Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 24, 1963
NUMBER 37, PAGE 1,8,12-13a

Origin And Growth Of Centralized Control

Cecil B. Douthitt

(Editor's note: Additional copies of this article may be obtained free and postpaid by writing to: Park Hill Church of Christ, 1900 Jenny Lind Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas.)

Every New Testament church in apostolic days was an independent and autonomous organization. Bishops or overseers were appointed in every church as soon as men could acquire the divinely prescribed qualifications. (1 Tim 3.1-7; Titus 1:5-9)

The jurisdiction of every eldership was limited to the work and resources of the one congregation of which they were members, and they had no right to send church contributions to a sister congregation, unless the receiving church was too poor to provide for its own destitute members.

No geographical area was assigned to the oversight of the elders of any one congregation, and they had no right to assume such; their bishopric was not geographical or diocesan.

1. The Beginning Of Centralization.

Soon after the death of the apostles of Christ, churches in many provinces created a form of centralization by placing their work and resources under the control of an agency that exercised authority over a district that included several churches. Within a few centuries this erroneous practice produced the Roman Hierarchy.

Nearly all the denominations of today have a form of centralized authority over the work and resources of their composite groups similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church.

2. Missionary And Benevolent Societies.

A little more than one hundred years ago, many free and independent churches of Christ fell into the same error that had corrupted the religious world for many centuries. They surrendered the control of their money for evangelization to an organization which they called "a missionary society." This evangelistic organization solicited money from churches everywhere, and its officers had full control over these church contributions in preaching the gospel at home and abroad.

Churches that cooperated in this centralization project lost their autonomy by surrendering the oversight of their resources for evangelization to an outside agency, when they should have retained it under the control of their own elders. The fact that the society preached the gospel to millions, and that thousands of souls were saved, did not justify the unauthorized removal of the oversight of church resources from the elders of the local churches to a centralized agency. Nor does it prove that the centralization method saves more souls or is better in any way than the divine method of every church's managing its own work.

Soon after the creation of the missionary society among churches of Christ, benevolent societies were organized, and they also solicited money from plain and autonomous churches. Many elders, preachers and editors who opposed church donations to missionary societies on the ground that the Scriptures do not authorize a centralized oversight of church resources in the field of evangelization and that such would constitute a surrender of local church autonomy, not only gave their endorsement of the identical type of centralization in the field of benevolence, but they also solicited funds from the churches for these ecumenical projects in the field of ministration.

Something is seriously wrong with every man's faculties of perception, who cannot see that every argument against the surrender of the oversight of church funds to a human organization in the field of evangelization applies with equal force and logic against the surrender of church funds to a human organization in the field of ministration.

The benevolent societies have fed, clothed and sheltered thousands of life's unfortunate; but this does not justify the removal of the oversight of church funds from the elders of the local churches where God has placed it to a centralized agency where God did not place it. Nor does it prove that the centralization method is better in any way than God's method of every church's managing its own benevolent work, and accepting contributions from sister churches only when it is unable to provide for the poor among its own members.

3. The Sponsoring Church.

A form of centralized control of church resources, known as the sponsoring church method of cooperation, has become popular with many brethren.

According to this type of centralization, the elders of any or every church may conclude that they are "obligated" to persuade as many churches as possible to place their money under their oversight for a work of evangelization or ministration or both; because the sponsoring church elders in their own opinion have the "ability and "leadership" to manage much more money than the members of their own congregation are contributing.

If they had as much "ability" as they claim, of course they would be able to see that according to their own process of reasoning no church would have the right to surrender the oversight of any of its money unto them, unless the elders of the surrendering church felt that they themselves did not have the "ability and leadership to manage all the money that was in their treasury. The fact that they cannot see where their egotistical claim places the elders of all contributing churches, makes both their "ability" and "leadership" quite questionable.

