By Jeff May
Some years ago when I attended college, a number of classes were listed as prerequisites. If a class was listed as a prerequisite, it meant I had to take that class first. If the ideas taught in that class were not learned first it would cause great difficulty in the classes which followed.
Such is also true with this article. If the student of God’s word does not first recognize the distinction between the individual and the church, his further study of the Bible will be fraught with difficulty. He may also fail to understand the objections of many brethren to certain church practices.
Many have supposed that whatever the individual Christian can do, the local church can do also. Others have offered that if the local church cannot do a certain work then neither can the individual. Is this so? Can a valid distinction be made between the local church and the individual?
If no distinction can be made then every command given to the individual is also duty of the local church. If no distinction is to be made we are wasting our time trying to determine if a passage is addressed to the individual or the church.
A Definition of Terms
When I mention the individual, I have reference to the individual Christian who was saved by the blood of Christ in obeying the gospel. Such an individual is added by Christ to the church (universal). The English word church is used to translate the Greek noun ekklesia. Ekklesia simply means the “called out.” In a religious sense, it is used by God to refer to all the saved who are called out of the world and into the body (church) of Christ. One cannot join himself to the universal church. He is added to it by Christ (Acts 2:47). In this article, when I use the word “church” I primarily have in mind the local church. Hasn’t the issue through the years been about what the local church is authorized to do in contrast to what the individual may do? The local church is the “called out” in a given locality such as “the church of God, which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). The local church was made up when one by one the saved individuals “joined” themselves to one another agreeing to work together in the collective responsibilities God would assign to them as a local church.
The Work of the Local Church
Many discussions have taken place among brethren concerning the “work of the church.” The meat of these discussions was on what the local church could and could not do in its work as a collectivity. Collective action takes place when the individual members of a group act jointly. Collective action can only occur in the local church because it is impossible for the universal church to assemble on earth. The universal church has no local boundaries and no earthly organization.
A second source of action in the kingdom of Christ is distributive action. The universal church can only function distributively as each member walks according to the teachings of the King. Examples of the term “church” being used “distributively” are easy to spot in Scripture. For example, the individual members contribute distributively on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:12), but the funds, once contributed, then belong to the church collectively and may be used only in collective work the Lord has authorized. Also Luke records that Paul “made havoc of the church” (Acts 8:3). Did he make havoc of the church when it was together as a collectivity? No, he made havoc of the church distributively by “entering every house” (Acts 8:3). Notice also in Acts 11:12 that the church in Jerusalem was spoken of as having ears. As a collectivity does a local church have a set of big ears? Why no! This is speaking of the ears of each member of the church distributively.
Now, some desire to reason that what the church can do distributively it can do collectively. This cannot be! Watch what happens if you follow this line of reasoning. If every member of the church had a widow for which he or she cared, would that mean the church was caring for those widows in clear violation of 1 Timothy 5:16? Again, if every member was a part of the armed forces would that mean that the church was a part of the armed forces (2 Cor. 10:3,4)? In the local church in which I labor we have many farmers. If all the members farmed would that make farming a work of the church? Can you see the problem? You cannot gain authority for collective activity from what members may do distributively.
The Bible sets forth a clear distinction. At this point, we may simply ask, “If the individual functions in exactly the same way as the local church functions, why did God establish the local church at all?” There is a distinction.
There Is a Distinction
I will now share with you some passages which show a distinction between the individual and the local church in such a way that one could hardly miss it.
1 Timothy 5:16
“If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.”
Can we see in this passage that the individual is to relieve the widow so that the church is not burdened? Isn’t this a clear distinction?
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that `by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
Can’t we see in these verses that the individual and sometimes individuals are to act first in correcting this problem? As a last resort, the church enters into the situation. Could the distinction be any clearer?
1 Timothy 3:15
“. . . but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
Did Paul write so that Timothy might learn to behave himself within himself? If there is no distinction between the individual and the church that is what the passage says!
1 Corinthians 11:18
“For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.”
This text clearly shows that individuals “come together as a church.” If they “come together as a church” isn’t there a way they act separately or distributively not as the church?
“While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
Notice closely. Ananias sold a piece of property and brought a portion of the selling price and laid it at the apostles’ feet. At this point a distinction is made. The money changed ownership and control. The money belonged to the individual (Ananias) until he laid it at the apostles’ feet. From then on, it belonged to the church. Now, if we cannot say that whatever belongs to the individual also belongs to church, why would we say, “Whatever the individual does the church must also do?” Are we seeing the clear distinction?
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, `These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”‘ (Rev. 3:1).
“You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4).
Notice that as a collectivity the church at Sardis was proclaimed dead but a few individuals had not defiled their garments. Isn’t this another clear distinction?
Just a Few More Distinctions
As an individual, I spank my child in an act of discipline (Heb. 12). But the local church cannot inflict physical disciplinary action on anyone.
As an individual I may raise money for the American Cancer Society. Did Christ die on the cross so that his church might devote itself to this effort?
As an individual, I may endorse, support and vote for a political candidate. But where is the authority for the local church as a collectivity to do the same?
As an individual, I am taught to love my wife emotionally and physically (1 Cor. 7:35). But I would be really upset if the local church thought it had that same responsibility!
A Few Concluding Remarks
In this article, I have not entered into discussing issues that stem from this key distinction. Obviously, this distinction will be used heavily in discussing what the local church may do in benevolence, edification and evangel-ism. It will the job of other writers to deal with those areas.
My job was to present the biblical distinction between individual action and church action. I am convinced that has been done. Both the individual and the local church must always act within the confines of authority. They each must recognize and closely abide by the distinct work God has given to them. All must be done by the authority of the Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18; Col. 3:17). To fail to recognize the distinction of the individual and local church will lead to acting without authority and result in having to depart from Jesus (Matt. 7:2123).
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 19, p. 14-15
October 6, 1994