Individual Duty or Local Church Duty?
by Howard Justice
During the past half-century, there has been a serious amount of confusion as to how a member of God’s family relates to his role in the family of God and how this service involves the local unit known as the local church. It has presented problems in understanding what a Christian may do as an individual or as a local church.
This problem has caused serious doubts and has resulted in some novel catch phrases as; “I am the church; therefore, the church is me” or “The individual can do what the church can do and the church can do what the individual can do.” So, let’s take a serious look at this relationship using God’s Word for our guide.
The Initial Relationship
We are made Christians by immersion into Jesus Christ. I believe that we all accept this as a fact. God “added those to the church who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). And it is here that many fail to understand that we are made heirs to the kingdom by the adoption of God through our faithful obedience. As Luke wrote in Acts 2:47, we are “added to” the church as soon as we are made acceptable by our cleansing or “washing of regeneration” (John 3:5; Titus 3:5). In other words, as soon as we come up out of the watery grave of baptism, God “adds us” to the kingdom of His dear Son. We are made partakers (Colossians 1:12; Romans 8:16,17).
Only after we have been “added to” the kingdom of Heaven do we then elect to become members of a local work. God adds us to His spiritual family but only we choose to add ourselves to a local ‘family’ of Christians just as the newly converted Paul did in Acts 9:26: “And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.”
As members of God’s family, we are subject to God’s laws. These same laws regulate our behavior in both the kingdom (also known as the universal Church) and in the local church. Where many have problems in this regard is understanding their responsibilities and liberties as members of the universal church and their responsibilities and liberties as members in the local church.
The Great Confusion
In I Timothy 3:14,15, the apostle Paul wrote to the young preacher Timothy: “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
What Paul told Timothy was, “I’m telling you these things so that you may know how you are to live your life and teach others to do likewise as members of God’s family.” Where could Timothy find those of God’s household? Why, they may be found in local assemblies, of course. And, it is this enclave of saved believers who constitute the “pillar and ground of the truth” in each community.
Almost two centuries ago, Alexander Campbell believed that the universal Church consisted of all the local congregations. He was clearly mistaken. The universal Church consists of all Christians, living as well as dead, from Pentecost until now. According to the writer of Hebrews, the universal church consists of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). Unfortunately, the local church does not share this same honor in all instances. But, back to the lesson.
While many of the Lord’s instructions have overlapping applications to one’s activities in the local assemblies (for indeed they are an integral part of a Christian’s life), these instructions apply specifically to a Christian’s life as a personally accountable sojourner on this earth. In other words, there are instructions that regulate our entire life as both individual Christians and as members of a local assembly. They tell us, as individuals, how we are to conduct our personal lives as Christians. While some are specific to our local church family relationship, most are to apply to our roles simply as citizens of the Heavenly kingdom.
Determining Individual Versus Local Church Responsibilities
Here is the core problem with so many Christians. How does one determine which application assigns a particular instruction or set of instructions? Some say, “If the epistle is directed to a particular church, then it speaks to a local church relationship.” But, that’s not necessarily true. In many epistles, the text may be speaking to personal or individual attributes or characteristics. In other passages of the same epistle, the context is local church responsibility. So, how does the reader determine which application is proper? The answer is that it is determined by the context of that particular passage. As brother Roy Cogdill once wrote: “A proof text without context is simply a pretext.”
No other passage has been at the center of as much controversy as has Galatians 6:1-10 with regard to individual versus local church responsibility. Brethren have taken great liberty to insert local church responsibility here even though individual responsibility is its primary theme. Note the tendency of brethren who misapply this verse: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”
Many will say, “Just look at the Greek oi (plural) used here for the “you.” That shows this to be a collective issue.” Yes, the oi is plural in the Greek. But the reason that it is plural is not that this is a command given exclusively to a local church as a collective unit but that it is speaking to each of these men who are “spiritual.” Each one is to be involved who has the level of spirituality equal to the task at hand. Not every local church member will have the degree of spirituality necessary to undertake this awesome task. It is what we might call a “collectively selective” group of individuals who will generally number less than the totality of male members of any local congregation.
But look closely at the next couple of singular pronouns: seauton (one’s self, singular) and su (you, singular) where Paul states: “considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” The thrust here is that each man, who is mature spiritually, is to help restore this sinner but that each man is to consider his own spirituality so that he (singular) will not be also tempted to sin. Not one word here mentions the local church. It is not the local assembly itself that is to do this but rather, it is certain individuals who are to do this on an individual basis. Not all members here were to be involved.
To prove my point, let us simply insert the term “local church” each time we see the subject in the following verses. Here’s how ridiculous it will appear:
- “For if a local church reputes itself to be something, being nothing, it deceives itself;”
- “but let each local church prove its own work, and then it will have its boast in what belongs to itself alone, and not in what belongs to another local church. ”
- “For each local church shall bear its own burden.”
- “Let the local church that is taught in the word communicate to him that teaches in all good things.”
- “Be not deceived: God is not mocked; for whatever a local church shall sow, that also shall it reap.”
