The All-Sufficiency Of The Church In Evangelism (2)
In an article immediately preceding this movement, We showed that God intended that the gospel be preached to all men. In order that this might be accomplished, He provided that disciples associate themselves together in congregations to work under the direction of bishops. The church then is God's missionary society. But to be more specific, we learned that the congregation is God's only institutional provision for the preaching of the gospel. It also was observed from New Testament passages that the congregations were adequate to the task imposed upon them by God -- i.e., that the congregations, without the erection of any other institution, did succeed in taking the gospel to every creature (Col. 1:23; Phil. 4:15-20; Acts 11:22).
So long as men had implicit faith in the adequacy of God's provision (the congregation), the thought never entered their minds of needing some other institution to propagate the gospel. It was only when men lost faith in the efficacy of God's institutional arrangement (the congregation) that clamor began to be made for the erection of some other institution through which the gospel might be preached. Before we proceed to a discussion of the organization of and defense made for this additional organization, perhaps we should establish by quotations our charge that men first lost faith in that organization God had provided before they undertook to build another to serve in its stead. It likewise is true that before men today erect institutions to perform the church's responsibility in edification or benevolence, it also is necessary for them to have lost their faith in the sufficiency of God's institutional provision. Men who yet maintain faith in God's ways resent the existence of these institutional crutches of human origin.
As one studies the history of the restoration movement he becomes impressed with the fact that denominationalism of that day had become engrossed with many errors. One hardly could expect men instantaneously to detect and renounce all of these errors. In fact, they did not do so. They gradually came to a fuller knowledge of the truth. Virtually every one of these denominations, in which the early reformers (as they then were called) or restorationists (as we prefer to now to call them) held membership, had a missionary society or super-organization of some kind for the distribution of its own peculiar tenets. When
men began to doubt, not only the need but the righteousness of creeds (having meanwhile regained their faith in the sufficiency of the Bible), they restudied the plan of salvation in the light of Bible teaching instead of through creedal glasses. This led them (though not overnight) to a repudiation of denominational errors. For about two decades they studied diligently the plan of salvation. This necessary study hardly afforded them sufficient time thoroughly to study the organization of the church. During this time of initial study, they went on with the best views on church policy they then knew-the ones they had learned while yet in the meshes of sectarianism.
Having never thoroughly studied the history of the restoration effort, I was somewhat shocked and disappointed to find that so many of the early preachers in this country who taught correctly the plan of salvation were so misinformed on the organization of the church. Of course, when the organization of the church became a focal point of controversey, they studied the subject as they never had before.
Last year I had the opportunity to work with one of the oldest congregations in the state of Indiana in a series of gospel services. Though this congregation today is not very large, at one time it was. It is located near Lafontaine, Indiana. I do not know the exact date it was established, but the original copies of the business meeting records are preserved back to 1836. I was surprised to learn the many organizational errors that characterized these brethren in their early years. For example, for many years they only had one elder over the church. And he was appointed, seemingly without strict concern for scriptural qualifications, to the office to serve for a one year period. At the end of the year, some other brother was appointed to be elder of the church for the next year. Perhaps 40 years passed before these brethren either discovered or at least began to practice the New Testament pattern of a plurality of scripturally qualified bishops over each congregation. Even up till the turn of the century, brethren often indiscriminately applied the term "Elder" to every gospel preacher -- this being but another adopted practice of sectarianism. These brethren had to gradually learn and slowly grow in knowledge of the organization of the church.
With a situation like the one just described prevailing, it should not have been surprising to us to find that the early brethren in this country departed from the New Testament pattern of organization. At that early date they had given little consideration to the Bible teaching on the subject. Therefore, when they learned the truth about the conditions of salvation, realizing that these needed to be taught and preached everywhere, their first thought naturally was to employ the tactics of the denominations from which they had so recently separated. The denominations had erected missionary societies. So the brethren followed in their steps. However fairness and historical accuracy require that we state that not all brethren so gullibly followed the sectarian pattern.
In the Millennial Harbinger, 1842, page 523, Alexander Campbell indicates by his argument that he has not at this time come to appreciate as he should the sufficiency of God's institutional provision for the propagation of the gospel. Under caption, "Five Arguments for Church Organization" (though for some strange reason six arguments were included under the heading, this error apparently being caused by a simple numerical error), Campbell argues that something more than congregational activity is needed if the gospel is ever to permeate the earth. He states:
"Great need of a more rational and scriptural organization. 1, We can do comparatively nothing in distributing the Bible abroad without cooperation. 2. We can do comparatively but little in the great missionary field of the world either at home or abroad without cooperation. 3. We can do little or nothing to improve the Christian ministry without cooperation. 4. We can do but little to check, restrain, and remove the flood of imposture and fraud committed upon the benevolence of brethren by irresponsible, plausible and deceptive persons, without cooperation. 5. We cannot concentrate the action of tens of thousands of Israel, in any great Christian effort but by cooperation. 5. We can have no thorough cooperation with a more ample, extensive, and thorough organization. These five points are enough for one lesson."
You will note Campbell implies that the organization God provided is not rational, is able to do only "little or nothing" of work God would have done. and is not ample or thorough enough for the needs of the time. All this implies Campbell's faith was at this time weak regarding the all-sufficiency of the church.
In 1845, page 59 of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell again wrote:
"Much has been written, and a great deal said, and little done on the whole subject of Christian organization. But there is a growing interest in the subject manifested, and there is a growing need felt for a more scriptural and efficient organization and cooperation."
