Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 31, 1961
NUMBER 17, PAGE 1,9,12-13a

The Sponsoring Church

Eugene Britnell, Little Rock, Arkansas

(Editor's note: The following material has been put into tract form, and is being widely distributed by both individuals and congregations throughout the nation. We commend it as an excellent treatment of the divisive "sponsoring church" promotions. The tract may be ordered from brother Britnell at 50 cents per dozen; $2.00 per hundred. His address is: 8909 Mayflower, Little Rock, Arkansas.)

The sponsoring church type of cooperation among churches of Christ has provoked much discussion and controversy. This is an honest effort to clarify the issue, and show what is wrong with a sponsoring church.

First, let us define our terms: "Sponsor" means: "One who binds himself to answer for another's fault; a surety. Hence, one who assumes, or one to whom is delegated, responsibility for some other person or thing. To be or stand sponsor for; to accept responsibility for." — Webster. By "church" we mean a local congregation of saints. (Phil. 1:1; 1 Cot. 1:2)

What is a sponsoring church? (1) It is a congregation which assumes the oversight and control of some activity in the general field of evangelism, edification, or benevolence. (2) Being general, the work involved is that the exclusive responsibility of one congregation, but, proportionate to their ability, is the work of all the churches. (3) The congregation assuming the oversight and control cannot sustain the work undertaken alone. (4) Many congregations delegate their funds and responsibilities to the overseeing and controlling congregation for their fulfillment and application or expenditure. (5) The elders of the sponsoring church thus becomes the official board of a church cooperation vested with the authority of overseeing, controlling, and prosecuting the work involved.

In order to make this study as simple and complete as possible, we offer the following reasons why a sponsoring church is wrong:

I. It is a type of cooperation which is without scriptural authority. There is not a command, example, or necessary inference in the Bible for one church becoming the agency through which other churches may function. The examples of cooperation in the New Testament were always concurrent action and never joint action. No church or churches ever, sent to a church to enable the receiving church to do a work to which all churches were equally related. Merely assuming a work does not make it peculiar to the sponsoring church.

II. It reflects upon God's wisdom. Knowing man's desire for power and the dangers and abuses of centralized authority, God so designed and organized the church as to preclude any centralization of power and authority. He knew that this was best for man and the purity of the church; it would keep each congregation dependent upon Him for its authority and not upon some earthly power or criterion. The sponsoring church arrangement removes this divine protection and ties churches together in a manner which God did not authorize, and, therefore, does not approve.

III. It is a violation of autonomy. Autonomy: "Quality or state of being autonomous." Autonomous: "Independent in government; self-governing; also, without outside control. Existing independently." — Webster. That God wanted each congregation to be autonomous is clearly seen in the fact that he gave each congregation its own complete and sufficient organization. (Phil. 1:1) The sponsoring church becomes the agent for the contributing churches. There can be no agency without subordination, and God does not will that one church be subordinate to another. That is not autonomy! Autonomy is a safeguard against apostasy. If one church goes wrong, that should not necessarily involve others. Take, for example, the seven churches of Asia. (Rev. 2, 3) But when churches are tied together, and one speaks for the church universal, we have a dangerous situation which could involve all the churches in error. The fact that the contributing churches act voluntarily does not change the matter. The truth is, that is the only way that a church could surrender its autonomy and be responsible for so doing. Did the fact that churches voluntarily supported the missionary society make it right?

IV. The sponsoring church is a violation of congregational independence. The New Testament teaches that each church is to be independent in its work and worship, but that is not true in the sponsoring church arrangement. The principle is the same in all cases, but we shall notice as an example the Highland church in Abilene, Texas, and the Herald of Truth. The contributing churches are dependent upon Highland to preach the gospel, and they cannot preach over that particular program until the sponsor acts. On the other hand, Highland church is dependent upon the contributing churches to furnish the money and it cannot act until the contributing churches act. Therefore, there is no independence in it; but we have already learned that autonomy demands independent action.

V. The sponsoring church represents a centralization of power. Such is invariably true. Money is power, and when a thousand churches turn their money over to one eldership, as has been done, that eldership is going to be elevated above others and exercise power over all others. Such can be clearly seen in the pressure exerted by sponsoring churches.

