The Individual and The Church
by David F. Sims

Among the churches of Christ, the past fifty or so years have seen an endless division among brethren over the subject commonly known as "institutionalism." This deals primarily with 2 issues: the "sponsoring church" arrangement and the use of church funds for supporting various human institutions, such as colleges and orphan homes.

Recognizing the authority of the Scriptures as God's complete and final revelation for the church, nothing but a thorough and objective study, accompanied by prayer and an open mind, will reveal God's will on the matter. Desiring to know, understand, and apply the truth, such a study is presented here. We also recommend you read The Silence of the Scriptures after reading this.

The following table displays Scriptural references to the acts of benevolence done by individuals and the church in the first century. It shows who acted (the individual or the church?), what they did, who/whom they did it for, why they did it, and how they delivered it. The Scriptures speak clearly for themselves. It is up to the individual to search the Scriptures and understand what the will of the Lord is. The reader is encouraged to follow along in his own Bible, carefully reading the noted passages and deciding how the church is to act in benevolence today.

Acts 2:44-45
Indiv. Christians
shared all things other Christians supply need gave directly
Acts 4:32-35
the church
shared other Christians help needy gave to apostles, who distributed to needy in that place
Acts 6:1-5
the church
served food Greek Christian widows (not stated) 7 men appointed from that church to serve
Acts 11:27-30
each disciple
sent contribution brethren in Judea relief for coming famine sent it directly via messengers (Barnabas & Saul) to elders in Judea
Rom 15:25-28
church in Macedonia, church in Achaia
sent contribution poor saints in Jerusalem supply need sent directly via messengers (apostles)
Rom 16:1-2
church in Rome
told to help Phoebe (a Christian) supply need directly
1 Cor 16:17
3 Christians
supplied, aided Paul supply what was lacking (not stated)
2 Cor 8:1-4,14
churches of Macedonia
gave of their own accord saints supply what was lacking (not stated)
2 Cor 11:7-12
sent wages Paul support preaching (not stated)
Phil 2:25,30
Phil 4:10,14-18
church in Phillipi
sent gifts multiple times Paul supply need sent via messenger (Epaphroditus)
1 Tim 5:9-10,16 local church "put on list" widows who qualified assist directly
2 Tim 1:16-18
refreshed, visited, served Paul supply needs (not stated)

Certain things become very evident here.
1. No church EVER sent money or gifts to any non-Christian.
2. No church EVER sent money or gifts to any institution.
3. No church EVER sent money or gifts to another organization or "sponsoring church" to do its own work.
4. No church EVER received money or gifts from any institution.
5. No church EVER received money or gifts from any "sponsoring church."
6. No church EVER received money or gifts from another church to give to the preacher.
7. Individual Christians DID send money/gifts to churches.
8. Individual Christians DID send money/gifts to help needy Christians.
9. Individual Christians DID send money/gifts to support preachers.
10. There are certain people the church is allowed to help (needy Christians, preachers), and others it is not obligated to help (widows who do not qualify, non-Christians).
11. Churches DID send support/wages directly to the preachers.
12. Churches DID send money/gifts to help NEEDY Christians.

It becomes very clear that there is no example, command, or inference of any kind that allows the church to support institutions or become a "sponsoring church." The church universal (i.e., ALL Christians) is obligated to take care of its own needy. The church universal is NOT obligated, nor has the authority, to help NON-Christians.

The local church likewise has a responsibility to care for its own needy. No local church has the authority or obligation to give money to non-Christians or any institution.

The local church in each town/area has an obligation to preach the gospel in its area. Churches in other towns/areas have NO SUCH OBLIGATION to send money to churches in other areas for their work. Any church may send money directly to a preacher, but no church may send money to another church for any reason other than helping needy saints.

Individual Christians are responsible for caring for their own families so that the church will not be burdened (1 Tim 5:4,8,16) . They are obligated to help anyone in need, especially other Christians (Gal 6:10). Individual Christians are free to open their homes and pocket books to serve preachers as well.

There are other scriptures that deal with benevolence, but all are limited to INDIVIDUAL obligations. For example, Galatians 6:10 says, "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." The question here is not whether or not we should do good to all men, where Christian or non-Christian. The question is: who is the "WE" referring to?

A study of the context from the beginning of the chapter through end of the chapter reveals that the "WE" refers to individual Christians.

VS 1: "looking to yourself"
VS 2: "bear one another's burdens"
VS 3: "if anyone thinks..."
VS 4: "each one examine his own work" "in regard to himself alone"
VS 5: "each one shall bear his own load"
VS 6: "the one who is taught"
VS 7: "whatever a man sows"
VS 8: "the one who sows"

In verses 9-10, Paul uses the words "us and "we" to include himself among the brethren there at Galatia. He is not a member of the Galatian congregation, nor is he living there when he writes this letter. So speaking to each member of the church, and including himself, he says for us to "not lose heart in doing good, for in due time WE shall reap if WE do not grow weary. 10 So then, while WE have opportunity, let US do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."

