FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) – Why cooperate? At first glance, the question itself might seem rather trivial. Cooperation unifies. It accomplishes more than individual effort. It overcomes isolationist tendencies. Within a local congregation, cooperation between believers to live out the Great Commission and Great Commandment vision of the church usually causes little strife. Yet, when the question is applied not simply to one local body but to many churches, the answer often becomes muddier.
The Baptist Faith and Message’s Article XIV asserts, “Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people.” In the following sections, I want to examine individually each of these tasks to see how the New Testament describes believers and churches cooperating to accomplish them.
From the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, we begin to see what cooperation for missional advancement looks like. Mark 2 records a familiar story of cooperative effort that sets a particular tone about what it means to bring people to Jesus by whatever means necessary. In that passage, we find Jesus in a particular home, and news about Him – particularly concerning His healing ministry in that vicinity – is spreading rapidly. As a result, people want to be to where Jesus is because where Jesus is, things happen.
We then find four men bringing a paralytic friend to that home where Jesus was. While few details are given to us about these four men, two obvious points stand out: they knew Jesus was in the healing business, and they had love and compassion for their paralyzed friend. If they could simply get this man to Jesus, something life-changing could occur in his life right now. This labor of love is missional cooperation in action.
Obviously, we do not find here an example of churches working together, but we do see a powerful example of why cooperation matters. These four friends were united in their desire to see this paralyzed man healed. Had one or more of them decided that another method of healing would have been better or easier, then the mission would have failed. Yet, we see how cooperation resulted in a changed life for one man and impacted the crowds surrounding Jesus as they witnessed firsthand that transformation. Is that not precisely what the Gospel compels us to do as well?
In the Great Commission, Jesus calls His disciples not only to “go and make disciples of all nations,” but also to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” That task was not merely given to the original eleven hearers but has been entrusted to faithful ones gathered into New Testament churches down through the tunnel of time. True churches are the driving force of discipleship in the world: organized fellowships of scripturally baptized believers called together in covenant with one another in order to help one another understand the Scriptures so that all of them can grow in Christlikeness. The need that Christians have of each other, and the need that churches have of each other for this task shows up even in the pages of the New Testament itself.
Consider for example Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul planted the first church in Galatia during his second missionary journey, but it would not take long for another group to come in behind him and muddy the theological waters by altering the Gospel message Paul had proclaimed to that church. Paul’s introduction in Galatians 1:1-2 shows that he wrote to them not only as individuals, but also as part of a whole group about whose well-being Paul was deeply concerned. The theological correction needed in that church was a cooperative interest.
When churches operate in isolation, the tendency for erroneous teaching to arise and remain unchecked increases significantly. Paul’s continual efforts to keep up with the churches he planted – to know their health, to encourage them in their successes, and to correct them in their shortcomings – show how cooperation above and beyond one congregation can serve to rebut error. This same Pauline effort can be evidenced in almost every New Testament letter he penned, and today’s cooperative efforts of churches should mirror that same desire.
In Acts 20:22, Paul insisted that he must go on to Jerusalem. Why? His direct statement is that the Holy Spirit was leading him there; however, there was also a cooperative work he had been organizing for some time. The church in Jerusalem was suffering due to a famine in that region, and Paul devised a way by which the churches he had planted could participate in helping them. He called on many of these churches to set aside funds so that, as he passed through and visited them, he could collect the financial aid and deliver it to Jerusalem. He wrote about this collection in several places (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Romans 15:25-28).
We should note that Paul’s collection was not simply an example of affluent congregations giving out of their excess resources. The churches in Macedonia were impoverished, but they insisted that Paul allow them to contribute as well. The benefit of benevolent cooperation, according to New Testament teaching, is not merely for the specific church in need. By the power of cooperation, every church, including those in poor areas without means to make large contributions, can share in the dignity and joy of being part of something grater for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. In this way, we ensure that the whole body of Christ flourishes, and we have a chance to show a lost and dying world what the sacrificial love of Jesus tangibly looks like.
We return now to our original question: “Why cooperate?” The simplest answer is that the New Testament models cooperation even in the earliest days of Christian churches. Carrying out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in fullness calls for churches to cooperate with one another that they might reach more people, teach more people, and help more people than any one church could alone.
By cooperating, Southern Baptist churches support nearly 4,000 international missionaries taking the Gospel around the world. Together, Southern Baptist churches financially sustain six seminaries that are training the minsters who will lead those same churches in faithfulness and fidelity into the next generation. Together, Southern Baptist churches support benevolence ministries like Send Relief, which does more than any group other than the Red Cross in terms of alleviating human suffering.
I suppose the real question for all of us in light of these truths might be why would we not cooperate to carry forward the commission of Christ?