The Church? - What Do You Mean?
If it has been your lot to hear others say or to say yourself that it is not the work of the church to engage in general benevolence to the world as well as to the saints, that statement was wrong, have been told that the church is not given the authority by Christ to permanently take care of widows unless they are widows indeed, you have been told error, because the church can. If your practice has been to say that the church should not engage in recreation for physical fitness and healthy bodies, you need to reconsider what you have been telling others because the church also can do this.
To some within the church today these statements would indicate that I am finally coming to my senses and am beginning to break free from this crusty shell of legalism and fanaticism. To others it might indicate that I am losing my senses; that I am being shackled to liberalism, having left the holy commandments. The fact is I am doing neither, nor am I stepping out in the middle of the road. The facts also are true that we may not be saying what we mean although we think we are and thereby leave the wrong impression with others. This is especially true today when so much is being said about the church and the use of the term. As for what I said above, it is not designed to deceive or to wrongly impress but expressed exactly what I now believe. The question remaining then can be worded, "Then what do you mean by your use of the word church?" That is the subject for the remainder of this article.
When studying the New Testament it is easily seen that the church is referred to in a universal way as in Matthew 16:18 and Ephesians 1:22. Every obedient believer on earth comprises the church Jesus promised to build. But, what about the local congregations and the way the word "church" was used by God to refer to them? I believe a careful study will reveal that the word "church" is used in three ways: Distributively (each Christian individually, alone) Distributively-Collectively (each individual functioning in an assembly) and Collectively (every Christian in a local congregation functioning through one act).
In Acts 8:3 we are told, "As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison." These Christians were in their homes in Jerusalem when they were taken by Saul and could no doubt have been engaging in various activities. Yet, when they were taken from home and thrown into prison "havoc was made of the church."
Notice further, Acts 14:27: "And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them...." Everyone was scattered to various places, and as we might find today some may have been cooking, some fishing, some sleeping and some studying. While these Christians at Antioch were in various places they are called the "church" and this "church" was "gathered together".
Every time an assembly of Christians in a locality is dismissed, does the church of the Lord in that locality cease to exist until they come together the next time? The above scriptures and others that might be shown prove that the church still exists there, though they are alone physically and separated from each other. When those Christians do what God has commanded them to do as individuals, though no one is involved outside their own person, the church distributively or as individuals is doing the work of the Lord.
Distributively -- Collectively
On the surface this may sound like a contradiction of terms. What is meant is each individual functioning in an assembly.
In I Corinthians 11: 18 Paul write, "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you...." I Cor. 14:28, 34, 35, uses the word ''church'' of an assembly in a particular locality in the same way.
There are certain activities requiring collective action. We are to come together to discipline a member (I Cor. 5:4); to gather together to lay by in store (I Cor. 16:2); to commune with Christ in the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 11; Acts 20:7).
Although this is collective action, how much of it can be accomplished without each individual acting for himself? No one can withdraw your fellowship from a sinful brother; no one can give for you or eat and drink of the emblems of remembrance for you. This, each individual must do for himself and by specific instructions in a collective assembly. This is nothing more nor less than the church acting collectively and at the time distributively since each individual is personally involved.
The third way the word "church" is used with reference to a local congregation is to express everyone functioning in one act. This is the only way that collective action is involved exclusively.
Notice I Timothy 5:16: "If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed." Here is clearly made a distinction between the man or woman that believeth or who is a Christian and a part of the church in some locality, and the group as a whole. The collective body is referred to by "church" and "it".
In Philippians 4:15 we are told, 'Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only." When this aid reached Paul every Christian at Philippi who had given into this collection had a part in Paul's relief in on act. When a treasurer writes a check for some gospel preacher today, in one act every Christian in that congregation collectively as the church is having a part in that work. There are other scriptures that could be used in each of these headings. However, they would be of no additional benefit in proving the points under consideration.
Each Christian who is active for the Lord finds himself functioning in each of these areas. Any time you personally have a part in aiding someone who is in need and other Christians do the same thing to others in need, though neither of you may know the other is doing this, it can scripturally be said that the church is engaging in this work as long as it is understood it is being done distributively. No one but you, the Lord and the ones receiving the aid need know about it.
On the first day of the week when a congregation meets together to worship God the Bible refers to this assembly as the church. Each Christian has to do his own giving, singing, praying, communing and studying and you understand this to be collective action that is carried on individually or distributively.
After the dismissal and everyone has separated only one tangible item remains from that gathering and that is the collection that was taken up on the first day of the week. This is all that remains to be involved in strictly collective action. When this is used, all who have had a part in contributing into this treasury has a part in its use. When the check is sent all made it possible and all have a part in this united act collectively.
Most of our problems today arise from this final use of the word "church". Generally, with the distributive and collective-distributive nothing is involved that is of a divisive nature. With the use of the money however, it is a different matter. How can we know what to do collectively? The New Testament is all we have. If it establishes our activities in the other two uses of the term "church", why not in this one also. These commands and examples are all we have. If they are not sufficient, "to whom shall we go?"
One step which has been taken by many, and which has started them down the road of error and digression is the step that seeks to erase any distinction between the uses made in the Bible of the term "church". To them there is no church distributively, collectively-distributively and collectively. I Timothy 5:16 soon to them means nothing by way of showing any distinction in responsibility. They soon conclude that whatever the individual can do the church collectively can do, and from here there is no place to stop in the use of the treasury of the first day of the week.
On the other hand some are heard to say, and I have heard it in the past, that a certain work is not a work of the church but the work of the individual. While understanding in mind that the church collectively was Under consideration in contrast to the individual, no outward distinction was made and the impression is left that helping needy persons who are in the world and widows who are not widows indeed is not a work of the church in any way. This is not true and is the work of God's people everywhere, the churches in each locality, to help in every good work, though in the New Testament these things were done by the church in a distributive or individual way.
It is very unlikely that any have made such a thorough study of the use of the word church in the New Testament that they could not benefit by studying it further.
May we learn to say more exactly what we mean and mean what the Bible says when we speak on any of these vital subjects.
Truth Magazine IX, 4: pp. 14-16