Paul is laying down some principles for individual living in these verses. He begins this chapter by warning each of them to watch out for their own sins, and yet to help each other. He warns each of them to be humble and not judge one another, for each one will be judged according to his own work, not according to someone else's work. He encourages each of them to share with their teachers, and they will be repaid according to their work, whether they are working through the flesh or through the Spirit. He encourages them to be strong in their commitment to doing good, knowing that they would be rewarded in the end. Based on this reward and on their current opportunity, he reminds them each to "do good to all men" and "especially" for other Christians.

Verses 12-16 condemns those who try to compel the gentile Christians to be circumcised. This condemnation is upon those individuals who are wrong. This also sparks encouragement for the individual gentile Christians who may have been unsure about it.

There is no mention in this chapter of church action, of supporting orphan homes or other institutions, or of any kind of sponsoring church arrangement.

Another verse dealing with benevolence that is commonly used to defend institutionalism is James 1:27. Again, a careful study of the context will reveal whether this verse refers to individual or church action. Go back to the beginning of the chapter.

VS 1: addressed to "the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad."
VS 2: "consider it all joy"
VS 3: "the testing of YOUR faith produces endurance"
VS 4: "that you may be perfect and complete"
VS 5: "if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask" "it will be given to him"
VS 6: "let him ask in faith" "the one who doubts"
VS 7: "let not that man expect that he will"
VS 8: "a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways"
VS 9: "let the brother"
VS 10: "let the rich man"
VS 11: "the rich man in his pursuits"
VS 12: "a man who perseveres" "for once he has been" "he will receive"
VS 13: "let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted' "
VS 14: "each one" "when he is" "by his own"
VS 18: "brought us forth" "that we might be"
VS 19: "let everyone be"
VS 20: "anger of man"
VS 21: "receive the word implanted" "to save your souls"
VS 22: "prove yourselves doers"
VS 23: "if anyone is" "he is like a man who"
VS 24: "once he has look at himself" "he has immediately forgotten" "person he was"
VS 25: "one who looks" "this man"
VS 26: "anyone thinks himself" "bridle his tongue" "his own heart" "this man's religion"

James begins by addressing his letter to all the Jewish Christians in the world, not to any particular congregation. His words are meant to encourage all individual Christians to do what is right. He then encourages them to be happy even when they suffer because it would bring endurance to their faith and ultimately make them complete. He tells them they can obtain wisdom through humble prayer. He warns them not to glory in their wealth. He says the one who perseveres under trial will receive the crown of life. He warns them not to blame God for temptation because they are each carried away by their own lusts, which brings forth death. He says all good things come from the Father, and that one of those good things is that He brought forth the Jews to be the first to receive the Gospel unto salvation.

Each one must control his anger, listening carefully and speaking carefully. They must put aside sin and receive the word of God. They must be doers, not just hearers. The individual who looks at the law and abides by it will be blessed. But if anyone thinks he is religious, and yet he can't control his own tongue, his religion is worthless. And in verse 27, he says "THIS is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

Back to verse 26 again. James brings up the subject of a man's "religion." He says that the religion of a man who can't control his tongue is worthless. He then defines what a man's religion ought to be: to visit orphans and widows, and to keep himself free from sin.

There is no mention of church action in this entire chapter! Every word is addressed to individuals and speaks of how they are to behave and think.

Verse 27 in no way authorizes the church to support, build, sponsor, oversee, or be in any way connected with any institution, neither orphan homes nor retirement homes. The church is not spoken of here. How could the church "keep oneself unstained by the world"? It is not the church that gets "stained by the world," but individuals. Likewise, it is not the church with an obligation to visit orphans and widows, but individuals.

Please understand that we are not ANTI-benevolence. We feel a great deal of pity for orphans and widows, as well as every person in the world who suffers. We DO believe that each one of us, as individuals, has an obligation to help anyone in need. However, the above presentation demonstrates that God has a special purpose for the church's treasury, and that purpose excludes many things. We have no right to change what God has commanded, or assume that He allows us to do that which He has not authorized. We cannot argue from the silence of the Scriptures. "Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?" (Romans 11:34).

see also:
Please Don't Call Us "Anti" by Ferrell Jenkins. (Must have Adobe Acrobat to view).
The Works Assigned to the Local Church by Richard J. Boone
What is a Conservative? by Bob West

Written by David F. Sims, doing my part to "turn the world upside down" (Acts 17:6)

All quotes taken from the New American Standard Bible, unless otherwise stated.

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