Present Day Issues (II)
In the first article under this heading we stated that the two principal issues, which have evoked the greatest controversy in recent years are: (1) Institutionalism, and (2) the sponsoring church system.
In the first article, we defined the term institutionalism and then discussed it in that definitive concept.
Our purpose now is to define and discuss the "sponsoring church system."
The sponsoring church system is an arrangement wherein one congregation elects to oversee and perform a work, which requires resources beyond its capabilities; the required resources being obtained from one or more other congregations who subsidize the work, but who do not oversee or perform the work.
What the Issue Is NOT
The issue is not a question of whether a congregation can elect to oversee and perform a work, which is within its financial capabilities. It is not a question of whether a multiplicity of congregations can cooperate in carrying out a particular work. It is not a question of whether one congregation can aid another congregation.
Clearly and simply stated, the question is: can one congregation set itself up in the capacity of a central agency through which other churches may carry out their respective responsibilities toward that particular kind of work? And more specifically: can one congregation oversee and perform work, which is financed by another congregation as part of the other congregation's responsible work?
So often the question is stated in terms of whether or not one church can SEND to another church instead of SENDING to a preacher. This terminology has been so abused as to render ridiculous the intended meaning of the one using the terms. It is imperative that we understand that the issue is NOT a question of SENDING or RECEIVING, but of WHO is OVERSEEING and PERFORMING the work. Let us dispense once and for all with the foolishness of arguing about the address on the letter, the medium of transportation of funds, the endorsement of checks and all other such subtle evasions of the true issue. These sidetracks probably do indicate something but are nothing more than symptoms of the real problem and are usually discussed only in an effort to dodge a fair discussion of the actual question.
Is There a Scriptural Pattern?
We must realize that this question involves the most basic of principles concerning the restoration of the New Testament Church autonomy of each congregation of the Lord's people. Faithful brethren beginning with the apostles have contended that the local assembly of saints is completely self-governing and completely sufficient to fulfill the work, which has been laid upon them by our Lord. To argue otherwise is to indict God with having required an impossibility of His people. The Bible does not so much as hint of any higher governing authority than the local congregation. Neither does the Word of God hint of even a loosely organized central pooling of resources nor of the slightest centralized coordination of work. All resource management, planning, overseeing, and performing of work is, in every Bible example, centered in and executed through the local congregation. The only instance in which resources are transferred from one church to another is when a need has been precipitated by a famine in which some churches were completely unable to relieve the physical requirements of their members. In such cases other churches contributed, " . . . every man according to his ability . . ." determining to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea (Acts 11:27-30). Some have quoted this passage in attempt to give scriptural authority for the present day sponsoring church projects. To do so is to wrest scripture. Notice the following differences in this Bible authorized cooperation and the centralized sponsoring church arrangements, which we see brethren promoting at every hand today.
Example in Acts 1 I .2 7-30:
(1) A famine caused the need. Totally involuntary and unplanned was it by the churches in Judaea who were affected.
(2) The Judean churches did not have the resources to relieve their own needy. The care of their needy is clearly their responsibility, but they were unable to give the required care.
(3) The brethren in Antioch contributed, as they were able so that the need could be alleviated.
(4) A temporary, involuntary need was relieved and the work was done. But note the present day sponsoring church system:
(b) The planning church takes on responsibilities beyond their ability; hence they take on a work, which is not their responsibility, and then request other churches to send to them so that they can carry on the work.
(c) The contributing churches are found in the position of releasing funds, which they themselves should be using in order to relieve a self-caused need of the sponsoring church.
(d) A planned, voluntary project is never relieved, but rather usually grows larger as the sponsoring church takes on more and more responsibilities, which they are unable to handle.
As we mentioned above, the basic question involves the bedrock principle of self-governing local churches. The elders are exhorted: "Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight . . ." (I Pet. 5:2). To what flock of God is their tending to apply? The flock, which is among them! Dare any eldership tend any other flock? Dare any eldership tend even one small portion of any other flock? Certainly not! To do such would be to "go beyond the things which are written." The question then follows: Where are the limitations of oversight in the passage just quoted? The answer is consistently, "the flock of God which is among you." There can be no doubt but that "exercising the oversight" belongs with the "tending." Dare any eldership exercise oversight for any other congregation? Dare any eldership exercise oversight for even one small portion of the business of any other congregation? God forbid! Do we agree on this principle? Does the New Testament bear out this principle in the area under discussion? How did churches in the First Century work together in carrying the Gospel to foreign fields? Let us note the following scriptures:
We read in Acts 13: 1-4 that Barnabas and Saul were sent forth by prophets who were in the church in Antioch, these prophets being guided to do so by the Holy Spirit. Whether the church in Antioch assumed any portion of the support of Barnabas and Saul on this first missionary journey, we do not know. It would seem reasonable to think they may have, but there is no need to bother with such guessing. We know that they went forth from Antioch and later returned to Antioch and gathering the church together
" . . . They rehearsed all that God had done with them . . ." (Acts 14:27).