4. God's Way Most Effective.

Religious leaders have never produced any form of centralized oversight of church work and resources that is one-half as effective as independent oversight and action of autonomous churches. The Lord's way always is the most fruitful and the most effective. Man's ways are a hindrance and a curse when they run counter to God's ways. "Oh Jehovah, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." (Jer. 10:13)

a. Human evangelistic or Bible teaching organizations, such as publishing houses, Bible colleges and all other types of evangelistic or human societies or companies, are a hindrance and a curse to the cause of Christ when they persuade churches to surrender the oversight of either their work or their money to them. Much more is accomplished when churches retain the oversight of their own resources in the field of evangelization.

b. Human benevolent organizations such as the Red Cross, Child Haven, Crippled Children's Clinic, Rest Haven for the Aged, many other human institutions, have a right to exist and they are doing a great work for the world's unfortunate. But the churches also have their own divinely appointed work of charity, and they have no scriptural right to abandon the New Testament pattern and donate one dime of their funds to any human benevolent society on earth. The most effective way that any church today can do its divinely prescribed benevolent work is by following the New Testament pattern in its work of ministration. Human benevolent organizations become a hindrance and curse to the churches' work, when their promoters influence the churches to surrender their charity funds to their control.

c. If the churches that are surrendering the control of their money to sponsoring churches would use all their resources themselves in doing their own evangelistic work (like the New Testament churches did it), the Lord would be pleased and the gospel would be preached all over the world I one generation. (Col. 1:6, 23). The way these brotherhood evangelistic projects are being financed today is a hindrance and a curse to the work of saving souls.

d. Churches that are sponsoring brotherhood benevolent projects for old people or for homeless children are encouraging parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren to shirk the responsibility of providing for their own households, and are placing a burden upon the churches that should be borne by the relatives of these indigent. This is contrary to the will of God. "But if any widow hath children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety toward their own family, and to requite their parents: for this is acceptable in the sight of God....But if any provide not for his own, and specially his own household he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever....If any woman that believeth hath widows, let her relieve them, and let not the church be burdened; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed." (1 Tim. 5:4-16)

If the money and effort used in advertising the brotherhood charity projects under the control of a few sponsoring churches were used in teaching churches and Christians the will of God in the work of ministration, there would be fewer deserted children and neglected aged.

Statement Of Issue

In order for brethren who differ to reach agreement on any point of doctrine or practice, the real point at issue must be clearly understood and carefully considered. If either side dodges or deliberately avoids the main issue, the breach usually widens and disturbance among the churches increases.

The actual point at issue in the present centralized control controversy has not been given enough consideration.

1. What Is The Issue?

The scriptural answer to one question contains the solution to the problem: How may a church obtain and dispose of its funds? When the money question is answered, all other points of difference will adjust themselves, and the trouble soon will be settled.

a. The issue is not whether churches may cooperate or not; all agree that they can. The question is: Can churches cooperate by sending donations to a man-made missionary society or human benevolent society? Can they cooperate by contributing their funds to a sponsoring church for a work to which the receiving church and giving churches are related equally?

Many of the promoters of these various types of centralized controlling agencies accuse brethren who disagree with them of being against cooperation, and they call them "anti-cooperation brethren." Whether they are ignorant of the real issue, or deliberately, trying to avoid it, is not always clear.

b. The issue is not whether human benevolent institutions and man-made Bible teaching organizations have a right to exist or are doing a "good" work; that they do have a right to exist and that they are doing a good work, when teaching the Bible, is admitted generally. The question is: Do churches have a scriptural right to contribute money to these human organizations?

c. The issue is not whether churches may contribute to another church that is so poor that it cannot supply the needs of its own indigent, "that there may he equality or mutual freedom from want; all agree that this may be done. The question is: May churches send contributions to another church for the work of evangelization to which all the churches are related equally?

