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Lest We Forget

The Church Versus the Individual
Steve Wallace

For over fifty years there has been a controversy among members of churches of Christ concerning the work of the New Testament church. A major part of this controversy has involved what difference, if any, there is between the church and the individual. Many brethren have argued that there is no difference between the church and the individual. Let us pause to notice some examples of their reasoning.

    "There are those who try to distinguish between the work of the church and the work of Christians, indicating one to be divine, the other human. This is fallacious reasoning. The church is composed of Christians; what the church does, Christians do; what Christians do, the church does, generally speaking. We cannot separate the Christian’s work from the work of the church." [i]

    "Actually we may say that whatever is the duty of the Christian is the duty of the congregation of Christians." [ii]

    "Consciously or otherwise we make a distinction between the church and Christians, and much of our reasoning is based upon this unproved assumption." [iii]

These are clear statements. Such reasoning brings up several pertinent questions. Why have our brethren made such arguments? Does the Bible really teach that there is no difference between the church and the individual? Where does such reasoning lead? Our study of this matter seeks to both answer these questions and introduce helpful facts relevant to this discussion.

The Responsibilities of the Individual Christian

Brother Jarrod Jacobs has written an article on the mission of the church in this issue of Watchman, which shows the responsibilities of the church. Let us spend a moment noting responsibilities God has given to the individual.

  1. Gainful employment. An individual has a moral responsibility to be involved in some kind of business to provide for himself, his family and needy people (2 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Timothy 5:8; Ephesians 4:28).

  2. Care of family. The Bible also teaches the individual’s obligation with regards to his or her family (Ephesians 6:4; 1 Timothy 5:8,14,16).

  3. Civil government. The Bible likewise clearly teaches the individual Christian’s responsibility to obey and honor civil government, as well as to pay taxes and other government related expenses (Romans 13:1-17; 1 Peter 2:17).

  4. Benevolence to needy. Christians are to be involved in general benevolence as they have opportunity (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 4:28; James 1:27).

  5. Support of local church. A Christian has the responsibility to support the church of which he or she is a member both spiritually and financially (Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 4:34-37; Philippians 4:15-16).

When brethren try to mix the responsibilities of the church and the individual they are guilty of misapplying scripture. God has clearly given responsibilities to the individual that he has not given to the church. Also, as we will note later in this article, there are clear, grave consequences to our brethren’s reasoning on this matter.

Why Have Brethren Argued There is no Distinction Between the Church and the Individual?

Answering this question necessitates our reviewing the circumstances that led to our brethren making this argument. During the middle of the twentieth century many brethren started to advocate that local churches should contribute to the establishment, construction and support of such human service institutions as colleges, orphans homes and homes for widows run by brethren. This led others to ask for Bible authority for a church to contribute to such institutions (Colossians 3:17). The answer to this question is clear: There is no authority for a local church to involve itself in such actions. By contrast, the Bible would allow the individual Christian to be involved in the support of general education and benevolent institutions (Ephesians 6:4; Galatians 6:10). In light of these facts, one reason for brethren to argue that there is no distinction between the church and the individual is clear: They seek authority for church support of the above mentioned institutions.

A further issue involved in church support of orphan homes is the matter of the church's benevolent responsibilities. As brother Jacobs shows in his article in this issue of Watchman Magazine, the church is limited to saints in this area. By contrast, as we have noted above, an individual Christian is to follow the example of the Good Samaritan and “do good unto all men” (Galatians 6:10, cp. James 1:27). The argument that there is no difference between the church and the individual allows the church to take upon itself the relief of non-Christians and thus, in the minds of some, authorizes church contributions to orphans homes where non-Christian children are aided.

Let us not fail at this point in our study to note the tacit admission made by brethren who obscure the distinction between the church and the individual: They admit there is no scripture for a church to be involved in the support of such institutions as we mention here or in the relief of non-saints. This is why they have tried to obscure the difference between the church and the individual!

Does the Bible Teach a Distinction
Between the Church and the Individual?

The answer to the above question is both plain and powerful. Please study along with us.

  1. 1 Timothy 5:16, “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.”

