When Is A Practice Unscriptural?
In a recent series of articles published in this paper we dealt with the subject of scriptural authority, pointing out the absolute necessity for having divine authority for all that we preach and practice in religion, some things that do not constitute authority, and how to establish scriptural authority. We make no claim for originality in the arguments presented. We simply stated the same things that faithful brethren have been preaching for years. We also believe that there are but few in the brotherhood who would disagree with anything that has been said thus far.
It may be asked, Why then the current issues that are troubling the churches? If brethren are agreed on the necessity for divine authority and if they are agreed on how to establish scriptural authority, why are they divided over such questions as church-built orphan homes and sponsoring churches? If brethren are agreed that the church can do only what it is divinely authorized to do, should they not be able to agree on what is divinely authorized ?
We believe that the answer lies in a trait that is common to humanity. It is one thing to subscribe to a principle. It is another thing however, to properly apply to specific cases a principle to which one may subscribe. Failure to apply the principles on which Protestantism is founded is largely responsible for conditions that we find in the so-called Protestant world of today. Protestantism is, in principle, a protest against Catholicism. It pleads for the Bible as our authority, as opposed to the authority of the pope of Rome. The principle itself is right, but it has not been applied, and the result is that most Protestant bodies still retain as a part of their faith and practice, things that have no higher authority than the church of Rome. Church history bears out the fact that such practices as infant baptism, sprinkling for baptism, and instrumental music can be traced back no further than the third century - much too late to be able to claim Bible authority.
In addition to the above, most Protestant bodies, while rejecting the authority of the pope, and pleading for the Bible as our authority, have turned around and espoused another human authority in the form of a written creed. So far as this writer is concerned, we see no difference, in principle, between recognizing the pope as our authority and subscribing to a creed drawn up by men. We would as soon take one as the other. They are both human and therefore both fallible.
The failure to properly apply principles for which they stand is not just confined to sectarian bodies, but is sometimes characteristic of members of the body of Christ, and is responsible in a large measure for the introduction of practices that are dividing churches today. As we study the present issues concerning orphan homes and sponsoring churches, it is sometimes amazing when one begins to compare what some brethren are advocating today, with their writings of a few years ago, (all the while assuring us that they have not changed) and with what they claim to believe today. In a recent debate between two prominent brethren, one of the brethren stated that he believed in the all-sufficiency of the church to do the work of the church, and if anyone believed it more than he did, it was because they had more capacity for believing. Now the significant thing about this statement was that it was made during a debate in which this brother was contending for the right of churches to build and maintain benevolent organizations separate and apart from the church to do the benevolent work, of the church. Other well known brethren in debating and writing affirm their belief in the autonomy of the local church, - they reject the principle of the missionary society, but will turn around and endorse the sponsoring-church system of evangelism.
The principles to which these brethren subscribe, - the all-sufficiency of the church to do the work of the church, and the autonomy of the local church are incompatible with their present practices. One of two things is true. 1. The principles themselves are wrong. Or, 2. They have failed to properly apply the principles for which they claim to stand, to their practices. The latter, we believe to be the case, because the principles are true. The all-sufficiency of the church to do the work of the church is clearly taught in the scriptures. And just as clearly taught in the scriptures is the autonomy of the local church. It thus follows that any institution separate and apart from the church that is built and maintained for the purpose of doing the work of the church, whether in benevolence or evangelism, militates against the principle of the all-sufficiency of the church to do the work of the church, and would therefore be an unscriptural institution. In like manner any setup that places one church in control of the resources, or part of the resources, or part of the work of another church, violates the autonomy of the contributing church and is therefore unscriptural and sinful.
It can thus be seen that the issues that are raised in the present controversy are not just a hobby of a few cranks. They involve the souls of men. If current practices violate the divine pattern given in the scriptures, it amounts to disobedience toward God, and with disobedience God has never been pleasing. For this reason we believe that we are justified in this study of some of the present practices in the light of the teaching of the New Testament.
That the church has an obligation toward certain poor people, no one will deny. When we say "certain" poor, we base this statement upon Paul's words in I Tim. 5:16, "If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged ; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed." Thus Paul taught that there are widows whose care is the responsibility of relatives and is not to be charged to the church, --that the church is responsible only for such as are widows indeed. On the same basis, then, we may conclude that the church is not responsible for the care of all the poor, but only for such as are destitute, unless we believe that Paul discriminated against widows and placed a restriction on them that he did not place on a widower or the widow's son or daughter. It is quite possible that there are orphans from wealthy families who would not be the responsibility of the chruch, so far as providing their temporal needs is concerned.
Not only is the church commanded to care for those who are its responsibility, but we have New Testament examples of where the church did care for them.
Concerning the early church, Acts 4:34, 35 says, "Neither was there any among them that lacked; for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made unto every man according to his need."
Acts 6:1-6 tells us of an emergency that arose in the church at Jerusalem. A murmuring had arisen among the Grecians because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Seven men from the congregation were appointed to deal with the situation.
In Acts 11 :27-30 we read, "And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch, and there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified bv the Spirit that there should be a great dearth throughout all the world; which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea, which also thev did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabus and Saul."
In the sixteenth chapter of first Corinthians, and the eighth and ninth chapters of second Corinthians Paul deals at some length with a collection made by the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for the impoverished saints at Jerusalem.
From the above examples of church benevolence the following points stand out.
