Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 11, 1954
NUMBER 27, PAGE 12-13a

"What Is Wrong With The Missionary Society?"

Robert H. Farish, Lexington, Kentucky

The question, which serves as the subject of this article, implies that there is something wrong with such organizations as the missionary societies. The view that such organizations are wrong, has been held by many, from the earliest attempts to bring them into the "brotherhood." Jacob Creath, Benjamin Franklin, David Lipscomb and a host of other sincere and faithful men of the past were relentless in their fight against the missionary societies. These men's opposition came because they considered the societies wrong. They considered that the societies were wrong in principle; that it is wrong to have an organization through which the church universal functions. To suggest that their fight against the societies was otherwise motivated is to reflect on their integrity.

At the outset of the controversy those favoring and defending the societies did not attempt to justify them on the ground that they were authorized in the New Testament. Their defense was based on the liberty which they thought the silence of the scriptures granted them. They claimed that the society was allowed by the "law of expediency." Moses Lard wrote, "these societies are not provided for in the New Testament, but originated in the discretion of men." Lard and others persistently denied that there was anything wrong, in principle, with the societies. His defense of the missionary societies consisted largely in attempting to classify the things attacked as abuses. He did not recognize these so-called "abuses" as inhering in all such human systems. He wrote, "I hence deem the liability of these societies to abuse their authority no sufficient ground for disusing them. If however, on trying them, it shall be found that they actually and as a general thing do abuse their authority, then I shall say let them cease to exist at once. For abuse, though slight at first, would soon become excessive, and this would be intolerable." Lard's sentiment was to let the societies "cease to exist at once" if they "actually and as a general thing do abuse their authority"; yet he did not concede that they could properly be opposed on any other basis. With Lard it was not a question of the societies being wrong in principle, the only possibility of wrong he could see was in the realm of abuses.

Thus the promoters of missionary societies selected the field of battle and on this field many of the battles were fought. A few of those of the opposition endeavored to show that the so-called "abuses," such as assumption of unwarranted authority — infringement on rights of congregation — substitute for church, etc., in reality inhered in the concept which required the societies. If all those who opposed the missionary society had clearly seen the issue and had refused to allow themselves to be drawn aside into skirmishes on abuses, the opposition would have been more effective. In these skirmishes the fact and wrong of the so-called abuses could be established but the effect of these efforts were largely neutralized by the strategy of admitting the possibility and even the fact of such wrong but claiming that it was in the abuse of the thing and not in the principle. With Lard they would say, "I hence deem the liability of these societies to abuse their authority no sufficient ground for disusing them."

But would the societies, "stripped of their abuses" be wrong? Are missionary societies wrong in principle? Many are seeing that not only the missionary society, but all efforts at "cooperation," which require a single unit through which many congregations (the church universal) may function, are wrong. Fundamentally the thing that is wrong with the one is the same that is wrong with the other.

The Work Of The Church Universal

Did God design a work for the church universal, as such, to perform? Pendleton contended that He did. In his famous speech delivered in behalf of missionary societies he lashes out at the brethren whose "ideas of the church and of the responsibilities and work of the church, circle too much within the limits of a single congregation." In this speech Pendleton expressed the concept of the church universal at work. He said, "we fear that this large conception of the church universal is too little realized by many Christians of the present day. Their ideas of the church and of the responsibilities and work of the church, circle too much within the limits of a single congregation. The kingdom of God is scarcely recognized as commensurate with the people of God, and the sphere of its cooperative as well of its free individual effort, as being as wide as the commission — "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." This unscriptural thinking and planning in terms of what the church universal can do and the baseless assumption that God intended the church to function in its universal capacity is the root from which grew all "cooperative" arrangements which require for their function a single unit or organization.

God never intended the church universal to function through any single unit. For had God so intended would He not have provided the unit in the divine pattern? There is no organization for universal action provided in the divine pattern. The local congregation is the only unit of action provided for in the divine pattern; its action is limited by its organization.

The local congregation is a divine arrangement. It is to function in that capacity alone. We dare not tamper with this divine arrangement. All attempts to put the local congregation in a work which involves it in general action should be abandoned. Let the church "move in its congregational capacity alone."

The size of the work must be in proportion to the organization or unit. This is self evident, for the extent of the oversight of those who have the office of elders in the church is limited to "all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops." (Acts 20:28.) "The flock of God which is among you." (1 Peter 5:2.) Thus the magnitude of this work in which this divine organization can rightfully engage is limited by the divine pattern. The work must of necessity be in proportion to the unit. It cannot exceed that work which rightfully belongs under ,the oversight of the bishops of a local congregation.

When the question about what is wrong with the missionary society is considered properly, the wrong involved is to be traced all the way back to the unscriptural concept which was expressed by Pendleton, which concept if put into execution must have some such organization through which to function. When God gave the local congregation He thereby excluded any other organization. Just as His specifications to Noah that he was to build the ark of gopher wood excluded any other wood, so His specifying local congregation excluded any other organization. The exclusion of any other organization excludes any work, the magnitude of which would require a greater organization with a centralization of authority in either a board of directors or a board of local elders. Any organization to function in such a work requires going "beyond the things which are written," and that is sin.

The thing that is fundamentally wrong with the missionary society is the "large conception of the church universal" as such working through a single unit.