I am focused in this article on “inter-church” relationships, not “intra-church” relationships. There is a significant difference. An online dictionary (www.dictionary.com) gives this information: “Inter– is a common prefix that means between or among groups,” whereas, “intra– is a prefix which means within or inside one group.” So the content to follow is not about relationships within a single church (intra-), but relationships between multiple churches (inter-).
My church is part of a fellowship of churches that meets annually for an international meeting. It was at one of these gatherings that I first thought about a question that I had never really considered in-depth: Is there a biblical case for inter-church relationships? Put another way: Do we see churches in the New Testament cooperating with, encouraging, helping, and fellowshipping with one another? Upon returning home, I determined to work through Acts from beginning to end to find answers. I used that data to prompt me to other places in the rest of the New Testament.
Before I share my findings, a few preliminary thoughts are in order. First, I was intentionally narrow in what I concluded was churches connecting with one another; I aimed to find obvious illustrations and texts.
Second, I mostly did not count the apostle Paul’s ministry among the churches as churches cooperating together and encouraging one another.
Third, I assumed that inter-church fellowship between churches in the New Testament was based upon a common confession. These churches were “one” in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 1:2) and were committed to the apostles’ doctrine. We see this, for example, in Acts 14:23 where three churches in three different cities — Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch — were encouraged by Paul and Barnabas to “continue in the faith” (see also Colossians 4:16).
Fourth, I am mindful in our day, when thinking about “application” of what we see in Scripture regarding inter-church relationships, that it is difficult at times to think about the extent of our fellowship and partnership with certain churches which have the gospel, but perhaps differ on fairly significant matters such as baptism, or how to address “justice” issues. I will not venture into that often difficult and necessarily nuanced discussion.
Inter-church Relationships in the New Testament
What follows are five ways we see healthy inter-church relationships in the New Testament.
First, churches provided financial assistance for one another.
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30)
From this passage, observe that the church in Antioch sent financial relief to the church in Jerusalem.
In Acts 20, Paul was on the third missionary journey. One vital activity on that trip was collecting money for needy believers back in Jerusalem. Notice the hometowns of the various men who were assisting Paul at this time.
Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. (v. 4)
This is a different offering than the one previously mentioned in Acts 11, though it was possibly tied to the same famine that struck several years earlier. What is noteworthy is that these various helpers with Paul were probably representatives of their individual churches. So these churches not only gave financially for the believers in Jerusalem, but provided representatives to help secure and transport the funds to those in need.
A number of texts outside of Acts are related to this collection, including Second Corinthians 8-9. The first four verses of that passage highlight inter-church cooperation regarding financial assistance.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.1See also 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:25-27.
Second, churches worked together for doctrinal clarification.
The story of the Jerusalem Council is found in Acts 15. At issue was the way of salvation, and what was clarified was that the works of the law are not required to get into God’s family. Instead, a person is saved, as Peter put it, “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 11); a sinner’s heart is cleansed “by faith” (v. 9). This controversy did not flare up in Jerusalem, but in the church in Antioch (vv. 1-2). The church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas along with “some others . . . to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” This is a highly unique situation because the apostles were involved, but we do see the elders of the Jerusalem church, and even “the whole church” (v. 22), participating in this decision-making process. So, technically, one church reached out to another church for help on clarifying the gospel.2 I do not think Acts 15 is an argument for Presbyterian church government, so I am not arguing for hierarchical inter-church relationships between church leaders. Churches today are to be autonomous and should only relate voluntarily. It is true that the apostles had a unique authority in the first century which makes this situation in Acts 15 impossible to replicate in the present in every detail. Nevertheless, there are principles that can still be applied. For example, after the New Testament period, other councils were called in the spirit of the Jerusalem council.
Throughout the rest of the New Testament beyond Acts, I am not certain we have a specific instance of churches working together for doctrinal clarification. Paul’s greetings in Romans 16:3-16 might show this. Not only are individual believers in Rome greeted, but multiple churches as well. For example, speaking of Prisca and Aquila (v. 3), Paul wrote, “Greet also the church in their house” (v. 5). That implies there were more churches throughout the city because certainly not all of the believers in Rome were able to meet in that one house. And then toward the end of the greetings, Paul seems to highlight two different churches.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, and the brothers who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (vv. 14-15)
The phrases “the brothers who are with them” and “all the saints who are with them” point to these groups as distinct local bodies of believers. There were probably more churches represented among the names listed in Romans 16.
Assuming, then, that there were multiple churches throughout Rome, I envision discussions happening among the various churches about the content of the letter of Romans. In a sense, they would have “worked together for doctrinal clarification.”