1. When it was a case of benevolence within a congregation the relief was distributed according to the need. Acts 4:35. Those not in need would thus receive no relief.
2. When one church sent money to another church, again it was a case of need. 2 Cor. 8:14, 9:12. We have no record of where any church ever sent to another church unless the receiving church was in need.
3. The money was sent directly to the elders of the needy congregation, and not through another church. Acts 11:29, 30.
4. The contributing churches chose their own men who acted as messengers of the churches to carry the money to its destination. I Cor. 16:3, 2 Cor. 8:23.
5. In all these examples, a human organizalion or society separate and apart from the church is conspicuous by its absence, just as surely as milk and beefsteak are absent from the Lord's table. I Cor. 11:23-96. So far as the inspired record informs us, the benevolent work of the church was done by the church. Acts 6:1-6, 11 :29, 30.
Is an institutional home unscriptural? Well, that depends on the type of an institutional home we have in mind. While it is the view of this writer that a foster home, or adoption into a private home is infirittely superior to institutional care, yet under certain conditions there is a type of institutional home that would have the right to exist. This would be a home set up by an individual or by a group of men. It would exist as a service institution just as hospitals do. As such it would sell its services as the hospitals do, and could accommodate orphans and widows who could not be taken into private homes and who were not the responsibility to the church. If a church has some orphans or widows who are its responsibility, it could place them in such a home and pay for their keep, just as it can pay the hospital bill for a needy saint, or pay a preacher's hotel bill. It should be remembered, however, that buying the services of in institution does not put the church in the hotel business or the hotel in church business. When the church pays the hospital bill for a needy saint, it does not put the church in the hospital business. And when the church buys the services of an orphans' or widows' home, paying for the keep of those whom it has placed there, it does not put the church in the home business or the home in church business.
There is a second type of home that we believe has a right to exist. This is a home set up within the framework of a local church, under the oversight of the elders and which exists for the purpose of doing the benevolent work of that particular church. Since, it is set up and exists within the framework of the church it would not be an institutional home, but would be merely be an orderly arrangement whereby the church provides care for those for whom it is responsible, just as it may provide the preacher with a furnished house in addition to his salary, and just as the Bible class is an orderly arrangement for the carrying out of another phase of the work of the church. If the need was greater than this church could meet, other churches could send help to it, just as the churches of Macedonia and Achaia sent relief to the church at Jerusalern. However this would not give that church the right to gather up widows and orphans who were not its particular responsibility and then appeal to other churches to help it care for them.
There is a third type of home, - one that has been the focal point of attention in the discussion of current issue. This is an incorporated home, under a board of directors. The fact that it is incorporated does riot necessarily make it wrong, but does serve to identify it as an institution that is separate and apart from the church, yet set up and maintained by the church to do the benevolent work of the church. The benevolent work done by this home is under the oversight of the board of directors. Such a set-up is unscriptural for the following reasons.
1. The fact that in New Testament times the church, itself, discharged its responsibility in the matter of benevolence and evangelism without setting up any separate institutional body, establishes the principle of the all-sufficiency of the church to do the work that God requires it to do. The under-a-board-of-directors home violates the New Testament Pattern of benevolence just as surely as the missionary society violates the New Testament pattern of evangelism. Both are a human institution set up by the churches to do some phase of the work of the church.
2. In New Testament times the benevolent work of the church was under the oversight of the elders. In the institutional home we are discussing the work of benevolence is under the oversight of the board of directors. The churches merely provide the money and the directors decide how the money is spent.
3. The New Testament teaches that the benevolent responsibility of the church is restricted to the care of such as have no other possible means of support. I Tim. 5:16. In the institutional home the churches are often called upon to contribute to the care of people whose care is actually the responsibility of relatives, and is not the responsibility of the church.
1. It has been argued by some that homes such as the above are only a means that the churches use in doing their benevolent work. This is similar to the old digressive argument that the missionary society is just a means that the churches use in preaching the gospel. It has been shown that while it is true that the church must use means in preaching the gospel, such as meeting houses, preachers etc., after a missionary society has been set up it must still use the same means. And it has been shown just as clearly that while the church must use means in relieving the poor, such as shelter, food and clothing, the benevolent society, after being set up, must still employ the same means as the church uses. There is not a means that the benevolent society provides that cannot be provided by the church under the oversight of the elders. The benevolent society provides nothing that cannot be provided by the church under the oversight of the elders. The benevolent society with its board of directors is a human organization that stands between the church and the means that are used in the work of evangelism.
2. It is sometimes argued that the church is its own missionary society, but is not its own home. But no one claims that the church is a home because it provides a home. Certainly the church does not become that which it provides. The church may provide a home (house) for the preacher, but that does not make the church a preacher's home. The church may provide hospitalization for a sick member, but that does not make the church a hospital. And the church may provide a home for orphans and widows without becoming an orphans' or widows' home.
3. "You are opposed to caring for orphans and widows." This is the charge that is sometimes made concerning those who oppose the type of institutional home we are discussing. No, no. Opposition to a human organization doing the benevolent work of the church does not mean that we are opposed to caring for the poor any more than opposition to the missionary society means that we are opposed to preaching the gospel. In both caring for poor and in evangelism, God has made the church sufficient to do all that he has laid upon it. Let us respect the divine pattern.
Truth Magazine III:5, pp. 12-15