Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 3, 1953
NUMBER 17, PAGE 1,9c-11

Congregational Cooperation -- No. 2

Earl West (In Gospel Advocate)

The establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849 was an attempt by the "church universal" to use its maximum strength for the conversion of the world to Christ. How may local churches cooperate to do the work of the Lord? The answer of the national Missionary Society was, the churches can best cooperate when a human organization is formed, constituted of delegates of these congregations, and dedicated to the task of preaching the gospel. But the most important aspect of the American Christian Missionary Society does not come with a study of the events connected with its founding, but rather with the basic thinking, the actual concepts, that were working for a decade prior to its establishment. So important is this analysis that we approach it with a prayer that God will guide our investigations.

Church Universal

No person is capable of understanding the defense for the missionary society who does not recall first the two concepts of the church in the New Testament — the "church universal" and the "local church" or congregation. The "church particular," Campbell defined as a "single community in a single place," and the "church universal" as the "congregated multitude of all these communities." A fuller definition of a local congregation, Campbell defines as follows: "A church of Christ is a single society of believing men and women, statedly meeting in one place, to worship God through one Mediator." The church universal was made up of all such congregations the world over.

As Campbell looked at the local church, he felt its officers were simply bishops and deacons. The officers of the church universal, he contended, were apostles, prophets and evangelists, an idea he no doubt borrowed from John Glas of Scotland. Not too much significance is to be attached to this "extraordinary" class of officers for they had little to do with his concept on the point of the missionary society. Campbell's belief that the "evangelist" was an officer, not in a local church, but in the church universal, gave birth to the idea of "evangelistic oversight" of congregations, later to gain some prominence in certain local areas. What Campbell overlooked, however, was the fact that the term, evangelist, does not describe an office, but a work. John was called, "the Baptist," not because he held such an office, but the term was descriptive of his work. A "preacher" is so-called because he "preaches," but a "preacher," merely because he is a preacher, is not an officer — in either the church local or the church universal. To say that the apostles and prophets were officers of the church universal is again open to question. These officers were heaven-appointed, not church appointed. Peter owed his apostleship to the appointment of no congregation or combination of congregations. He was appointed by Christ. Furthermore, these offices were temporary, not permanent.

The important point to be remembered, we believe, is that the only officer known to the church universal is Christ. He is the Head of the church, the only sovereign ruler known by the church universal. It is highly significant then, that whenever the church universal begins to act, somebody, some organization, or some man, assumes the sovereign prerogatives that belong to Christ. Rome claims to be the "Catholic" Church — that is, the church universal. Over this church has been set the Pope, who is falsely believed to be Christ's vice-regent on earth. The Pope has assumed the power, dignity, and authority that belongs to Christ alone. Protestant churches have rejected the Pope, but they have substituted conferences and councils. These legislate for the church, and they assume the power, dignity and authority that belongs to Christ.

The Problem Today

Out of consideration of these facts, the question may be asked: Has God ever intended that the church universal as such, should act? The local congregations, each in his own area, acting independently of every other and, working under the oversight of elders, are to work to save souls. One of the problems that faces us, even at this late date, is to decide whether it was ever. God's intention that all of the local congregations should bind themselves together in any form, by any plan, to do the work of the Lord. If it be God's intention, then what is the form or plan, or is there one; in short does it make any difference?

Let no one be deceived, for this is the problem the brotherhood faces today. The answer of Alexander Campbell was that God did intend for the church universal as such to act. He further admitted that God prescribed no plan, and this leaves man free, by his wisdom, to devise whatever plan he may deem best. So, Campbell established a missionary society. The answer being given today is that God did intend for the church universal to act through the elders of a local congregation. So, a local congregation obligates itself to spend a half-a-million dollars in one year for a national, radio broadcast, or a benevolent institution. Is anyone so naive to suppose that this is the work of a local church? A local congregation has obligated itself to become the agency through which the church universal can act. It is not here the intention to argue the point, but only to challenge our thinking. This is a major problem the brotherhood faces, and no one can underestimate the importance of answering it correctly. Does God intend for the church universal to act in any kind of combination? Yes or no?

Still other challenging questions may be raised. If God did intend for the church universal to act in some combination, what is that combination? Campbell's reply was that no combination is set forth in the New Testament; therefore man is free to form any kind of combination that his own wisdom may dictate so long as it does not threaten the independency of the local churches. Those believing that the church universal as such should act would do well to ponder thoughtfully Campbell's reasoning. If there is a plan, a provision for some combination of the local churches in the New Testament, where and what is it. If there is none, and if God yet intended for the church universal to have one, is not Campbell right in saying that man is left free to provide his own? If this be true, what objection then could there be to the missionary society stripped of its objectionable features, for doing this work?

