Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 17, 1953

Some Interesting Comparisons: Institutionalism -- In Retrospect And Prospect

Bill Wright, Weirton, West Virginia

One of the outstanding questions that is now facing the New Testament church is the proper place, in relation to the church, of orphan homes, old folks homes, Bible colleges and youth camps. Generally these four institutions are lumped together by those opposed to them to one degree or another and discussed under the title "institutionalism." Because of the experiences of the brethren of the last century in which the missionary society, instrumental music, etc., caused a division in the church, faithful men have come to ask the question: "Will not these institutions again lead to division?"

There are parallels that may be significant in considering this very important question. From point of time one will note that the Campbell's began their activities in the early part of the 19th century, probably 1809 would be a permissible date. The churches of Christ were first recognized as independent and separate from the disciples of Christ in the year 1906 by the religious census. It is not untrue to say that by that date the line of division was clearly and permanently drawn. It was near the middle of the 19th century that the first departure from pure restoration principles began. In 1849 the American Christian Missionary Society was founded through the urging of Alexander Campbell as a means of further spreading the gospel of Christ.

Although its beginnings date earlier than the middle of the 20th century, it has been since World War II that institutions have made their most remarkable advance among members of the New Testament church. In the last century David Lipscomb and later Benjamin Franklin became champions of those who stood firmly against the society and later the introduction of the instrument and other evils which followed once the bars were let down. Those who advocated it claimed that God had not given instruction concerning it and therefore it was a matter of expediency whether one used it or not. Those who contend for orphan homes contend that God did not give instructions as to how to care for orphans and old folks and therefore we are at liberty to select the most appropriate means. Those who favored the society declared it to be a means of preaching the gospel, while those who favor church support for these institutions hasten to remind us that the Bible is being taught in each of these places every day. One wonders if the last days of our 20th century will find us near the abyss of a new dark age because we have failed to learn from the folly of our fathers who did not recognize Satan in their midst.

Charles L. Loos, who himself traveled the road to digression, wrote of the convention that founded the American Christian Missionary Society:

"In all the discussions and acts of the convention the strictest and most jealous care was taken never in the least degree to assume any ecclesiastical privileges. That assembly — composed of men who were in heart and soul 'revolutionary soldiers' in the good, early war against all ecclesiastical assumptions, and who were vet fresh and brave as ever in the defense of the cherished principles of freedom from the old fetters of ecclesiastical bondage — would have sprung to their feet to a man at the first attempt to usurp any ecclesiastical authority. Again and again, from the beginning to the end, clear voices were heard repudiating the very thought of such unauthorized purpose or action. This is a most noteworthy fact in the history of this assembly."

In the years that followed, Loos along with W. K. Pendleton, and others grew increasingly severe in defending the society against the attacks of such tried and true men as the aforementioned brethren, Lipscomb and Franklin. One wonders how favorable these attacks, that subsequently increased in intensity, compare with the charge that brethren who teach against the present institutions are teaching a doctrine that is dividing congregations.

In defending the society, a brother once wrote to David Lipscomb that it was similar to a situation where a congregation decided to build a meeting house and appointed a few men to handle the details. This, he said, was the church working systematically and similar to the missionary society, which was simply the church working systematically. Brother Lipscomb very aptly replied that the building committee is the church at work if the church supplies the means, builds according to its wishes, and ceases to function as soon as the necessity for it has ceased to exist. On the other hand, he pointed out, the society remained in existence separate and apart from the church and acted independently of the church. Much to the man's credit, he changed when he saw that he was mistaken about the matter. One could go on and on piling up evidence on the historical side of the issue, but to little avail. Those who wish to investigate the matter further are stimulated to action by thought provoking material and those who are so biased that they would never change would not be convinced though a mountain of evidence were presented.

The real question for every Christian, regarding these matters, is what evidence do we have to believe that God approves or disapproves of it. Most all agree that mortal man has no right whatsoever to add to the church. If those organizations operate under the elders of the church as such it then becomes a part of the church. If they are not under the direction of the elders of the church, they have no more right to church support than does a Bible society or a missionary society for the propagation of the gospel. The scriptures tell us that glory is to be given unto God in the church through Jesus Christ in all ages. If one wishes to seek the fine points and perhaps find an avenue of escape on this passage, he certainly would not deny that this is the safe way. As has been stated, the advocates of these things claim that the gospel is being proclaimed through these institutions. One should always keep the following questions and thoughts before him in trying to resolve the matter. (1) IS IT SCRIPTURAL? (2) If the church fails to do its work, do we have the right to substitute any other means? (3 Is the chief work of the church social and benevolent? (4) What dangers lie ahead in following such a course? (5) Does God get the glory through anything except the church?