VI. The sponsoring church represents an erroneous standard of ascertaining responsibility. Responsibility is determined by ability and opportunity — nothing more and nothing less. Ability plus opportunity is commensurate to responsibility. Such is true with an individual or a congregation. If not, what determines a church's responsibility? Is it determined by the ability of the brotherhood? Evidently the sponsoring churches think so, for they contend that if the brotherhood has the money, they, the sponsoring churches, have the responsibility to sponsor and oversee the work. But such is not true. If a church's responsibility is determined by the ability of the brotherhood, then are not all churches required to act by the same standard — the ability of the brotherhood? If not, which ones are and how are we to know? In this connection, we agree with brother E. R. Harper's statement of 1938 when he said:

"A congregation has no right to build anything larger than it is able to support. It has no right whatever to bind any other (congregation to any program of work of its own selection. Each congregation must retain its autonomy. Any effort that destroys the independence of the local congregation runs straight toward sectarianism, if not Romanism."

An individual Christian is responsible as God's steward (1 Cor. 4:2) only for the proper use of that which he has (not what he can beg from others) as he has opportunity to use his resources. (Gal. 6:10) That which is true in determining the responsibility of an individual is also true of a congregation, for the principle is the same. A church is responsible for the use of its resources only (not what it can beg from churches), as it has opportunity.

VII. The sponsoring church sets the wrong example before other churches. Churches can be examples (1 Thess. 1:7), and if they are guided by the will of the Lord they will be good examples. When the larger churches begin to sponsor big programs of work, the smaller churches begin to think that their ability is also determined by what they can succeed in raising from other churches and the battle is on. We even have churches receiving money from other churches and at the same time sending money to other churches. Such is as foolish and inexpedient as it is unscriptural!

VIII. The sponsoring church does not recognize the limitations divinely placed on elders. The New Testament teaches that the responsibility, work, and authority of elders begins and ends with the flock over which they are to serve as shepherds and that they are responsible, insofar as finances are concerned, only for the treasury composed of the contribution of the flock, and, in case of scriptural need, that which is received from others. (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Acts 11:27-30) The sponsoring elders do not respect these restrictions. They step outside their God-given sphere of operation and oversee funds and work over which God has not placed them. Sometimes we read where an eldership "assumed" the oversight of a work somewhere, and such is a clear indication that they are wrong in so doing for the work in which they may scripturally engage is assigned, not assumed! Their work and oversight is not geographical, but rather organizational. God has limited them to the congregation and its treasury.

IX. The sponsoring church is a violation of the scriptural design in cooperation. Cooperation, like baptism, must have the proper design or purpose. According to 2 Cor. 8:13-14, a church may send to another church only when the receiving church is in need; not a "need" which was created by willfully assuming a work beyond its ability, but a need that is peculiar to them. The cooperation must be to produce equality — mutual freedom from want. From the Gospel Advocate's Adult Quarterly, lesson for March 11, 1956, commenting on 2 Cor. 8: 13-14, we quote:

"Lest some in Corinth should feel that the apostle wished to impoverish them in order to enrich the saints at Jerusalem, he pointed out that it was not that others might be eased and the Corinthians distressed. The purpose of the contribution was to establish an equality in order that the abundance which the Corinthians then possessed might supply the need for the poor in Jerusalem that all might have a sufficiency."

The apostle's illustration in verse fifteen of the chapter shows this to be the correct interpretation of the passage. But the sponsoring churches today are not in need. Some of them have weekly contributions of over a thousand dollars, and, as we have pointed out, they are sending contributions to other places at the same time they are accepting money from other churches.

X. The elders of a sponsoring church, in effect, becomes a missionary society. God placed elders over one treasury only — the common treasury of the congregation over which they serve as elders. In the sponsoring church, they set up a separate treasury into which the contributing churches contribute and out of which the assumed work is financed. Since God authorized them to serve only over the church treasury, when they oversee an additional treasury and its work they must move out of their position as elders, and, therefore, function only as a board or society.

When the contributing churches send funds to the sponsoring church, the money never goes into the treasury of that church but rather it bypasses it and goes on into the treasury of the work. The sponsoring church even contributes from its treasury into the treasury of the work. So, they could not be the same, nor could the elders sustain the same relationship to them. The elders can oversee the treasury of the church as elders, but when they oversee the second treasury they do so without divine authority and are simply a board or society. As David Lipscomb said, "It is the organization of a society in the elders of the church."

