THE CHURCH THE WORK AND THE APOSTLESPrint This Page.
What is the relationship between the local church and the work? What is the relationship between the local church and the apostles? We want to pay special attention to these matters. Local churches such as those in Jerusalem and Antioch are special and exceptional because, on the one hand, they are local churches, and on the other hand, they are centers for the work. As local churches they are the same as other churches. As to the work they are also centers for the work. Therefore, we have to recognize that Jerusalem and Antioch are somewhat different from other local churches. However, regarding other local churches, what is their relationship with the work?
In The Normal Christian Church Life we made quite an effort to show the brothers and sisters that the local church is the highest authority on earth. The Lord has not established a federated church, a mother church, or a head church above the local church. There is no such concept in the Bible as a mother church or a head church. In the Bible only a local church is recognized as a unit. In addition, the local church is recognized in the Bible as the unique unit. There is no authority above her.
THE ELDERS BEING THE HIGHEST AUTHORITYIN A LOCAL CHURCH
In a local church the highest authority is the elders. All the matters are handled by the elders. The apostles cannot directly interfere with a local church; they cannot deal with the affairs of a local church. For example, there was a person in Corinth who needed to be removed, and yet Paul could not remove him. This is a very crucial example. Do you see from this the relationship between the local church and the work, as well as the relationship between the local church and the apostles? In other words, what the apostles want to do must go through the elders; the things which the apostles want to do cannot be done directly. God has not asked a local church to receive the commands of the apostles directly. God only asks the brothers and sisters in a local church to receive the commands of the elders. If the spiritual condition of an elder is right, he should receive the commands of the apostles. On the spiritual side the elders should listen to the apostles.
The Elders Being Appointed by the Apostles
We need to pay special attention to the point that the apostles appoint the elders. The elders in all the localities are appointed by the apostles. Timothy and Titus were apostles; they were sent by Paul. These two, one in Ephesus and one in Crete, traveled in the surrounding areas and appointed elders in various localities. Therefore, the authority of the elders is not received from the church. You must make the churches in the various localities see that not one local overseer is elected locally. My father is my father not because I voted for him, but because I was born of him. The Lord said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” The elders are not chosen by the brothers in the church but are appointed by the apostles. A local church should not select elders; it has neither the authority nor the knowledge to do so. The local brothers are absolutely not allowed to select some to oversee them. There is no such thing! What God has shown us is that it was Paul, Timothy, and Titus who appointed elders. The elders are appointed by the workers from without.
The Church Listening to the Elders andthe Elders Learning to Listen to the Apostles
Once a local church has had elders appointed, it should listen to the elders, not to Timothy and Titus. The elders are the overseers of the church. The highest authority in a local church is the elders; however, the authority of the elders is received from the apostles. The apostles give the authority to the elders, and the elders administrate the local church directly. Therefore, everyone who is an elder, an overseer, must learn to listen to the apostles. Because their being elders is due to the apostles, they cannot overthrow the authority of the apostles. It is all right for the church not to receive the commands of the apostles directly, but it is not all right for the church not to receive the commands of the elders directly. However, the elders need to learn to listen to the apostles. This is what God has arranged with respect to the local church.
The ApostlesBeing the Ones to Remove the Elders
After the meeting in Hangkow, some brothers misunderstood. They thought that though the elders are appointed by the apostles, they did not have to listen to the apostles. This is impossible. When there were brothers who did not respect the elders and problems occurred, the letter of accusation by two or three was sent to Timothy. In other words, the authority for the appointment of the elders is with the apostles, and the authority for the removal of the elders is also with the apostles. A local church cannot expel an elder; rather, the apostles need to bear the responsibility of removing elders. This is the reason why the letter of accusation by two or three was sent to Timothy.
Why is there the need of two or three people? Because this is not a matter of personal opinion. Some people speak loosely, and this is not allowed. There is the need of a letter of accusation by two or three in order to oppose a brother. This makes it a sufficiently troublesome matter. At least two or three accusers are needed to accuse an elder. Why is a letter of accusation used instead of spoken words? Spoken words can easily become rumors; but since a letter of accusation is written down, it can become a formal accusation. Therefore, there must be a letter. In this way, one cannot speak loosely. Anyone who does things loosely must bear the responsibility for it.
