Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 28, 1960

The Individual Versus The Congregation

Larry King And Donald P. Ames, Tampa, Florida

There seems to be, in the church today, a great deal of misunderstanding over where the individual begins and the congregation leaves off in regards to responsibility.

For the purpose of being elementary in this discussion, let us determine the meaning and application of the word church in its New Testament usage In Matt. 16:18, Christ uses the word church in a universal sense: a group of Christians all belonging to one universal body. In I Cor. 1:1 and Phil. 1:1, Paul uses the word to apply to a local group of Christians In the Philippian passage, Paul states that this local group of Christians is governed of itself. It's a segment of the universal body, yet it is independent in government from all other local bodies (I Pet. 5:2, Acts 20:28). Individuals likewise make up the universal church, yet they are governed and "shepherded" by the eldership of the local congregations of which they are members.

What, if any, is the distinction between the local congregation and the individual? In I Cor. 5:9-11, Paul commands the brethren to withdraw themselves from the ungodly Christian. The Corinthian congregation was made up of a group of individuals, so in effect Paul was telling the individuals to withdraw themselves. Yet this would not be done correctly until all the congregation had withdrawn themselves. The contention is made that two individuals can act as a congregation — what they do the church does, for the congregation is made up of individuals. Yet in this case the congregation has to act as a group. If just two or three individuals had withdrawn, would that be acceptable to God? No! Because God commanded the whole congregation to do it, and not just a couple of individuals. Here is the point, this is an example of an action that can be performed only by the whole congregation.

Again, in I Tim. 5, Paul lays down a clear distinction, showing that the individual has the responsibility of caring for his own. This isn't a church (whole congregation caring for his family) responsibility, but is his own private responsibility (I Tim. 5:8, 16).

Therefore, we can see that the congregation is definitely limited to its realm of responsibility that has been revealed by God (2 John 9. I Cor. 4:6, Gal. 1:6-9). While it is true that certain obligations may over-lap, yet there is a distinction made in the Bible between each, and certain works are assigned the congregation that cannot be carried out by a few individuals such as disfellowshipping), and a work to individuals that the church has no authority to engage in (caring for non-Christians, etc.).

Let us now look at the much abused passage, James 1:27. Since we've got to admit that there is a difference between the congregation and the individual, how do we determine the application of passages like James 1:27? Obviously, we must do this by the context. A church could no more fulfill the need in v. 27 than it could bridle its tongue and deceive its heart (v. 26). The tongue and heart are components of the individual and not the congregation. Therefore, if a church is to assume this work. it will have to find its authority in some other passage. If we say James 1:27 can he applied to the church because the church is made up of individuals, we can also apply John 15:1-6 to the church, and this places us smack in the center of denominationalism.

Another greatly abused passage is Gal. 6:10. Here again the context is purely individual, and that ought to settle the dispute on the passage. However, some charge that we believe Gal. 6:6 is applicable to the church supporting the preacher, so we are inconsistent. Few, if any, have ever held such a position. 3 John 5-6 makes it quite plain that individuals also supported the preacher. To charge that this is exclusive and eliminates other passages of church supported preaching Phil. 4:15, 2 Cor. 11:8-9) makes as much sense as to say John 3:16 excludes Acts 2:38. However, to then say that the church can also care for the non-Christians (v. 10) is to assume what is to be proven. We ask for the authority!

Many build a big argument on the fact that since Gal. 1:2 is addressed to local congregations, the church cannot be excluded from Gal. 6:10. However, in Gal. 1:4, as well as the context of 6:1-10, the application is purely individual. Let's test their logic. I Thessalonians is also addressed to the church (1:1). So, whatever is therein is addressed to both individuals and churches. Paul exhorted them "that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you" (I Thess. 4:11). Now, what happens to institutionalism, centralization, the fictitious charge the church is not its own benevolent society, etc? Who wants to be first to say this is applicable to the church? Anyone can see the difference here — and in Gal. 6:10.

Here is further evidence. In Eph. 6:1-4, Paul relates the responsibility of the children to the parents, and of the parents to the children. Wouldn't you and I be ridiculous in saying this passage refers to the church? How can a church provoke its children to wrath? (Is this the authority for church-supported colleges?) In I Pet. 3:7, again, how can a church honor its wife as a weaker vessel? Obviously there exists a decided distinction between the church and the individual. Some of our brethren have taken to writing poems and quizzes in regards to this issue, so we too have taken up the quiz pen:

What Am I?

I have a wife and three children.

I am responsible for their teaching.

I am responsible for their welfare.

I am responsible for their actions.

Am I a church?