Something is lacking in a man's faith when he so blantantly declares that what God provided is so lacking as an efficient organization.
In the same paper, 1849, (page 90) Campbell continues:
"There is now heard from the East and from the West, from the North and from the South, one general, if not universal, call for a more efficient organization of our churches. Experience than which there is not a more efficient teacher, decides and promulgates that our present cooperative system is comparatively inefficient and inadequate to the exigencies of the times and the cause we plead."
In just so many words, Campbell says the God-given organization is not adequate for 1849. Something more was needed than that which God provided, Campbell thought. Furthermore, he thought he and other men could provide that which God had not given.
Today we also live in a day of big things. Brethren no longer are content for each congregation to do as much work as it can under its own overseers. We must pool our funds and really make a "splash." This same spirit came to pervade the brethren shortly before the founding of the first missionary society. Had this spirit never become prevalent, missionary societies would never have been started. Had not the same disposition in our own time become common, modern institutions of human origin for cooperative church action would also have remained nonexistent
Brethren in the previous century came to despise the work of a single congregation. A congregation's work alone amounted to- "little or nothing."The only work that was worthy of the name was some collective work. Isn't this also true today? Because a congregation does not send a "pittance" to the brotherhood pool (whichever one may then be under consideration), it is considered to be doing nothing, regardless of how much it may itself be doing. Because a congregation does not send in a glowing, glamorized report to the right brotherhood bragging medium, for every dollar it spends, it is therefore assumed to be doing nothing.
As the restoration effort gained force numerically, it had to make the world realize it had made its appearance on the religious map. In order to encourage collectivistic efforts, brethren began to criticize the work of single congregations. Notice these remarks:
"We fear that the large conception of the church universal is too little realized by many Christians of the present day. Their ideas of the church and of the responsibilities and work of the church circle too much within the limits of the local congregation." W. K. Pendleton
"A church can do what an individual disciple cannot, and so can a district of churches do what a single congregation cannot." Campbell, Millennial Harbinger May, 1831.
Your committee would, then fix attention upon this grand truth, viz.-that the church is the one body of our Lord Messiah. We would claim special attention to this great truth, because it is the grand basis of inevitable organization. It contains within it the natural germinating principle, that as naturally and necessarily produced a system of general organization and co-operation, as does the acorn under favorable circumstances, produce the oak. It is impossible to conceive of such a body without organization; and if the body is a unit, its organization must be adapted to the unity of its nature; and, therefore, it conclusively follows, that the organization adapted to the one body, must be something other than the organization of individual and independent churches or organizations; for such organizations in the absence of a general system, tend rather to destroy the grand principle of unity. . . Millennial Harbinger, 1847, page 162.
You can see that not only did these brethren come to lack faith in the efficiency of the congregation to propagate the gospel, but they actually came to oppose and degrade strictly congregational activity, stating this undermined the principle of unity we would promote.
At the Cincinnati meeting in 1849 at which the American Christian Missionary Society was formed, Alexander Campbell was not present- it was reported he was ill. However, his son-in-law, W. K. Pendleton, did attend the convention, and reported on the meeting through the Millennial Harbinger upon his return. Note his criticism also of congregational action. He says:
"We met not for the purpose of enacting ecclesiastical laws, nor to interfere with the true and scriptural independence of the churches, but to consult about the best ways of giving efficiency to our power (This implies that until 1849 the church larked efficiency --CW) and to devise such methods of cooperation, in the great work of converting and sanctifying the world, as our combined counsels, under the guidance of Providence, might suggest and approve. There are some duties of the church, which a single congregation by her unaided strength discharge. For certain ends, two or three congregations, often combine their means, and thus by a mutual cooperation, effect that which no one alone could have accomplished. Sometimes all the churches in a county, a district, or even a State, send up their messengers to consult about the co-operate in enterprises, benevolent and obligatory, which concern the common welfare and extension and prosperity of the kingdom of Christ. But a broader and more general co-operation than all these may sometimes be demanded, and a general convention may be called, and a universal co-operation entered into. Such appeared to be the nature of the subjects which engaged the Convention held in Cincinnati. . . " Millennial Harbinger, 1849, pp. 689, 690.
It is tragic the Lord could not anticipate these needs, isn't it? It remained for finite brethren to supply what an infinite God could not supply.
The point I have tried to establish by these quotations is to prove that before brethren undertook the establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society, they had to become persuaded that the congregation as described in the Bible was a failure. They not only decided that it had not succeeded, but that it could not succeed. If the gospel was ever to be taken to the world, somebody had to do something. God had already acted. He thought He had met every need. But the brethren had to tell Him "No you have not met every need. Your provision has miserably failed. But do not worry about it. We will take care of the situation." Had not this disposition arisen, none would have been disposed to start the American Christian Missionary Society to, propagate the gospel.
And we remind you in closing, that had not the same disposition arisen in the hearts of brethren of our age, none would have been disposed to erect benevolent societies for the discharge of benevolent responsibilities assigned the church.
In a following article we intend to peek in on the Cincinnati convention to see what was done there. Then we wish to summarize the arguments by which brethren attempted to defend the existence of the missionary institution they had built at Cincinnati that you might see that substantially the same argurrents are being used by brethren today in defence of the benevolent societies. Stay with us, please!
Truth Magazine V:1; pp. 1, 13-15