Third, churches cooperated together in missions, evangelism, and the advance of sound doctrine.
It is possible, though not certain, that the first text in Acts of two churches cooperating together in the missionary enterprise is found at the beginning of Acts 16.
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities . . . (vv. 1-4a).
The church in Lystra (Timothy’s home) and the church in Iconium were separated by 20 miles — approximately a day’s journey on foot. Though we cannot know for sure, it is possible that these two churches had a relationship with each other and, by commending Timothy to Paul, worked together in this instance for gospel advance.
Moving on in Acts, it was from Ephesus that Apollos desired to travel across the Aegean Sea to Achaia, so Acts 18:27 says, “And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed.” Apollos was commended by one body of believers to another.
Similarly, Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2).
Third John is another a portion of Scripture that reveals inter-church partnership for gospel advance. Two verses are especially helpful: “Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified of your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God” (vv. 5-6). These “brothers” — perhaps missionaries or itinerant teachers, or both — were previously sent out of a church where John (the author of Third John) was located. While traveling for ministry, they were well-received by Gaius’ church (the recipient of the letter, v. 1). They eventually returned to the church from where they came (John’s location) and testified to the warm reception they had in Gaius’ church. These brothers were then sent back out from the church where John was, and John told Gaius to “send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God.” John then highlighted the type of gospel-advancing partnership that should always be happening between churches: “Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (v. 8).3Galatians 1:22-24 and 2 Corinthians 8:18 are other verses to consider for this section.
Fourth, churches encouraged one another via loving greetings.
We do not see this happen in Acts, but we often see this take place among churches whose beginnings are detailed in Acts. For example, Paul wrote from Ephesus (see Acts 18:19-20:1) to the Corinthians (see Acts 18 for the birth of the church in Corinth) these greetings, “The churches in Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.”4See also Romans 16:16b; 2 Corinthians 13:13 (cf. Philippians 4:22).
Fifth, churches inspired other churches by their exemplary faithfulness.
Acts 17 describes the genesis of the church in Thessalonica. Perhaps just several months later from Corinth, Paul wrote to that church, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7). And then in Second Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.”
Inter-church Relationships Today
Two questions will get us strategizing about our churches and healthy inter-church relationships today.
What might keep your church from healthy inter-church relationships?
- A spirit of individualism that keeps you from thinking about inter-church fellowship. Believers in even really solid churches have a hard enough time regularly connecting with others in their own church because of fairly isolated daily routines and busyness of life, so thinking beyond our individual group might seem nearly impossible. But Scripture’s teaching must trump culture’s influence.
- A lack of unity, love, and body life in your individual church. It is difficult to accomplish with other churches what is not happening in your own church.
- An abundance of activities and programs in your church that do not allow many days for inter-church partnership and fellowship. A full church calendar may appear impressive, and even godly, until we realize what the head of the church really wants.
- Arrogance about your style of church that might cause you to look down on, and consequently avoid, other true churches. What a blessing to be in a church with distinctives you love. But not everybody experiences “church life” the exact same way.5As I mentioned toward the beginning of this article, I am assuming that any inter-church relating must always include like-mindedness in the essentials of the faith. Why would we ever look down upon true brothers and sisters in Christ? We should learn from Barnabas, sent from Jerusalem to check out the new church in Antioch. The city of Antioch was perhaps 90% Gentiles, so the church’s culture was certainly quite distinct from the heavily Jewish church in Jerusalem. How did Barnabas respond? “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23).
How might your church engage in healthy inter-church relationships?
Much of what follows will be aimed at the leadership of churches, but will be beneficial for all believers to consider.
Regarding financial assistance: Consider giving to a church in need in your area. In his book about Second Corinthians 8-9, Bryan Elliff notes, “More than a nod of the head to sincere fellowship, generosity is a demonstrable proof of our earnest desire for it.”6Surplus: Fearless Generosity in Second Corinthians 8-9 (Parkville, MO: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 2019), 81. Elliff then tells the story of a church that “has given sizable amounts of money to other churches in their city, to meet their needs and to express to them their love.” He proceeds with some details.
On one particular occasion, the church took up a special collection for a sister church that was just being planted on the same end of town. On the opening Sunday, two of the pastors took the gift to the other church without telling them why they were coming. They arranged a way to be recognized at the end of the service and presented the gift of several thousand dollars. They said, “We love you and want to be the first to invest in what God is doing here.” Their only request was that the church who received the gift would “pass it on” somehow when they were more established.