Furthermore, if it be God's intention that the church universal, as such, should act, and that through the elders of a local church, other questions arise. What criteria should be used in selecting out of all the congregations which local church will be the agency for the church universal? Do the elders of one local church scripturally have more power and authority than the elders of other local churches? Moreover, if it be God's intention that all congregations should act through the eldership of one, would not the refusal or neglect of the many congregations be sinful and treasonable?

It is hoped the reader will not imagine the author has an "Axe to grind," or that he intends to fight any good work. The author in no sense of the term believes he has all the answers. He is trying to recognize what the problems are and is seeking for the answers in the light of New Testament teaching. He merely poses these problems because he believes they are tremendously important, and because he believes many in the brotherhood are not conscious of them. If they merely challenge us to think, they will fulfill their intention.

Campbell's Position

But to return to Campbell, the great reformer, in line with his belief that God intended the church universal to act, wrote, "...the writers of the New Testament never designed to lay down in detail a complete platform of church government." At a time when District Cooperations were prevalent, Campbell said, "...our present cooperative system is comparatively inefficient, and inadequate to the emergencies of the times and the cause we plead." He bemoaned the fact that "there are gathered a thousand and more communities spread over this great continent, without any systematic form of cooperation." He feared a retrograde movement unless something could be done to establish an organization such as he planned — the American Christian Missionary Society.

Campbell believed that the public interests of the church universal require public agents — "messengers" — as do the private interests of the church... "In all things," he said, "pertaining to public interest, not of Christian faith, piety, or morality, the church of Jesus Christ in its aggregate character, is left free and unshackled by any apostolic authority. This is the great point which I assert as of capital importance in any great conventional movement or cooperation in advancing the public interests of a common Christianity and a common salvation." Campbell saw no need of a "thus saith the Lord" as it respected the society. "For my own part," he wrote, "I see no necessity for any positive divine statutes in such matters. Whatever, then, secures the independence and individual responsibility of every particular Christian community, and at the same time leaves open to covenant agreement all matters of cooperation in promoting the common cause of Christianity in the world fully satisfies my mind as to duty and obligation." Campbell asserted his belief that the Baptist Association "divested of certain objectionable appendages," was the "most acceptable form of cooperation in Christendom."

Shortly before the Convention of 1849 that established the Missionary Society, Campbell recalled for his brethren's benefit that he had been opposed to the dissolution of the Mahoning Association, and that he believed "in a changing society," it was essential for elders and messengers of the churches to come together in regular, stipulated meetings.

It would be needless to continue multiplying quotations from Campbell. These are given that all may understand his point of view. Many, who do not know what Campbell believed, are satisfied that he was wrong.

Gospel Advocate

The Gospel Advocate resumed publication in January, 1866, after five years of silence occasioned by the Civil War. David Lipscomb now stepped to the front. He was a humble, unassuming man of boundless faith in God. When Thomas Munnell, corresponding secretary of the Kentucky Christian Missionary Society, asked Lipscomb how he expected to convert the world by "unorganized cooperation" of churches, Lipscomb's reply was, "...for our faith is of that character, that we believe if God had proposed to convert the world through the agency of the church, although I may fail to see how He will do it, nevertheless, He is able to remove the difficulties and my duty is in simple, trusting faith to do what He has commanded me and leave the result with Him ..." But few men in Israel have that kind of faith.

Believing that the church was God's only divine agency for converting the world, David Lipscomb's editorial policy in the Gospel Advocate tended to encourage the churches to greater service while building a distrust for human organizations to do the work of the church. For the first few years after the war, the paper fought furiously against what appeared to be insurmountable odds. Its circulation was largely in the South, but it gained a surprising popularity even in the North. The Gospel Advocate rode the crest of immigration to Texas. It was not unusual for a rider to cross the plains all day, stop at night at some friendly cabin, and find the occupants reading an issue of the Advocate. The paper caused men to think. Although there were few men that had advanced as far as Lipscomb in their studies of the question, still his opposition made them cock an eyebrow. Maybe Lipscomb had something! At least, it was worth considering.

