by Al Maxey

Issue #109 ------- March 1, 2004
Stupidity is nature's favorite resource
for preserving consistency of opinion.

Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)

YOU Can -- WE Can't
A Disturbing Dichotomy Involving
Individual vs. Corporate Responsibility

James informs the disciples of Christ that "pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father" consists of ministering to the needs of orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). Thus, there is an obvious moral and spiritual obligation on the part of God's people to care for such persons. Is this an individual or corporate responsibility? Or may it be both? Or must it be one and never, under any circumstances, the other? It may shock some of you to learn that debate over these very questions has divided disciples of Christ into feuding factions for generations. It is one of the more shameful aspects of our history and heritage. Brethren bickering over benevolence! Now, there's a fine testimony to a lost and dying world!

A young Christian woman in Louisiana, who has long been a reader of these Reflections, wrote, "I have a question about one of the churches I visited here; not about them, but about their rationale -- Why would they believe it was wrong for the church as a body to support an orphanage?" It does seem like a strange and unlikely thing for a body of believers to so vehemently oppose, but they do put forward a "rationale." They are anti, or against, the support of an orphanage, as a corporate body of believers, for two major reasons:

  1. First, they perceive an orphanage to be a human institution separate and apart from the church. These brethren are convicted within their hearts and minds that it is unbiblical, and thus sinful, to "do the Lord's work" through "human institutions" (which are perceived by them to be well beyond the parameters of the local church body). It is for this reason that these brethren are often referred to as Non-Institutional. They would suggest that, ideally, individual Christians would take all orphans into their own homes and provide for them. We certainly can't fault them for this ideal ... it is indeed a very noble one ... even though we all know, realistically, we are a long way from ever seeing this happen (even among these Non-Institutional brethren).

  2. Second, these ultra-conservative NI brethren typically have very rigid regulations and restrictions with regard to the church treasury, which are legalistic limitations largely derived from the assumptive nature of the theology of patternism which they strongly embrace. If they can't find a verse in the NT writings saying the early disciples took money from a church treasury to support an institution, then THEY won't do so either. Indeed, they regard it as sinful to do so, and some even go so far as to make this issue a test of fellowship and a condition of salvation. A man once informed me he could not acknowledge me as his "brother" until he took a look at our church budget to see where we spent our money!! An individual disciple may give of his own money to help feed, clothe or house an orphan, but the church (corporate) may NOT give funds out of the treasury to help feed, clothe or house an orphan. The former would be a godly action by an individual, the latter would be a godless action by the corporate body.

A few years ago, in a discussion with a preacher from the Non-Institutional segment of the Churches of Christ, I asked this preacher what he would do if he found a starving orphan on the doorstep of the church building, and the only money available for food was from the church collection basket. Would he feed that orphan or let him go hungry? Although it took considerable time and energy to persuade this preacher to finally answer the question, and although he became quite angry at having to address this most revealing hypothetical, I finally pinned him down and exposed the true nature of his theology. He admitted that he would have to let the little orphaned child starve, for it would be "a sin" to take money from the "treasury" to feed him. If there had been any individual members present who had money on them, then they could have paid to feed the orphan and God would have approved, but such funds could NOT come from the treasury of the corporate body of believers with God's approval. It would be SIN.

I think we can see why such "Christians" are very reluctant to answer such pointed questions. They know how their theology will be perceived; it will be perceived for what it is -- harsh, merciless, heartless legalism devoid of any compassion. Letting a child starve, rather than "break a rule" .... Lord, spare us from such lunacy!! Jesus issued one of His most scathing rebukes against the rigid religionists of His day, saying, "WOE to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" They had formulated extensive regulations concerning the tithe, even down to counting seeds, but had completely neglected the practice of justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). They uttered long prayers, and yet went out and "devoured widows' houses" (vs. 14). "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?" (vs. 33). This sick mentality has always been with us, and Jesus didn't mince words when exposing and condemning it. Neither should we!

