Institutionalism Within The Lord's Church In Italy
I have written this article because I feel the necessity for the brethren in America to know of the serious problems that, through the years, have evolved within the Italian "missionary work." The use of institutions to establish and develop the work of the local churches has divided churches by creating confusion, discouragement and the most complete apostasy.
The work in Italy was started again in 1949 because of the preaching of some American Missionaries. We thank God for their sacrifices for their courage and zeal, as they faced persecution and made many efforts to bring the Word of God to the Italian people.
Unfortunately, in spite of their zeal and "good conscience" the methods used for the spreading of the Gospel were not scriptural as they should have been. The coined phrase "the end justifies the means" is not a biblical principle! Romans 3:8: . . . and why not (as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), let us do evil that good may come? Whose condemnation is just."
In fact, at the beginning of the Italian work the center of all activities was an orphan's home supported by the sponsoring church, Crescent Hill Church of Christ, in Brownfield, Texas. Preaching was made attractive to the people by "gift packages" (clothes, food, and so forth) coming from the States. Therefore, the majority of the "baptized" had their faith, not in Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God, but in the "gift" they were receiving. Unfortunately, those means (or methods) did not cease after the "missions" were established. The American Missionaries who came some years later were less concerned with scriptural authority than those who came before them. Therefore, the development of many varied ideas was spread throughout Italy and the digression from the Truth was soon realized.
I would like to give you a brief summary of the escalation of these works:
1959 - This is the birth year of the "Florence Bible School of the Church of Christ."
1963 - The birth year of the "Biblical Studies Center of the Church of Christ" in Milan (Seme del Regno, December, 1963, p. 520)
1968 - There is established in Genova a "Publishing House Company" supported by churches' money. After a few good books they started to print Catholic and Protestant books. Then they spent something like 6 billion of lira (that is a very big amount in dollars, too) for printing an edition of the New Testament translated so badly by two Italian preachers, that this edition is not used even by those in the ranks of the organized Christian Church.
1969 - The open fellowship with the Christian Church was realized and practically imposed on many churches. This came about by the Florence Bible School, which was in desperate need of students in order to justify its role in the Italian work! A group of well known preachers went to hold some meetings at Bari in the South of Italy where the work of the Christian Church is concentrated. Their -opening" was published and spread abroad by their magazine Il Seme Del Regno. It is self-evident, I think, that the "opening" was nothing but a gross attempt of imposing the will of a few preachers on all the churches in Italy. Isn't that something just short of Catholicism?
1970 - This is the birth year of the "Christian Camp" of Nepi just near Rome which caused tremendous and terrible divisions in many churches. It was referred to as a beneficial means for evangelism. In those years we started to question everything that was connected with the "new fellowship idea." Note that all the "leaders" of the Italian institutions were also the chief actors in the "opening" enterprise. So "institutions" and "new fellowship" were walking arm in arm.
Let us come back to the "Christian camp." I remember that though my father was preaching against it, many brethren of the church in Aprilia, where I grew up, went to that camp. I remember very well what they said once they returned: "The camp is the place where the true Christian atmosphere can be enjoyed! It is such an edifying thing! It is not so important if members of the church (which, by the way, Christ died for) do not attend the regular meetings of the Church, if they attend "camp gathering." Thus, when we are at the camp we are at church! In my opinion the least that one can say about these statements is that they are blasphemous.
1976 - The sad but necessary division of the Aprilia (near Rome) church. Twenty-five years of good work done by my father, Rodoflo, was destroyed in the name of the Christian Camp! A church of 98 members was, without pity, divided.
In the same year a meeting was held in Genova for the purpose of creating a "confederation of churches." That occasion started the so-called "Political Gospel" (actually Marxism) and women preachers in the assembly! Many congregations today are still involved in that practice.
