Individuals and the Church

By Robert C. Welch

In spite of all the teaching of the Bible on the subject, in spite of all the emphasis which has been placed on that teaching in recent years, brethren who should know better are continuing to teach that the church can do what the member does. Many who do not study for themselves accept this erroneous doctrine. The gist of their reasoning is that, since the church is composed of individuals, the church does what the individuals do. Some argue that since Christ said the kingdom is within us, therefore each Christian living and acting among men is the church. Others assume that since all congregational action is expressed by the combined individual action of its members, therefore all action of the members is congregational action. The Sommer position assumed that an individual could do only that which the church could do in religious activity.

This doctrine is assumed for the most part in an effort to justify the church support of colleges, parochial schools, orphan homes, old folk homes, hospitals, camps, special forms of missionary societies, and a host of other businesses, to which church support is unauthorized in the Scriptures. The latter position mentioned in the above paragraph is assumed in opposition to Christians in their individual capacity participating in these organizations, especially the schools and orphanages.

There are many functions which the church as a unit has which, according to the Scriptures, do not belong to the individual. The Lord’s supper is to be taken in the assembly (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20 and context). The idea that the Lord’s supper is to be carried about and administered to those who do not or cannot assemble is borrowed from the Catholics as they administer the mass. Elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23). Each member has no scriptural right to appoint his own elders. The church, gathered together, is to exercise discipline upon the ungodly member (1 Cor. 5:4,5). While all the members are to carry this out, one man cannot take it upon himself to act for the whole church (3 Jn. 9, 10). These should be sufficient examples to show the unbiased that there is a difference between individual and church action. It should cause him to pause in his headlong rush into the assumption that the church can do everything which the individual can do.

A Christian may marry and as a husband he is to love his wife (Eph. 5:25). But the church cannot do this. Someone may raise the quibble that he is only speaking of religious activity when he says that the church can do anything which the Christian can do. The above illustration is that which the Scriptures authorize, call it what you will. The man who will thus quibble about the matter has set up his own arbitrary definition of what is included in religious activity. He needs to read from the Bible where the Lord has given one of his commands and made it religion and then given another and excluded it from religion; but he cannot find that which is not there. Perhaps such a man has reasoned that those things which the church does are religious acts and that none other is to be so defined. Then when he comes to justify the church support of his idols (institutions) which he has built, he reasons that this is religious and that if we agree that the individual might support some of them, then the church can do it also. But he has reasoned in a circle, violating his own primary definition of religion.

A widow is to be enrolled if she has washed the saints’ feet (1 Tim. 5:9, 10). This condition is one of a number which are specified in the same passage, some of which the church at times engages in; for example: good works and relieving the afflicted. But very few would be so puerile as to argue that this passage teaches that the church is to practice foot washing. The authorization for the church engaging in good works and relief of the afflicted is to be found in other places in the Scriptures rather than in this one. There is no place authorizing the church to engage in foot washing. Hence, this is another example of individual right and obligation which do not belong to the church.

That a Christian may engage with others in an honorable business, either with or without profit or income, for manufacture of products, publication of literature, providing education, care of the sick, the aged, the widow, the orphan and the needy in general, is positively affirmed in the Scriptures (for example: Rom. 12:17; Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11,12; Jas. 1:27).

The trouble with a great number is that they want the churches either to go into these businesses as owners and operators or to have fellowship in such businesses by direct contributions to them. The church is authorized to give relief to the saints in need, under their own supervision and distribution as independent congregations (Acts 4:32-35; 6:1-6; 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-3). The church is authorized to have fellowship in furthering the gospel (2 Cor. 11:8,9; Phil. 1:5; 4:14-18; Col. 4:16). There is no authorization, however, for the churches to contribute to the businesses and institutions which men have built, whatever their product or service. There is no authorization for churches to combine in the building, owning and operating of such business or organization. You ask why no Scriptures are given which discuss these practices specifically? There are none, just as there are no Scriptures which specify instrumental music, the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, or a missionary society. Churches should stay out of these businesses and institutions for the same reason that they should stay out of instrumental music, missionary societies and Thursday Lord’s suppers.

It is sad that men can recognize the difference between the individual and the family, the individual and the government, the individual and the business in which he engages; but cannot recognize the difference between the individual and the church. If some man who wanted to justify the church support of his institutions had not taught the false doctrine the people would not have been so blind to reason and revelation. But “the god of this world hath blinded the minds” of some (2 Cor. 4:2-4) (Gospel Guardian, 31 Oct. 1963, pp. 402, 413).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 13, pp. 403, 410
July 5, 1990