Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 24, 1964
NUMBER 20, PAGE 2,11b,13c

Institutionalism: A Virulent Cancer

J. D. Hall, Jr.

The article under the above caption, written by Brother Harry W. Pickup, Jr., and found elsewhere on these pages, discusses a problem which is one of the most vital of all the issues discussed by Christian people today. In reviewing this article it is not so much my intention to take issue with Brother Pickup on the things he actually says as it is to analyze his points, giving credit where credit is due, criticism (constructively I hope) where criticism is due, and in general trying to clarify the problems involved. The solution to a problem often becomes obvious when the problem is properly analyzed. It is our hope and prayer that it will become so in this case.

We have no quarrel with Brother Pickup's ideals concerning institutionalism. Nor do we question his contention that the Lord's people are caught in its clutches. No doubt we are in very much the same position today as the children of Israel were when they looked with admiration upon the kingdoms around them and wanted to be like them. Institutionalism is the order of the day in apostate christianity. Brother Pickup is absolutely correct when he says "If institutionalism is the most popular modern idol' then God's people must overthrow the altars of idolatry."

In discussing the "insidiousness of institutionalism" Brother Pickup makes this statement under (3) "It is possible to oppose it while unconsciously practicing it." This is a true statement, and therein lies the seeds of our disagreement with him. While he OBJECTS so strenuously to institutionalism with reference to the universal brotherhood of Christians, or the "one body," which is the spiritual gathering of souls, he readily ACCEPTS institutionalism with reference to what he calls the "local church."

In our dictionary the word institutionalism is defined thusly "the spirit that exalts established institutions, especially in religion: opposed to individualism." Individualism is defined as "the quality of being individual; a social system in which each individual works for himself alone; the theory of government which discountenances the interference of the state in the affairs of the individual."

The distinction Brother Pickup makes between the universal "church" and the "local church" is that the universal body does not assemble physically therefore it has "no collective function" and "no human government;" while the "local church," he says, "does physically assemble" and has "human government." What he seems to be saying is that the Spiritual Kingdom is NOT an institution because it is thus handicapped, while the local assembly IS an institution because it is not thus handicapped.

I am afraid Brother Pickup has things reversed. Let us look at our dictionary's definition of the word "institution." Webster says "that which is instituted or established; a corporate body or society for promoting a particular object; — . Christ instituted and established his Kingdom in the word for the purpose of saving souls. It was established for a purpose and functions to that end, therefore it IS a functional body or institution whether or not it assembles physically or has human government. The novelty is that its work is performed by individuals only, under direct instructions from the Word of God and therefore it has no need for human government.

A "local church," Brother Pickup says, "has human government." If it does then it is an institution with in an institution, and we must decide in which of the two the Lord would have us work.

In view of the above it appears to us that those who agree with Brother Pickup are — to put it in his words "unconsciously practicing (on a local level) that which we oppose" (on a universal level).

Brother Pickup is absolutely correct about the dangers of institutionalism. But, there is nothing dangerous about this institution established by the Lord, which is "his body." The danger comes when men with their materialistic concepts try to improve on that which God has established. God intended that His institution should function only through "earthen vessels" or individual Christians. The organization of this functional body is simple: Christ is the Head, and the body is made up of the individual Christians who fulfill their responsibilities to their Lord individually and are judged individually "according to their deeds." Is anything else needed? Nothing.

But where does the local "church" fit into the picture? It doesn't. An organized institution known as a "local church" is strictly a sectarian idea, born of materialism and has no place in the Kingdom of God. The idea of a "visible church" is man-made and is in violation of Luke 17:20-21.

True, Christians are commanded to "forsake not the assembling" of themselves together. True, they are encouraged to come together and work together with others in doing good and in prayer. True, they are to "tarry one for another" when partaking of the Lord's Supper. True, they are to be subject to the Elders who watch for the souls of those whom they are among and who are among them. True, they may form teams for preaching the Gospel just as Paul and his company did. True, they may "lay by in store" in a common fund for any righteous and worthy cause. True, they are obliged to assume their proper share of the cost of the meeting place, the support of widows indeed and elders who serve "in word and in doctrine" if there be such. All these and perhaps others! But these will suffice. The point is, all commands and obligations placed upon the followers of Christ are directed to the individual and may be carried out individually or in conjunction with others as they shall decide individually in keeping with the Lord's instructions and in line with appropriate circumstances.

Brother Pickup is not alone in his materialistic institutional concept of a local gathering of Christians. This concept is almost universally accepted in the brotherhood which to our mind has caused, and is now causing all the difficulties and disagreements which are disturbing the people of God. As I suggested to a friend of mine recently, we MUST realize that:

1. The present translations of the Word of God are all written by sectarian scholars who have translated according to their own materialistic concepts of unscriptural so-called christianity, and are therefore suspect.

2. Almost all books which are accepted as authority on religious subjects are written by men whose concept of Christianity has been warped by sectarian teaching, and are subject to challenge.

3. The ONLY Words of Inspiration are those dictated by the Holy Spirit to the various writers of the New Testament in the GREEK LANGUAGE, and no translation is — nor can it be — inspired.

4. The word "church" is NOT a true translation of the Greek word "ekklesia" in the New Testament.

5. The word "ekklesia" as used by the Holy Spirit in dictating to the various writers was a common everyday unreligious word meaning "gathering." "group" or "assembly."

6. This word "ekklesia" is used in the New Testament in referring to both the "One Body" — the Spiritual group of God's saints whether living or dead physically — and to the physical gathering of God's people in various localities, as they assemble in obedience to the instruction of Paul in Hebrews 10:25.

7. When the word "church" is found in the translations one of the three words in 5 above MUST be substituted to get the correct meaning of the passage.

8. We MUST be careful to decide from the context of each passage whether the writer is talking about the spiritual group or a physical group of Christians.

If the above facts are solidly understood by all, True Christianity in all its beauty and simplicity will shine forth and ALL THE PRESENT ISSUES WILL MELT AWAY.

Brother Pickup is to be commended for his thoughts and expressions pertaining to the individual's relationship to God rather than to the organization, but this holds true with reference to a local organization as well as to the universal organization.