Some "Spanish Works" And The Sponsoring Church

by Dan Gatlin

April 01, 2001

     Every child of God should rejoice when people are brought to Christ. In recent years, the gospel has made great headway in the Spanish speaking world. Many people have been taught and have accepted the truth in South and Central America and in Spain. Through the efforts of such man as Wayne Partain, Bill Reeves, and many others, churches are being established and are flourishing. There are many great opportunities to expand the borders of the kingdom of God in these areas. These men should be supported for their efforts and encouraged in this sometimes, difficult work. The same can be said for the Spanish speaking community in the Southwestern United States. There are now Spanish speaking churches in almost every major community.

     One problem that many of these churches face is that they are either very poor and/or small in number. As a result, they cannot afford their own meeting place and must use the facilities of another congregation. There are at least two scriptural ways that this can be done. First, each group can recognize the other as a separate, autonomous congregation that happens to share the same building. Their work and worship are separate. Their treasuries are separate. One group may have elders and deacons while the other does not. They may meet at different times or at the same time, but in separate rooms. Second, the two groups can merge into one. If this is done, the language barrier must somehow be overcome. This usually means a bi-lingual worship service. The language problem is not a new one. It is as old as the church.

     "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying, 'Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.'" (Acts 2:4-11)

     "Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue." (1 Corinthians 14:13-19)

     "If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God." (1 Corninthians 14:27-28)

     In the first century, the problem was overcome with miraculous gifts. Speaking in tongues meant that the truth could be communicated in a variety of languages. This was necessary for spreading the word to the world. While we don't have miraculous gifts today, we do have brethren who can communicate in a variety of languages.

     Some have said that they don't like a bi-lingual service because they are distracted and don't feel edified. They forget that worship is to focus on God, not us. Edification occurs when the truth of God's word is imparted (1 Cor.14:3, 12-13, 26-27) and understood, not when we walk away from the worship service feeling emotionally satisfied. I wonder if those who heard the gospel for the first time on Pentecost were too distracted by all the languages to pay attention to the message (see Acts 2:37)? Perhaps no edification took place at the church in Corinth because all were distracted!

The Problem With Some "Spanish Works"

     Occasionally we hear people refer to their congregation as having a "Spanish work." The meaning of that phrase varies depending on the speaker. Some use it to describe a scriptural arrangement where two autonomous congregations share the same facilities. In such cases, caution should be used to ensure that the wrong idea is not conveyed. It could be argued that the phrase has the same connotation as "youth ministry", "women's ministry," etc. In the New Testament, the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor.5:18) was directed "to the saints" (1 Cor.16:15).

     However, some use the phrase to actually convey an unscriptural relationship between two churches. They see an opportunity to distort the work and organization of the church by "helping" a small struggling Spanish congregation. In offering this "help" autonomy is set aside so that the larger church has some degree of control over the smaller one. In some places, the Spanish speaking group meets for worship in a class room while the larger English speaking group meets in the main auditorium. The singing, preaching, Lord's Supper, and prayers are completely separate. The contribution is collected separately. But when the services are over, the contribution from the Spanish group is taken and combined with the English group to form one treasury. The English speaking church sees to it that preachers for the Spanish church are provided and any material they might need is purchased. Brethren, where is the authority for this? Where in the Bible can we find one church confiscating the contribution of another and spending that money to "help" the smaller one? This is nothing more than a slight variation of the old sponsoring church concept! Once again, we see the organization of the church under attack.

     Perhaps we should see this arrangement as a "church within a church." But, again, where is the authority for that? We used to teach that "there is no organization larger than, smaller than, or other than the local church for doing the work of the church." This adage reflects the lack of authority for any such organization or sub-organization. Are we to now have sub-churches within the congregation?

     Those who have such an arrangement argue that the two groups compose one local church. If so, then this presents some interesting problems. What if two of the Spanish speaking brethren become qualified as elders? Would they be allowed to rule over the much larger English segment? If it is argued that their inability to communicate would disqualify them, then couldn't the same be said for English speaking elders ruling over the Spanish group?

     At what point would the Spanish group be considered a separate congregation? If they constructed a small building in the church's parking lot would they be considered a different church? How about if they moved right across the street? Perhaps a few blocks away? Or maybe the next town? This may sound silly, but it's not. There are several churches (perhaps many) who rule over Spanish speaking congregations that, in some cases, are miles away! They also consider the two groups as one. The point is that what defines a local church is not merely location! Two groups meeting in the same building at the same time is fine, but there are other factors to consider when defining a local church.

What Constitutes A Local Church?

     Many brethren seem unable to answer this question. Perhaps the liberal attack on necessary inference and approved examples has taken root with some. While liberals emphasize (at least in word) the authority of direct statements or commands, when necessary inference is mentioned, they respond, "Necessary to whom?" Examples are seen as perhaps being supportive of commands, but having no real authority of their own. But our grasp of necessary inference and approved examples is vital if we are to understand many aspects of the local church.

