The twin fallacies of composition and division assume that what is true of the parts is true of the whole (composition), and what is true of the whole is true of the individual parts (division). Composition would take the basic form, “Individual pieces of x have characteristics Y and Z; therefore all of X has characteristics Y and Z.” This is not always fallacious, but it cannot be assumed to be true without proper warrant. For example, one might reason that since particular players are the best at their position, then putting all the players together necessarily makes the best team (though they might not play so well as a team). Division would reverse composition. For example, since this is the best team in the league, then all the individual players are the best players at their position. (These are common illustrations.)
These fallacies can be instructive when thinking about the relationship of the individual to the congregation. It would be fallacious, for example, to say that what is true of the individual Christian is true of the congregation of which he is a part. Likewise, it is fallacious to say that whatever is true of the congregation as a whole is true of each individual Christian who is part of the group.
Once again we should be able to see how these fallacies might be committed. For example:
“These Christians are hypocrites; therefore the whole church is hypocritical.”
“The church is evangelistic; therefore each Christian is evangelistic.”
Both of these statements are fallacious. Hypocrites within a congregation do not make the entire group hypocritical, and a congregation that is overall actively evangelistic does not mean each individual is actively participating very well.
It is not uncommon to hear the argument, “Because the church is made up of individuals, then whatever the individual can do (or is doing), the church can do (or is doing).” This is the fallacy of composition. We can understand how the fallacy is made. The church is comprised of Christians, but individual Christians acting is not identical to the organized group as a whole acting. This is seen in passages like 1 Timothy 5, where believers are told to care for their own needy first (widows) so that the church is not burdened: “If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed” (vs. 16). This would make no sense at all if there is no distinction to be made between individual action and organized group action. Individuals act in their capacity as business associates, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, citizens, neighbors, etc. These actions are independent of the organized group. No one would reasonably argue that since a husband and wife, both of whom are Christians, share an intimate relationship, this means the entire church shares that same relationship. Clearly, individuals can act on their own without their actions being that of the group. In matters of money, Peter told Ananias, who had just lied, that his land and money were under his (Ananias’) control. We can understand that an individual maintains control of his own possessions and finances until relinquished to the group.
The church (group) is not an institution separate from people (as we have previously argued), but the group still does exist with organization and authorized actions; in this sense the church is an organization (i.e., a group of people organized for a particular goal or work). This organization need not be complicated, and we aren’t using the term here to imply some massive business model. Organization means that there is order to what is going on, under leadership, and has a goal and purpose to which all are attending. Is there biblical evidence for this?
1. The evidence for local congregations is found throughout the New Testament documents, particularly from Acts on. When congregations are addressed, these epistles take on more than simply the idea of Christians who all happen to live in the same city. The epistles were intended to be read in assemblies, implying that they met in order to hear God’s word read and taught. The church at Corinth, for example, came together as a group (or were supposed to) with the intention of edifying, teaching, and participation in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:18ff; 14) . Instead of chaos, and since God is not the God of confusion (14:33), order and organization within the assembly itself was required.
2. The evidence for elders and deacons shows God’s desire for local organization (Acts 20; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3; Titus 1). If we are to put ourselves under the “leaders” (Heb 13:17), who keep watch for our souls, this cannot be done without some level of organization. They cannot do this if they do not know who it is that they are supposed to watching for. This implies some kind of record, knowledge, roll, or something of which they would be aware. People often shy away from “membership” terms, but the idea is simply that the Christians know who is part of their group so they can help encourage and share their activities.
3. The evidence for organized, congregational action is strong. The very fact of assembling together for edification, hearing God’s word, participating in the Lord’s Supper, etc., is evidence of specified group action. Paul wrote of the “churches of Macedonia” acting by collecting funds to send back to needy saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:1ff; note that the plural form of ekklesia here implies local groups acting; if all Paul was doing was talking about Christians generally in the area, why would he use the plural form?). He directed the “churches of Galatia,” and then the church at Corinth, to collect funds for needy saints (1 Cor 16:1-4). Any actions like these require some organization.
Authorization for individual action is not identical to authorization for congregational action. If the church is not to be burdened with some matters that the individual has an obligation toward, then this is proof enough of the point. The congregation exists for a purpose, and God has provided for particular activities within a congregational setting—Christians coming together for His purposes, and in which all are expected to participate in organized action.
The point is that we should not conflate individual action and authority with congregational action and authority. We understand this principle in other matters. If we gave funds to a hospital with an expectation that these funds are used for helping the sick, and they take these funds and form a softball team with it, we would likely be fairly upset with such a misuse. Does this mean we wouldn’t support a softball team in another context? Of course not. This is simply recognizing the context and purpose for which a particular group or organization exists.
God wants Christians banding together in a congregational setting to worship Him and encourage one another in the things of Christ. We don’t find congregations in Scripture acting in any and every way that individuals might act separately, though they are sometimes chastised for the way certain individuals act (e.g, 1 Corinthians; Revelation 2-3). “When you come together as a church” is instructive (1 Cor 11:18), and they were limited by God’s orders as to what they were to do in such a setting (1 Cor 14:37). If no distinction is to be made between church and individual settings, then there would be no context in which the women could speak up (vs. 34).
Everyone participates in various organizations and relationships with different contexts and purposes. Christians might join together to form a business in one context (e.g., a donut shop), but this does not mean the “church” as a whole (congregational or universal) is in the donut business (composition fallacy). Christians working in conjunction with each other in education generally does not put the church in the education business. Context and purpose are everything (as in biblical interpretation, so in life application). In the capacity of a local congregation, there is a context and purpose that differs from other actions that may involve multiple Christians. Again, we recognize this principle in other areas of life. Players on the Giants going to the movies together does not mean the “Giants” are going to the movies (this would imply a more official, organized context and purpose). There is a reason people speak about government abuses, where they recognize that there are limits to what a government ought to be able to do in relation to the individuals of the state. Again, organizations exist for different purposes and in different contexts. Why would this be any different when it comes to local congregations that exist on God’s authority?
Though the congregation is comprised of individuals, the congregation as an organized group is not identical to the individual (division) and the individual is not identical to the congregation (composition). We do well to remember this in discussions about both individual and congregational activities.