THE APOSTLES BEARINGTHE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE WORKAND THE ELDERS BEARINGTHE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE CHURCH
Here you can see that the apostles appoint the elders, and the apostles also remove the elders. However, the direct administration of a local church is not in the hands of the apostles; it is in the hands of the elders. The apostles bear particular responsibility for expanding the work, not for administrating business affairs. The administration and care of a local church are the responsibility of the elders, not the apostles. The apostles take care of carrying out the work of the church as a whole. The Bible makes a clear distinction between the workers, the local churches, and the elders concerning their limit of authority, the arrangement of their work, and their coordination. Therefore, we are here to try to find out the way to go on properly.
HOW THE CHURCH MAKES DECISIONS
A brother once asked how a matter should be decided in the work or in the church after it has been discussed. I think that every worker or every elder in a locality has the common feeling that a message meeting is rather easy but a business meeting is difficult. There is no problem when it comes to spiritual matters. The greatest problem is with the business meeting, because in that kind of meeting, it is very easy for everyone to have his own view; everyone’s opinion is different. Many of the problems lie especially with the matter of decision making.
ACTS 15—THE PATTERN FOR A CHURCH CONFERENCE
Today I want to show you, as I have spoken in these past few months, that Acts 15 is the only place in the entire Bible which records a meeting in which the church discussed business affairs. While there have been many councils in the Catholic Church, there was only one such conference in Jerusalem. The entire church has had only one such conference. God specifically placed this unique conference in the Bible to be a pattern. Hence, you should never make the mistake of considering that chapter fifteen of Acts is not so good. Rather, you need to realize that chapter fifteen is the most precious chapter in the whole book of Acts. Without Acts 15, we simply would not know what to do when we tried to handle business affairs. It is very good that Acts 15 has been set before the church. The pattern given to us by this unique instance is the pattern accepted by the church for the past two thousand years. We acknowledge that this is the highest pattern.
In Acts 15 a problem arose. Many foolish brothers think that being free from problems is a sign that a church is spiritual. But please keep in mind that the sign of a church being spiritual is not that it is free from problems. Instead, the sign of a church being spiritual depends upon whether it has ways to solve problems and whether those ways are appropriate. If the church is spiritual, many things will happen to it. Once a church becomes spiritual, many problems will have to be considered. If a church is not spiritual, any way and any thing is all right. If a church is not spiritual, it is peaceful and without problems. The more one lies under the hand of the “strong man,” the more peaceful his situation is. The more spiritual you are, the more problems you have to solve.
Jerusalem had a problem. Where did that problem come from? Many people who formerly were zealously serving Judaism went to different places. Some went to Antioch and told people that the believers in the church should also be circumcised according to the regulations of Moses. Under these circumstances both Paul and Barnabas had to go to Jerusalem, and other brothers in the church in Antioch also went up with them.
Brothers Being Allowed to Speakin the Conference of the Apostles and Elders
I want you to pay special attention to the fact that when they went up to Jerusalem, they went up to see the apostles and elders. Acts 15:2 speaks of going up to “the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.” Verse 4 says, “And when they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders.” The church, the apostles, and the elders, all three, received them.
Some of the believers were former Pharisees. Their background was Pharisaic. They stood up to say, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to charge them to keep the law of Moses” (v. 5). I want the brothers and sisters to see how matters were discussed in the conference recorded in the Bible. The conference in Jerusalem was a conference of the apostles and elders; it was not a conference of the church. The responsibility was on the apostles and the elders. Of course, such a thing was no problem to the apostles and elders. But a few believers, who formerly were Pharisees, rose up and said that they wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the law. I want the brothers to pay attention to this matter that it was the apostles and the elders who played the primary role in discussing matters in the church and that it was also the apostles and elders who later made the decision in these matters. But when the apostles and the elders made decisions, they had to listen to the opposing brothers. The apostles and elders could have very easily made a decision on this matter. They had no problems; they were very clear before God. But a few believers, formerly Pharisees, felt that believers should still be circumcised and keep the law. What did the church in Jerusalem do? The apostles and elders of Jerusalem met and also allowed these brothers to come and present their arguments. You should give those who oppose and who have different opinions the opportunity to speak by telling them, “Speak as much as you wish.” Never consider that this is not spiritual. God desires that the responsible brothers, the brothers with authority, would be those who can listen to others. The responsible brothers, the brothers with authority, should have the ability to sit and listen to all the opposing words. If a brother cannot listen to the speaking of others, to the arguments of the opposers, then he is not qualified to be a leader in the church.
