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.