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Years ago, “individualism” was introduced as a unifying concept that would heal the rift between churches of Christ over church-supported institutions, etc. Without any distinctions between what the individual does and what the church does, such issues would be resolved. “What individuals do, the church does,” they claimed; “that is all that the church is: individuals related to Christ.” While institutional congregations did not totally buy this concept of no organized church, they did promote the idea that what the individual does the church does. They were more sympathetic to the “individualism” idea than were conservative churches.
Promoters of this radical “individualism” have always been more closely aligned with the promoters of institutionalism and the like. Even in more recent years, liberal promotions are commended —“Crossroadism” etc.—while those of us who are more conservative are called “ignorant legalists.”
About fifty years ago there was a congregation in a Northern state that took the sign down from the front of the building and put up some sort of generic sign to identify themselves. They claimed that the term Church of Christ carried a negative connotation to many in the religious world. They said that the term had become “denominationalized,” that we actually belonged to a denomination called “the Church of Christ church.” By removing this name, so they claimed, they could win “believers in Christ” from all denominational groups. They said without the name, denominational people would feel more welcome and “at home.” We heard of another congregation among us in Texas which did the same thing. Of course, this idea was first advocated among the digressive brethren.
The “individualists” do not simply want to altar the name of the church to help the perception the religious world has of us; they would rather the churches of Christ be dissolved and then individuals who claimed to believe in Christ would be free to do as they please without organization. Of course, we believe in individualism as the New Testament teaches it. Each individual is responsible for his words and deeds. “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
One wrote, “The word 'ecclesia' during the first century, as we pointed out, was a common Greek word in the language of the people, and was used to describe any gathering or group, assembly or congregation of people whether large or small. It had no religious connotation whatever.... “It should be kept in mind that this word 'ecclesia' was not a word which was coined by the Lord for religious purposes. It was a familiar word to all. In fact, there is no indication anywhere in the scriptures that the Lord ever thought of his mission on earth as religious in nature. His mission was to establish Truth and Truth only ...” There are some among us today who advocate an abandoning of the word “church” claiming that it was totally a secular word in New Testament times and had no religious or spiritual meaning.
It is argued that the ecclesia established by Christ did not involve religious organization between saints, but that it is descriptive only of an “‘individual to Christ’ relationship.” Yet this is a completely fallacious notion not supported by the word of God. Those who embrace it are rebellious to the idea that they need to be accountable and dependable while here on earth. The rest of us might be censured and castigated for a misdeed by these radical “individualists” who claim that they are answerable only to Christ.
It is true that the Greek word ecclesia (church) was used for all sorts of secular meetings and groups but it is absolutely not true that the word when embraced by our Lord and employed by his inspired Apostles had no religious connotation. “Church” was the word most often used to translate the Hebrew gahal. Historians tell us, “In twenty-six instances the reference is to an assembly in a particular locality for religious purposes, usually for worship . . .” As a term to describe the congregation of the Lord, Jesus chose ecclesia from among any number of other words. He chose the word “church” to refer to “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Dropping the word “church” in favor of another term, be it assembly, congregation or gathering, would not promote the concept of these radical “individualists.” Ecclesia is not just a group of individuals related to Christ, but as a group in a locality these individuals are related also one to another. Yes, they are related in organization – true, not the Catholic-hierarchal system of sectarianism, but organization never-the-less. In its verb form, organize is “to arrange or constitute in interdependent parts, each having a special function or relation with respect to the whole.” And such is the church of the New Testament; the members have a function in relationship with each other with respect to the whole.
This relationship is demonstrated by the fact that the local church constitutes the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). In this function, the local church sends forth evangelists to preach and spread the gospel. The Scripture says, “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch” (Acts 11:22). And again in Acts 13:1, “ Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul . . . And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away (v.3).”
The local church is to support the preaching of the gospel. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service” (2 Corinthians 11:8). And again he thanked the Lord for the support of the church at Philippi: “Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:4,5) and again, “Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only” (4:15). It is the work of the local church to assist those carrying the gospel. “And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren” (Acts 15:3).
This grave work demands dependency, exchange, friendship, and kinship between the members, with each individual fulfilling his responsibility for the work and service of the whole local church. Even in face of the truth to the contrary, it is argued that the ecclesia of Christ did not involve religious organization, and therefore by translating it “gathering,” “group,” “congregation,” “assembly,” or some other term, we can rid our minds of such an idea, which the word “church” supposedly conveys.
The local church practices discipline. Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, wrote “unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:1), and said, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (3:6). The responsibility to withdraw from the disorderly was totally in the hands of the local congregation.
Today, some would convene a tribunal or conduct an inquisition to practice universal church discipline. An inter-congregational board before which an accused brother is called to be castigated is absolutely foreign to the New Testament. Each local church must remain autonomous, and it must maintain its own discipline according to the will of God.
As a body the local church hears and speaks, that is, makes judgements on matters. When one disciple has been injured by another, he is to go to that brother alone, according to the teaching of Jesus. If he will not repent, the offended brother is to take another with him to see the offender. “ 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 a heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:17). The church acts together in these matters. (Read 1 Corinthians 5:4-6). Each individual must cooperate in this collective judgment and action.
The local church engages in worship. This is individual devotion expressed in conjunction with others in observing the Lord’s supper. This is seen in the language of Paul in these various verses, 1 Corinthians 11:22, 20, 29– “ What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.” “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. . . ” “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.” Although individual worship, it is carried out in cooperation with all others in the local church.
Singing is done by individual Christians in praise to God, but in cooperation with the other Christians of the local congregation. This is clearly seen from these passages – “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). And again, “Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Hebrews 2:12).
Giving of one’s means is to be done on the Lord’s day. (Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3). This latter passage clearly states that this was to be done before Paul came, so that no gathering of the funds from individuals would be necessary. In all these things, each individual is responsible to the whole church in order to fulfill these collective responsibilities decently and in order.
The local church is to ordain qualified men as overseers. It is a collective effort to which all members are to submit. The bishops are to direct the church in all its work and worship. Their oversight never reaches outside the local church. (Study these passages – Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1. In Hebrews 13:17, the inspired writer clearly shows the grave responsibility of the elders of a church. They are to watch-over and safeguard the souls of all the individual members of the flock and to give account to God for each one.
In the Scriptures we see the church, as a unit may – Receive (Acts 15:4); Be saluted or greeted (Acts 18:22); and Be addressed (3 John 9). As a body, each member has responsibility to the others. Although the Lord himself adds each saved soul to the church–his body of believers (Acts 2:47), a local ecclesia is an association to which individuals may join themselves (See Acts 9:26), and from which one may be expelled (1 Corinthians 5:9-11; even expelled in error, 3 John 10).
Whether called “church” or some other word, the local ecclesia of Christ is a functioning body composed of individual saints who fulfill their individual and collective responsibilities. Each local ecclesia of Christ is a self-governing and functioning body. The universal church is not to be organized to carry out discipline, worship or evangelism. Any system by which a local ecclesia of Christ loses its autonomy must be abandoned.
May we stop and always consider what God says and how our actions will impact the entire congregation before we act,
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