All these institutions were operated by American missionaries and received money from churches in the USA. At the same time, while these institutions were established, some missionaries had begun to teach that evangelists or preachers are not necemary in the churches (the very purpose of the Florence Bible School was not educating preachers but that of creating "more mature members of the church"). It was in that way that missionaries began a subtle psychological, mental and doctrinal control of local congregations. Justto cite only one example: Before the division of the church in Aprilia, several problems that actually caused the split came by the interferences from the Bible School Committee. Members of that Committee were engaged from several local congregations in Italy and were all "faithful" to missionaries here.
One cannot expect to sow to the wind and not to reap the whirlwind. Confusion and terrible chaos characterize liberalism today. If yesterday the problems were connected with those human institutions (how to use the Lord's money, etc.), today we have before us nothing,but semi-Protestant people! Evil practices have borne evil principles:
"Let's talk of the things that unite and not of those things which divide us." (Isn't that the typical old refrain of Catholics and Protestants?)
"Love is all we need." (Doctrinal differences do not really make a difference!)
"After all, we cannot judge our brethren." (They even have the courage to quote Romans 14 to maintain that principle!)
"After all, it is sufficient to believe in Jesus and be baptized by immersion. . . . " (If Catholicism would start tomorrow to teach adult baptism, many of these our "brethren" would be in serious trouble.)
Some of the above mentioned institutions are no longer existing today.
The books printed by the Lanterna Publishing House of Genova are no more used today. According to a man (Paolo Mirabelli, from Rossano, South Italy) who visited the former meeting place of the Genova church, he found pentecostals meeting there, and he saw mountains of books printed years ago just left in some corners of the rooms, unused, bound to be ruined. (Among these books we remember the special edition of the NT translated by Italo Minestroni and Fausto Salvoni in the early '70's.)
The Nepi Church Camp, formerly presented as an extraordinary means of preaching, was sold. Today many consider the St. Peter in Bevagne's Church Camps as the "camping of the church." (Note that this camp is operated by Christian Churches.)
As far as we know, there are no more Italian students at the Florence School whose present director is Mr. Howard Bybee. We know that now there is a branch of the Pepperdine Christian College in Florence, and that once in a while American students come to visit and have Summer courses.
The Biblical Faculty of Milan was closed. We know for sure that the church building in Milan is used also for dancing courses. (Brother Rodolfo Berdini and Stefano Corazza saw an advertisement in front of the door saying: "This week dance lessons have a different schedule.")
The church in Mestre (national center of Bible course) is no more existing. In the same meeting place there are today members of the Evangelical Pentecostal church. Consideration: when we open the door to error, it becomes impossible to close it. And the consequences are far more negative than in the past.
Examples of Further Digression in the Last Years
1982 - In October the Sunset Church of Christ in Lubbock (TX) organized the "World Mission Forum" to discuss and plan the "Mission Work In The World." Mr. Italo Minestroni, who preaches in Italy in Bologna, participated in this meeting as the "National Representative of the Church" (singular) in Italy. Note that this forum has been defined by Earl Lavender, a young American missionary that worked at Cervignano just 25 miles from Trieste, as the Church itself, an assembly of Christians.
On that occasion Mr. Italo Minestroni asked for:
(1) Increasing the activity of the Florence Bible School in order that it might become the propulsive center of the Italian work.
(2) He asked for money to build a home for the old, "because, he said, this is very needed by the Italian churches." (?)
(3) He asked for money to buy another printing house. Note, brethren, that they had wasted many dollars on the first one.
(4) He asked for money to install radio stations in the main Italian towns.
(5) He asked for money to buy several meeting places.
Needless to say, they are doing the very same things they already have done in the past, without having learned anything from the past experiences. I frankly doubt they really believe what Paul teaches: "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16).