A reader from the beautiful state of Oregon cut right to the heart of this issue in a recent email to me. He wrote, "I read brother Tant's response to your examination of fund raising. I appreciate his opinion, and at one time I held the same view, because of 'what the church can do versus what the individual can do' distinctions that were so much a part of our legalistic theology. However, don't we sometimes overdo this distinction?! At what time or point do we cease to be the church?! We seem to make a distinction between our 'church' lives and our 'individual' lives that should not exist. Could you share some of your thoughts sometime on this distinction of what the church is allowed to do versus what the individual can do? I believe the confusion is partially due to a misconception or complication of who or what 'the church' truly is."

I believe this reader makes some valid and insightful observations. The "church" is not so much a what as a who. It is the universal body of the redeemed. It is a body of convicted, committed believers who have answered the Lord's call to come out of the world and into a relationship with Him. We are the "called out ones." The church is simply PEOPLE ... whether few or many. Where even one disciple of Jesus Christ is living and practicing his faith before others, the church is visible! If two men empty their pockets and pool their money and hand it to the little orphan child, that money came from the church. This notion that if one disciple acts alone in the name of Christ the church is NOT represented is false. I don't have to physically get within ten feet of another disciple before "the church" suddenly and miraculously comes into being. Wherever I go and whatever I do, I represent and reflect the reality of like-minded disciples of Jesus Christ. "I am the church" is just as accurate a statement as "WE are the church."

It is somewhat ironic that the Non-Institutionalists have, in a way, institutionalized the church by their restrictive, legalistic, patternistic theology in such matters. Their individual versus corporate distinctions have forced a dichotomy upon God's people that I find contrary to the very purpose and mission of the body of Christ. Yes, the body (church) is made up of individual parts (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4), but if a single part of that body acts in the name of Christ Jesus, the whole body is involved and affected. To suggest that when a single disciple acts alone, in the name of the Lord, that the church is not visibly acting is a fallacy. It is to dismember the body. If the body was an ear, or an eye, or a foot, this might be valid. But it is not! When an ear hears, the body hears. When an eye sees, or fails to see, the whole body is affected. "The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness" (Matthew 6:22-23). "If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26). Yes, the body is the sum total of its many parts, but each part also, when it functions (or fails to function), represents and/or impacts the whole.

This notion that a single disciple can use his money to feed an orphan, but if two disciples put that money in a collection plate it can no longer be used to feed that same orphan, is diabolical drivel. If this is the fruit of patternism, then that fruit is rotten to the core! Yes, the Non-Institutional brethren are correct in their promotion of God's IDEAL -- individual disciples should seek to minister to widows and orphans, "and let not the church (collective) be burdened" (1 Timothy 5:16). However, if there are no individual disciples either willing or able to meet the pressing needs of such persons, may the church (collective) provide the resources (presumably from their "treasury") to care for such persons? According to the same passage in Paul's first epistle to Timothy, they can! 1 Timothy 5:1-16 speaks of widows being "put on the list" so that the church (collective) might "assist those who are widows indeed" (cf. Acts 6:1-3). Here we see, in a single passage, both individual disciples and the "church collective" providing assistance, as each is able, to a special class of people. Paul has obviously failed to see a distinction between funds from a pocketbook or a treasury. If the need is there, that need will be met, whether by the individual church member or the group as a whole.

There are times when the care of some with special needs requires more facilities and more training than any individual disciple may have at his or her disposal. Is it wrong for the individual disciple, or even for a group of disciples, to provide assistance (perhaps financial) to those persons or facilities who can provide that specialized care? Would such be funding the "institution," or would it be assisting in funding the care of the person in need? Would such giving be regarded as "sinful" in the sight of our God? Some say "YES." I ask "WHY?"