    “Any man or woman that believeth” is speaking of the individual Christian. The verse says that the individual Christian has a responsibility that the church does not have. Further, even a casual reading of this verse with the topic of this article in mind shows a difference between the church and the individual to the fair reader. To say there is no difference between the church and the individual clearly contradicts this verse!

  2. Matthew 18:15-17, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Please notice that one man (“thou hast gained the brother”) is not the church. Also, two or three members of a given church are not the church (“two or three witnesses”). The church is the church (“tell it unto the church”). When verse 17 says, “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church,” it clearly shows that the individuals of verses 15 and 16 are not the church. Our brethren say there is no difference between the church and the individual. However, this verse teaches otherwise.

  3. 1 Corinthians 12:14, “For the body is not one member, but many.” The body is not the hand. The hand is a part of the body, as is the eye (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). However, the body is not the hand just as it is not the eye. The members of the body are different from the body as individual links are distinct from the chain! “Body” is a collective noun as are flock, herd, and school (of fish). The bird is distinct from the flock. The cow is distinct from the herd, and the member is distinct from the body. The argument that there is no difference between the church and the individual flies in the face of these clear truths.

  4. Acts 5:3-4, “But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” Before the land was sold, it belonged to Ananias and Sapphira, not to the church (cp. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). After the land was sold, the money received as price for the land belonged to them. They then took a portion and “laid it at the apostles’ feet” (the treasury of the church, Acts 4:34-37). We see here that there is not only a difference between the individual and the church; there is also a difference between the individual’s money and the church’s money! Once again, the reasoning that there is no difference between the church and the individual does not square with plain statements of scripture.

  5. Are the following texts speaking to churches or individuals?

John 15

Galatians 6

James 1

v. 2: every branch

v. 3: ye are clean ... spoken unto you

v. 4: I in you ... branch cannot bear fruit ... except it abide in the vine

v. 5: ye are the branches: He that abideth ... ye can do nothing

v. 6: If a man abide not ... he is cast forth ... they are burned

v. 7: If ye abide in me ... ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you

v. 1: if a man be ... ye ... restore such an one ... lest thou also be tempted

v. 2: Bear ye one another’s burdens

v. 3: if a man think himself ... he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.

v. 4: let every man prove his own work ... he have rejoicing in himself alone

v. 5: every man shall bear his own burden

v. 6 him ... taught ... him that teacheth

v. 7: ... a man soweth, that shall he also reap

v. 8: he that soweth

v. 9:us not be weary in well doing ... we shall reap

v. 10: As we have ... let us

v. 12: the man that endureth ... he is tried, he shall

v. 13: Let no man say when he ... any man

v. 14: every man is tempted ... he is drawn ... his own lust

v. 19: every man be swift ...

v. 21: ... to save your souls

v. 22: be ye doers ...

v. 23: he is like unto a man

v. 24: he beholdeth himself ... his way ... man he was

v. 25: whoso looketh ... he ... this man ... his deed

v. 26: any man among you ... his tongue ... his own heart ... this man’s

v. 27: visit the fatherless and widows ... and to keep himself unspotted

As we consider the above chart, let us remember the use our denominational friends have made of John 15:1-7. In an attempt to justify the existence of different denominations, they have argued that Jesus is the vine and the individual branches are different denominational churches. We have correctly noted that the branches are individuals and not churches. Why is this distinction not made by our institutional brethren in their use of Galatians 6:10 and James 1:27?

Over the years that I preached in Europe I had contact with many brethren from institutional churches in the U.S. who attended churches where I preached. It is interesting to note how many clearly understood the Bible’s teaching on this and other relevant points, and renounced institutionalism. The Bible’s teaching here is clear to the unbiased mind.

Some Quotes from Institutional Brethren

Over the years, many brethren have voiced their objections to the obscuring of the difference between the church and the individual. Some of them were institutional brethren. The first instance of this that we would like to note comes from the late brother George Dehoff. He wrote a short article in response to those who were arguing that there was no difference between the church and the individual which appeared in the November 16, 1950 issue of The Gospel Guardian. Brother O.H. Tallman wrote an article in response to brother Dehoff in the February 15, 1951 issue of that paper to which brother Dehoff then responded. Here is a portion of brother Dehoff’s answer to brother Tallman:

    "His whole article is devoted to providing that an individual is the church or, at least, if an individual member of the church acts that the church is, therefore, acting. The conclusion of his reasoning would be that there is no such thing as an individual or an individual action.

