Sponsoring And Overseeing
God's plan for church organization is perfect. He has ordained that each congregation of believers be under the oversight of its own elders. When qualified men are selected and appointed to the work of overseeing the flock, they are its divinely appointed overseers, rulers, examples, and shepherds. There need be no misunderstanding as to the extent of the elders' rule, for God has certainly defined it. They are to rule, shepherd and oversee the church over which they are elders. They are selected by one congregation, and appointed to oversee that congregation. That one congregation is the only one over which the elders are to rule. Any effort to extend their rule beyond the congregation with which they worship is an encroachment on Divine authority. Does any one among us question that fact? Surely not. But if it be agreed that the elders are to oversee the church with which they worship, and that that is all the authority that God has given them, then we have a point of agreement that can settle the present problem of preaching the gospel in foreign lands. The only thing necessary is for all to abide by the principle stated.
When a man is a member of any church, he is properly under the oversight of the elders of that church. When he ceases to be a member of that church, he is no longer under the authority of its elders. If John Doe, a business man, be a member of the Broadway church, he is properly subject to the oversight of the Broadway elders. If John Doe moves to some other city, he will, if he remains faithful to Christ, worship with the church in his new home. He will be subject to the elders of the church in his new home, and no longer will he be subject to the Broadway elders. If the church has no elders, he will not be subject to any elders, because the church of which he is a member has none. These things are true of John Doe, business man. Can any man deny it? If they be true of John Doe, business man, are they not equally true of Otis Gatewood, preacher? If not, why not?
When a preacher is a member of any given congregation, he is subject to the elders of that congregation, but if he moves to another city and becomes a member of the church where he labors, he is then subject to the elders of his new home. If the church where he labors has no elders, he is not under the oversight of any man, or group of men. That must be true, unless God really has made a special class out of those who preach the gospel.
If a preacher goes into a field of labor where there is no established church, any group of elders, that is in a position to know the man and his work, may send support to him. They may also commend him, as being worthy of support, to others. When that is done, it may be properly said that they sponsor the man. It cannot be properly said, that, they oversee him. They do not oversee him, or any other part of the church in his new home, unless they exceed the authority that Christ has given to them.
If a church wants to help preach the gospel in some foreign city, there is no good reason why they should not persuade some faithful preacher to go there and preach the gospel, and support him while he preaches.
They may even commend the man to others, and in that sense they become his sponsor. Sometimes brethren talk about overseeing a certain work, when really they are doing nothing of the kind. It is really just a little bit silly to talk about overseeing a man who lives a thousand miles away from his alleged overseers. I did three years work in Iowa with the support of Texas churches. Two different churches, at different times, sponsored my work. It is possible that they may have spoken of overseeing my work. If they did so "oversight" was merely a figure of speech. If they did oversee my work it was by remote control. The sheep was surely not conscious of the attention that is due from a shepherd to his charge.
I respect every one of the brethren who have gone into foreign fields to preach the gospel, and I am thankful that there are churches that are willing to support them for that preaching. However, I fail to see any reason why those churches should find it necessary to establish a missionary society to do so. The fact that a work needs doing, is no good reason why it should be necessary to set up a denominational organization to do the work. We may as well face the facts now, as later. There is no scriptural authority for some of the things that have been attempted by some churches of Christ, in recent years.
It would help to clarify the present situation, if all concerned would remember what elders are to do. They are to rule, oversee, feed, shepherd, teach, and set an example for the flock. Those whom the elders are to oversee are the ones that they are to shepherd, teach, feed, watch for, and set an example for. It is a physical impossibility for elders living in one city to do all those things for any person living in another city. It therefore follows as night follows day that when elders speak of their oversight of a work in foreign fields, they are talking about something that God did not authorize them to do.