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The Church And The Individual

Monroe E. Hawley
Milwaukee, Wisconsin


It has been said that extremes beget extremes. Usually the truth is somewhere between. It seems to this writer that this is true of one of the current problems among brethren-the relationship of the local church and the individual.

There are those who embrace the philosophy that the church can do anything the individual can. They soon have the church involved in secular matters. On the other hand, some teach that the church cannot operate in certain fields where the individual clearly has a Christian responsibility. They often find fault with new projects on the ground that these things are the duties of individuals, not the church.

The root of the problem is a failure to comprehend the real nature of the church. "Church" is used to denote both the universal body of the saved and the local congregation. In the universal sense we find no provision in the New Testament for an organization larger than the congregation. This is not to imply that congregations may not cooperate for the furtherance of those works which properly belong to them. But we find no authority for any organization which would remove the autonomy of the local church.

And what is the congregation? It is a group of disciples banded together to work for the Lord. Each disciple has a function to fulfill in that unity. This Paul makes clear in comparing the church to the human body (I Cor. 12:12-27). Essentially, therefore, the local church is a group of individual Christians working and worshiping collectively for the advancement of Christ's cause. For example, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to lay by in store on the first day of the week in order that he might take their contribution back to Jerusalem (I Cor. 16:1-2). The action of laying by in store was individual, but the result was collective.

A failure to appreciate this has led to some mistaken attitudes. One is that Christians have no responsibilities except those exercised through the local church. Some feel they do not need to teach others; the church does that. They have no benevolent responsibility; the church takes care of that too. They think that so long as they contribute of their financial means, worship regularly, and live good lives they have fulfilled their Christian responsibilities. They fail to realize that the church exists to help them work more effectively, not to release them from personal duties.

In the other direction are those who insist that virtually all responsibility is the individual's. They would deny the church the right to help a sinner materially on the ground that this is individual responsibility, even if such help might so impress the sinner with the nature of Christianity that he would consider its teachings.

Based on the definition of the local church given above, this writer believes that any responsibility delegated to the individual Christian because he is a Christian may also be carried out collectively, i.e., by the local church. This does not include the idea that the church can do anything the individual can, Rather, it states that the local church can do anything the individual is to do because he is a Christian.

Our lives are a mixture of the spiritual and the secular. We have some duties as citizens, others as parents, and still others as Christians. They are often interrelated, and this sometimes makes it hard to distinguish them. To illustrate, as a father, I have the duty to feed and clothe my children. I have this duty because I am a father, not because I am a Christian. My being a Christian will help me do a better job, but it does not change the fact that this obligation rests upon me without respect to my religious convictions. Since this responsibility is essentially parental rather than Christian, it is not the place of the church to feed my children.

I also have a duty to educate my children. When they go to college, I want them to attend a school operated by Christians. Therefore, I am interested in Christian education and contribute to it. But I do so as a parent, not just as a Christian, although my being a Christian determines the kind of education to which I contribute. Since the responsibility is essentially parental rather than Christian, it is not the place of the church to contribute to Christian colleges. True, teaching of God's word is an integral part of such schools, but this does not alter the fact that the education given is primarily in the secular area, not in the spiritual.

However, when commands are given to Christians because they are Christians, these may be carried out by the local church since the congregation is merely a group of Christians working collectively. The injunction "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction" (James 1:27) is given to individuals, but that responsibility may be borne collectively as well (by the church). By what process of reasoning are we to conclude that a Christian duty may be carried out by one person, or a dozen working together, but that the moment it involves everyone in the church it is wrong?

Some avow that it is a sin for the church to materially help non-Christians. Personally, I think Galatians 6:10 applies to the local church since the letter is addressed to the "churches of Galatia." The passage says, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith." This surely authorizes helping non-Christians. But let us assume that Galatians 6:10 is directed to individuals. On the premise above, it still applies to, the local church since Christian responsibilities may be borne either individually or collectively. Therefore the church may help sinners in a material way if the cause of Christ may thus be advanced.

Many of the controversial questions confronting brethren today would be easier to solve if we devoted more time to the basic definitions and less to personalities.

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