Consider the Lord's parable about a good Samaritan who came to the aid of a battered fellow traveler (Luke 10:30-37). The Samaritan, unlike the rigid religionists who left the battered man to die, showed compassion. He did what he could to provide for the man's care. His circumstances, however, did not make it practical for him to take the man into his own home and provide for him. Therefore, he paid another to provide that specialized care. "On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return, I will repay you'" (vs. 35). Is this a case of providing financial support to an INNstitution?!! Does Jesus condemn this individual for giving money to an innkeeper who could provide the type of specialized care at his inn that this good Samaritan could not?! Of course not. Could we not suggest this may be a "pattern" for us to go and do likewise? Indeed, did not Jesus say to the lawyer, "Go and do the same!" (vs. 37)?

IS there a valid distinction between the individual church member and the collective body of believers? Absolutely! No one would argue otherwise. There are some areas where the individual believer might prove far more effective than the local group --- a one-on-one Bible study, for example; or a counseling session. There are other times when the strength of the whole is far more appropriate to a circumstance than the limited efforts of the individual --- church discipline, for example. With regard to opportunities, abilities, effectiveness, and the like, there are indeed some valid distinctions to be made. Sometimes the work of a "hand" is needed far more than the work of a "foot." Sometimes the whole body needs to get involved, rather than placing the full burden on any individual part. Again, no one would argue otherwise.

Where we must be extremely cautious, however, and where too many have failed in this respect, is in drawing unnecessary lines of demarcation between the individual church member and the church as a whole, and then characterizing as sin any crossing of these arbitrary man-made boundaries. To suggest that an individual may do something to the glory of God that would be godless if two or more disciples did the same thing is to suggest more than Scripture ever does. "I can" and "YOU can," but "WE can't" is a doctrine nowhere found within the pages of God's inspired writings. It doesn't exist except in the minds of those enslaved to legalistic, patternistic thinking. It is a heresy that has too long divided brethren in Christ and hindered the mission of the church. May our Father quickly eradicate such theology from among His people so that we may progress in His grace!

Reflections from Readers

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From a Minister in South Africa:

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From a Minister in Siberia, Russia:

Dear Al, Once again, thank you so much for your Reflections. They are always so very encouraging. I am a Youth Minister for Tomsk Christian Church in Siberia, Russia. Some of my teens cannot come to church on Sunday because their parents won't let them. I am currently looking at possibilities for their taking of the Lord's Supper. I am curious as to your point of view on the subject. What is the Lord's Supper really? Is it possible that a group of disciples can get together on another day, besides Sunday, and partake of the Lord's Supper? Would that be biblical? Are we bound, by Paul's mentioning of the first day of the week, to only partake of the Lord's Supper then? I would really appreciate your insight on all of this in one of the issues of Reflections, if possible.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Brother Al, I found your web site today while doing some studies on the New World Translation. I found your studies on the versions very helpful in some discussions I am having. I also read your response to the tract by the Baptist pastor, and I really enjoyed what you wrote. I myself am a Baptist (Southern), and, while I may disagree with a few of the points you made, I must commend you in how you handled my "brothers" (especially the one from Texas!). I have a couple of very good friends who are Church of Christ; we don't agree on every point, but we have some great fellowship together. Anyway, thanks for your ministry and may God bless you, my brother!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

As I was reading the first paragraph of your article A Lover's Quarrel, which was about Leroy Garrett, I could not help but think, "I could be writing that about Al" ... I mean, word for word. I think those words describe the impact you have had on me. We have never met face to face ... we have only known each other a pretty short time ... but you still have inspired me with your writings "and by the courageous example" of your life. You have had a tremendous impact on my life, both with your Reflections and by you personally. I can honestly say I would not be serving the Lord in the way I am if it were not for you! So, I guess I just wanted to say Thanks. Your impact is far reaching, and I know your writings touch many other people as well. Cuba Avenue Church of Christ is both lucky and blessed to have you as their Minister.

From a Preacher in Tennessee:

Although I would agree with your assessment of tithing for the NT church, I do wonder if the Jewish church didn't continue to practice tithing to some degree, as well as instrumental music and some other "Jewish" things in addition to temple worship, temple sacrifices, and the use of the Levitical priesthood, since they were "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20). If so, it would seem that "sing" in James, and other places in the NT, could not mean "sing only," as brethren have argued over the years. How could Paul, James especially, and other NT writers mean "sing only" IF the Jewish church continued to be zealous for the Law, which would include Psalm 150?

