We value autonomy. Autonomy simply means self-governing, existing independently (Webster New Collegiate Dictionary). We are zealous about our autonomy as local congregations. We protect our autonomy. Scripture does not approve of one eldership overseeing another eldership. In the New Testament, local churches were self-governing (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit never approved for elders to be the overseers over anything expected the local church of God (the flock among them).
Each local congregation, under the oversight of its own elders, is to do her own work. Each local church does its own work of edification, evangelism and benevolence. Each local church performs these functions with its own talents and resources, without pooling funds from other congregations. Each local church functions independently without sponsoring a work for other congregations.
But, is brotherly love limited to the local congregation? In the book of Acts do we find brotherly love demonstrated outside of the local church? Were local churches so autonomous that brethren ignored one another? Were brethren aware of one another? How did they respond to the needs of one another?
The New Testament indicates that there was much more awareness of one another than we might imagine. Today we know things about other Christians in other places because of our fast paced, digital age of information. We know that the church at Thessalonica was known by others because the word spread abroad due to their work (1 Thessalonians 1:8). We know when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians he told them when they finished reading it to pass it along to the church at Laodicea (Colossians 4: 16). Further, they were to read their letters.
Simply because a local church is autonomous does not preclude our awareness of other brethren, nor does it preclude a concern for them. I may not have fellowship with them in a local church but I do have fellowship with them in Christ. Because we are in Christ, we have an added responsibility beyond the local church.
As we read through Acts, we see a concern and love that brethren generally had for one another. That is the same today. I live in a metropolitan area with several local congregations. I am concerned about those churches. I want them be successful. I want those brethren to flourish spiritually and physically. When they succeed, the Lord’s work grows and prospers.
First, throughout Acts there was the concern to spread the gospel. That concern was expressed by the Lord. In Acts 1 the Lord tells His apostles to take the gospel to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the utter most part of the world” (Acts 1:8). Jesus wanted His disciples to focus their work on more than just the church in Jerusalem. Throughout Acts, there is an emphasis on the spread of the gospel and how the gospel worked in the lives of believers. For example, the church in Antioch was aware of the work of the gospel in Seleucia, Cyprus and other places (Acts 13:1-12). They were aware of the effective the work Paul and Barnabas were doing (Acts 14:27). Perhaps most notable is the event when Peter goes to the household of Cornelius. The gospel was successful but when the Jews in Jerusalem heard about it they were not happy with Peter (Acts 11:1-3). In this instance the news of others coming to Christ produced two different responses. One was joy, the other was contention. Also, brethren knew about good works taking place. For example, Dorcas lived in Joppa. When the disciples there heard Peter was in town they sent for him to come immediately. Dorcas had passed away and the people of God were mourning. Peter came and brought her to life again. It was known throughout Joppa and many believed. Further, when the gospel was preached in Ephesus they believed and burned their books together. “The word of the Lord grew mightily and spread” (Acts 19:11-20). Throughout the book of Acts, we see the results of the gospel. We know brethren were aware of the work of other churches.
Isn’t that true today? We hear of the work of the gospel in a church in another town and we rejoice because of their effective work. When we hear of good things taking place among brethren we rejoice. In fact the questions start flying, “What is the church doing? How does that work? Why are you growing?” People hear. Good news spreads! Like Barnabas we rejoice to see the grace of God at work in the hearts and lives of people (Acts 11:23).
Second, brethren were aware of the needs of one another. We see where each local congregation provided for the needs of their flock (Acts 2:44-46; Acts 4:32-; Acts 16:1-6); Acts 11:27-30). However, when a local church had more needy among them than they could supply, other churches sent to aid in that relief (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Romans 15:25-27; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). For example, when God’s people in Jerusalem were in need brethren in Antioch knew about their need and sought to supply their want (Acts 11:27-30). The motivation for sending that relief was to fill a need so that there would be equality (2 Corinthians 8:4).
Isn’t that true today? When we hear of brethren who are destitute, maybe because of some catastrophic event like a hurricane, don’t we do what they did? We know about it and do our best to supply their want. Will we sit with our budgets over flowing while brethren are in need?
Third, brethren knew about one another and acted to strengthen one another. When those who scattered following the death of Stephen were preaching in the area of Cyprus, Phoenicia and Antioch, some heard their preaching and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. “Then the news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all with one purpose of heart that they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:19-23). Notice, those in Jerusalem heard the good news about them and were encouraged to continue in the Lord. When Paul returns to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch he strengthened the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith (Acts 14:22). Also, when Paul was being brought to Rome disciples heard about his coming. “They came out to meet Paul at Appi Forum and Three Inns. Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage” (Acts 28:14).
Isn’t that true today? We are strengthened to hear our brethren are doing well. And, don’t we want to strengthen others?
Throughout the book of Acts we see a strong concern for brethren outside the local church. There was the desire to spread the gospel. There was desire to supply healing. There was the desire to take care of their own and other brethren. There was the need to rebuke. There was the need to strengthen. There was the effort to encourage. There was the concern one church had for another. There was the need to supply the basic needs and do good works to profit others. There was the need to send men to preach the gospel to others. There was an influence, by example, of one local church on other congregations.
Our responsibility as brethren reaches far beyond the local church. Brotherly love knows no bounds. Paul will say, “Owe no man anything except love one another” (Romans 13:8). “Be kindly affectioned toward one another, in honor giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10).
While there is no collective function on a brotherhood level, that does not mean we are unconcerned about our brethren. In fact, we are to love the brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17). The local church is a blessing arranged by God. It is in the local we have fellowship in working together. As brethren we share a mutual concern and mutual relationship in Christ. Brethren are a blessing to one another. Let love abound more and more (Philippians 1:9).
by Rickie Jenkins