    "An individual may love his wife (Ephesians 5:25) but the church may not do so.

    "An individual may tell his brother his fault between the two of them but may not tell it to the church except under certain circumstances (Matthew 18:16-17). Will someone kindly tell me if “whatever an individual does the church is doing it” how the offended brother could tell the brother his fault and later tell it to the church? Would he be the church when he told the brother the fault in the first place? When he told it to the church, would he merely tell it to himself or is there a difference between the brethren – individually or both of them – and the whole church?

    "An individual may support any widow he wants to (if his wife will allow it) but the church may only support those meeting certain requirements. (1 Timothy 5:9)....

    "An individual is a Christian all of the time but he represents the church as a church only when the church has authorized him to do so." (He went on to tell of the elders and deacons of the church where he was located passing a resolution authorizing him to sign some papers on their behalf, sw.)[iv]

B.C. Goodpasture, editor of The Gospel Advocate during the time when that paper became a medium for promoting church support of institutions, wrote the following in 1944:

    "Admittedly, under proper circumstances a member of the church might participate in some innocent game; but for the church as such to “go in for athletics” is another matter. [v]

More recently, brother Roy Lanier, Jr., wrote,

    "Life and actions within the sphere of the individual are separate from the actions of the same person when acting within the sphere of the church. The individual Christian acts in many ways and relationships the Church cannot act, i.e., working at a job, making transactions for profit, being a husband and father, serving one's country, etc. The individual is involved in many such actions, and though he continues to be a member of the Church, the Church is not doing what he is doing.

    "It is true the Church does nothing but what the individual members involve it in doing. The Church can act in any community only by what its members are willing to do as a group. So, it might be true to say, "Anything the Church can do, the Christian can do." But it is not true to say, "Anything the Christian can do the Church can do." Note instances where New Testament Christians were in actions and relationships in which the Church was not:

    "1. Acts 4:36-37 - A field was owned by Barnabas, sold and the money given to the Church. If it were already owned by the Church, to whom did Barnabas give it?

    "2. Acts 10:1-4 - Cornelius was a Roman soldier, the Church was not in the Roman Army.

    "3. Acts 18:2-3 - Paul worked as a tentmaker, but the Church was not in the tentmaking business.

    "4. Romans 16:23 - Erastus was the city treasurer, but that did not mean the Church was in the treasurer business.

    "5. Ephesians 6:5-9 – Christians owned slaves and were instructed to treat them properly, but the Church was not in the slave business. (see also Philemon)

    "6. Philippians 4:15-17 – the Church sent once and again to Paul's needs. This was done by the group, not by individuals.


    "There are several conclusions profitable for Bible students.

    "First, it is altogether right and proper to see distinctions in varying relationships and spheres. An individual Christian is one entity, the Church as a group, is another entity.

    "Second, God has charged both entities with responsibilities, some of which are financial.

    "Third, it is possible for the Christian to neglect one of these spheres, or both of them.

    "Fourth, the individual has more liberty than the church in actions and contributions. The Church can only give to that for which it has instruction from the Lord. The Lord has been specific about the work and mission of the Church.

    "In this fast-changing world of ours, it is perhaps proper to take some time out to think deeply about accuracy of serving the Lord. He might not be pleased if we blur across distinctions and responsibilities that are important to Him." [vi]

These quotes taken from among our institutional brethren show that some of them have understood the very point we argue herein. There is a difference between the church and the individual.