     For instance, there is no command anywhere in the scriptures that says, "Thou shalt establish local churches." How do we know that it's God's desire that there be local churches? By necessary inference of New Testament examples. By the commands given to those who were to "shepherd the flock of God among [them] (1 Pet.5:2). By the command to "gather together", or "assemble" (1 Cor.11:33; Heb.10:25). Isn't it interesting that those who deny the authority of inferences and examples have only inferences and examples (without a single command) to establish local churches in the first place?

     What is it that constitutes a local church? Several things:

     1. There must be an agreement between individual Christians to unite for a common cause, the cause of Christ. The foundation of fellowship with one another is fellowship with Christ (1 Jn.1:6-7). If someone is not in fellowship with Christ, either because they have never obeyed the gospel or because they have departed from the faith, we cannot be in fellowship with them. To do so is sin (2 Jn.9-10). In our uniting, we are to "contend for the faith" (Jude 3), while at the same time "being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph.4:3). There must be agreement as to what will be taught (Eph.3:3-4; 2 Jn.9-10), and the work to be done (Eph.4:12; Rev.2:5). In all of this, we are to be guided only by the word of God.

     2. There must be common oversight or direction. When one agrees to be a part of a local church he agrees to be under the oversight of the elders (Heb.13:17). Elders don't make laws (1 Pet.5:1-3), but they see to it that the laws of Christ are enacted (Acts 20:28). It is the distortion of this teaching that most sponsoring churches use to claim the right to exercise authority over other congregations. They reason that all churches must have elders, and if there are no qualified men in a local church, that church must be under the oversight of qualified elders somewhere else. In so reasoning, they set aside the instruction of Peter to "shepherd the flock of God among you."

     While it is God's desire that all local churches have elders, churches can fulfill their work without them. One of the most prominent churches in the book of Acts is the church in Antioch of Syria. Paul began and ended each of his journeys from Antioch. There is not indication that Antioch ever had elders. Note the following passages:

     "And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea." (Acts 11:29)

     Who made the determination to send relief? The disciples did.

     "Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." (Acts 13:1-3)

     Who was in the church at Antioch? Prophets and teachers. This doesn't mean that everyone in Antioch was a prophet or teacher, but that prophets and teachers were there. There is no mention of elders. We know that the office existed because it's mentioned in Acts 11:30.

     "And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren."

     Who sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem? The church. Again, there's no mention of elders. Someone may argue that the elders were numbered with "the disciples" or "the church". That conclusion, however, would be based on silence, since there's no specific mention of elders.

     The point is simply that, in the absence of qualified men, local churches do not need elders to function. Where elders are lacking, brethren must learn to get along in unity and harmony. We must follow the direction of the scriptures to function as a church.

     3. The congregation must participate in mutual worship. Partaking the Lord's Supper is to be done "when [we] come together as a church" (1 Cor.11:18). When we "meet together" (verse 20), we are to "wait for one another (verse 33). How can this be fulfilled if the church is segmented, or if it is taken at a different time?

     As for the treasury, notice the words of Paul:

     "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come. And when I arrive, whomever you may approve, I shall send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem." (1 Cor. 16:1-3)

     Each local church had it's own treasury. Paul did not give a command to the "sponsoring church of Galatia" nor to the "general fund of the Galatian churches." His instruction was to the "churches of Galatia." Each congregation was autonomous and directed their own treasuries. Where is the pattern that allows two or more treasuries to be combined into one?

     Members of the local church are to "speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord" (Eph.5:19). We are to "let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col.3:16). "One another" indicates mutual participation, reciprocal action. The verbs are active, and when combined with "one another" mean that all are to participate together. This instruction is directed to "the saints at Ephesus" (Eph.1:1) and "to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae" (Col.1:2) and describes congregational action. It is on this basis that we argue against choirs and solos. Would it be congregational action to break into different groups and sing different songs? If a Spanish and English church use the same building, but are in different rooms and are singing different songs in different languages, where is the reciprocal activity? How can it be said that they are "teaching and admonishing one another?"

     The reasoning that says that the two groups are essentially one because they share a building is blatantly false. These brethren don't understand what the local church is or how it is to function. Calling the two bodies one doesn't make it so.

     Understandably, there may be situations where the language barrier cannot be overcome. Those who travel to foreign countries may find a sound congregation, but understand little of what's being said in the worship. They may partake of the Lord's Supper properly, but in any other activity where communication is required it would be nearly impossible to participate. In such cases, we are to do the best we can. God does not hold us accountable to those things that are impossible to obey.


     We need to encourage and help our Spanish speaking brethren in every possible way, but we must do it in such a way so that we respect their autonomy. And, as always, we must be guided by Christ, the head of the church. The New Testament is our blueprint for the church. The church of our Lord is under attack by Satan once more. This attempt to subjugate smaller Spanish speaking churches to larger English speaking churches is the same old apostasy dressed in different garb.

by Dan Gatlin

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