Hence, you can see that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to see about this matter” (v. 6). The former Pharisees still advocated the practice of circumcision and the keeping of the law. The phrase “when much discussion had taken place” implies that much effort was made, many words were spoken, various arguments were presented, and different views were made known. Many brothers agreed that the believers should be circumcised, and many brothers disagreed. The apostles and elders allowed the brothers who had opinions and the brothers who wanted to speak to present their views. Although this meeting belonged to the apostles and elders, they allowed the brothers to speak and allowed anyone who wanted to come to attend. Those who wanted to speak were given the opportunity to express their opinions. This is the principle by which things are settled in the Bible. Never annul a person’s speaking, and never refuse to listen to others. Even if their words are weak or irrelevant, you still need to let them speak and present their opinions. But they cannot make the decision. In this way, at least when the brothers whose spiritual condition is proper, that is, the responsible brothers, listen to those words, they will know how to make a decision. Many responsible brothers in the church lack this habit of listening to others. They may only listen to one person’s words or to a few men’s words, but they never listen to everyone’s words. The church is neither autocratic like Thyatira, the Roman Catholic Church, nor is it democratic like Laodicea. The church is in the principle of Jerusalem. The principle of Jerusalem is all the brothers speaking, with the responsible brothers making the decision.
The Decision Made by the Apostles and the Eldersand Endorsed by the Holy Spirit and the Church
It is quite strange to see how the matter was decided. After the brothers and sisters had all spoken, the apostles and elders had to make the decision. The first one who stood up was Peter. Peter stood up to state his personal opinion, relating to them what he had personally experienced, saying, “Men, brothers, you know that from the early days God chose from among you that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, the Knower of hearts, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit even as also to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Therefore why are you now testing God by placing a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (vv. 7-10).
Later, they invited Barnabas to speak because Barnabas had gone out from Jerusalem. They asked him to relate the actual situation of the matter. Then Paul spoke.
You can see that here Peter spoke, Barnabas spoke, Paul spoke, and finally James stood up. Verse 13 is the best part: “And when they finished speaking, James answered, saying, Men, brothers, listen to me.” He was the brother who was foremost in the church in Jerusalem. The history of the church shows us that at that time he was acting somewhat like a chairman, although this may not be the right term for it. Among the many brothers in Jerusalem at that time, James was the one who stood in the forefront. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul had testified, and the three were one. These three brothers with spiritual weight shared the same feeling. Let us see what James said: “And when they finished speaking, James answered, saying, Men, brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles....Therefore I judge [these were words of authority] that we do not harass those from the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from the contaminations of idols and fornication and what is strangled and blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who proclaim him in the synagogues, he being read every Sabbath. It then seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church...” (vv. 13-14, 19-22). The matter was thus decided. This was the first, as well as the last, conference of the church recorded in the Bible.
I want to show you that this is how matters are decided in the church; it is not as the worldly people practice. The people of the world decide matters according to the opinion of the majority. The church does not decide matters in the way of Thyatira either, where one or two persons at the top make a decision and that decision is final. Rather, all the brothers have the opportunity not only to speak but even to discuss. First, everyone who wants to speak is allowed to speak. To do it this way does not mean that their words are taken but that the church waits on the mind of God. Perhaps a very simple brother speaks forth God’s mind. Therefore, everyone may speak and discuss, but do not let the discussion continue the whole time. After much discussion and after many words have been spoken, let the responsible brothers, those who have spiritual weight before God, the elders and the apostles, speak forth their opinions. At the end God expresses His mind through the ones with the highest authority. You can see that the responsible brothers all had the same opinion. After hearing so much, with the opinions of all the responsible brothers being the same, they made the decision. The other brothers then needed to learn to accept this opinion. Thus, it says, “It then seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church” (v. 22). This is how the affairs are handled in the church.