From a Reader in Texas:

I really enjoy your Reflections and look forward to receiving them in my email. I live in the Dallas area. A couple of months ago, several Churches of Christ banded together and bought a full page ad in the Dallas newspaper. It was very conservative, a little judgmental against "denominations," and stated the "Church of Christ" beliefs as if they were written in stone. The names of all the participating congregations were listed at the bottom. It was very clear to any "insider" what kind of congregations these were that participated in the producing of the ad, and which kind were conspicuously absent!

These ads distress me, because not all Churches of Christ believe in the same "cookie-cutter" statement of doctrine! And even those doctrinal points we do agree upon, I wouldn't want stated in public in such a blunt, unloving fashion! I hate the idea that when I tell someone I go to such-and-such Church of Christ, they are going to automatically think I believe those things stated in said advertisement. Is this becoming a trend in other areas as well? These ads really make an "us against them" statement to those not involved. I'm becoming embarrassed of my heritage!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, I wanted to commend you on your recent Reflections article in which you reviewed A Lover's Quarrel by our friend, Leroy. I printed it out, and will include it, along with the review that Leroy sent out in his e-mail essays (Soldier On), when I have those essays bound in a permanent volume. Leroy and Ouida have been our friends for several decades. They have both had great influence in our own "freedom walk." I join another of your readers in urging you to take a drive to North Texas some time soon and meet them personally. I assure you (as if you need assurance!) that it will be a trip well-rewarded! My wife and I have visited in their home (and they in ours) many times. We accompanied them to Nova Scotia in 1999 when he spoke to a gathering of Stone-Campbell folks at the Maritime Christian Fellowship. I had the honor of introducing Leroy (and Ouida) to that assembly. Thank you for your review, and may the Father continue to bless you and your wife in your walk in the Way.

From a Professor at Texas Tech University:

I enjoyed your review of Leroy's book, and the comments of others on it. Hard to believe you've never met him. We've had a relationship for some forty years. I love him, and am thankful for what he has brought to our legalistic ways. I have just returned from the ACU Lectureship where he held forth in two sessions. In both sessions additional chairs had to be brought in until there was no more room. Some had to be turned away. He spoke on the great founding documents of our Movement, and he enjoyed a wonderful reception. I would agree with the brother who suggested that you ought to make it a point to go see him.

I've just read your essay on tithing and certainly find no fault with it. But I do think most of our people need more teaching on the blessing of giving. Our elders recently sent a letter to the congregation agreeing that there is no law for tithing, but that we feel that Christians, living under grace, ought not to be satisfied with a tithe. We told them that all of their elders had discovered great blessing in deciding to give to the Lord's work more than was required under Moses, and we encouraged all to follow our example and receive greater blessing. Our contributions have significantly improved and the congregation's joy in giving seems quite evident. Our goal is to eventually spend as much on missions and the local poor as we do on buildings and preachers. Many churches spend so much on themselves there is not much left for others. That seems counter to what Jesus taught.

From a Reader in Texas:

Excellent article, Al. Tithing was something required under the law of Moses; we live under the law of Christ now which calls us to a higher plane of spiritual focus. When we see what God has done for us and how much He loves us it should motivate us to greater heights of generosity than just figuring out what our ten percent due is. It should motivate us to realize that everything we have belongs to God, including our lives, and we owe all of it to Him. Giving of our means as we have been prospered is always something that we should want to do, if our minds are in the right place, rather than something we have to do. I would also have to say that the concept of tithing, under the old covenant, is just as dead today, in light of the new covenant sealed with the blood of Christ, as is the use of instruments in worship ... but, as they say, "that is another subject for another day." Take care, brother.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, I look every day to see if a new article is on your web site. You need to write one every day!!!! Don't make us wait!!

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