August 30, 2011

Are all biblical commands corporate?

by Jesse Johnson

The main post today (above, or click here) is an attempt to argue that the New Testament commands individuals to love the poor in the world, but that social action and meeting physical needs of the world’s poor is NOT a mission given to the church. In short, I am arguing for a individual/corporate distinction in how I understand some biblical ethics. But I anticipate that making a distinction between the two might be met with skepticism. So this post is here to explain why it is helpful to see a difference between what the church is called to do, and what individual Christians are called to do.


Generally speaking, NT commands fit into one of two categories: individual or corporate (church body). While this may seem like an artificial distinction, authors from Grudem to Keller have called it a helpful one, and specifically in reference to mercy ministry. Simply put, not everything commanded of an individual is likewise commanded of a church, and vice versa.

To help understand the distinction, here are some examples of individual commands: “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18), and “let no corrupting thought come out of your mouth” (Eph 4:28). Because sanctification is an individual endeavor, those commands are fulfilled on an individual basis. It wouldn’t make sense for a person to say, “I don’t need to pray without ceasing, because my church does that.” Nor would it make sense to ask your pastors, “what does our church do to flee sexual immorality?” A better question would be “What does our church do to train me to not let an uncorrupting thought come out of my mouth.”

Contrast that with corporate commands that are fulfilled on an ecclesiastical level. Commands concerning communion, such as waiting for one another, only make sense in a corporate context (1 Cor 11:17–33). Commands concerning elder qualifications (1 Tim 3) and the honor due elders (1 Tim 5:17), as well as commands concerning giving, such as those in 2 Cor 9, are other examples of  church responsibilities. These examples also illustrate the point that this distinction is not hard and fast. Certainly for a church to have an offering ready, it must come from individuals. For a church to recognize qualified elders, individuals have to step forward and pursue the ministry. Some principles even reflect obvious overlap, such as the fact that pastors are supposed to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph 4:18). In that principle exists a corporate function (the church is to equip people) and an individual function (the people are to work). Other practices are individual, but are validated by a corporate testimony, such as evangelism.

At one level this distinction is a bit contrived; of course a person’s sanctification is a process that takes place in the context of a local church, and of course the health of a church can stimulate or stifle sanctification. But ultimately, it is the individual that must take responsibility to put off sin and put on righteousness.

Nevertheless, this distinction does seem to be helpful when developing a philosophy of ministry, or in evaluating the health of a church. If you are in church leadership, it is daunting enough to think through how to do what God has called you to do, without adding tasks and responsibilities that the NT does not give.

What kind of tasks should the church leadership devote itself to, and what do they equip the saints to do? The church has been commissioned by God to:

• Go into the world and preach the gospel (missions)
• Baptizing and administering communion (ordinances)
• Making disciples (shepherding and training)
• Teaching doctrine (preaching)
• Appointing elders (including paying those that teach)
• Making sure the needs of the poor in the church are met (mercy)
• Reading the Scripture publically (gathering for worship)
• Praying for the sick in the church
• Discipline of the church
• Collecting money for other churches in need

There may be some that I am missing, but before adding responsibilities to the church, it would be helpful to ask: is this task given by Scripture as a function of the church? This is the benefit of the corporate/individual distinction.

Is meeting the physical needs of the poor one of the things God has called the church to do? My answer will post later today.


If you are curious, here are some other places to read more on this:

Keller describes the distinction in Ministers of Mercy around page 37, and also on pages 52-55. He concludes that mercy ministry and social action is a task of both the corporate church and the individual.

Alexander Strauch makes the argument that all mercy ministry is individual, not corporate. See The New Testament Deacon (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth ,1992), 16–23. He is very helpful on Acts 2:42 on pp. 25–30.

Dennis P. Hollinger also lays out the division as it relates to mercy ministry. Heart and Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Action (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 113. Hollinger concludes by calling for a both/and, but what he does not define carefully is whether or not the call for social action falls to individuals or to the church corporate.

John MacArthur lays out the corporate commands from a pastor’s perspective in “What is a Pastor to be and Do?” Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry (Dallas: Word, 1995), 31–33.

Micahel Horton tackles this issue here, under “Is all of Life Kingdom Work?” By the way, his title (you have to click it to see it) is phenomenal.

Mark Dever talks about how evangelism is an individual command validated by corporate life in The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 66–ff.

George Sweazey argues that the best evangelism is corporate rather than individual, but his arguments are not persuasive. He makes them anyway in The Church as Evangelist (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978, 46–52). Michael Green critiques him this view in Evangelism Through the Local Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 7, 9, 20–21.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
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  • Tim

    Rusow and Swanson’s “The Externally Focused Church” seems to speak on the same subject. What’s your take on the book’s emphasis?

