Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 15, 1954
NUMBER 48, PAGE 1,5b

Individual And Congregational Activity Distinguished

Herschel E. Patton. Russellville. Alabama

That there is a difference in an individual act and a congregational act, most people will admit, yet some find it difficult to distinguish between the two. Often it is easier to recognize a difference in things than it is to distinguish or explain it. A boy once said to his father — "Teacher says collect and congregate means the same thing — do they?" The father replied, "Perhaps, but tell your teacher there is a difference in a congregation and a collection."

Many people find it hard to distinguish between individual activity and congregational activity. Their reasoning goes something like this. (a) Christians make up the church, (b) One is a Christian twenty four hours of the day, (c) Therefore whatever the Christian does, the church is doing. If the church may not do it, the individual may not; if the individual can do it then the church can.

A Socialistic Viewpoint

The above reasoning is a socialistic viewpoint. Let us look at this reasoning from a governmental viewpoint. (a) Citizens make up the government, (b) One is a citizen twenty four hours of the day, (c) Therefore whatever the citizen does, the government does. If the government cannot do it, the citizen cannot; if the citizen can, the government can. Now, just what are the consequences of this reasoning? The individual citizen or citizens may build a church building or religious schools, therefore the government may do likewise. It is right for individual citizens to operate business enterprises, therefore it is right for the government to do the same and compete with private enterprise. Everybody knows that the government in its collective capacity, can out build, under-sell, under-rent any private enterprise and consequently choke private enterprise to death. When this happens, you have Socialism — a thing feared and recognized as unsound across the ages. On the same basis, if the church can do anything the individual can, then private Christian enterprise or action is curbed and the church enters the business realm, social, and entertainment realm and hundreds of others. We must realize there is a legitimate sphere of operation for the church, the state, and the individual. When one seeks to operate out of its sphere, evil consequences follow.

The Christian Sustains A Relationship To Three Divine Institutions

The three divine institutions to which the Christian sustains a relation are the State, the Home and the Church. The state has as its head the rulers or those "in authority." (Rom. 13:1-2) The home was started by God in Eden and the head in each home is the father. (Eph. 5:22-23 6:1) The church was built by Christ (Matt. 16:18) and he is its head. (Col. 1:18) In each local congregation there is to be a plurality of elders — the overseers of that congregation, who themselves, are subject to Christ. (Acts 20:17, 28-29) Now, when does one act as an individual and when as a state, home, or church? In answering this question, let us remember that some duties or acts may be peculiar to more than one institution. For example the duty of correction belongs to all three of these institutions — the state (Rom. 13:3-4, the home (Eph. 6:4; Heb. 12:9), and the church (Matt. 18:17; 2 Thess. 3:6). The punishment administered by the state cannot take care of the responsibility of the church or home, and home punishment will not satisfy the state if state laws have been violated. Likewise, teaching is a responsibility of both the home and church, and some would add the state. Ephesians 6:4 and 1 Timothy 3:15 show that this is a responsibility of both the home and church. The home cannot shift its responsibility to the church, and the church cannot leave hers to the home.

Now, when is the action state action, home action, church action, or individual action? This is determined by the action of the one or ones responsible in each realm.

The Matter Illustrated Suppose a man commits theft — is the state guilty? No, a citizen is, but not the state. At the trial the judge may say "The case of the State of Alabama against John Doe." Here the state is acting against John Doe, but it was not acting when John Doe committed the theft. The whole state at the trial, is bringing John Doe to account, through their legal officers. Here is individual action distinguished from state action.

In the home, a member may do something not sanctioned by other members. Such an act is not a home action. One member of a family may pick cotton, but that would not mean the whole family is cotton pickers, but if the father commits his family to a landowner, then it is family action. Here we have individual versus family action.

In the church, a member may do a number of things but it could not rightly be said that the church did it. A Christian may build a house, but you would not say the church built that house. However, if the elders decide to build a house for an evangelist, a widow, or someone else, then it could be said the church did it.

Examples Of Church Action Versus Individual Action

In the realm of charity, 1 Timothy 5:4 is individual action — "'But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God." The latter part of 1 Timothy 5:16 is church action — "If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed."

In the realm of evangelism, Philippians 4:3 is individual action — "And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also. and with others my fellow labourers, whose names are in the book of life," while 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and verse 8 is church action — ". . . . Unto the church of the Thessalonians... For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad ...."

In the realm of correction, Matthew 18:15-16 is individual action — ".... if thy brother shall trespass against thee — go and tell him... if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more . . . ," while verse 17 involves church action — "And if he shall neglect to hear them tell it unto the church . . . ." If whatever the individual does the church does, then how can an offended brother tell his brother his fault and then later tell it to the church? In all this we see scriptural examples of individual activity as distinguished from congregational activity.

Faithfulness In Scriptural Spheres Of Operation Demanded

Christianity is all inclusive. It applies in every honorable relationship. But, because a Christian has a duty in one relationship does not mean the church has the same duty, for we have seen in some cases the church is forbidden to do what the individual is commanded to do. (1 Tim. 5:16) The scriptures teach a Christian how to conduct his business. He may commercialize and carry his Christianity with him in it. But, does this mean the church can commercialize? — put in a filling station — build a super market — etc.? Surely we can see that the church would be out of its legitimate sphere here. In the home, the Christian must "provide for his own" — "relieve relatives" (1 Tim. 5:8-16) that "the church be not charged." The church has an obligation here when there are no believing relatives to relieve them. The scriptures tell one how to be a good citizen, but this is no grounds for the state and church uniting — with the church undertaking state business and vice versa. The church is not in Caesar's shoes. The scriptures will guide the Christian in social activities and recreation — things good and needful. But, the church is not obligated to build recreation halls, sponsor banquets, ball clubs, etc.

Let us as Christians faithfully discharge our duties in every honorable relationship, and let us respect each divine institution given by God for our good. If you need clothing, recreation, education, take the matter up with parents. This is a family obligation. The church is not obligated except where there are no believing relatives. If you need protection from a thief or gangster, tell it to the state — the police. Don't call on the church to protect you for it is not in that business. If you need help in providing for some needy person (more than you can handle yourself), tell it to the church. If you need help in restoring an erring brother after your efforts and others have failed, tell it to the church. If these considerations have been profitable in dethroning the false idea "the church can do anything the individual can do" and in presenting the proper sphere of operation for God's people and God's institutions, then the effort has been worthwhile.