XI. Efforts to defend the sponsoring church leads to a perversion of the scriptures. Men who claim to believe the Bible, regardless of their religion or practice, appeal to the scriptures in an effort to substantiate their position. Many times their interpretations, influenced by a prejudiced mind, is nothing but a perversion of the truth. (Gal. 1:7-9) We believe that such is often true, unwittingly in some cases, of the sponsoring church advocates.

To illustrate, brethren often try to find authority for a sponsoring church in Acts 11:27-30. Read the verses from your Bible. Their interpretation of those verses violates a fundamental ride of exegesis. One cannot arbitrarily in a single passage ascribe a generic meaning to one portion of the text and a specific meaning to another. This is what the sponsoring church advocates do. They understand "brethren which dwelt in Judea" to mean the brethren in the several congregations of Judea. But when they 'lead that the relief was sent "to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul," they say this refers to the elders of the Jerusalem church only. By what rule of interpretation do they do this? If "brethren" means the churches of Judea in general, the term "elders" must mean the elders of the churches of Judea in general. Conversely, if "elders" means the Jerusalem elders only, then "brethren which dwelt in Judea" must mean the brethren who constituted the church at Jerusalem and no others.

No, the Jerusalem church was not a sponsoring church; it did not oversee the entire work of relief in Judea. Consider the following facts: (1) The relief was sent to the brethren which dwelt in Judea. (2) There were churches (more than Jerusalem) in Judea. (1 Thess. 2:14) (3) They appointed elders in every church (not just in Jerusalem). (Acts 14:23) (4) The work of elders is limited to the flock over which they have been appointed. (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4) This being true, the relief was sent to the elders of the churches of Judea. If not, why not?

J. W. McGarvey, commenting on Acts 11: 27-30, said:

"The manner in which the elders of the churches in Judea are here mentioned, without a previous notice of their having been appointed, shows the elliptical character of Luke's narrative, and it results from the circumstances that he wrote after the churches had been fully organized, and all of the officials and their duties had become well known. The elders, being the rulers of the congregations, were the proper persons to receive the gifts, and to see to the proper distribution of them among the needy."

Note that he said "The elders, being the rulers of the congregations." He did not believe that the distribution was made by the Jerusalem elders only. Not being obligated to defend a sponsoring or centralized arrangement, he let the verses mean what they say!

XII. The sponsoring church arrangements cause division, and lead to apostasy. This has always been true. Out of an effort to centralize authority and organize the church universal came the first apostasy which culminated in Catholicism. It was the same attitude that formed the missionary society in 1849 and divided the people of God. (Look what that same attitude now accepts in the modern Christian Church.) When there was an effort made in 1910 to set up a sponsoring church in Henderson, Tennessee, it provoked much discussion and opposition. Had the movement succeeded, it, no doubt, would have divided the church. Because of the opposition of such men as J. C. McQuiddy, F. W. Smith, F. B. Srygley, E. A. Elam, E. G. Sewell, and David Lipscomb, the movement failed. They opposed it, as they said, because "there is no scriptural authority for one church controlling and directing the funds of other churches." The controversy (BOTH sides) was carried in the Gospel Advocate.

Today, the sponsoring churches and the attitude of those who promote them have divided hundreds of churches throughout the nation. And again, the same attitude which allows the sponsoring churches is leading brethren to full acceptance of other innovations including full fledged missionary societies. The acceptance of error knows no end. When we lose respect for the divine pattern and depart from the truth in one point, it is but a matter of time until we reach complete apostasy. Open the floodgate and the flood comes in. Brethren, with two major apostasies behind us, plus the clear teaching of the word of God to lead us, are we among those who are "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth?"


In the apostolic age, each church, acting under the oversight of its own elders and served by its own deacons (Phil. 1:1) performed the work which God authorized the church to do as they had ability and opportunity. If a church, through no fault of its own, was faced with a need which it could not meet, other churches assisted until the need was supplied. (Rom. 15:25-26; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8 and 9) Churches, acting concurrently, helped a needy church (Rom. 15) and a church which was able to give helped needy churches. (Acts 11: 27-30) No church or churches sent funds to a church in order for it to meet an "assumed" obligation; they did not work through a church. There were no sponsoring churches!

"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 he 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. Ile 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 in one year for a national radio broadcast, or a benevolent institution. Is anyone so naive as 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?"

"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?"

(Earl Irvin West, in Congregational Cooperation)

These thoughts and questions are timely and demand serious consideration and application. May God help us to make all things "according to the pattern."