    Also, if a church sponsors a work day for its members to spruce up the grounds of a local high school or housing projects is it engaging in training (“OK folks, now that you’ve practiced doing it under the church’s direction go and do it some more individually”), or has it corporately taken on something best left to individuals?

    I’ve wondered too about where the line is drawn when individuals come together to carry out a ministry. If I know there’s a poor family down the block with a hospitalized parent and I ask one of my Christian friends to help me provide meals, is it OK to ask to use the church’s kitchen if it is better equipped for cooking up a passel of food? In other words, if a group of church members band together to carry out a ministry they are all interested in, when does it become a corporate (in the sense of ecclesiastical) effort?

    I know these are a lot of questions, but it’s something I’ve been wrestling with for a while. My understanding is that the more someone grows in relationship with God and studies his word, the more they will be drawn to the individual acts you mention. But I have been challenged by some who say that position is based more on my own emphasis on the study of the word (I write Bible studies) and that the church should provide ways for others to serve through, for example, ministering to the poor.

    It seems to me that people who study God’s word will be drawn by that study and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to serve God and his people, and to reach out to the world he has created. I have not yet seen that people who serve are necessarily drawn by that service into studying God’s word. Maybe they are out there, but it’s not in my experience.


    • Anonymous

      I think you are totally correct in that the more mature someone becomes in the Lord, the more they will grow in desire to minister to those in need, and the more they will grow in discernment about how to minister to those in need.

      As for the specific questions (church kitchen, etc.) I think it is helpful to think of the reason behind limiting what the church is doing corporately. Paul says the reason for the limitation is so that the church “not be burdened…” (1 Tim 5:16). So that is the principle. If what you are doing becomes a burden to the church, or a distraction from what the church is called to do corporately, that becomes the issue.

      I have not read the Rusow and Swanson book. Would you recommend it?

      • Tim

        Jesse, thanks for the insight on the use of church resources and whether it would interfere with a church’s corporate responsibility. That makes a lot of sense.

        As for “The Externally Focused Church”, I would recommend the book as another view on the topic, but I don’t really remember if it is theologically sound or not (as I looked at it some time ago). As for its themes, here are some items from the back cover:

        Your church can be a firm pillar in your community because of the unwavering truth and love of its members. …

        Attract new members and reach hurt and skeptical people through service.
        Use the resources your church already has to impact those in need.
        Learn how churches have made community service a part of their DNA.
        Help your members deepen their spiritual commitment through service.
        Discover practical ways to change your community – starting now.

        The third and fifth points concern me, but perhaps one of your colleagues knows more about the book and can comment.


  • Stantilly

    Hi Jesse, If a local church, of say 1000 people, decides to plant another church in a neighbouring community, and if they release a man that they have trained up to be a church planter to do the job plus they commission 100 members from the mother church to go with and assist him–would that be seen as the corporate church planting a church or individual members planting the church? I would see it as the corporate church involved in church planting? How about you? Once I have your answer I will know how to pose another question I have relating to this effort. Thanks. Stan.

    • Anonymous

      Church planting is a corporate endeavor. Churches plant churches.People are free to try on their own, but generally speaking, from my experience and the examples in Acts where elders set apart men for the task, this would fit under the great commission. That’s how I see it anyway.
      Thanks Stan,

  • Stantilly

    Jesse, I am going to assume that you agree that the 100 members and the church planter (total = 101) from the 1000 strong church are engaging in a corporate church effort effort when they embark upon planting a church in a neighbouring community. Now if that neighbouring community that the 101 members enters looks something like the community in the attached picture, please tell me what you believe the 101 church body’s corporate strategy should be in reaching these folk with the gospel. I really would like to hear what your church planting strategy would be in a community like this where the life expectancy is numbered in days. Would the 101 strong church body collectively be involved in works of mercy and gospel presentation simultaneously? And, assuming that the majority of the 101 church body threw themselves in to rescuing these folk physically and spiritually–would you be able to differentiate between a corporate and an individual responsibility and involvement?

    • Anonymous

      Great question Stan. As always and in any situation, the elders who oversee a church make the best decisions about what/where to spend their money and resources. When the goal is church planting, you think strategically about how to expose the people to the gospel, invite them to repent, believe and be baptized, and then disciple them. The elders who are overseeing the plant would be better able to discern if associating food and gifts from white people with the gospel ultimately hinders the church plant, or if a public demonstration of compassion via food earns you the right to be heard.

      I hasten to add that your question seems to be about corporate ministry here. As an individual,if your neighbors/friends/family is in need and you have the ability to help, then by obviously you are not thinking through the lens of church planting strategy.

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