In both the Lufkin and the Abilene debates, brother E. R. Harper completely missed the issue, as many other advocates of centralized oversight miss it; he talked much about how New Testament churches cooperated in that Judean charity work, but he ignored the fact that no church sent a contribution to any church that was as well off as the contributing church. He would not consider the fact that the scriptures distinguish between a church that is an object of charity and one that is not an object of charity, just as they distinguish between an individual Christian who is an object of charity and one who is not.

d. The issue is not whether a church may preach the gospel by radio or television or the printed page; all admit that it can. The question is: Has the Lord legislated regarding how a church may obtain its money with which to do its evangelistic work?

Brethren who disagree with the way the Highland Church in Abilene is obtaining money for the Herald of Truth radio program have been misrepresented and falsely accused time and again by brother E. R. Harper; he accuses them of being against the Highland church and her work, against her radio program and trying to "kill" the program. He has been told over and over that nobody is against the Highland church or her radio program; that the unscriptural way she is raising money for the program" is the issue. Yet he continues his false charges. Is it because he is too ignorant to understand what the issue is? Or is it because he deliberately ignores the issue?

2. How May A Church Obtain Funds For Its Work?

Has the Lord legislated as to how a church may obtain funds for its work?

If he has not legislated relative to the way that a church may get possession of money for its work, but has left the matter to human judgment, then every church may employ any and every money raising method it may choose and that is not inherently sinful; or it may reject every known method and adopt one entirely new. If the Lord has not legislated on this point, but has made it parallel with methods of teaching the Bible or with the number of containers used in the Lord's supper, as some claim, then any church can get money for its work by operating a grocery store, soda fountain, cotton gin, saw mill or any other secular business for profit; it may sponsor a football game or stage-show for profit; it may solicit and accept funds from anything and everybody it wishes.

If the Lord has legislated regarding the way a church may obtain funds for its work, then no church has a right to go beyond what is written and employ methods that are not included in the teaching of Christ.

3. Under What Conditions May A Church Contribute Funds To Another Church?

If the Lord has legislated as to the conditions under which a church may contribute a part or all of its funds to the oversight of another church, the church that fails to respect the divinely appointed conditions is in open violation of God's word.

If he has not legislated in this matter, but left it a human judgment, then all the churches in the world may surrender every cent of their funds to the over-sight of one eldership, and every man who would lift his voice against it is guilty of binding where the Lord has loosed and legislating where the Lord has not legislated.

For illustration: people were baptized, with divine approval, in apostolic days. If the Lord has legislated as to the conditions under which a person may be baptized, the conditions must have the same degree of respect as the command itself. If he has not legislated on this point, then infants, idiots and all others may be baptized, and every objector becomes guilty of legislating where God has not.

4. Parallel Examples: The Vatican In Rome, Highland In Abilene

A few centuries after the church was established, a "group" of church leaders concluded that their "ability" and superior "leadership" not only justified, but also "obligated," their trying to gain control of resources of the churches all over the world for a work to which all the churches were related equally. They succeeded, and the Roman Hierarchy inevitably resulted. If the Lord has not legislated concerning the conditions under which a church may send donations to another church, then all the churches had a perfect right to place all their resources under the control of the church in Rome, and Romanism is no sin as far as centralized control is concerned.

A few years ago "a group of elders" in Abilene, Texas, tumbled into the pit-fall of this same Romish philosophy. They concluded that their "ability" and superior "leadership" obligated them to try to gain control of resources of churches all over the world for a work to which all the churches were assigned by the Lord. Though they have not gained the same degree of success as the Roman "group of elders," they have hood-winked the leaders of about a thousand churches into the practice of that Romish philosophy. This reprehensible claim that their own opinion of their "ability" and "leadership" "obligated" the Highland elders in Abilene to seek control of the resources of other churches is stated in their own words in the Gospel Guardian of January 6, 1955. The point here is this: If the Lord has not legislated relative to the conditions under which churches may send contributions to another church, then both the Vatican Church in Rome and the Highland Church in Abilene are right in their identical efforts at centralized control, and no man has a right to object.

How may a church obtain and dispose of its money? Has the Lord legislated on this point? That is the Issue.

— Fort Smith, Ark.