To the first question we would say that there is no scriptural basis for any of these things either by precept, example or necessary inference. All examples in the New Testament indicate that all benevolent and necessary work was done directly by the church when the necessity arose. To devise a scheme to replace that which the church has failed to use is similar to using a mechanical instrument of music in the worship because the congregation has failed to develop its talent for singing. We would do better to spend the time and money used in institutions in an effort to arouse church members to their duty than to attempt to find another means and allow them to sleep on. The chief work of the church is not social and benevolent. Food and clothing are at best secondary to the gospel in saving a man's soul. The gospel "is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth."

What dangers lie ahead? Are orphans and old folk homes becoming a giant octopus that might strangle the church through external organizations? At present, no. The danger is in the symptom. The society, the instrument and the many other things that followed were indications that men in the church desired, as did Israel of old, to be like the nations about them. Are we of this century not moving toward a social gospel and up-to-date entertainment for our young folks? Is it not a real threat that if we allow the bars to come down that the generations that follow us may not begin to think that the "pious unimmersed" "are not far from the kingdom of God." It is reported that in one or two instances gospel preachers have tended toward modernism. If this be not so, can we always expect it not to be if we do not maintain a strong front against the storm waves that beat upon the church of our Lord? God does not get the glory in a manmade institution. How many people are likely to look at a good work done by the Potter Orphan Home, the Boles Orphan Home and give credit and glory to God in the church? It is the orphan home that is getting the credit for it, not the God who created us in His own image. The fact that good often comes from these works does not prove that it is scriptural and in the eyes of God pleasing.

Lest there be any mistake, let it be made clear now, this writer does not oppose good works or colleges. A college should be operated as a private educational enterprise, and in no way whatsoever dependent upon the church for its support. It is then a perfectly legitimate affair. No Christian has any right to reduce his offering and withhold from the contribution of the church for the purpose of supporting any educational institution operated by Christian men.

The church is obligated to do benevolent work, but that is not its primary mission. Each congregation should take whatever measures are necessary to assist those who are definitely in need. It might even become necessary for a congregation to purchase a home (just as it buys a home for the preacher to live in) to use as a part of its necessary benevolent program. It does not, however, follow that the church should incorporate it, appoint a board of trustees, employ a staff and go into the orphan, old folk or other kind of home business. So long as such might be necessary and was operated directly and inseparably by the church in that location it would be perfectly in order. When, however, it becomes more than a local organization, becomes a self-perpetuating organization and seeks reason for not going out of existence when the need has passed, then it ceases to be legitimate. Most efforts of the kind that we are contending against today are shams in which those involved are attempting to obey the letter of the law without the spirit of the law. It would also be perfectly in order for the church to pay good and true Christians who could not otherwise afford it to provide for unfortunates in their homes.

It seems to this writer that the most odious and dangerous of all the institutions which we must face today is the youth camp. It is the most definite appeal to pleasure of any of the aforementioned institutions. It is one more step on the road to digression. It is the most indicative of all of the desire to modernize an organization created by the Godhead in the first century of our Christian dispensation of time. It is a tacit admission to the sectarian world that "our church" after all isn't all sufficient and the Bible and Christian association are not pleasure enough for those who believe. If brethren in local churches were fully aware and alive to the opportunities that exist for Christian association there would be no place for youth camps.

The fact that the elders of a church give their assent to some project and the literature about it reads "under the supervision of the elders of the _________church of Christ" doesn't mean that it is approved of God. In these days it seems to be the case that any unscriptural affair is presented to us as scriptural because "the elders are supervising it." Usually some weak-kneed elders (so-called) approve a digressive scheme and then an over-ambitious preacher (pastor) takes over and pushes the thing. That is just as scriptural as a mechanical instrument of music in the worship of the church.

Surely no man would question that it is safe to be without these things. Surely, then, this is the safe way. We sincerely hope that those of us who have reached life's end by the time our 20th century is history, shall not have gone to our graves in gloom knowing that the cause of Christ and salvation of souls has lost another one hundred years.