Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 7, 1959
NUMBER 1, PAGE 10-11a

Centralization And Liberalism

Dale Smelser, Beaufort, South Carolina

It is the firm belief of this author that efforts to centralize the work of the churches of Christ are due (excepting failure to comprehend the issues) to a liberalistic view of the binding authority of what we may read in God's revelation; men taking liberties that God has not authorized.

Concerning the connection between centralization and liberalism, many of our brethren are inconsistent in that they view with alarm a centralization of governmental power in civil affairs because the initiative is taken from the states and thus moved further from the individual, fearing that this is a move toward Socialism or worse, Communism, yet they wholeheartedly endorse a centralization of the churches' resources and functioning, emphasizing mass combined efforts and failing to see that this also removes the responsibility and initiative from the individual and is a move toward denominational organization or worse, the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

To show that some brethren are thus inconsistent, consider the typical stand taken by a well known brother, L. R. Wilson. Before proceeding however, these comments are needed. I do not know brother Wilson personally. I do not recall an occasion of hearing derogatory gossip to prejudice me, and I have every reason to believe him to be a devout man. All of what I know of his stand in present controversy comes from his own writings. I refer to him as brother Wilson because I consider him worthy of the honor of being called by his name, and sure he would prefer that to such childish appellations as "Brother W" or "Editor W," and so would I.

Now to point out his afore mentioned inconsistency which is typical of many today, I have two of his articles before me. One is from the Voice of Freedom, Vol. VI, No. 11; November, 1958, p. 162. The other is from the Gospel Advocate, Volume C, No. 39; September 25, 1958, front page. Speaking editorially in the Voice of Freedom brother Wilson says, "There are a number of 'isms' in this country which the Voice of Freedom believes to be inimical to our American way of life and our free institutions." The "isms" he then criticizes are Communism, Catholicism, Atheism, Liberalism and Modernism. Of Liberalism he states:

"One of the most damning and demoralizing 'isms' threatening our American way of life today is that of 'Liberalism.' This growing evil is seen in our educational institutions, in our social and political organizations and in the philosophies of our time. Everywhere there is a tendency to centralize control, whether it be in education, labor organizations, or government."

"Everywhere" is right, and I add to this list where centralizing tendencies are, the church of Christ. There is centralized radio preaching and oversight of it, centralized care of the needy, and centralized "thought control" by misuse of colleges and religious journals Instead of encouraging each church to do its own evangelizing and assist its own needy, the trend is to move the initiative to a central agency and away from individual congregations, making them merely tributary. Thus instead of each church sustaining its God ordained relationship to its own work of preaching and visiting, each church relinquishes its responsibility and merely sends its funds to a central church or board which in turn performs the task.

Now while brother Wilson and others oppose centralization in government and call it liberalism, they nevertheless defend it in doing the work of the churches. Regarding civil affairs brother Wilson says in the Voice of Freedom: "At the rate we are going toward centralized government, we will have neither state laws nor state control over anything within a few years." Thus he sees an ominous trend in centralization civilly, but when someone opposes centralized control of the work of the churches, ("centralized control" is used advisedly for the central church or board controls the work being done) fearing there will soon be no local church control over the bulk of the work accomplished, he is accused of not trusting the good sense of the brotherhood and of trying to bind a how for church work where God has not bound. I think a statement by brother Floyd Decker is appropriate here: "Brethren, to become tributary to an organization is soon to become subsidiary to the same. You may think you can have an organization auxiliary to the church, but it will not be long until you will find that the church is auxiliary to the organization" (Why I Left, p. 11). This comes from a brother who left the Christian Church.

