July 16, 2018

Can the Church Do Whatever the Individual Can Do?

By Norman Midgette

This is the first of several articles that will discuss the three main problems presented last time that stand in the way of unity. By way of review, they are: (1) the difference between the individual and congregational responsibilities, (2) the sponsoring church methods of co-operation, and (3) the church support of human institutions. These abbreviated statements of the problems will be enlarged upon when they are discussed.

At the present time one phase of the problem will be discussed which can be stated in the following question: Can the church collectively do whatever the individual Christian can do in service to God?

Lack of Agreement

Among those who are in general agreement that the church can do what the individual can do there are disagreements as to how far this statement should be taken. Some are willing to say, "Whatever the individual Christian can do to the glory of God, the church collectively can do." Others differ with this by saying it is too inclusive. These believe, "That which every Christian is commanded to do, as a Christian duty, the church is commanded to do."

The defense of each of these usually takes this form: the church is made up of individuals and the only way the church can act is through the individual. Therefore, what the individual can do the church can do. Human wisdom with its reason and logic makes this defense sound good on the surface, but the question remains, how firmly does it rest upon divine wisdom? The only way we can find out is to go to the Bible and see.

Ananias and Sapphira -- Acts 5

Luke records the well known story of these two Christians who appeared to be doing a

good work but lost their lives in the deception their hearts devised. They sold a piece of land and laid part of the price they received at the apostles' feet. They evidentially left the impression they were placing it all there.

While addressing Ananias in verse 4, Peter speaks of a man's money being in two places and under two different authorities. "Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?" This word "power" is the same used by Jesus in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth" (verse 18). It is defined, "the right to exercise authority." While the land was his, Ananias could use it as he pleased. Even after it was sold it was in his "own power." But under whose power was it when it was laid at the apostles feet in the common collection? Who, then, had the right to say what it was to be used for but God? It was then in another's possession and under a different authority. God's word directed its use when it became His possession.

In connection with this event let me ask these questions. While Ananias possessed the land could he have raised a crop on it and given the money to the Lord, and could we not do the same today? However, if the individual good works can be done by the church collectively, could the church at Jerusalem have purchased that piece of land back, raised a crop and after the harvest put the money at the apostles feet? Or in the case today, could the church do the same and put it in the collection? Who is willing to put the church in business like this today? Yet to be consistent, if the church can do what the individual can, you will have to agree it would be all right to do so.

To all who are willing to respect God's word this would be as much an addition to God's instruction for giving as instrumental music is to the kind of music God has authorized. There is a difference and this is one passage that shows that.

The Church and Widows -- 1 Tim. 5

If there were no other section in the entire Bible on the subject, I Timothy 5 should answer the question we are discussing. This chapter not only shows what God teaches on the difference between the church collectively and the individual, but also furthermore shows this in connection with the subject of benevolence, one of the problems within the churches today.

I Timothy 5:16 reads, "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." This scripture is discussing a good work of both the church and the individual. Furthermore, it is a requirement of all Christians to relieve the needs of those widows of their households (verses 8, 16). But, though it is a good work and a requirement of all, the Holy Spirit said in language understandable to all that the individual was to do this and not the church, that it might relieve those who were widows indeed. The qualification for these widows is given in verses 9 and 10. These include both age and character qualifications. There are no such qualifications given to the widows the individuals are to care for.

James 1:27 reports that one is to "visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and keep himself unspotted from the world." Any fatherless and any widow in affliction are our responsibility as far as opportunity and ability permit. As we have seen, this is not so with the church collectively which Paul refers to as "it" (I Tim. 5:16). Yes, there is a difference and anyone who is willing to look can see it clearly.

Though other scriptures could be given to show the difference between individual and congregational action they would not add to the truthfulness or force of the scriptures already presented.

Consider now the kind of defense given by those who advocate the teaching that the church collectively can do what the individual can do to the glory of God.

The Defense

In a recent bulletin circulated in the Peninsula (Canadian) the following statement was made as proof of the above belief. "That which every Christian is commanded to do, as a Christian duty, the church is commanded to do. The aggregate of the membership, all the members, is the church! What every Christian is commanded to do the church is to do."

P. H. Welshimer, who for many years wrote much of the quarterly material for the Standard Publishing Co., and the Christian Church, has given a defense of the term Christian Church. I want you to notice the reasoning he uses to justify that name in the following excerpt from his article.

"Continually, there is an argument concerning the name of the church. The church of our brotherhood is known by the names: Church of Christ; Christian Church; and Disciples of Christ . . . The Church of Christ is used by our brethren who are opposed to the use of musical instruments and organized missionary work. The title "Christian Church" is perfectly scriptural and gives all honor to the Christ. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Isaiah in Chapter 62 that a new name shall be given and would be given first to the Gentiles prophesied this. The church is composed of units. Each individual is a unit. All these units constitute the Church, the body of Christ. They are Christians which, therefore, make it a Christian Church in which the name of Christ is honored."

The last three sentences of this quotation in which the defense is given for the name Christian Church are almost identical to the above quotation given by a gospel preacher in defense of the teaching that the church can do what all Christians are commanded to do. If the church collectively can do what all Christians can do, then the church can be what all the members are. If not, why not? Both are based on human wisdom, not on scripture, and both will stand or fall together unless different reasoning can be presented than has been presented. Since the scriptures have shown that a difference does exist in individual work and the church's work, may we be content to accept that as our final authority.

The need for This Doctrine

As long as there are efforts in the churches to defend church support of human institutions, there will be a need for this false teaching described in this article. As has been true many times in the past, a practice not based on scripture will need another human doctrine to support it. As an example, notice these three main doctrines of Calvinism.

John Calvin taught the doctrine of Predestination, which says a man is born with his destination predestined by God. He is destined for Heaven or Hell from birth and nothing can be done to change that decree. This presented at least two problems to Calvin. First, if God predestined a man to be lost, God could not send His son to save him for that would be inconsistent. Therefore, Calvin came up with the doctrine of the Limited Atonement of Christ. That is, Christ came to save only the ones elected to salvation. The second problem was this; if some were predestined to be saved they could not fall from God's grace and be lost. This doctrine is known as the Impossibility of Apostasy. Of course all three of these doctrines find no comfort in the scriptures but the main point is this: the one doctrine, Predestination, for which there was no scriptural authority demanded the other two which were equally false to defend it. With either of these two supporting doctrines false, the theory of predestination could not be true.

Brethren today who are teaching that the church can do what the individual is commanded to do are really using that as a supporting teaching and it is necessary if their contentions for church support for human institutions is to be maintained. Any time there is an appeal to James 1:27 or Galatians 6:10 as authority for church action it must be assumed that whatever the individual can do the church can do for both these passages are specifically referring to individual responsibility.

A second need for this teaching is in connection with recreational activities. When an attempt is made to defend church sponsorship and support of recreational programs and equipment as well as social events under the misnomer of scriptural "fellowship," men again have to reason, "whatever the individual can do the church can do," because no scriptural authority can be given for this as a work of the church.

If this supporting assumption is false, then these practices, which lean so heavily upon it, are unscriptural also. As the scriptures clearly show, there is a distinction between individual and congregational action. Only the immediate context will determine whether the Lord is addressing the church as a body or individual Christians. May the Lord help us to be content with His Will in the way in which He has revealed it.

Truth Magazine VIII: 10, pp. 3-5
July 1964