Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 6, 1969
NUMBER 43, PAGE 1-3a

The Distinction Between Church Action And Individual Action

Robert H. Farish

(Editor's note: In mid-January about two dozen brethren met in the little town of Leakey, Texas, to have a friendly study of "the issues that divide us." We present herewith the first installment of Brother Robert H. Farish's speech on that occasion. The remainder of the talk will follow in successive issues of the Gospel Guardian. A more extended comment on the meeting will also come in a later issue.)

The duty to take thought for things honorable in the sight of men as well as in the sight of God, impels me to explain as clearly as possible my purpose in being here as a participant in this meeting. Some regard such meetings as human conclaves called for the purpose of entering into agreements and making decisions for the church of the Lord. I take it that all here are in agreement as to the unscriptural nature of such conclaves. All of us are committed to the proposition that no individual or group has the right to devise a creed, enter into agreements or make plans for the church of Christ. Brethren of good and honest hearts, who truly care for the state of the church, deserve a clear statement of purpose. A clear expression of objectives will in some cases prevent misunderstanding of our actions.

My single reason for being here is to study the Word of God with others. In my capacity as a speaker, I must preach the Word, contending earnestly for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints. In the capacity of a hearer, I must take heed how and what I hear and receive with meekness the Word of God. I speak for no one but myself. We are in the sight of God as we speak and hear; awareness of this will help us to speak words of truth in soberness and to hear and understand. These remarks are not to be misconstrued as implying that others are here for other purposes; I am simply putting on record my own reasons for being here.

It is the duty of every responsible creature to "be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5:17). Men can understand the will of God, else understanding would not have been required. We can understand what the will of the Lord is. This we need to keep constantly before us lest the wide-spread misunderstanding that prevails cause us to doubt the possibility of all seeing alike. When one decides that all cannot "see alike" he has reached a point where he is liable to compromise his conviction. The tribulations, which accompany misunderstanding, have caused the love of the truth to wax cold in the hearts of some. We can, we must understand what the will of the Lord is; let us therefore address ourselves to the task of affirming the possibility of understanding the will of God and earnestly exercising ourselves to that end.

The subject suggested for me in this meeting is to distinguish between congregational action and individual action. The distinctions must be scriptural distinctions; no one has the right to arbitrarily draw a line between areas of activity, assigning some to the individual saint and others to the church. The subject implies that there are distinctions. Some, of course, take a position that what the saint can do the church can do. The task before me is to establish that there are areas in which the individual can and must operate in his individual capacity and that there are areas for collective action or congregational function in which the saint is to act as part of the congregation.

In my judgment, the importance of the distinction between individual and congregational activity is not sufficiently recognized. If there is a distinction revealed in the New Testament, and I firmly believe that there is, then failure to accept is failure to respect the will of God. I heartily concur with David Harrell, Jr. that, "It is an article of my faith that the Bible should be, can be, and is literally understandable and that it should lead all men to the same conclusions. I am concerned about all sorts of problems which most people consider irrelevant to Christianity. Baptism for the remission of sins, the proper time for taking the Lord's Supper, the biological qualifications of elders, distinctions between individual and congregational activities, and hundreds of similar questions seemingly technical in nature, are crucial in my faith." Gospel Guardian Vol. 20 No. 34.

A firm commitment to the proposition that the New Testament is the word of God is the urgent need in our day. We need to realize that in order to understand and do the will of God, our attitude toward the New Testament must be correct.

The subject takes for granted the existence of such an entity as a local church of Christ which exists, even when the saints are not physically assembled. If there is no such thing as a scriptural unit for collective action, I do not have a scriptural subject. It is therefore incumbent upon me to prove a local church of Christ.

The apostolic example of appointing elders in every church proves the "local church" concept to be scriptural. Luke relates in Acts 14:23 that Paul appointed elders in every church. This language rules out the possibility of the word which is translated "church" meaning only those who are physically collected in one place. If the church exists locally only when the members are physically collected, this would call for elders to be appointed at least every first day of the week. The elders served as bishops of the flock, not only when the flock was collected in one place, but all during the week as well.

This language also rules out the church universal for if they had been organizing the church universal, the "every" would be utterly without significance. The "every" requires the local congregation and defines the area of elder oversight.

Another passage that proves the existence of the local church, even when the members are not physically assembled, is Acts 20:17 "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called to him the elders of the church." These men were elders of the church at Ephesus, although physically present with Paul at Miletus. The apostle charged these elders to take heed "to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops; he also warned of dangers from within and from without. It is inconceivable that the apostle had in mind only the physically assembled flock when he said, "grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock." No, the apostle was not simply warning the elders to guard the flock when it was physically collected. The "elders in every church" are to "tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight" (I Pet. 5:2). If the local church exists only when the flock is gathered in one place, the tending and oversight is limited to that gathering.

The word which is translated church in certain contexts requires an organic body or organization, for example: "All the churches of Christ salute you" Rom. 16:16; salutations such as "unto the church of God which is at Corinth" I Cor. 1:2; along with letters addressed to "the seven churches that are in Asia" Rev. 1:4.

It is between the action of such an organized body as the church of God at Corinth and the action of the individual saint that we are to make distinction.

But what is the practical value of such distinction? Many of us have contended that individuals may scripturally support colleges, hospitals, associations for blind, T. B. Associations and wholesome recreational organizations while denying that these are areas of church activity. The charge of inconsistency is in order if there is no distinction between individual and congregational action. But if there is such a distinction, then we need to understand what the will of the Lord is and act accordingly.

A clear distinction between individual and congregational action is set forth in Matt. 18:15-17, "And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established. And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church; and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican."

Note that action is to be taken in this case by the individual saint alone. The church is not to be involved until the individual alone has taken action and that failing, has then taken witnesses with him. It is only after failure in these two efforts that the church is brought into the matter. (To be continued next week.) 4109 Avenue F., Austin, Texas