The Normal Christian Church Life, by Watchman Nee


Just as the apostles have spiritual but no official responsibility regarding the church, so the elders, and the whole church, have spiritual but no official responsibility regarding the work. It is commendable if a local church seeks to help in the work; but it is under no official obligation to do so. If the members of the church are spiritual, they cannot but regard the work of God as their work, in which case they will count it a joy to help in any way. They will recognize that, while the official responsibility for the work rests on the apostles, the spiritual responsibility is shared by all the children of God, and consequently by them. There is a vast difference between spiritual and official responsibility. In the matter of official responsibility there are certain prescribed duties, and one is in the wrong if one fails to perform them. But in the matter of spiritual responsibility there are no legal obligations. Therefore, any neglect of responsibility does not register as an official shortcoming, but it does register as a low spiritual state. From an official point of view, the responsibility of the work rests upon the apostles. If they lack the needed help, they cannot demand it; but if the church is spiritual, its members will see the meaning of the Body and will gladly assist in the work and give towards it. If the church fails in spiritual responsibility, the apostles may have difficulties which they should not have, and the church will suffer spiritually. On the other hand, the responsibility of the church rests officially upon the elders; therefore, the apostles should not take upon themselves to do anything directly there. They may and should assist the church by their counsel and exhortations. If the local believers are spiritual, they will willingly receive such help; but should they be unspiritual, and in consequence reject the help the apostles offer, their failure is spiritual and not official, and the apostles have no option but to leave them to their own resources. The church does not come within the sphere of the work and is consequently outside the sphere of their authority. Again let us repeat, the churches are local, intensely local; the work is extra-local, and always extra-local.


There is a definite divine reason for the fact that the work is entrusted to individual apostles and not to local churches; but before we enter into that, let us examine the fundamental difference between the activities of a church as a body and the activities of a brother as an individual. It may be all right for a brother (or for several brothers) to go into business, but it would be all wrong for a church to do so. It might be quite in order for one or more brothers to open a restaurant or a hotel, but that would not be in order for a church. What may be perfectly permissible in the case of brothers, as individuals, is not necessarily permissible in the case of a church, as a company. The business of the churches consists in the mutual care of their various members, such as the conduct of meetings for breaking of bread, for the exercise of spiritual gifts, for the study of the Word, for prayer, for fellowship, and for gospel preaching. The work is beyond the sphere of any church as a corporate body; it is the responsibility of individuals, though not of individuals as such.

There is no scriptural precedent for such work being undertaken by a church, as, for instance, hospitals, or schools, or even something on a more definitely spiritual plane such as foreign missions. It is perfectly in order for one or more members of a church to run a hospital, or a school, or to be responsible for mission work, but not for any church as a whole. A church exists for the purpose of mutual help in one place, not for the purpose of bearing the responsibility of work in different places. According to God’s Word, all the work is the personal concern of individual brothers called and commissioned by God, as members of the Body, and not the concern of any church as a body. The responsibility of the work is always borne by one or more individuals.

The important point to note is that the Body of Christ in its ministry aspect is not represented by local churches, but by individuals who are the gifts given by God to His Church. A local church has not been chosen by God to represent the Body where ministry is in view. When God wants any representatives of the Body to express its ministry, He chooses certain individuals, who are the functioning members, to represent that Body. The whole thing is clear in the last part of 1 Corinthians 12.

It was never the thought of God that His work should be done on any other basis than that of the Body, because it is actually the natural functioning of the Body of Christ. It is the activity, under the direction of the Head, of those members who possess special faculties. We have already pointed out that the local church represents the Body in its life aspect, and the functioning members represent the Body in its ministry aspect. The local church is called to manifest not so much the service, as the life of the Body, while the apostles, prophets, and teachers, as such, are called to manifest not so much the life, as the service of the Body. That is the reason God did not entrust the work to any local church as a body, but to individuals. But it is the latter, not the former, who represent the Body, if the latter are functioning members of the Body.

Therefore, we find that the two apostles who went out from Antioch were not sent forth to the work by the whole church but by several ministers in the church, because in the matter of service and work it is the latter, not the former, who represent the Body. So the work is the responsibility of individuals who are called and commissioned by God, and not the responsibility of the whole church.

But, let it be clearly understood, by individuals we do not mean individuals as individuals, but as functioning members representing the Body. God has never sanctioned that anyone take up an individualistic line in His work. Free-lancing, without due coordination with other members of the Body, has never been a divine manner of work. This cannot be too strongly emphasized; nor can it be too strongly emphasized that in His work God uses individuals to represent the Body, not local churches. Therefore, while the work is the responsibility of individuals, it is not the business of just any individual who cares to take it up, but only of such as are called and sent forth by God, and are equipped with spiritual gifts for the task. Only those who represent the ministry of the Body can bear the official responsibility of the work. The work is undertaken by individuals, but only by such as represent the Body in its ministry aspect, for they, not the entire church, are responsible for it. It is not individuals, as individuals, that undertake the work, but individuals as representing the Body of Christ.

If our work is that of an apostle, it must be clearly distinguished from the local church. It may seem quite unimportant to some that any distinction be made between the work and the church. They may think it of no consequence that the responsibility of the work be in the hands of individual members, not the whole church, and that the apostles be responsible only for the work, not for the church; but the principle is a scriptural principle, and its outworking is of great importance and has tremendous effects, as we shall presently see.

(The Normal Christian Church Life, Chapter 6, by Watchman Nee)