Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 13, 1950

The Peril Of Institutionalism

M. E. Patton, Cullman, Alabama

(Editor's note: We commend this article to your careful and earnest study. It deals with a problem that is daily becoming more ominous—the problem of institutionalism. Just how very serious the matter is may be judged somewhat from the fact that this article has been in the Gospel Advocate office for more than half a year, and has been denied publication. The Advocate, once quick and powerful in her warnings against threatening dangers, has not only refused to publish such an "anti-institutionalism" article, but on the contrary has given much space and encouragement to the promotion of various institutions seeking church support. It is a time for prayerful study, calm and careful reasoning, and indomitable determination!)

Perils have threatened the security of the church throughout its history. With prophetic vision inspired men foretold dangers. (2 Tim. 3:1f) Paul's greatest fear, however, was from WITHIN—not from WITHOUT " of your OWN SELVES shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them." (Acts


A lack of either "knowledge" or "vision" on the part of God's people spells DOOM! (Hosea 4:6; Prov. 29:18) Danger does not necessarily mean disaster, but does warn of its presence. Ability to foresee and willingness to forestall determines one's security. May God help us to consider earnestly any warning!

There is crystallizing a movement within our ranks today which if not checked spells unmistakably another digression. The differences between this movement and the fundamental principles of the restoration plea are too radical. A decision must be made between the two.

The Original Departure

The peril of INSTITUTIONALISM is not new. The church historian, Mosheim, in commenting upon events of the second century says: "During a great part of this century, the Christian churches were independent with respect to each other; nor were they joined by association, confederacy, or any other bonds than those of charity. Each Christian assembly was a little state, governed by its own laws, which were either enacted, or at least, approved by the society. But in process of time, all the Christian churches of a province were formed into one large ecclesiastical body, which, like confederate states, assembled at certain times in order to deliberate about the common interests of the whole. This INSTITUTION had its origin among the Greeks, with whom, nothing was more common than this confederacy of independent states and the regular assemblies which met, in consequence thereof, at fixed times and were composed of deputies of each respective state. But these ecclesiastical associations were not long confined to the Greeks; their utility was no sooner perceived, than they became universal and were formed in all places where the gospel had been planted These councils of which we find not the smallest trace before the middle of this century, CHANGED THE WHOLE FACE OF THE CHURCH, AND GAVE IT A NEW FORM. (Mosheim, Vol. 1, page 60); (Emphasis M.E.P.).

Notice that one evil of this ecclesiastical body was the forming of an INSTITUTION other than the local congregation This INSTITUTION changed the face of the New Testament church, and gave it a new form. Before her face shone again in its apostolic purity she passed through that awful period in history called the "Dark Ages." Then came the "Reformation," and then, thanks be unto God, the "Restoration." It was a long, hard, fierce struggle, fraught with many perils, before truth was restored in its purity.

Formation Of The Missionary Society

We had hardly attained "Restored Christianity" when the threat of INSTITUTIONALISM made its appearance again in the form of the American Christian Missionary Society. Another battle ensued. Some of our great men went down in the mire, carrying with them numerous disciples. Alexander Campbell, Moses E. Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Isaac Errett were prominent leaders endorsing the society. Tolbert Fanning, editor of the Gospel Advocate about this time, vigorously opposed the society. In the Gospel Advocate, 1857, page 69, he wrote "The church of God is the only divinely-authorized missionary, Bible, Sunday-school, and temperance society, the only institution in which the heavenly Father will be honored in the salvation of the world, and in and through no other agency can man glorify his maker. It is not only the extreme of folly for Christians to talk of other benevolent institutions, but we cannot see, and never have seen, how it is possible for any people professing the Christian religion to attempt to do the work of the church through merely human agencies, such as missionary and Sunday school societies—etc., while we have so full provision for all spiritual labor in the body of Christ. Furthermore, we have not seen how it is possible for human institutions to engross our time, energy, and money without our losing sight of the church and her agencies." Again, he wrote in the Gospel Advocate February 20, 1866, page 122-123: "Plainly, deliberately, and firmly we declare to all whom it may concern that it is our solemn conviction that the adoption or substitution of an expedient society, or plan for Christian work, besides the "kingdom not of this world," is an insult to God and a disgrace to the Christian profession."

I understand that all but Isaac Errett and possibly A. Campbell, of the above mentioned men, later renounced sympathy with the society. Benjamin Franklin perhaps made the most radical change of all. In an editorial, appearing in his paper, the "American Christian Review," January 11, 1876, he concluded the entire missionary program a failure and the disciples had made a mistake in departing from the original system of doing evangelistic work. One of his quotations will suffice here: "We do not condemn the good men that have been in these schemes and advocated them. We did the same. But must we shut our eyes on matters of FACT, and not only believe without evidence, but against evidence, against the stern logic of events; without a precept or an example in the Bible that these schemes are good, wise and scriptural ? We can go for them no further nor longer, without going against light and knowledge, the clearest convictions of our inmost soul." (Joseph Franklin, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, pp 349, 350) W. E. Garrison commented upon his change in these words: "To do him justice it must be understood that his opposition was not to missionary work, nor to cooperation in itself, but to THE EXISTENCE OF A SOCIETY TO DO THE WORK OF THE CHURCHES. Let the churches cooperate... but without all this machinery." (W. E. Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier, p. 240) (Emphasis M.E.P.).

They changed, yes! But a digression took place anyway. We lost heavily, not only church property, but precious souls also. The INSTITUTION, as well as the attitude toward the scriptures which gave it birth, again changed the face of the church. Its consequences may be observed in that organization known to us today as the First Christian Church.

Brother Homer Hailey in his recent book "Attitudes and Consequences," in commenting upon this first missionary society says "It was a question, fundamentally, of an attitude toward the Scriptures. Do the Scriptures furnish authority and pattern for the organization of societies, or SHOULD THE WORK BE DONE THROUGH THE LOCAL CONGREGATIONS?" (Homer Halley, Attitudes and Consequences, p. 178) (Emphasis M.E.P.).

The modern threat
Brethren, the Lord has blessed us phenomenally, especially in view of the loss we sustained by the digression and the adverse circumstances under which we have labored. We are now just about where we were when the digression took place. But INSTITUTIONALISM has raised its ugly head again! It appears in varied forms. I mention only one here. Brethren in some instances have formed INSTITUTIONS other than the local church to
do the work of the church in caring for orphans. These institutions are formed and governed by a "board of directors" not under the oversight of the elders of any one congregation—not under the oversight of any of God's duly appointed overseers! Such organizations exist independent of the church as much so as the Christian Missionary Society, and like that organization seek to de‑
rive support from the churches. True, some orphan homes are maintained by individual congregations. They are overseen by God's overseers in that particular church, and are supported by the cooperation—not corporation—of other churches. This is as it should be. Orphans are then cared for through God's organization—the local church. But such homes differ from those set up under a "board of directors," and formed into an organization independent of the church. Such homes bring forth the cry "DIGRESSION!" "INSTITUTIONALISM!" And rightly so, for the issue is the same. In the language of brother Homer Hailey, concerning mission-societies, the question is simply this: "Do the scriptures furnish authority and pattern for the organization of societies, or SHOULD THE WORK BE DONE THROUGH THE LOCAL CONGREGATIONS?" (Emphasis M.E.P.).

Some say that we may individually support such INSTITUTIONS. I question it! If so, then we may individually support a missionary society that would parallel it in organization. If not, why not? Both are a work of the church. Excepting institutions to which Christians may scripturally sustain relationship in life, the individual's right to give to benevolent enterprises cease when an organized effort is required to maintain unless done through God's organization, the local church.