The church does not take care of its affairs by casting ballots. The final decision in handling affairs in the church is left with those who have spiritual weight. All the arguments are to be listened to; all the arguments of the brothers need to be heard. This is the manner of handling church affairs. Therefore, we need to learn to let them speak, to listen to all their arguments. I wish that every worker could listen patiently. If several brothers have opinions, let them speak and discuss. Never consider this to be wrong; this is a proper way. But at the same time, ask God to give you proper judgment.
Eventually, the decision of the apostles was readily seen as God’s decision. Therefore, the words in verse 28 are very wonderful: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” The anointing of the Holy Spirit was there. That decision was made by the Holy Spirit and “us.” A decision was made by the Holy Spirit and “us” to ask the apostles and the elders to write a letter.
Therefore, I hope you brothers can see that the way the church handles its affairs should neither be autocratic nor democratic. Neither autocracy nor democracy is allowed. There should be neither the opinion of only one person nor the casting of ballots. When the church handles affairs, the final decision rests with those who have spiritual authority. However, everyone should be given the opportunity to speak. While they are speaking, you are observing and sensing how their spirit is. At the end you stand up and say, “Brothers, concerning this matter, we few brothers have decided in this way.” In the church there is neither the majority listening to the minority nor the minority listening to the majority. In the church there are only the brothers and sisters expressing opinions and the spiritual men making the decisions. After a decision, the church carries it out in one accord. This way is different from worldly organizations and methods. I hope that all the brothers and sisters can see this.
TOUCHING THE SPIRIT OF THE BIBLE
The most crucial thing in studying the Bible is to touch the spirit of the Bible. The basic requirement in studying the Bible is that a person touch the spirit of the Bible. Try to touch the spirit of Acts 15. We have seen above that many brothers were there and that “much discussion” had taken place. Since the Bible says “much,” it must have been quite much. Perhaps those who formerly were Pharisees and who later became Christians spoke many foolish words. The first person’s spirit that I want you to touch is that of Peter.
Peter Not Being Affected by the Spirit of Debate
How did Peter speak when he stood up? He was not affected by those around him. As Peter stood to speak, he was like a newborn baby, free from any outside feeling and not at all affected by the spirit of debate. This should be the situation of the responsible brothers. If a responsible brother is affected inwardly, he is not qualified to bear the responsibility. Hence, the most important thing in reading the Bible is to touch the spirit of the Bible. When Peter stood up to speak at that time, he did not debate at all. Once you get involved with the debate, you are not qualified to be a leader, nor are you qualified to be one in authority. One in authority does not contend with people. Once you contend, you lose your position.
Peter stood up without any word of debate. This was wonderful! Peter stood up to say, “Men, brothers, you know that from the early days God chose from among you that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (v. 7). Peter was saying, “This was what I told you some days ago. This is not something I say today. I have said it before.” “And God, the Knower of hearts, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit even as also to us” (v. 8). Peter seemed to be saying, “I did not baptize them, nor did I lay hands on them. If I had baptized them, you would have said that this was something done by me. If I had laid my hands upon them, you would have said that it was I who gave them the Holy Spirit. I did not baptize them, nor did I lay hands upon them, nor did I pray for them; it was the Holy Spirit Himself who descended upon them. You cannot blame me for doing that.” He further continued by saying, “And He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Therefore why are you now testing God by placing a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus we are saved in the same way also as they are” (vv. 9-11). His speaking was very clear, simple, and without any debate or spirit of debate.
Brothers, the Bible has its spirit, and you must touch that spirit in order to grasp that book. Peter simply presented his points without being affected or losing his dignity. He was like a person in authority, simply speaking forth these things. I hope you would see that in a conference of the church, if you slip into arguments, you will become like the others and be disqualified from making decisions.
Barnabas and PaulBringing In the Presence of God
Barnabas then stood up to speak, and Paul also stood up to speak. We need to pay special attention to the fact that when these two brothers stood up to testify, they had to be very serious before God. We must again try to touch their spirit. These two brothers definitely did not stand up to speak clamorously or lightly; they spoke with weight. We must understand the situation at that time. When Barnabas and Paul stood up to speak, their aim was to stop the contention, not to generate it. Contention is stopped by means of God’s presence. In this kind of meeting, idle talk must be stopped. Idle talk is stopped not by our speaking but by bringing people before the Lord. If we are not this kind of person, such a conference will break down. It is useless to imitate. When Barnabas and Paul stood up to speak, everyone was silent. When these two brothers stood up to speak, they could bring others before God. The other brothers were their seniors, but due to these two brothers standing up to speak, everyone was brought before God, and God’s presence was brought into the meeting. The noise of debate stopped, and everyone listened quietly to what God had done through their hands.