On January 23, 1984, on the national TV station there was a broadcast by the Protestant Churches Federation. In that transmission the Church of Christ was presented as a Movement started in the U.S. between the 18th and 19th centuries by men like A. Campbell, B. Stone, and others. It showed the first meeting places in Kentucky, the pictures of the "founders," and information on the movement mostly based on the human institutions which the movement has all over the world (hospitals in the state of Ghana, church camp in Nepi, which had already been sold in '84, the Florence School, etc.). In that way the blessed church of the New Testament is becoming nothing but a denomination, at least in the minds of some people!
In '84 a building was begun in a small village called Valmontasca (Tourin). It was all built with the money of an 80 year old man "converted" by some missionaries. He wanted to build his own church. Great men were invited for the occasion: Melvin Pownall, Italo Minestroni, Leoluca Bonanno, and others. We have pictures of that event and also pictures of the meeting place. It is a sort of Catholic temple, with a sort of altar in it, and with many signs. One sign quotes from John 19:27 and says: "Mary is the little mother of all the believers." There are signs on eucharisty. There is a sign about the evangelical worship of Jesus' brethren. There is a big star on the roof. (Pictures are available for all who may be interested.)
This building is presented as something very good. Few Italian church members have seen the place. And while it is commonly reported that there is a church there, the fact is that there is only this old man there. He and he alone, in a place absolutely desert. There are practically no people living there.
August 1985 - A Christian camp was organized by the church of Christ in Pescara in a place called Scarfano. LAppello Cristiano, a paper published by the Christian Church in Italy, reported that in that camp brethren from the Church of Christ, the Christian Church, the Church of Nazarene, the Church of God, and the Church of the Brethren enjoyed together the good side of the Christian life (LApello Cristiano, n. 1, 1985).
Prejudice and "Hierarchy": A Sad Example
Months ago, brother Roberto Tondelli received calls from a man in South Italy. This man asked for literature, showing a good attitude and not involved with liberalism. Calls followed and he was always asking for some counsel or advice on doctrinal matters like: fellowship with Christian Churches, problems where the Florence School is involved, etc. Since the first call, brother Tondelli had tried kindly to let this man see the problems which have caused division among churches In Italy and the biblical solutions to such problems.
Telephone contacts went on to the point that this man (Paolo Mirabelli) seemed quite interested in having a personal meeting with us. After having made agreements for having this meeting, Paolo Mirabelli called brother Tondelli revealing to him that: "I am supported by a congregation in U.S. and the elders there have forbidden me to meet you or others like you."
Note that he said in the same call that all the literature he was receiving is good and sound. But there was some kind of danger in meeting some of us.
The same behavior is followed in Italy by Catholic priests and Protestant pastors. Here is a clear and sad example of prejudice, and the established practice of hierarchy which hinders personal contacts and personal Bible study. Among other considerations, we may say that such behavior is contrary to 1 Pet. 3:15.
And is it not ridiculous that so-called liberal brethren in Italy say that we are preaching what we are preaching just for the sake of . . . money! That is an obvious example of how a psychological dependency (also a financial dependency) can be established on an eldership in the U.S. (obviously a "liberal" eldership). But we are bound to Christ, not to men.
We invite "liberal" brethren and elders to come to Italy and see with their own eyes the reality of what we are saying here. Many local churches are disappearing in the midst of problems and troubles of every kind: ignorance of the Scriptures, women preaching in public assemblies, worship on Saturday nights, fellowship with Protestant sects, the use of "Gospel pop-songs" to better attract young people to the gospel (but are they truly attracted to it?), and last but not least the obvious fellowship with those who use instrumental music in worship.
We hope and pray and work hard in order to regain the broken unity within some local churches. But this Unity must be based only on "Thy Word," as Jesus prayed in John 17. However, we are not naive in working toward that objective. In fact, to obtain that blessed kind of Unity, it is necessary that people be honest with Scripture, be studious, and be truly interested in obeying and serving the Lord not men. So far, we have found very few people with such good attitudes.
We are persevering in "the good fight," going to Catholics and atheists and Protestants. May the Lord help us.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 24, pp. 737, 752-753