Institutionalism is a controversy in the brotherhood today simply because brethren have taken different positions as to whether or not the church may scripturally work through other existing or created institutions. One of the greatest dangers in any controversy is the tendency to become impatient and bitter with those differing with us. There is added confusion to the discussion when terms are not properly defined and delimited as to precise usage, as "organization," "institutional," "scriptural," etc. (One man argued with me that I was working through another "organization" in getting out the bulletin, as the typewriter is an "organization!") Certainly one short article could not fully discuss the various phases of this serious question, but perhaps a part of it can be profitably explored.
Webster defines "institutional" to mean: "Highly organized so as to include various charitable, educational, and other activities." Remedial institutions include hospitals, jails' old people's homes, orphanages, etc. By "institutionalization" of the church I simply mean "the building up of plurality patterns" through which the church functions. (Dict. of Soc.) An "institutional church," then, is a church that features social, cultural, and recreational activities, and works through a number of institutions in accomplishing this. To boil it down, the issue today is May a congregation scripturally contribute to, or work through, other institutions in doing the work God has given her?
Saying I oppose institutions is not true: that does not face the issue. Saying I hate orphans is not true: that does not face the issue. Saying I am disinterested in the old, the feeble, the afflicted is not true: this does not face the issue. Saying I do not believe in educating children under Christian teachers is not true: this does not face the issue. Saying I am not interested in lost souls, that I am "anti-missionary," is not true: this, too, fails to face up to the issue!
But those who disagree with me in this controversy have stated that the Lord said in the generic we are to "visit the sick" and the building of a clinic or hospital is but one means, one method, of doing it-that there are indeed other methods of visiting the sick and the afflicted, but that no one method should be bound upon as a specific, and none of the many methods open to us should be forbidden. Sounds logical and good, doesn't it? Are you ready to build, or support from the church treasury, a hospital as one "method" of visiting the sick and relieving the afflicted? Why not? If a hospital is but a "method" who could scripturally object? God did not tell us how to visit the sick; He did not bind the method. Now, brother, if you will think this argumentation through and detect its fallacy, and then be honest and sincere in applying it to caring for widows, orphans, and to preaching the gospel to the lost, you will be on your way in avoiding the institutional quagmire that has swallowed so many well-meaning brethren in so many different generations. This is the same old threadbare argument used in 1849 in establishing the American Christian Missionary Society in Cincinnati, Ohio-"the Missionary Society is only a method; God said to teach but He didn't say how to teach, so we cannot bind one certain way, nor forbid others to use any method they might select."
Of course you see the fallacy here is in the misuse of the word "method." The Missionary Society is not a method, but an association organized to accomplish particular aims, and which will determine what methods (procedures, course of action) it will employ. A congregation contributing funds to the A.C.M.S. was not selecting a method of doing mission work, but selecting and supporting an institution other than the church to employ methods of doing it.
Now, what about sending funds to build and support a hospital, the hospital being but one of many methods of "visiting the sick?" Again, as with the A.C.M.S. argument, the word "method" here is misused. A hospital is not a method in the ordinary sense, but is "an institution in which patients or injured persons are given medical or surgical care" (Webster). A hospital will select methods of care they believe best for the patient. With one it may be surgery, while with another it may be medicinal. Certainly if a congregation felt the need to purchase the services of a hospital they could do so as a means of relieving some afflicted saint who was in need. The hospital service is needed, is directly applied to the need, and is a service the congregation as such cannot supply. The A.C.M.S., of course, offers no service the congregation cannot supply, and affords no service that is needed. It is functioning squarely in the area (spiritual matters) for which God instituted the church.
What about church support to Christian schools ? Could they be counted as one of the "methods" of teaching Christ, and hence eligible for funds from churches? Many brethren think so, including the presidents of most of the schools today. But again, the schools are not "methods" of teaching, but institutions of teaching that employ various methods. Congregations cannot work through other institutions in doing God's work assigned them. Such schools have as much right to exist as do hospitals, but congregations do not have the scriptural right to give funds to either.
