INDIVIDUAL RIGHTEOUSNESS

Gaylon Embrey

ighteousness is defined as "the character or condition of being just or right." At least to some degree, I believe, we all want to be right. Attaining the status of being "right" in the eyes of men is relatively easy, because this is based mostly on negative considerations. Attaining it in one's own eyes is easier still, because we are all very much like Marcissus. While these objectives cannot in themselves be criticized, neither should they concern us unduly. What should concern us is acquiring a right standing before Almighty God. After all, God's estimate of our life and character is what will be decisive in the end. The purpose of this piece is to show that God's decision in this matter will be rendered on an INDIVIDUAL basis. At first glance this simple fact may not sound all that important. Another look reveals it to be a fundamental truth often obscured and overlooked, especially in all the controversies over so-called "church issues."

First, let me make a brief case for the point at hand. When the axe of divine judgment falls it will divide humanity into two groups: the righteous and the wicked. The wicked will go away into everlasting punishment, but "the righteous into life eternal" (Matt. 25:46). Although in the purest sense of the word there is none righteous, no, not one, we understand from the scriptures that some men are counted righteous by God; that is, God considers them to be "right" because they are no longer wrong. They have been forgiven of all their sins. But please underscore the fact that this righteousness is reckoned only to the INDIVIDUAL. Notice the language of Rom. 4:7-8: "Even as David describeth the blessedness of the MAN unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sins are covered." One who has sinned against God is wrong. In that condition he cannot be considered right. One whose sins have all been forgiven, covered by the blood of Jesus, is considered to be perfectly right. Why? Because he is now guiltless before God. In the nature of the case however - and this is the point - this entire business is transacted on a PERSONAL basis. Sin is personal. Therefore the removal of sin, which is what makes men right with God, must also be personal.

Look at it another way. The righteousness made possible by the gospel is called "the righteousness which is of faith." But again this makes it a personal matter. Belief is personal, certainly not institutional. An individual human being believes with his heart and confesses with his mouth the Lord Jesus. By faith he is baptized into Christ. As a child of God he lives by faith, walks by faith not by sight, and at last receives the end of his faith, the salvation of his soul. All of this, the entire program, is on a very personal basis. Yes, Christians may work and worship together, and thereby help one another in a hundred different ways. But the association of many believers together does not in any way change the personal essence of Christian faith. No matter how closely entwined our spiritual lives may become, one disciple cannot believe for another. In the Judgment each of us will stand ALONE and on the basis of his personal faith will receive his own reward according to his own labor.

Why is it important to stress the personal nature of righteousness? Mainly because everyone seems to have such a difficult time keeping their thoughts down on this level. For instance, some are prone to describe our whole nation with nice adjectives, calling it a "Christian nation," a "God-fearing country," etc. Others talk about "national crimes" and the "sinfulness" of certain social institutions. Now all this may be a convenient way of adding up the good and bad deeds of a few million individuals who happen to be identifiable by a common political system, but from a New Testament viewpoint such talk is plain nonsense. Sin is not a national problem that can be dealt with on a national level. Nor can righteousness be attributed to an entire nation. "He (the person) that doeth righteousness is righteous," is how John put it. It is personal righteousness, not national righteousness that counts. In the same vein, there is no such thing as family righteousness. As a general observation, on the strength of the overall good conduct of father, mother and children, a given family might properly be described as a "good family." Yet as convenient and understandable as this language is, it would be a mistake to think of righteousness as a cloak that can cover an entire household at once. Ezekiel made this plain enough when he said to Israel, "The soul that sinneth it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him." Such is the personal nature of this thing called righteousness.

Now no one to my knowledge seriously questions the individual basis of God's dealing with men, as in the above instances. The principle in fact is wholeheartedly accepted and proclaimed. The problem is, we seem to forget the principle completely when we begin to think and talk about "Church" matters. Let us be honest here. Most of our thinking in the realm of religion has to do, not with the righteousness or unrighteousness of individual Christians, but with the rightness or wrong-ness of the Church, as such. A large part of our doctrine has been built around the concept of the institutional Church. This "Church" is looked upon as a spiritual entity, quite apart from us, that we must strive to make one hundred per cent "right" in the eyes of God. The notion seems to be if the Church we go to is "right" that this will somehow make us "right" with God. This is why we have always been desperate to prove that we belong to "the right Church." Furthermore, we are continually concerned about the condition of the Brotherhood (the Church universal with its institutional support system). We are also concerned about the scripturalness of the congregation (the local Church in its corporate functions). In all these cases it is at the CHURCH level that we do our thinking, our worrying, cur preaching, our feuding. At the risk of being misunderstood, let me try to explain what I mean.