John T. Poe had been reared in the Methodist Church. At the mourner's bench when he had "gotten religion," he found some relief. He was a Confederate soldier during the war. Sitting around the campfire one night in 1864, Poe read in the New Testament about baptism, and concluded he had not been baptized. After the war, he returned to Huntsville, Texas, and under the preaching of J. W. D. Creath, presented himself for membership in the Baptist Church. Poe let Creath know that he objected to many of the teachings of the Baptists but did want to be baptized to obey God. Very shortly, he became one of the leading correspondents for the "Texas Baptist Herald." When T. M. Sweeny came to Huntsville in May, 1867, and preached the simple, primitive gospel, Poe was so impressed that he and his wife "bade adieu to sectarian folly."

The Gospel Advocate was soon placed in Poe's hands. He read Lipscomb's objections to Cooperation Meetings. The light only slowly dawned, and then only after considerable struggles with himself. Late in 1869, he wrote to Lipscomb saying that many of the brethren in Texas thought him to be inconsistent because he was always pulling down Cooperation Meetings without offering any better plan. At a general meeting in 1869, Poe found Texas brethren worried over these two questions: (1) What were Lipscomb's objections to the cooperation of churches sending out the gospel? (2) How can the churches most efficiently do the work of evangelization? Poe and his Texas brethren were yet unsettled, but they were willing to think and investigate. Lipscomb was determined to help guide them in their thinking.

Lipscomb On Cooperation

When two men work in harmony with the same set of laws, Lipscomb pointed out, they necessarily cooperate, though they may do it unconsciously or unintentionally. He reminded Poe that there was a distinction between cooperation and organization. Two farmers, living as neighbors, work side by side. One has work to do that he cannot do himself. So, he asks the aid of his neighbor. Each farmer, pursuing his own independent course, cooperates. The emergency that necessitated the call for aid ends, and the farmers are left free of any encumbering machinery.

Lipscomb conceded that some men conceived of cooperative efforts by forming organizations with a human head and human laws regulating the association. Banks, railroad companies, human governments, denominational synods, and missionary societies all belong in this category.

The congregations of the Lord, Lipscomb contended, are by nature organized cooperative bodies, ordained by God. All work which is done in these bodies is true cooperative work. Every individual in any part of the world, working in true cooperation in these bodies, is necessarily cooperating with every other.

Every organization, wrote Lipscomb, partakes of the character of its organizer. All of men's organizations naturally "float into corruption." "Hence our railroad companies, banks, political government, sectarian organizations, and all other societies of human origin necessarily are seething cauldrons that breed corruption and tend to decay. It is the essential and leading characteristic of all human organizations... We not only lack faith in human organizations to promote or preserve moral and spiritual good, but we have strong faith that they necessarily promote corruption, weakness and death."

The tendency of man has always been to improve upon the wisdom of God. There is a spirit in the church that is always crying out for the favor and popularity of the world. Men want the plaudits of the worldly wise but Lipscomb's faith made him see that God had ordained no organized cooperation save the simple congregations of the Lord. He insisted: "We sincerely and earnestly believe all organized bodies for religious purposes outside of, within, above or below the congregation of the Lord arc sinful and treasonable."

But when a church finds a work to do which it cannot do alone, how shall it act then? Lipscomb answered, "Precisely as the family acts, when it finds itself unable to roll its own logs, raise its own house, harvest its own grain or pick its own cotton. Let it make known its weakness and wants to its nearest sister congregations or congregation. And let these congregations without any human organization, say whether they will aid the one asking aid or not and send the aid to sustain the teacher, or feed the poor, as congregations, without the intervention of any human organization. So soon then as the work is done each congregation is left perfectly free to pursue its own course without any entangling alliances, with burdensome and frail human machinery or with its sister congregations."

The emphasis here was placed where it belonged — upon the local congregation. The emphasis, however, after the Civil War was generally upon doing things in a "big" way. The tendency of man has always been to despise the day of small things. Lipscomb magnified the local church as God's only agency to convert the world. When ten thousand local congregations, all following the same divine laws all works earnestly to save souls, each in Christian love caring for its own needy — when congregations do this, they are necessarily cooperating, for all are doing the work God intended and in the way God intended. Not being able to see any human machinery, they may be unconscious of cooperating, but churches functioning as God ordained them to operate are necessarily and unavoidably cooperating. Combinations of churches, larger than a local congregation doing its own local work, were to be frowned upon.

Forty years after Lipscomb expressed himself in this way to John T. Poe, some churches in Tennessee had this question arise again. This case must next be noticed.

(To be concluded)