What about church support to orphanages? Now, stay with me, and let us look at this question as calmly as we did the above questions. What is an orphanage? It is a remedial institution (as is a hospital). It provides the institutional-type home for the fatherless, parentless, or the deserted. It is in no sense a "home restored." It is an organization providing the institutional-type care. This is distinctively different from the true family home care. But there may be times when such type care is needed and helpful. The question, however, is whether the congregations may scripturally send funds to these institutions caring for the "fatherless?" May they work through such organizations in order to do benevolent work? Is this merely a "method" of, doing benevolent work, or is the orphan home an institution that selects methods of caring for orphans? If you are confused now, back up, and consider the hospital case: is the hospital a "method" or an institution employing methods? You know in your heart the orphan home is an institution, an organization doing remedial work. If you emotionally answer that "poor little orphans must have care," we agree! But that does not face the issue of whether a church may work through other institutions or not. And if you say, "Yes, a congregation may contribute funds to an orphanage," and base it on the fact that the church has a responsibility at times in this matter, then, to be consistent, you will have to also say that the church may contribute funds to hospitals and to "our" schools, for the church at times has responsibility to the sick and to those needing teaching concerning God. The hospital, the school, and the orphanage are all institutions rendering a needed service. Could we say caring for orphans is more important than relieving the sick and afflicted ? That relieving the afflicted in body is more important than training and developing the minds of our youth upon religious principles? Why refuse church support for the two, but insist, even to the dividing of congregations, upon church contributions to the other, the orphanage? Mark it! The time is not distant that the churches will be pressured to accept the whole parcel or reject it totally.
The late G. C. Brewer urged the accepting of the whole package. He wrote: "Churches have always contributed to schools, and schools have always accepted such donations. . . Some of the schools, in order to appease these objectors, have made announcements that they will not receive a contribution made by a church... The time is now present when those who do not make such announcements are going to be branded as unsound. In fact, this is the implication of such an announcement by: either a school or an orphan home. Therefore, it must be clear that the schools, in making such announcement, not only state their policy -- which they have a right to do-but they state their creed and condemn everyone who does not agree in that tenet. The school, therefore, that refuses to accept a donation from the elders of a church tells these elders that they are unscriptural in making such an offer and thereby announces that all churches that contribute to any school are unsound churches. Thus the work of a congregation is not determined by its elders, but is determined by the school, and the school is therefore dictating to the churches." (Gospel Advocate, Oct. 13, 1949).
Of course, I do not fully agree with this "reasoning," but do believe that brother Brewer was right in saying if the one could be supported by church donations the other could also. I believe neither should be. How could it be right to send funds from the church to run the schools in the orphanages but wrong to send funds to continue this education above high school out of the orphanages?
The late H. Leo Boles was asked whether the church should send funds to the Red Cross in the great work it was doing. He concluded his article: "It seems clear to the writer . . . that no elder or set of elders should use the church fund to do work through one of these human organizations. There is no New Testament example for such, and no instruction for a church to use any of the church funds through such organizations. Furthermore, many congregations are divided in sentiment as to whether the church as such should help relieve any distress through a human organization. Now, since there is no scriptural example, neither any scriptural instruction for such, and the church is divided in sentiment that is, some members believing it should be done and others conscientiously opposed to it- it is wise and best to leave the church out of the picture entirely . . . The matter of relieving the distressed in the present emergency should be left to the individual Christian . . . the elders should not take funds contributed by members who are opposed to doing such work through the Red Cross and give it to the Red Cross. The elders of the church should want to keep the peace and harmony of the church, and should make it clear to all others that the church as a church is not functioning in this matter." (Gospel Advocate, Jan. 29,1942, 101).
I believe that Brother Boles' advice was sound and good. I wish the brethren would practice this as concerns the divided opinion over church support to schools and orphanages -- send none from church treasuries but not molest the individual who would send personally to a school or hospital or orphanage of his interest and choosing. This would make for peace by eliminating compulsion or forced contributions by those who, conscientiously object. This would give time for cool, deliberate study of these controversial matters, and ease the pressures tending to division. Surely this is worthwhile!
Brother Boles further stressed: "Christians are to do good unto all, and helping those who are in distress is a good work. We do not find any example of a church that has sent help to those who are not Christians. The church as a church has not functioned that way; if so, we have no record of it in the New Testament. It seems that if one Christian could help those in distress who are not Christians, a church could do the same. This point should not be pressed, since we have no New Testament example of it. We do not have any example or instruction of the church or one church helping any cause through some other institution or organization." (Ibid.)
I feel sure all readers of this believe in the all-sufficiency of the Bible. Yet the all-sufficient Bible, as brother Boles stated it, gives no example nor instruction for the church as such to help those not Christians, or to help any cause through some other institution or organization. As the scriptures are all-sufficient as a guide the church is all-sufficient as an organization to do all God wants it to do.
Truth Magazine V:1; pp. 11-12