The following is taken from a list of questions sent to me by my request. The author is from a more liberally-minded group who is preparing lessons on the issues that separate some churches of Christ. He was interested in the other side's point of view and I was interested how he would approach his position.

Do you believe that there is any spiritual work which individual Christians may do which the church may not do as "the church"?

 (I've heard the "Christians can operate a grocery store, but the church can't" argument and, of course, I agree with that.  However, what spiritual activity can an individual do and the church cannot do?   And how do you reason to reach that conclusion?)

Much of this question depends on what you define as spiritual work. For example, Ephesians 6:4 says, "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." This is a spiritual work since it is of the Lord, but by its very nature it is not a work of the church since it is commanded of fathers. Yes, a church is involved in teaching and admonition, but not on the scale that a father is to provide for his children. Similarly the responsibilities husbands and wives have for each other is not one shared by the church.

By narrowing down the field of possibilities, such as moving from "any work" to "any spiritual work," the questioner hopes to find an area where the actions of the individual does not differ from that of the church. With such accomplished, then other actions can be justified as being no different so long as they can be classified as a "spiritual work." The purpose of the "grocery store argument" is to demonstrate that the church is not an extension of the individual Christian. It is bold enough to be readily seen by most people. Once it is accepted, positions that are justified by "well, a Christian can do it" cannot automatically be applied to the church. The questioner is attempting to find an area where he still may apply responsibilties assigned to a Christian and automatically assigned the same responsibilities to the church without need for justification.

While not differentiated on the type of work, God does draw a distinction between those an individual is required to help and those the church may help. "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" (I Timothy 5:16).

In settling problems between brethren, a distinction is made between individuals, a group of individuals, and the church. "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17).

Then there are the commands given to individuals to aid the needy in general that are not repeated to church. "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. 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 1:24-25). Because the individual Christian is given these commands and the church is not, the silence of the Scriptures implies that it is not a work of the church.

Going the opposite direction, there are things which can only be done as a church. For example, partaking of the Lord's Supper is a group activity, done "when you come together in one place" (I Corinthians 11:20). Yet even here we find that Christians may do some things which are not allowed in church. "What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you. ... " Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come" (I Corinthians 11:22, 33-34). At home we can eat to satisfy hunger, but not so when we come together as a church. We do eat the Lord's Supper as a church, but it is not for the purpose of a meal.

What we must conclude is that church is not an extension of the individual Christian. The church has duties not shared by the individual Christian, just as the individual Christian has responsibilities not shared by the church.

See also:

Keys to Understanding: "Going Overboard": Oversimplification

Can money be used from the church treasury to do good for non-Christians?
If you can have fellowship with people who differ in one area, why can't you have fellowship with those who have kitchens and fellowship halls?

March 15, 2005