- “For the local church that sows to its own flesh, shall reap corruption from the flesh; but the local church that sows to the Spirit, from the Spirit shall reap eternal life:”
- “but let the local church not lose heart in doing good; for in due time, if the local church does not faint, it shall reap.”
- “So then, as the local church has occasion, let it do good towards all, and specially towards those of the household of faith.”
It is so obvious here that Paul was speaking about individual responsibility in the foregoing passage. “Doing good unto all men” is so clearly a work of the individual and not a mandate of any local church. It was (and still is) a matter of individual responsibility. Which brings us to the following.
As citizens of this world, individual Christians all have a certain number of specific responsibilities. These responsibilities relate to:
- The Home: I Peter 3:1-7; Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:18-21
- The Government: Romans 13:1-8; I Peter 2:13-17
- The Business World: I Thessalonians 4:11-12; I Timothy 5:8; Colossians 3:22-4:1
- The Community: I Peter 2:12; Colossians 4:5; I Corinthians 10:31-33
- The Local Church: Acts 11:29; Hebrews 10:24-25; I Corinthians 11:18,20,33,34; 14:26; 16:1-4
- The Kingdom of Heaven: John 3:5; Acts 2:47; I Corinthians 12:12,18,27; Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 1:13; I Timothy 3:14-15 (includes the “brotherhood” I Peter 2:17)
Christians have many relationships in this life. Yet, we dare not confuse one with the other. As members of His kingdom, our lives and actions must be regulated by the superior law of our Creator (Galatians 6:2). Our Christian nature must be evident in all our relationships. But, that gives us no license to introduce the local church into politics, business, the home, or even the government. There is no authority for the local church being involved in anything other than the preaching and teaching of the gospel, edifying its members and caring for needy saints. Those are the three authorized works of a local church as set forth by God’s Word. There is no pattern for many of the modern day schemes of man regarding the local church.
Some believe that it is through the local church that we are to carry out all our works. In fact, my mother once taught me that, but I later learned better. No, the Holy Spirit has given us specific instructions regarding what we are to do as members of a local church. Each of these instructions came to us in the form of a command or a positive statement, as an apostolically approved example or by necessary inference. The Holy Spirit didn’t give us a host of “Thou shall nots,” but left us to discern, by our disciplined study of God’s Word, what we are to do and how we are to do it.
The local church was designed by our Lord to provide us a means by which we are to edify one another, provide for needy saints and to preach the gospel to a lost and dying world. Beyond those three areas of work, there is no authority for a local church to be involved in any benevolence to the unsaved. Individuals may (and should) relieve their neighbors. But, the subjects of local church benevolence were always needy Christians and their families.
How we relate to our needs in the government, the community, business enterprises and the home are all related to our individual commitment to the Lord. How we care for our unsaved neighbors is simply regulated by our relationship with our Lord as individual children of the spiritual kingdom that we refer to as “the Church.” That relationship, like our relationship to our homes, our government, our community and our business endeavors, is an individual one.
How we are to care for our needy friends who are not Christians is through our individual responsibility to the community, not as the local church. For some unexplained reason, brethren have confused individual responsibility here with local church responsibility. The local church has no obligation to the secular world other than taking the gospel to them (Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:19). It is the individual who has the responsibility of benevolence toward those outside of Christ, not the local church. That’s what Galatians 6:7-10 teaches.
Yet, as noted above, these same brethren read into Galatians 6:1-10 that the local church is to do good unto all men (including the alien sinner) but, as we have already seen above, that passage is not in reference to local church responsibilities but to individual responsibilities. All that is necessary to prove that point is to take out the personal pronouns and read it with the phrase “the local church” in their place. When such is done, it conflicts with other Bible principles. Therefore, the necessary implication is that it is the responsibility of the individual and not the local church to render benevolence to all men. The parable of the Good Samaritan, while often offered as a good example of local church responsibility, is really about individual responsibility. Not one word is even mentioned about local church responsibility there.
But to add to what we’ve already seen, allow me to ask a few questions.
- Does the New Testament give the local church the responsibility to vote in political elections or does it have a responsibility to do so? If so, then where? Book, chapter, and verse please.
- Does the New Testament give a local church the right to operate any business venture? If so, then where? Book, chapter, and verse please.
- Does the Bible give the local church the authority to sponsor community forums, Boy Scout troops or even social or political rallies? If so, then where? Book, chapter, and verse please.
- Does the Bible give the local church the right to marry or have intimate relations as do married folk and to procreate? If so, then where? Book, chapter, and verse please.
- Does the Bible authorize the local church to contribute to the Red Cross, to the Salvation Army or to the United Fund? If so, then where? Book, chapter, and verse please.
Brethren, it’s high time that we all come to a clear understanding regarding what is the responsibility of the individual and what is clearly the responsibility of the local church in any regard. Almost sixty years ago, the brethren in many local churches split over this very issue. Why did this occur? It happened because the brethren failed to teach God’s Word in this matter and many brethren failed to understand the difference. It happened because many well-intentioned brethren saw some particular need but failed to follow God’s Word in their desire to fulfill that need. A noted historian once said: “Those who ignore the mistakes of history are apt to repeat them.” May God help us all to learn, and to profit from our mistakes.