As you might imagine, this was the birth of a special relationship between two congregations who might have felt tension because of their proximity . .
The church that received their gift did indeed “pass it on” in the years that followed. Inspired by the example of their neighbor congregation, they gave 2,000 dollars to a different church in the city every month over a period of two years. The pastor said that they are now friends for life with several of the churches they gave to. He is also aware that at least one of the churches who received money from them has “passed it on” again to five other churches.7Ibid., 81-2.
Regarding working together for doctrinal clarification: This often happens among an association (or denomination) of churches, but it could also happen in a much smaller way (and potentially with even more profound in results than on a denominational level). For example, I recall a church’s elders once reaching out to the team of elders that I am part of. They had a complicated church discipline case unfolding, and decided to share some details with us in order to gain our perspective and counsel on the situation. This type of interaction between teams of leaders could also happen when a challenging issue arises in the church threatening it’s unity. Elder groups should have no jurisdiction over one another, but they can help each other to understand the authoritative Scriptures.
Regarding cooperating together in missions, evangelism, and the advance of sound doctrine: A reasonable goal for each church is to send out and primarily support their own missionaries and missionary workers. However, for a variety of reasons, that may not happen for a lengthy period of time. In the meantime, prayerfully consider joining in the support of some going out from other churches. If your are able to partner with another church (or churches) close to your church, it will strengthen your relationship with that church and be a blessing to those sent out because they won’t have to travel far when they return to report and rest.
What about partnering together in evangelism? Consider events in your area that you may team up with another church for an outreach. You know your local scene and what might work best, and even particular laws that you may have to follow (for example, where you are free to distribute gospel literature or preach with amplification). What if people are converted, or interested in coming to a church meeting? Work out beforehand with those involved to direct people to the solid church that is closest to where they live.
How might we cooperate with other churches in our area for the advance of sound doctrine? Think about this: sound doctrine will only be advanced if it is also preserved among us. So here is what we must do to safeguard what we hope goes forward: do not receive into your church people who have been excommunicated from other sound churches “around the corner” or across town. This will often require communication between pastors as well as a commitment to trust them (and their members) regarding the decision that was made regarding disciplining the person now trying to come into your fellowship.
Similarly, when people are coming into our churches from other churches close to us, we should receive them carefully only after finding out if anything happened that needs to be dealt with in their previous church (or churches, as is sometimes the case!). Once again, this typically requires a friendly phone call or email between pastors.
Regarding love and inspiration among the churches: Pray regularly for other churches and let them know that you have prayed for them. Even reach out and say something like, “Our church would like to pray for you Sunday. What are two or three items you would really like us to pray about?”
Additionally, enjoy fellowship with other churches. This can be done locally in a number of ways. For example, consider a joint meeting on a Sunday in which the leaders of each church and members from each church participate, followed by a meal together. This might only be possible if your churches are smaller, but maybe even larger churches could accomplish this type of fellowship. I am currently anticipating a meeting with another church in which I will share in the teaching with the pastor of this church, members from both churches will read Scripture and participate in the music leadership as well as share testimonies, and we will conclude with the Lord’s Supper as a meal. I am getting excited just thinking about it!
Before I arrived at my current church, the body once came together for a meeting with another church in the area in which they enjoyed a “Feast of Redemption.” They shared a meal together, but the main emphasis was hearing the conversion stories of as many people as they could possibly fit into the allotted time. Whenever I speak to those who attended, they use words like “amazing” and “so refreshing” and “wonderful” and “powerful” and “worshipful” to describe the gathering. Relationships among believers in both churches remain strong to this day.
Here’s another idea locally, particularly for pastors: attend pastors’ gatherings (again, among those who affirm the true gospel), and be the most interested, happy pastor in attendance. There is a great temptation in these meetings to talk too much about yourself and/or your church. Aim to be sincerely engaged in what God is doing in the other churches represented. Remember Barnabas and rejoice when you hear of the grace of God.
Fellowship can also be enjoyed nationally and even internationally. Consider joining a network of independent churches. The reality is we need one another, sometimes just to be inspired by another church’s example, or to realize that we are not the only church that experiences suffering.
Are you ready to pursue healthy inter-church relationships? What is there not to like? Those relationships advance the gospel locally and internationally. They magnify the wisdom and kindness of God when we receive from others. They demonstrate the grace of God when we look beyond our local fellowship to others and behold the diversity among those united to Christ. They keep before us the reality that Jesus is building his church. They motivate us when we are stagnant. They grow our affection for other believers not in our church. They demonstrate love to a watching world. They increase our joy. They bring glory to God.