A Discussion of "ISMS"
Institutionalism
Stan Cox


In previous articles, we have been discussing religious error that exists without. That is, outside the fellowship of churches of Christ. Other departures from truth, of more recent vintage, have troubled the people of God.

In the United States, two serious digressions have taken place in the last 150 years. In the 19th century, division occurred when some began to advocate the church support of a human missionary society. Some were unwilling to trust the New Testament pattern for evangelism, and established a human institution to do the work instead. The church was displaced in its work, and became a fund raising organization for the human missionary society. This issue, coupled with the introduction of mechanical instruments of music in worship, led to a division and formation of the Christian Church denomination.

Fundamentally, the division occurred because of a difference in thinking regarding the nature of divine authority. Alexander Campbell, one of the early proponents of the missionary society, argued the right of its existence as an expediency. He reasoned in his magazine, the Millennial Harbinger, that as God had not revealed any specific organization for church cooperation in evangelism, Christians and churches have the liberty to devise such organizations for that purpose. Others adopted this reasoning.

Simply put, Campbell argued that the silence of scripture is permissive. It is not surprising that the introduction of the instrument into Christian worship, and other innovations, soon followed. The passing of time has seen the digression blossom into full blown apostasy, with the Disciples of Christ (Christian church) entering the mainstream of denominational Christianity. While some have not been willing to go as far as others in this digression, the seeds were sown by the arguments made.

In the middle of the 20th century, another set of issues began to trouble God's people. Among some congregations which had refused to be carried away in the preceding digression a new practice arose. Churches began to support benevolent institutions, namely orphan homes, as previous generations had advocated the support of evangelistic institutions. Opposition to these practices arose, and division again took place. Today, there is an attitude among many churches of Christ that parallels that of the Christian church. Namely, that the silence of scripture is permissive. This has led to the adoption of a social gospel, together with the trappings of gymnasiums, recreational activities and an appeal to the carnal man. Preachers now advocate a "new way of looking at the Scriptures" and some are advocating such liberal views as women taking leadership roles in the church, changes in Christian worship, and Calvinistic emphasis in doctrine. While some have not been willing to go as far as others in this digression, again the seeds were sown by the arguments made a generation ago.

The liberal tendencies, the change in emphasis in preaching, and the social gospel are all subjects worthy of examination, but outside the narrow scope of our study in this chapter. They are the effect of unscriptural argumentation. In this article we want to examine the argumentation itself. In such discussions, inflammatory rhetoric is not helpful. It is not our desire to vilify, but to examine what the Bible teaches. In decades past there was much "heat" as the issues were new and emotions ran high. Unfortunately, such aspersions continue even today. Recently, one preacher who repudiated his support of the institutional position was castigated in the following way:

It is not difficult to see the emotional and prejudicial nature of such a statement. In reality, no self-respecting Christian would ever stand idly by while an infant starves. In fact, I am aware of only a few who are not Christians who would stoop to such moral depravity. To assert that God has given specific instructions as to how the orphan is to be cared for should not be construed as lacking compassion. Is it more morally acceptable to take a dime out of the church treasury than it is to take the dime out of your own pocket? Concerning the individual's responsibility in this, James wrote, "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). Inflammatory rhetoric, on either side, supplies heat, but no light to such an important discussion.

There are three common practices among institutional churches which we intend to expose as error in this article.

Sponsoring church arrangement

God, in His infinite wisdom established the local church to carry on His work in the world. The scriptural pattern is for each autonomous congregation to labor in the areas of evangelism, edification and benevolence. Scripture also establishes the nature of oversight over this work. Peter wrote, "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly" (1 Peter 5:2). This passage shows that elders serve as shepherds of the "flock of God which is among you." That is, of a local congregation.

Over the years, brethren have changed this biblical pattern. One example of this is the development of the "sponsoring church" arrangement to facilitate larger "brotherhood" works of evangelism, edification and benevolence. Several years back, the Sycamore church in Cookeville, TN decided to engage in one of these works. Using language from their own brochure, the elders of that congregation "accept[-ed] oversight of the project." The plan was to appeal to other congregations, raising $17 million dollars to facilitate a nationwide evangelistic campaign. The Sycamore church wrote, "Christians deserve the opportunity to participate in something bigger than a budget, larger than the local work."