1) WE IDENTIFY FRIENDS AND ENEMIES ON A CHURCH BASIS RATHER THAN AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS. Usually we do not try to identify brothers in Christ; we only try to identify Churches. We have some identifying marks that tell us what a RIGHT kind of Church is. When we find a right Church we automatically identify the whole membership as "brethren" whether they INDIVIDUALLY have any marks of Christian character or not. When we find a wrong kind of Church we automatically identify the entire membership as enemies, or at least non-friends. We do this on both counts without having to go to the trouble of considering any individual. Thus our process of spiritual identification is almost wholly on a Church basis. Individuals are incidental, if not altogether beside the point. About the only time we ever dip below the Church level in this regard is when we are forced to focus on a particular individual due to his exceptional or abnormal behavior. Otherwise we conveniently allow the Church to identify our fellow-disciples for us, rather than the other way around.

2) WE JUDGE BRETHREN ON A CHURCH BASIS RATHER THAN AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS. The fact that we will concede that "good congregations" have a few bad folks in them and that "bad congregations" have a few good folks in them does not affect in the least our policy of passing congregational judgements. Take the expression "Sound Church." Or perhaps "Faithful Congregation." Such terminology has become commonplace in many circles. We read of how there is not a "faithful congregation" is such a city, or how efforts are underway to establish a "faithful church" there. Just how scriptural, or accurate, is such language anyway? If we mean by "faithful congregation" one that is composed of Christians who are ALL faithful to God, then I suppose it could be correctly used. Paul did speak of the "faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse." Yet few of us would be foolish enough to affirm that every single member of any assembly is a faithful follower of the Lord. Is there a congregation anywhere that does not have at least one hypocrite? Still. as a generalization the expression might not be objectionable as long as we use it in the same sense that we speak of, say, a "friendly congregation." When we say this we do not mean to imply that each and every person there is noticeably friendly. One sourpuss may not even have spoken to us. What we mean is that the predominant attitude displayed by the majority of the group is one of friendliness. In this sense, some congregations are certainly more "faithful" (and friendly) than others. This, however, is NOT the implication behind our use of congregational adjectives, and we all know it.

Today when we say a congregation is sound or unsound, faithful or unfaithful, we do not mean to be describing each and every member of that group. Nor do we mean to be generalizing about them. What we mean to say - and everyone clearly understands this - is that this particular "Church" has a well publicized position with reference to one or two controversial questions. (The official position of the Church may be pro or con, Liberal or Anti, it makes no difference as far as these thoughts are concerned. I am not interested here in picking out the right or wrong side of issues, but am trying to point out the LEVEL at which the branding iron is applied by BOTH sides.) In any event, once the "label" has been publicly applied to a congregation, the judgement of all the individual members is automatic. They are judged to be either "right" or "wrong" depending on how the Church's label reads.

Here is a typical situation. A brother who "holds membership" in a Church with the wrong tag on it comes into our own "faithful Church" for a visit. Chances are he will not be recognized, called on to pray (out loud), or permitted in any way to participate in the public proceedings. Now mind you, it isn't that we have anything against the man personally. Of course not. We may not even know the fellow. There is nothing personal in this whatever. (This, by the way, is my point.) He is simply judged, incidentally and summarily, as being unworthy of our fellowship. Why? Because, and solely because, of the brand someone has put on the congregation with which he is associated. This type of judging is not only unfair, it is contrary to the fundamental Bible principle discussed in the beginning; namely, that righteousness is a characteristic of an INDIVIDUAL, and must be so attributed.

While it is certainly true that two or more people can join together in the same sin or error, it is by no means true that because the majority of a congregation is guilty of misconduct, all are guilty. Jesus told the church at Sardis, "I have not found thy works perfect before God." Yet one minute later he added, "Thou has a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy." Apparently the Lord judged the Christians in Sardis, not as a unit, but individually. If this fact makes it hard to condemn brethren en masse, congregationally, bear in mind that it makes it equally hard to justify them that way.Consider this question. Is the Church of Christ in Podunk "right" in its giving? Who could possibly answer this question? When the contribution is taken a poor widow with her two mites may be sitting right between brother Ananias and sister Sapphira. Is the Church right in its singing? Is the church right in its praying? Is the Church right in its communing? Truthfully, there is not away to answer these questions on a CHURCH LEVEL. In all these instances one disciple may be "right" in what he does while the brother at each elbow is wrong.. The ultimate answer will have to be provided on an individual basis, and that by God. In our haste to pass congregational judgements we need to bear this in mind.

