Handling Aright the Word of Truth (XV)

By Morris W. R. Bailey

The Church And The Individual

In my previous article under the above heading, it was pointed out that the practice of church support of colleges and benevolent institutions operated by brethren has been based on the assumption that what the individual is obligated to do in the way of good works, the church is also obligated to do. In this article I want to give special attention to a statement made by a strong proponent of the above theory and practice. In a tract entitled, Questions And Issues Of The Day In The Light Of The Scriptures, Brother Batsell Barnet Baxter of David Lipscomb College said regarding any distinction between church action and individual action:

“No such distinction is taught in the scriptures. If it is a good work which the Lord wants done, the responsibility falls equally upon individuals and upon the church, for individuals are the church.”

Since Brother Baxter claims scriptural support for what he teaches and practices regarding the church and the individual we therefore raise the question, “What do the scriptures teach with regard to the church and the individual?” The attention of the reader is directed to the following facts with their supporting scriptures:

Distinction As To Identity

While it is true that the church is composed of individual Christians, it is also apparent that the scriptures recognize a distinction as to the identity of each. This is obvious from the following scriptures.

1. In Romans 12:4,5 Paul likened the church unto our physical body. “For even as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another.” The import of Paul’s language is that though all the members (individual Christians) combined form the one body in Christ, yet these members are distinct from one another in that all have not the same office.

2. That Paul recognized a distinction between one member (the individual) and the body of Christ (the church) is obvious from 1 Cor. 12:14. “For the body is not one member, but many.” To say, therefore, that what the individual can do, the church can do, or that when the individual acts it is the church acting is tantamount to saying that the church is one member and one member is the church, which Paul declared is not so.

3. A distinction between the identity of the church and the individual is also apparent from the language of Jesus in Rev. 2:13. Addressing the church at Pergamum he paid a tribute to “Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you where Satan dwelleth.” Obviously Antipas (an individual) had died for the faith. But who would said that the church had died?

Distinction Between Church Action And Individual Action

Because the scriptures recognize a distinction between the identity of the church and of the individual, they also recognize a distinction between what constitutes church action and that which is individual action. Consider the following examples.

1. The reader is requested to turn to and read carefully Matt. 18:15-17. There Jesus was giving the formula or solution for the settlement of differences between brethren. In this scripture Jesus prescribed three steps to be taken.

(a) The wronged brother is to go to the brother is error and tell him his fault (individual action).

(b) If that fails, take two or three brethren and go to him again (group action).

(c) If that fails, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to hear the church, let him be disfellowshipped (church action).

Is it not a good work to restore an erring brother? But if it is true, as affirmed by some brethren, that what the individual does the church does, then in that case the church was acting from the very beginning when the individual first went to his erring brother. Therefore, the church knew about it all the time. Thus the words of Jesus, “tell it to the church,” would be pointless.

2. In the fifth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul gave instructions to the church at Corinth as to the action to be taken regarding a member who was guilty of fornication. Paul said: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” The expression, “deliver such a one unto Satan,” obviously meant withdrawal of fellowship. Thus Paul commanded church action to be taken against the man guilty of fornication (individual action).

Distinction As To Financial Resources

The scriptures also make a distinction between the financial resources of the church and those of the individual, both as to how they are acquired and as to how they are used. The individual can acquire his resources in the form of wages paid to him for work (Eph. 4:13). Or, he may operate a business for profit (James 4:13). The church, however, is limited to but one way in which to acquire its resources, and that is through the contributions of its members on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1,2).

There has been some confusion in the minds of some brethren regarding the status of an individual Christian’s own funds and those that have been contributed on the first day of the week and which constitute what is commonly called “the church treasury.” This confusion is evident from a question that has been asked. “Do dollars become tainted with some kind of taboo as soon as they fall into the church treasury?”

That the scriptures recognize a difference between the resources of the individual and those that have been contributed into the church treasury is obvious from the words of Peter in the fifth chapter of Acts. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, following the example of others, had sold some land. But they had conspired to make it appear that they were giving the entire selling price of the land, while keeping back a part of it. In exposing their hypocrisy Peter asked, “While it remained, did it not remain thine own. And after it was sold, was it not in thy power?” The point is obviously this: they owned the land. They were not obligated to sell it. Having sold the land, the money realized from the sale was theirs to give or not to give. They were not required to give all of it, nor any of it, for that matter. Their sin was in the conspiracy to make it appear that they were giving the entire selling price of the land when they were, in fact, giving only a part of it.

So Peter’s words teach very forcefully and conclusively that there is a difference between the individual’s own resources and the money that has been dropped into the collection basket. The individual is at liberty to spend his or her money for, or contribute to, anything that is morally right. But once money has been dropped into the collection basket on the first day of the week, it becomes the Lord’s money and can be used only for what is scripturally authorized.

It may be objected at this point that all money is the Lord’s money, whether in the church treasury or in the individual’s bank account. In a sense, yes. But is not the money in the church treasury the Lord’s money in a sense different from that of the money of the individual? Consider the following parallel: Through the prophet Ezekiel, God said, “All souls are mine” (Ezekiel 18:4). But while all people belong to God, there is a special sense in which Christians belong to God which is not true of people of the world. Christians are “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). In the same way, there is a sense in which all money, whether it be that of saint or sinner, is the Lord’s money, for “The earth is Jehovah’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). But when the Christian’s money is dropped into the collection basket, he relinquishes control over it, and it becomes the Lord’s money in a special sense, to be spent only as the Lord has authorized.

Distinction As To Individual And Church Obligation

Here, the reader’s attention is directed to the fifth chapter of First Timothy. Paul was giving instruction regarding the care of widows. Let us notice the following points: (1) In verse three Paul said, “Honor widows that are widows indeed.” (2) In verse five, however, Paul said, “But if any widow hath children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety towards their own family, and to requite their parents: for this is acceptable in the sight of God.” Thus Paul taught that it is the individual that has the responsibility of caring for a widowed mother or grandmother. In further elaboration of that point Paul said, “But if any provideth not for his own, and especially his own household, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

(3) This brings us to verse sixteen, where Paul said, “If any woman that believeth hath widows, let her relieve them, and let not the church be burdened; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” In the light of this passage, who can deny that the scriptures make a distinction between the responsibility of the individual and that of the church? Did not Paul specifically charge the individual with a responsibility with which the church was not to be burdened? But if it is true, as we have been told, that what the individual does the church does, then the church was being burdened all along in the action of the individual in caring for a widowed mother, and thus Paul’s words, “Let not the church be burdened” are meaningless.

So to handle aright the word of truth, we must recognize the distinction that the scriptures make between the church and the individual, in identity, in financial resources, in action and in obligation. To burden the church with that which is the responsibility of the individual is a corruption of its mission.

Truth Magazine XXI: 49, pp. 774-775
December 15, 1977