Brother Wilson in defending churches contributing to a central agency to do the Lord's work says in the Gospel Advocate, "As far as we know, a congregation may use its own funds in the support of any good work, which contributes to the spread of the kingdom of God." However he does not define what a "good work" is. If he means that anything "which contributes to the spread of the kingdom" is good, the missionary society is a good work and churches may contribute to it for many learned the gospel through its function. But we must ask, "What is a good work?" The only criterion by which to judge is the wisdom of God revealed in the scriptures. Paul wrote that the scriptures are inspired of God that the man of God may be furnished completely unto every good work. (II Tim. 3:16-17.) Thus if centralized functioning is not in the scriptures, and it is not, it is not a good work with which the church is furnished or equipped. The church, as it is revealed in the scriptures, just did not have central agencies to do its work of preaching and caring for orphans and widows. Thus churches today cannot assume that centralization is a good work to which they may contribute, though the central agency may be doing a work that is good and will he good if the churches do it. It is simply a question of whether we respect God's organization or whether we think we can improve it.

Again our brother in order to justify centralized functioning says in the Gospel Advocate: "In the New Testament God has told his people what to do but never how." Now is he ready for this conclusion? I do not think so. Note: Jesus said, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (Jn. 4:24.) The command is to worship. Is there a how? Yes, it must be "in spirit and in truth." The truth reveals that in worshipping we are to come together, preach, sing, contribute, pray, and break bread. If God had commanded worship, but did not tell how, what would be wrong with instrumental music? God did not leave "how to worship" to our good sense, but by precept and example has shown us how. The expedient methods of performing the lawful how he did leave to us.

Furthermore if God has commanded, but never told us how to fulfill the command, consider this: Jesus commanded, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." Now if God has not told us how to obey this command because we have "sense enough" to figure out how, what possibly could be wrong with the missionary society? But God has not only commanded, he has shown how to obey this command. It may be done by individuals spreading the gospel (Acts 8:1-4), and by congregational action in sending out preachers as Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:22), or by various churches sending support to a preacher in the field. (II Cor. 11:8.) Expedient methods used by the preacher in going, such as walking or by ship, were not bound though God did show how, or with what organization, to get the message to the world. If brother Wilson meant by his "how" that God did not bind what expediencies were to be used, we can agree, but he is trying to justify other organizations which use expedient methods by his "how."

As to the care of the needy, when Jerusalem had such they appointed seven men, evidently deacons, who looked to the needs of their widows. (Acts 6:1-6.) Later this same church was burdened beyond its capacity to supply, so Macedonia sent to it to assist and Corinth was exhorted to do likewise until the need there be met. (II Cor. 8:1-6; 13-14.) Lo then, as surely as God has shown the church how to worship and spread the gospel, he has also shown it how to care for its needy without shipping them off to a central agency maintained by various churches, and which controls the work done and money used. The expedients such as whether to give food, or money or how to get it to the needy were left to the congregation which is the proper and only organization known to the scriptures.

The church in its work had more responsibility than just supplying some central institution with funds. Since the church is the fulness of Christ (Eph. 1:23), it is as capable of doing what God gave it to do without establishing societies to assist, as Christ was able to accomplish his mission without someone sent to do what he should have done.

Here again is the point. These brethren, such as brother Wilson, oppose as liberalism efforts to centralize government functioning and control, and see dire consequences in efforts to bring this situation about. Yet they advocate centralized functioning of churches with a central agency controlling the methods used in evangelism and benevolence. Do they love the nation more than the church, and fear more for its well being than the well being of the church? I feel that they do not, but that they have gradually become accustomed to the insidious process, now being accelerated, of centralized control and oversight of the work of churches, and are now fond of the attention getting institutions that exercise so much power and feel compelled to defend them, even resorting to liberalistic arguments. This to me explains in part their inconsistency.

But finally, there is a connection between centralization and liberalism. In governmental affairs we have seen why brother Wilson calls centralization "Liberalism." Centralization in the working of churches may be called liberalism in the same sense and for the same reasons and also in that it shows a lack of respect for the authority of the pattern or organization of the church as the church is set forth in scripture. In this article we have pointed out examples of how the church accomplished its mission. We could do the same today and this painful division among brethren would not exist. The divisions come when some are liberal enough to depart from doing our work in that way.