Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

Index by Subject

Individual VS Collective Action

One of the primary areas where division has occurred in the church in the past 50 years is in regard to the church’s obligations in benevolence. Some fail to make a distinction between what God obligates the individual Christian to do, and what he obligates Christians, collectively working in a local congregation, to do.

Recently, while reading The Arlington Meeting, a series of transcripts in book form from speeches made in a meeting between institutional and non-institutional preachers in Arlington, Texas in January 1968, I came across the following quote from Reuel Lemmons, now deceased former editor of the Firm Foundation, and a widely known and respected preacher in the institutional camp:

I want to make it clear that I believe that all commands are given to individuals primarily and when a command is given to individuals in which all the individuals which comprise a congregation are equally related, then that command becomes a church command to be carried out (and can be carried out) by the church. (pg. 150)

Lemmon’s quote indicates a common leap taken by individuals who wish to continue in unscriptural practices when their rationale for such practices are exposed. No doubt his inconsistency in argumentation is unintentional, but it nevertheless is present.

The most common expression of this rationale is that “whatever the individual can do, the church can do.” Stated in this way, the commands found in James 1:27 and Galatians 6:6, which are obviously given as instructions to individual Christians, can be used to authorize collective (church) action as well. Note the two scriptures:

“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

The rationale supposes that since “whatever the individual can do the church can do” such passages give authority for churches to establish or support from their treasury institutional homes for orphans and the aged. The problem with this rationale is that while it seems logical to the mind of some, it is decidedly not scriptural reasoning. In fact, the Bible clearly makes a distinction between what are individual responsibilities, and responsibilities of the local church. The most familiar example of such a distinction is found in Paul’s instructions regarding the care for Christian widows in his first epistle to Timothy.

The passage shows that not only is the congregation limited in its benevolent obligations to those who are saints (a pattern established clearly in scripture), it limits even the reach of the local church’s responsibility in this area. Paul states, “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” (1 Timothy 5:16). So, collective (church) obligation is clearly distinguished from the obligation given to the believer (individual) in this verse. The passage clearly shows the error in the rationale “what the individual can do the church can do.”

Which has led to the revised statement of brother Lemmons, “when a command is given to individuals in which all the individuals which comprise a congregation are equally related, then that command becomes a church command…” The clause “in which all the individuals which comprise a congregation are equally related” must be added to avoid the obvious conclusion in 1 Timothy 5:16 that individual and collective action are not always parallel. You can’t establish authority for one by establishing authority for the other.

What should be obvious, and must be pointed out, is that there is no logical or scriptural reason for such a caveat. The only reason for such an added provision is to avoid the obvious conclusion that individual action and collective action are different.

Others have tried to add “clauses” to the rationale. They have said, “Whatever the individual does, in the spiritual realm, the church can do.” Again, a provision added to avoid the obvious (a church can’t get a job, engage in business enterprises, wage war, etc.). but, again, an arbitrary clause added to defend what cannot be proven, that individual and collective action are synonymous. Paul has clearly shown that it is not so!

As Christians we are commanded to practice pure religion, which includes benevolent activities (cf. James 1:27; Gal. 6:10). We are to follow the example of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10) and be a neighbor to others whenever possible.

We must also recognize that the church is a spiritual institution, primarily concerned with the salvation of the souls of men, rather than the creation of a utopia on earth. The social gospel has no place in the Lord’s church. God has given the individual the primary responsibility of benevolence, “and do not let the church be burdened.”