Lawful Action By God's People

Leslie Diestelkamp
Lagos Nigeria

It may be well for us to consider definitions of some words that are in common use among brethren today and that have much to do with understanding of current issues in the church. By briefly defining and discussing a few of these words, it may then be possible to make some applications to present problems. Let us consider the following five expressions:

1. "Individual action." This is something which is done by one person.

2. "Independent action." This is separate activity, not connected to any other, or to a group.

3. "Distributive action". This refers to that which is done by a group but which is accomplished by actual participation of individuals. In other words, it refers to that which a group does by the participation of its members, not as separate parties, but as united people.

4. "Collective action". This is activity which is characteristic of a group of individuals functioning as a unit, and in which there can be no recognition of the part of each person in the group. It is "combined action".

5. "Cooperative action". This is accomplished by working with others or with another, for a common purpose.

"Individual action" is sometimes correctly described as independent activity. In any case where there is distinction between the work of different persons, it is individual, independent action. Suppose a group of people are assembled for worship, but as they leave they become aware of a beggar outside. If each member gives something from the treasury, then that part is collective action and is certainly the work of the church.

But "distributive action" best describes that which the church does when the whole group acts and yet each person participates individually. This is what happens when we sing or pray together. Actually the church sings only as each member sings. The group acts to whatever extent each one participates to contribute his part. In Rev. 2:16 the church was told to repent, yet we know the church can only repent to whatever extent each member does so. In Acts 12:5 it is said that the church prayed, yet we know that a church can only pray to whatever extent each of the members prays. This is distributive, and not really collective action.

"Cooperative action" of churches prevails when any member of congregations work to accomplish the same objective without competition and yet with complete independence This is illustrated in some work of the churches of Macedonia and Achaia ( Rom. 15:26). Each church sent a gift and thus each church cooperated with the needy church, and likewise each of the contributing congregations cooperated with each other as they all worked in the same objective. However, if two or more churches act through one church, then it is not just cooperation, but it is also combination. When any work becomes a "combined, action", it is not merely cooperation. Any such combined action by churches is unauthorized by the New Testament.

Definition Variations

Evidently there is general agreement regarding action herein described as individual, independent and distributive. Regarding collective activity there may be some disagreement. It is true that understanding of the word "collective" can be somewhat varied, and therefore, by some definitions of the word it may be argued that singing and praying in unison is collective action. However, even if singing and praying are thus described, it is still absolutely true that this is accomplished only distributively, only as each person participates. Likewise, it must be admitted that the work of the church through the use of its treasury is positively in another class, for such allows for no recognition, even by the Lord, of any individuality at all.

There may also be some differences of opinion regarding "cooperative action" as defined herein. Some may argue that churches do not cooperate unless they engage in joint action through the pooling of funds or through joint meetings, etc. However, if two men are in a leaking boat, they need not both take hold of one pail in order to cooperate in removing the water, but each one may take a separate pail, or they may work alternately and still it is real cooperation. Actually if they both take hold of one pail it becomes not only cooperation, but also combination (and is certainly permissible for individuals in any capacity). Indeed, combined action may be cooperative action, but all cooperation does not have to include combination, and that which is only and purely cooperation is not then also combination. When it becomes combined effort, it ceases to be purely and only cooperation.

The New Testament authorizes cooperation of churches so long as it is purely and only cooperation, but when such work becomes also combination, it is unauthorized, and it destroys the complete and perfect independence of the participating churches.


When churches send money to Highland church in Abilene, Texas for support of "Herald of Truth" broadcast, such congregations cease to be purely and only cooperating churches for they are actually then, to the extent of their contribution into one treasury, combined churches. Parts of the treasuries of many churches are then combined into one treasury. True, individual Christians may engage in collective action by giving into a church treasury which is then used without individual recognition, but there is no authority for a group of congregations to use a common treasury, thus making that part of the work of many churches a collective work of all those participating.

But by special purpose in introducing all of this is to stress again that we have authority to do many things individually, independently and distributively which we cannot do collectively. That is, we cannot engage the church treasury in every action for which we find authority for the Christian to participate. Indeed the Christian is commanded to "Do good unto all men" (Gal. 6 :10) and to "Be ready unto every good work" (Titus 3:1), but the church has no such broad authority. Therefore we must conclude that it is the Lord's intention that the churches function, through their treasuries, only in the teaching of the word (1 Tim. 3 :15) and in relieving needy saints (1 Cor. 16:1) .

Some say that "Whatever all Christians must do, the church can do". Actually it is true that whatever all Christians do, the church does, distributively. It is not true that the church can, from its treasury, engage in every activity that may be performed by the individual. The Lord established the church, he is its head, and so the church, like the Christian, must recognize and follow his directives. The church cannot follow the directives that are given to individuals, but must observe and do that which the Bible authorizes the church to do, and no more.

A Christian can give to a private hospital to help it do good in caring for needy people of the world, or in helping develop methods of disease cure and control. Likewise he can give to a private school to help educate humanity in secular subjects, and he can give to the Red Cross to help relieve all victims of disaster. The church, however, has no authority to use its treasury in any such activities.

Today, because some teachers engage in teaching the Bible in some of the schools operated by brethren (commonly called "Christian Schools"), some brethren insist that the church can contribute to such schools. Indeed the church can support a teacher of the word anywhere, but the church cannot support the human institution in which he teaches and still follow the New Testament authority. Even if a human organization is formed for the teaching of the word (like "Gospel Press") churches have no right to support it, for the church is to do its own work, independent of human institutions, and the church is the only organization God has ordained for this work. Furthermore, most of the work in the schools is secular, not spiritual, and certainly the church has no right to support secular work, even though it be a good work and may be supported by individuals.

Some object to such reasoning as this paper contains, saying that. it is "cold-blooded" and out of harmony with the "Spirit of Christianity." It is not so. Indeed the true "Spirit of Christianity" is a spirit of Christ.

Likewise it does not mean that we believe people should be allowed to starve or freeze, but rather it means that Christians must relieve all suffering "As we have opportunity" (Gal. 6 :10) . In this way we are to let our light shine before men (Mt. 5:16, 42). This is not simply a negative approach nor a system of "Anti-ism," but it is a very positive, constructive ideal, demanding the following: (1) That each Christian realize that he is truly "His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works" (Eph. 2:10); (2) That the Christian cannot be relieved of his individual responsibility by the collective action of the church; (3) That the church must be kept busy, doing to the fullest extent of its ability that work which is positively authorized for it to do; and (4) That the church must not engage itself in activity that is not specifically authorized for it to do.

Truth Magazine, V:7, pp. 2-4
April 1961