Paul had stood many times before crowds and before the Gentiles. There is no way to bring God’s presence to such people that they may sense it, yet every servant of God is able to bring God’s presence into the church of God. When His presence is brought into the church of God, everyone is silent. I hope that the brothers would see this basic principle. Never think that you can use words to deal with words, opinions to deal with opinions, reasonings to deal with reasonings, and contentions to deal with contentions. If you take that position, you will fail immediately.
Peter, who started first, stood up to speak, and his spirit was not at all affected by the debate of the brothers. He showed the brothers from the beginning what his situation actually was before God. While he stood there, he spoke as one who knew God’s authority. As a result, he opened a way for Barnabas and Paul to speak. When these two spoke, they brought in God’s presence and everyone became silent. When God’s presence comes and the authority comes, all the opinions disappear. When God’s authority is absent and God’s presence is absent, any kind of conference in the church will not be carried out well. Man’s opinions are full of confusion. Each one expresses his own view. But when God’s authority comes in, everyone becomes silent.
Verse 12 says that they “became silent.” At that moment only Barnabas and Paul spoke.
James Bringing In the Feeling in God’s Presence
After all were silent—I particularly like the words here— “James answered” (v. 13). This was the final authority. He was generally recognized as the leading one among the brothers. He stood up and spoke in a simple way. You can see that the meeting was in his hands. “Men, brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related...” (vv. 13-14). After he repeated the words of Peter, he quoted a verse from the Scriptures. This is what God’s Word says. Verse 19 then says, “Therefore I judge.” He gave a judgment. His opinion was, “Do not harass those from the Gentiles who are turning to God.” This was not a word of debate or of contention; rather, he brought in God’s presence and God’s authority; he brought in God’s word and the consideration and the feeling before God. It was in this way that the conference of the church succeeded.
Not Merely Learning the Biblical Practice,but Possessing the Spirit of the Bible
The brothers and sisters need to learn the things in the Bible. Do not merely learn the method of the things; learn the spirit of the things also. If we only have the method without the spirit, the method is useless. We need to have the method and at the same time we need to imitate the spirit of the people in the Bible. There must be that spirit and that presence. If we live in that reality, we will be able to stop the speaking of the talkative ones in the meeting. If we are loose and casual, if God’s presence is not evident with us, if God’s authority upon us is not clear, if our attitudes, words, and actions are all casual, this kind of meeting will not have a good result. If the flesh cannot be restricted in us, neither can the flesh be restricted in the meeting. If we cannot bind our own flesh, neither can we bind the flesh of the brothers. If we do not allow God’s presence to be manifested in us, submitting ourselves under God’s authority, neither can we cause all the brothers to submit themselves under God’s authority. It is a matter of our spiritual condition. If our spiritual condition is proper, the result will be proper. If our spiritual condition is not proper, the result also will not be proper. We may want to take Acts 15 as a method, but there is not one thing in the Bible that can be used as a method. The words in the Bible are definitely not a formula. If we work according to a formula, even if it is useful, the result is still void of spirit. It is not a matter of method, but a matter of spirit; it is not a matter of a formula, but a matter of spirit. It is not that when you go out you know how to deal with the situations you encounter; rather, it is that you live before God and thus are able to bring the entire meeting before God. If you do not live before God, you cannot bring the entire meeting before God. You may know the correct order of the procedures: Peter spoke first, Barnabas spoke second, Paul spoke third, James made the final decision, and the responsible brothers wrote the letter; however, the Bible does not give any ground to those who are not spiritual. You cannot be a person who is not spiritual and yet merely learn the methods in the Bible. You need to learn to capture the spirit; then you can go forward with all the things falling into place spontaneously.
Sometime later, when we come to the topic of reading the Bible, we will mention again that in studying the Bible the basic requirement is that we must connect with the spirit. Only when we connect with the spirit are we able to understand God’s Word; otherwise, we cannot understand it.