The question arises, what have Christians done to deserve what God has not authorized? The elders of the Sycamore church, and elders of any church which sponsors a "brotherhood" project, have agreed to exercise the oversight of a ministry beyond the bounds of "the flock of God which is among you." They have stepped beyond the role of "local elders." In doing so, there is a violation of the principle of autonomy established by God. Men have not shown themselves willing to limit their schemes to the divine standard. In the New Testament all oversight, flock feeding, worship, discipline and evangelism was done within the framework of the local church (cf. 1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; 16:1-2; 14:16, etc.) Truly, "...'My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD" (Isaiah 55:8). Contrary to the promotions of brethren, bigger is not always better.

Individual VS Congregational Action

Institutional advocates tend to blur the distinction between the actions of individual Christians and Congregational action. Two areas where this seems to be prevalent: 1) Benevolence, and 2) Youth commitments. It is common to hear the statement, "Whatever the individual can do, the church can do." Or, more narrowly, "Whatever the individual can do which is peculiarly religious, the church can do." Scripture does not support such a contention.

It is common for parents who visit a congregation for the first time to ask, "What do you offer for our kids?" For many, Bible study and Christian worship are not enough. They desire that churches entertain their children. Some churches have bought into this social gospel concept. One institutional preacher, a minister of the Midtown church of Christ in Ft. Worth, TX, referred to the need for the church to work with "Christian families to provide Christian recreation for Christian young people." He said, "We were working with families to to take care of the needs of our young people socially to keep them out of the devil's dens, and all that sort of thing." (Wyatt Sawyer, The Dallas Meeting)

It is not the work of the local church to take care of the "needs of our young people socially." Such is the responsibility of the home (cf. Ephesians 6:1-4). It is wrong for the local church to usurp, and the home to abdicate this work.

The same thing can be said for the work of benevolence. While it is true that churches have obligations in this area, they are necessarily limited. "For the poor you have with you always..." (John 12:8). It was not God's intention that the resources of the local church be taken up in general benevolence. This is made clear by Paul in his writing to Timothy, "If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows" (1 Timothy 5:16). As a pattern, the church is charged with the relief of indigent saints, (cf. the famine in Judea, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3). A more general obligation of benevolence is enjoined upon the individual (cf. James 1:27). God's pattern in this must be respected.

Support of Human Institutions

Brethren in the past have rightly rejected the missionary society as a human institution. The argument that God has equipped the church sufficiently to do its work is both scriptural and logical. The argument is obvious, whether the human institution in question is established for the work of evangelization, edification, or benevolence.

Some have contended that the institutional orphan home is a reconstituted home. They say that it is necessary to have a "board of directors" and "charter" to be legal. They say that being legal does not make a home unscriptural. Perhaps not, but authority in scripture is not granted for the church support of such a human institution just because it is legally formed, either. The pattern in scripture is clear with regard to benevolent activity. In every case, the church was sufficient to do its work. In the case of the indigent saints, moneys were sent to the elders of the churches in Judea, who exercised oversight in the dispersal of the gift (cf. Acts 11:29-30). In the case of the qualified widow, the church took care of its own directly (cf. Acts 7; 1 Timothy 5). At no time in scripture were human institutions involved in the benevolent, evangelistic or edificatory works of the local church. At no time was the church charged with any more broad obligation of benevolence than the help of other Christians. This is not to say that orphan homes are illegitimate, or that Christians are not obligated to a greater scope of benevolence. It is simply a recognition of the difference between individual and congregational action, and the sufficiency of the local church to do the work given it by God.

Conclusion

Any departure from the Biblical pattern is serious. As we have maintained from the beginning, the scripture must be appealed to for any practice. If there is no Bible pattern for a practice, it must be rejected. The practice of Institutionalism in churches of Christ is divisive, and without Biblical authority. As with any religious error, the practice must be halted, and the adherents must repent to be accepted of God. "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21-23).


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