says God loves every human being, no matter how wretched or wicked they are. The church must love all whom God loves.
This is no more a "social gospel" than what Jesus said in Luke 4 or Matthew 11 is a "social gospel." If Jesus preached and practiced a "social gospel," then we are guilty, too. If Jesus helped people without practicing a "social gospel," then we are with Jesus. We must be like Jesus and minister to people's needs no matter what objectors may derogatorily call it. The Jewish religious establishment condemned Jesus also because he was "the friend of sinners."
Can the Church of Christ act like Christ? Can the church, whether acting individually, or in gathered groups, or in conjunction with Christian individuals or groups in other places, do the will of Christ? Can the body follow the head who is Christ?
Jesus is the pattern. We must follow Christ (I Corinthians 11:1). The church is the people of Jesus who project Jesus in the world. The living person of Jesus inspires the religious and moral life of believers. We feed on Jesus (John 6:57). We become what we eat. If we eat Christ, then we are like Christ. We are to possess the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:25). Paul's whole life was to know Christ (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:10-11). He explains, "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body" (II Corinthians 4:10-11). Paul's prayer for the church was that "Christ be formed in them" (Galatians 4:19). No wonder Hall C. Calhoun said:"The Christian life is the life of Jesus Christ reproduced in the human life so that our thoughts, words, and actions are like his."
The only limit is, "Is it like Jesus? Is it for Jesus? Does it teach Jesus? Does it help people look like Jesus? Does it bring glory to Jesus? Does it make people praise Jesus, love Jesus, and come to Jesus?"
If it does, it is right. If it does not, it is wrong. He is the pattern.
Simply stated, any action one Christian can do to obey Jesus is an action that a group of Christians in a city, region, province, or country can do to obey Jesus. The rightness or wrongness of any action has nothing to do with the number of people involved. It has nothing to do with whether one acts by himself, with a few others or with all his brethren in a specific place, or whether he acts in coordination, cooperation, and conjunction with other groups of God's people in other places.
The only thing that matters is, "Are we obeying Jesus?" He is the pattern.
In the New Testament, consider the following stories of how Christians worked together:
1. In Acts 11:22, the church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to check out what was happening in another gathering of Christians. Barnabas encouraged them and even invited Saul to join him in ministry and many people were saved.
2. In Acts 15:4, the church at Antioch sent a delegation of brethren to Jerusalem to visit this congregation and share spiritual messages.
3. In Acts 11:27, the prophet Agabus came from Jerusalem to Antioch to bring a spiritual message.
4. In Acts 11:29-30, the disciples at Antioch sent help to the brothers in a famine in Jerusalem.
5. In Acts 15:25, the whole church at Jerusalem, along with the apostles and elders, sent a spiritual message by four representatives to other congregations elsewhere.
6. In Acts 10 & 11, six brethren from the church at Joppa went with Peter to plant the gospel in Caesaria. Then they went back to Jerusalem to confirm to the brethren Peter's behavior with the Gentile Cornelius.
7. For a period of four years or longer, Paul was gathering contributions from Gentile congregations in Philippi, Berea, Thessalonica, and Corinth to pool together and take along with several representatives from the brethren to the poor among the saints at Jerusalem (II Corinthians 8-9, Romans 15:26).
8. In Acts 15:40-41, the brothers at Antioch commended Paul to the grace of God and he travelled to other believers strengthening them in the Lord.
9. In Acts 18:27, the brothers at Ephesus wrote a spiritual message to the disciples in Achaia urging them to welcome Apollos.
10. All the assemblies of Christians sent greetings to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints (Romans 1:7).
11. In Colossians 4:16, the brethren at Colassae were to send Paul's epistle to them to another group, the church of the Laodiceans, and in turn, the Colossians were to read a letter from Laodicea. If a church could send a book of the Bible to another church, it could send all the Bible. If it could send one Bible, it could send a thousand Bibles. If it could send a thousand Bibles, it could send the money to buy a thousand Bibles.
These examples demonstrate the various ways Christians worked together to strengthen and support God's work. The Lord gave no commands for any specific methods of cooperation. We are free as assemblies ofChristians to cooperate in any way that individual Christians can cooperate with one another. Anything wrong for individuals in cooperation is wrong for groups of individuals (i.e., congregations) in cooperation. Anything right for individuals in cooperation is right for groups of individuals (i.e., congregations) in cooperation.
We are dividing over methods while people are lost. We need to quit fighting each other and start fighting the devil. The enemy is the devil, not each other. Consider the following parable:
Two men were in a boat at sea. Suddenly they heard the frantic cry of "Help me! Help me!" As they searched the water before them, among the rolling waves they spotted a young child drowning. Desiring to help the child, they both picked up the same rope at the same time, but instead of working together to throw the lifeline to the child, they began arguing over the best method of doing so. Meanwhile, the child saw the boat and thought, "I'm saved if those men will help me."
Unfortunately, the two men had forgotten the child and continued arguing over the rope. The child thought to herself, "They can't care about me; they're too busy fighting each other." Seeing no chance of rescue, she surrendered to the waves.
The child is the world. The rope is the Word of God, which we, the two men-the church-want to use to save the world. Will we spend more time arguing over the rope or more time working together to respond to a world that needs Christ? If in the end, when God calls us before him, if we have spent all of our time, money, and energy arguing over the rope, and billions never heard the name Jesus, do you think Jesus can look at any of us and say, "Well done good and faithful servant?"