Later Paul, Silas, Barnabas, and John Mark were again sent forth from Antioch on the second missionary journey. Who supported these preachers in their labors, and how was this support arranged and extended to these men? We know that Paul did not receive all of his support from Antioch for he paused to make tents to gain funds (Acts 18:3) and he also received funds from other churches (II Cor. 11:8-9). Notice verse 9 of 2 Cor. the 11th chapter: ". . . the brethren, when they came from Macedonia, supplied the measure of my want . . ." Paul had labored in establishing churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Bereaall cities of Macedonia (Acts 16:11 thru 17:15). While in Corinth, a city in the province of Achaia, brethren from Macedonia furnished at least part of his needs. Paul gave the Philippians credit for having contributed more faithfully than any other church (Phil. 4:15-16).
In all of these passages, we find no central congregation assuming the sponsorship of Paul and collecting funds from far and wide from other churches. Each congregation did what it was able to do in seeing that Paul had what he needed. Can we accuse Paul or these churches of operating in an inexpedient manner, or of sacrificing the work because of inefficient organization? No one does, yet many brethren say that if we do today as Paul and the churches did then, we would be inefficient. These examples simply amplify and confirm the basic truth that New Testament churches were autonomous and that each oversaw and performed its own work. They were able to cooperate in this way in so much that Paul was able to evangelize the entire Mediterranean area. As always, the simplicity of God's plan is too much for many to accept. The passages quoted above are easily seen to be consistent with one another and with Acts 20:28 and I Pet. 5:2.
What Is Being Practiced Today?
With this background of New Testament examples, let us look at a modern day sponsoring church arrangement:
The elders of a congregation decide that they would like to spread the gospel into a certain foreign country. They desire to place a preacher in each of ten principal cities within that country. Nothing could be finer than such a desire; however the flock in which they find themselves is capable of supporting only one preacher in this mission field. Therefore, in order to- do what they want to do, they must either have a larger flock or not hire the ten preachers. They cannot reach over into the neighboring town and envelop another flockbrethren would not stand for anything of this bold nature. They cannot set up a missionary society and thus pool the resources of enough flocks into one treasury that has been tried in the past and soundly defeated by faithful brethren who showed its lack of scriptural authority nearly a century ago. What they must have are resources and they must get them through some arrangement by which they will still appear in the eyes of the brotherhood to be tending only their own flock. A unique plan has been devised. Ask a number of other flocks to give them funds. Each congregation will just send them enough so that when all is combined there will be enough to hire the ten preachers. They will not go over and envelop the other flocks nor will they oversee them as a congregation. A sponsoring church system has been born. What is wrong? It is not found in God's Book, but is simply another man-made plan for organizing the work of the church under a central agency in an effort to make it more efficient in the eyes of men. Where is the scriptural authority? Is this not a legitimate request to be made by one interested in a restoration of New Testament Christianity? Where is the scriptural authority? Had such a system been practiced in the First Century, we would find something at least similar to the following: The church at Antioch would have sent Paul forth and would have supported him with contributions sent to Antioch by other churches such as the ones at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. These funds would have been disbursed from Antioch to Paul or more likely to the church in Corinth for them to pay Paul. In view of what we have just studied concerning the way Paul was actually supported, this conjecture sounds silly. But brethren, is this silly and the present day system not silly? How can this be when they are identical? Surely we can see the gross non-conformity of such practices with scriptural precedent.
These sponsoring church arrangements arise out of one weakness on the part of men a lack of faith in the beautiful simplicity of God's design for His church. Men seem prone constantly to endeavor to "improve" upon the simple structure of the house of God. Can we not see that if God had desired for congregations to work through central planning and pooling congregations that He would have revealed such a central agency in His Word.
In closing, let me ask this: I would like to contribute $250 per week into the church treasury. Regretfully, I am financially unable to do this; however if nine of you readers would send me $25 every week, I could put it with $25 of my own and would then be able to contribute $250. Will you do it? That question isn't long in waiting for a resounding "NO!" God does not expect me to give beyond my ability. If I give my $25 and each of you give your $25 in your own flocks, the Lord still has $250 and has received it in the way that he has appointed. So it is with the churches. If each congregation assumes responsibility in proportion to its ability, then God will be pleased.
Let us examine closely the sponsoring church systems, which are spreading like the plague among churches of Christ today. Where is the scriptural authority for projects like many of the campaigns, benevolent projects, World Radio, Herald of Truth, and many, many more. There is no question but that the intent of each is fine and noble, but are we doing God's work in accordance with God's revealed Word?
TRUTH MAGAZINE XI: 2, pp. 4-7