3) WE DIVIDE ON A CHURCH BASIS RATHER THAN AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS. Actually this is only an extension of preceding thoughts. In the whole ugly business of division it is not, ordinarily speaking, individual disciples who separate as a result of irreconcilable differences. It is Churches that part company because of differences in their corporate policies. In the history of Churches of Christ (and other Churches also, though perhaps to a lesser degree), it has not been unusual for one Church to officially "withdraw fellowship" from another Church. And whether official or not, it has been the de facto practice for one network of Churches to withhold fellowship from another network of Churches. The network (all "unofficial" of course) on either side of the division is usually tied together by a grapevine of Preachers who wear the same spiritual brand. They keep up with one another through various agencies and contact points (religious papers, colleges, lectureships and the like). When you come right down to it, the Preachers constitute about the only personal ingredient in the whole fellowship-disfellowship procedure. Everyone, you see, understands that a Church carries the same brand as the Preacher who happens to be there at the time. If the Preachers of neighboring Churches are in fellowship with each other, then the Churches are considered to be in fellowship, and vice versa. The label worn by the Preacher is so important that an entire congregation can (sometimes without its knowledge or consent) have its label switched, and its party affiliation reversed, merely by changing Preachers. I have seen it happen.

The interesting thing about our congregational rating system is this. Regardless of the brand name of the resident Preacher, or how many times a congregation may be labeled and relabeled, down on the pew there is seldom any big change in the understanding, belief, heart, character, or way of life of the "common members." Irrespective of what is happening in the political world of Preachers as they go about their solemn duty of lining up Churches (and rearranging the line-up as need requires), the silent majority of ordinary churchgoers continue to live as they have always lived and to be the same kind of people they have been all along. Which means that much of this congregational division has somehow missed the point.

In any case, the decision to fellowship or not to fellowship is made today, not on a personal basis but on a Church basis. As a result, huge segments of the brotherhood are now consigned to the fires of hell, not on account of personal misconduct against mankind or individual crimes against the Most High God, but by virtue of belonging to a congregation whose managers made a bad decision or two. Either they spent a little public money incorrectly, or made the horrible mistake of picking a Preacher with the wrong brand name. Such managerial malfeasance always has the disastrous results of throwing the whole Church into the unapproved category.

In view of this rather sorry mess it seems to me that full acceptance of one simple truth would be of enormous help to us all. That truth is: RIGHTEOUSNESS BEFORE GOD IS AN INDIVIDUAL PROPOSITION. How simple this truth makes things. There being no such thing as institutional righteousness, the responsibility is placed squarely where it belongs upon the individual saint. There is nothing deceptive about this situation. Each Christian knows he must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. If those with whom he associates in his spiritual life happen to be mature, knowledgeable, zealous, loving people, his efforts to serve the Lord will naturally be much easier. But there is nothing in this to suggest that righteousness can be borrowed from other

Christians, or that it can be bestowed upon one Christian by another, or that it can be spread around, distributed evenly among those who occasionally sit together in the same building. There is simply no such thing as congregational righteousness.The converse of this is equally true. There is no such thing as congregational unrighteousness either. If a Christian happens to be associated with professing believers who are immoral, heretical, indifferent, uncaring etc., he may well be adversely influenced, infected with error, and eventually destroyed. But this does not necessarily have to happen. Paul said to the Corinthians in all their error, "There must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be manifest among you."

The level of judgement is the level at which righteousness is recognized by God. End of lesson. We are to be judged as individuals. Nothing is more clearly taught in the scriptures than this. "So then every one of us shall give account of HIMSELF to God" (Rom. 14:12). This sounds a little unpleasant to be sure. It leaves us no out. It makes it necessary that we personally practice what we claim to believe. Yet it is one of the most pleasant truths in all of God's word when you consider how fair it is. Under this arrangement where each individual answers ONLY for himself any person who truly seeks righteousness before God can find it. For this let us be thankful.