The Church and the Work

Principles of the Work

Watchman Nee highlights important principles related to the local church and the work in the following passages, principles that remain helpful for all of God’s workers today.

In regard to the universal Church, God first brought it into being, and thereafter set apostles to minister to it the (1 Cor. 12:28); but in regard to local churches the order was quite otherwise. The appointment of apostles preceded the founding of local churches. Our Lord first commissioned the twelve apostles, and thereafter the church in Jerusalem came into existence. The Holy Spirit first called two apostles—Paul and Barnabas—to the work, and thereafter a number of churches sprang into being in different places. So it is clear that the apostolic ministry precedes the existence of the local churches, and consequently it is obvious that the work of apostles does not belong to the local churches.
As we have already observed, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me now Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” The service that followed the apostles’ separation, which we generally refer to as their missionary campaigns, the Holy Spirit referred to as “the work.” “The work” was the object of the Spirit’s call, and all that was accomplished by Paul and his associates in the days and years that followed, all that for which they were responsible, was included in this one term, “the work.” (The term “the work” is used in a specific sense in this book, and relates to all that is included in the missionary efforts of the apostles.)
Since churches are the result of the work, they cannot possibly include it. If we are to understand the mind of God concerning His work, then we must differentiate clearly between the work and the churches. These two are quite distinct in Scripture, and we must avoid confusing them; otherwise we shall make serious mistakes, and the outworking of God’s purposes will be hindered. The word “churches” appears frequently in Scripture, so it has been easy for us to arrive at a clear understanding of its meaning and content, but the word “work” is not often used in the specific sense in which it is employed here, with the result that we have paid little heed to it. But the Spirit has used the expression in an inclusive way to cover all that related to the purpose of the apostolic call. Let us then abide by the term which the Spirit has chosen to employ.
It has been repeated again and again, but let us point it out once again, that the churches are local, and nothing outside the locality must interfere with them, nor must they interfere with anything beyond that sphere. Church affairs are to be managed by local men who, on account of their comparative spiritual maturity, have been appointed to be elders. As the work of the apostles is to preach the gospel and found churches, not to take responsibility in the churches already established, their office is not a church office. If they go to work in a place where no church exists, then they should seek to found one by the proclamation of the gospel; but if one exists already, then their work must be distinct from it. In the will of God “the church” and “the work” follow two distinct lines.
The work belongs to the apostles, while the churches belong to the local believers. The apostles are responsible for the work in any place, and the church is responsible for all the children of God there. In the matter of church fellowship the apostles regard themselves as the brethren of all believers in the city, but in the matter of work, they regard themselves as its personnel, and maintain a distinction between themselves and the church. As members of the Body, they meet for mutual edification with all their fellow members in the locality; but as ministering members of the Body, their specific ministry constitutes them a group of workers apart from the church. It is wrong for the apostles to interfere with the affairs of the church, but it is equally wrong for the church to interfere with the affairs of the work. The apostles manage the work; the elders manage the church. It follows then that we must be clear about our call. Has God called us to be elders, or to be apostles? If elders, then our responsibility is confined to local affairs; if apostles, then our responsibility is extra-local. If elders, then our sphere is the church; if apostles, then our sphere lies beyond the church, in the work.
The reason God called apostles and entrusted the work to them is that He wished to preserve the local character of the church. If any church exercises control over work in another locality, it at once becomes extra-local, and thereby loses its specific characteristic as a church. The responsibility of the work in different places is committed to apostles, whose sphere extends beyond the locality. The responsibility of the church is committed to elders, whose sphere is confined to the locality. An Ephesian elder is an elder in Ephesus, but he ceases to be an elder when he comes to Philippi, and vice versa. Eldership is limited to locality. When Paul was at Miletus, he wished to see the representative members of the church in Ephesus, so he sent for the Ephesian elders. But no request was sent to the Ephesian apostle, for the simple reason that there was none. The apostles belong to different places, not to one place alone, whereas the sphere of the elders is strictly local, for which reason they take no official responsibility beyond the place in which they live. Whenever the church tries to control the work, the church loses its local character. Whenever an apostle tries to control a church, he loses his extra-local character. Much confusion has arisen because the divine line of demarcation between the churches and the work has been lost sight of.

(Watchman Nee, Collected Works, Set 2, Vol. 30, 99-101)

In the following pages, Watchman Nee and Witness Lee enumerate five specific principles related to the work and the local churches.

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