A Modification of this Argument

Some have found the argument under review herein to be too broad. This has caused them to seek to limit the individual actions a church may perform. In the June 21, 1960 issue of Firm Foundation, brother Monroe Hawley wrote,

    "...This writer believes that any responsibility delegated to the individual Christian because he is a Christian may also be carried out collectively, i.e., by the local church. This does not include the idea that the church can do anything the individual can. Rather, it states that the local church can do anything the individual is to do because he is a Christian." (emphasis in original, sw) [vii]

Foy Vinson printed brother Hawley’s article for the purpose of review. His reply included the following lines,

    "Next he comes to the subject of general benevolence and cites James 1:27 and Galatians 6:10 as “commands given to Christians because they are Christians.” We have noted above commands or instructions given to Christians not because they are Christians but because they are parents such as Ephesians 6:4 and 1 Timothy 5:8. Brother Hawley assumes that these commands instructing us to engage in general benevolence are given to us “because we are Christians” and hence is peculiarly a Christian duty. He offers no proof whatsoever. The fact of the matter is that relieving the needy of the world is no more my duty because I am a Christian than feeding and educating my children is my duty because I am a Christian!" [viii]

In recent debates, brother Mac Deaver has dusted off this argument. In the Deaver-Holt Debate he said,

    "All passages which authorize the performance of an act based upon the peculiar ground of one’s being a Christian are passages which apply with equal force to the church and to the individual Christian." [ix]

Among the answers brother Keith Sharp made to brother Deaver when he met him in debate was that the individual Christian is authorized upon the peculiar grounds of being a Christian to wear the name “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 1 Peter 4:16). He then asked if the church can call itself the Christian Church?

Some Consequences of Failing Make a Difference
Between the Church and the Individual

It would be inappropriate to conclude this article without looking at some of the logical ends to which our institutional brethren’s arguments lead. The most important consequence of our brethren’s reasoning is that thousands of local churches have been detoured from their God-given mission to teach the gospel to the lost. Consider the work that could have been done in evangelism had millions of dollars in church funds not been diverted to the projects our brethren have invented. This alone should cause them to shudder! Also, if there is no difference between the church and the individual, there would be nothing wrong with the church having a foot washing service. After all, this is clearly an individual’s responsibility (1 Timothy 5:10). A further logical result of our brethren’s obscuring the difference between the church and the individual is seen from their use of James 1:27. They have long argued that the word “visit” in this verse authorizes church support of institutions to care for widows and orphans. This same word appears in Matthew 25:36, “I was sick, and ye visited me.” Though this passage speaks of an individual’s responsibility, our brethren’s reasoning has shown us that this does not matter. If “visit” in James 1:27 authorizes church support of orphans homes than it authorizes church support of hospitals in Matthew 25:36! If it is true that, whatever the individual can do the church can do, the possible works in which a church can involve itself are many: Church restaurants (Matthew 25:35), church hotels (Matthew 25:35), church haberdasheries (Matthew 25:36), etc. Let us continue to pray for these brethren and seek opportunities to teach them that we might bring them away from their false beliefs before it is too late.


The work of the church is clearly taught in scripture. The responsibilities of the individual Christian are likewise clear. Further, there is clearly a difference between the individual and the church. Our brethren have blurred this distinction to authorize church support of some pet projects. However, as we have seen, the failure to differentiate between the church and the individual is not only error, it is a Trojan horse with many logical and serious consequences.

[i] V.E. Howard, tract: Institutionalism, Orphan Homes and Church Cooperation, p. 5, via Robert Goodman, “Is There A Difference in Good Works Christians Do and What The Church Does?” Colorado Springs Defender, vol. 6, #45, p. 3

[ii] Howard, op cit., p. 7, via Goodman, op cit., p. 3

[iii] O. H. Tallman, “Churches – Individuals – Institutions,” The Gospel Guardian, Feb. 15, 1951, p. 8

[iv] “A Reply to Brother Tallman,” The Gospel Guardian, Feb. 15, 1951, p. 11

[v] Luther Blackmon, “The New Testament Church: Its Mission,” Truth Magazine, Oct., 1966

[vi] “When a Christian Gives, Does the Church Give? The Latin-American Crier, Sept.,1988

[vii] “The Church and the Individual,” via Truth Magazine, Oct., 1960, p. 4

[viii] “The Church and the Individual – Reviewed,” Truth Magazine, Oct., 1960, p. 6

[ix] via charts by Keith Sharp for the Sharp-Deaver Debate