Do Christians feel as much personal responsibility in spreading the gospel and making disciples as we should? Since actions speak louder than words, the answer in most cases is, "no". Two misconceptions about local congregations have contributed to Christians feeling a lack personal accountability in such matters. These misconceptions are 1) that the local church is some sort of body politic that functions as a collective unit and 2) the concept of church membership as it pertains to a local congregation. How do these concepts affect our perception of personal responsibility in seeking the lost?
Many think that the church, as an organized institution, has been assigned certain responsibilities of its own. If one believes this and is a member of such an institution, it doesn't matter who does the work, all members will get partial credit for it. If I attend "services" every Sunday and most Wednesdays and I contribute financially it is then up to the elders, deacons and the preacher to see to it that my financial contribution is put to good use in spreading the gospel. In other words, if I attend and I'm somewhat involved, God will be pleased with me. Is this what Jesus had in mind when He gave the great commission? It would appear that Christians in the Bible took their duty to spread the gospel very seriously. Lets notice a few.
- In Acts 8:1-4, saints fled to escape persecution and, "those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word".
- Paul commended the Thessalonians for their efforts in 1 Thessalonians 1:8 by saying, "For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place...".
- In 2 Timothy 2:2 Paul instructs Timothy to pass along "the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also".
Notice that in Acts it wasn't just the apostles that went everywhere preaching, everyone who was scattered was busy spreading the gospel. The Thessalonians had been so diligent in spreading the word that it got Paul's attention and he commended them for it. Timothy was to instruct faithful men so that they could in turn teach others. Yes, it is clear that the Christians of the first century didn't expect someone else to spread the Word for them. They understood that as Christians, it was their personal responsibility to teach others about Jesus! That is a big part of what being a disciple of Christ is all about. Lets examine some important aspects of personal responsibility.
There are two very similar parables that Jesus taught about personal responsibility. They are found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. Please take a moment to read these passages before continuing. The salient points of these parables are, 1) people were made responsible for a master's resources, 2) there was a day of reckoning when these stewards were to give an account, 3) they were rewarded or punished based upon how they had handled their responsibilities. Likewise for us, there will be a day of reckoning and we commonly call it the judgement day. Romans 14:10-12 says, "...For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “ As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God." So then each of us shall give account of himself to God".
Now it is time to ask a very serious question, "What passage of scripture says that the church will be judged as a collective, functional unit"? The answer is, "There is not a single Bible passage which teaches group judgement"! You and I will not be condemned to eternal destruction because the "group" wasn't doing its job. Neither will you and I gain entry into heaven because the "group" was faithful. Christians will not be judged "as a church", we will be judged individually according to the works we have done (Matthew 16:27, Revelation 20:12). In addition to the obvious direct statements about individual accountability, we should be able to learn at least two things from this: 1) since the church (i.e. group, collective, functional unit, etc.) will not be held accountable, then it has been given no responsibility and 2) church "membership" won't count for much on the day of judgment. Lets look at these two ideas in a little more depth.
The church (as a group) has no responsibilities for which it will be held accountable!
Jesus gave each disciple certain responsibilities to carry out. Some of these responsibilities are to be performed individually while others are to be carried out in cooperation with other Christians. On the last day each person will give an account for the way he or she performed all these responsibilities. Each disciple will be judged. Why will he be judged? Because he is accountable. Why is he held accountable? Because he has been given responsibilities. Will the church (as a group or functional unit) be judged? The answer is no. Why not? Because the church (as a group or functional unit) is not held accountable for any kind of action. If it is accountable, it will have to be judged! If the scriptures teach that only individuals will be judged, then the church (as a group or functional unit) is not accountable for anything and no responsibilities were ever laid upon it to begin with. Since the church will not be judged (held accountable) as a group, then this means the church as a functioning unit isn't responsible for anything. This simply means that God has assigned no work for "church groups" to do!
Am I saying that the church has no work to do? Yes and no. As we have already noted, individual Christians most definitely have a responsibility to go forth and make disciples along with various other duties God has assigned each of us. In as much as the church is made up of Christians, then yes, the church has a work to do. When individual Christians are working, then the church is working. On the other hand, since a local congregation is not some sort of organized institution with duties and responsibilities all its own which are somehow separate from the Christians that make it up, then no, the church (as some sort of organized, corporate body) has no work to do. Again, if a local congregation (as a body corporate) has responsibilities then we are forced to the conclusion that it will be held accountable (as a body corporate) and judged on how well it performed those works. Since the scriptures teach that we will all stand before God individually, then the idea that the church (as a collective, body corporate, functional unit, etc.) has works it is responsible for carrying out is false. As a matter of fact, the church (as a collective, body corporate, functional unit, etc.) has not been assigned even one single responsibility by God!
Membership in a local congregation doesn't punch your ticket for admission into Heaven!
It is common for Christians to think of "the church" collectively preaching and teaching. What this really means is that only a few do the actual preaching and teaching while the rest "participate" by showing up on Sunday and making a financial contribution. The "average" Christian has been lulled into thinking that they participate by proxy though the efforts of a few dedicated souls that do all the heavy lifting. We must not be so easily deceived; we will not ride into heaven on someone else's coat tail! Does anyone seriously believe that they'll squeak through the pearly gates because they attended services every week but never lifted one finger to personally teach someone else the way of salvation? We will not be admitted into heaven on the basis of which local congregation we were a "member" of.
Each Christian will be held accountable for his own works. Let us not be in denial but place the emphasis where it belongs; on the individual Christian.