Problems in the Church (VI): Institutionalism

Wm. E. Wallace
Lisbon, Ohio

(Editor's Note: I had intended to write an article on institutionalism for this series, but since our capable Associate Editor recently has written such an excellent article on this subject for use in his bulletin, with his permission I am inserting it in this series).

Institutionalism is the doctrine of theory, which assumes that the congregations may or should financially support or underwrite certain charitable or religious organizations.

There are religious institutions, which contribute greatly to the growth and health of the church. Colleges train young preachers for more efficient service as gospel preachers. Colleges operated by our brethren give Christian environment and armament to young people as they prepare for adult life. Publishing houses prepare literature and publish periodicals for the use and benefit of the churches. Homes for unfortunate children provide Christian nurture for orphans or children from broken families. Homes for elderly people offer Christian care for those who cannot be otherwise cared for.

The right of these institutions to exist is not denied. The policies and manner of operation of these institutions, and the relationship of congregations to these organizations are called in question and challenged. The relationship of individual Christians to these institutions is not the subject of concern in our opposition.

Institutionalism involves the relationship of congregations to institutions rather than the relationship of individuals to institutions. The financial contributions of the people to worthy educational or charitable organizations is not called in question. The financial grants of the churches to the institutions are challenged as being violations of the appointed function of the church. In church grants to institutions, New Testament authority relative to congregational autonomy and local church function is violated.

The teaching of the New Testament, which pertains to organization and to rule specifies local organization and home rule. The Congregation's organization, the eldership,, is limited to the local church in its oversight and to the home flock, in its rule. Each congregation is set up totally independent and self-governing. The rule of elders begins and ends at home (Acts 14:23; 20:28; I Peter 5:1,2.)

The congregations functions through its eldership in that the elders oversee the affairs of the flock. A congregation's function is seen, in part, in the use of its funds. A church contributes to a preacher; to a widow, to a parent or foster-parent in need. The function is seen in the decision and contribution to these individuals.

After the days of the apostles, elders of larger churches received funds and assumed authority from other elderships. They made decisions, which several congregations were expected to accept and support. This was the apostasy in organization; it led to the rise of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. This was centralization of authority and function.

When churches today make grants to institutions, they surrender degrees of decision to a board of authority. The board of authority: determines, decides, choose policies, disburses the funds and expedites the work. The contributing churches are expected to accept and support the decision of the board to which they contribute. The elders of the local congregations, in making church grants to institutions, surrender the oversight of the function arising out of congregational funds. Instead of, and in place of the local elders functioning to help individuals, the board functions. The elders have shifted their responsibility and surrendered their oversight.

In the organizational apostasy, following the days of the apostles, certain elderships

became centers of authority and function for other elderships. In the institutionalism of today, the institutional boards become centers of authority and function for local churches.

You can see that institutionalism, churches granting money to the institutions, is centralization. This is the basic issue--centralization. The congregations, which make money grants to the institutions have made possible a rising tide of centralization of authority and function among churches of Christ.

We now set out to show how institutionalism centralization leads to and involves ecclesiastical systems or machines.

An ecclesiastical system exists when centralization of authority and function controls the churches. This control may be absolute and dictatorial like that of the Roman Catholic Church, or, it may be loose and subtle like that in "democratic" protestant bodies.

The centralization of institutionalism is pointed in the direction of ecclesiasticism in the following aspects:

(l) The institutional boards act or speak for churches of Christ.

(2) The institutional personnel indirectly control pulpits through lobbyistic contacts with elders and preachers.

(3) Under the cloak of benevolence or education, the institutions operate as machines to pressure or maneuver brethren and churches into chosen channels of thought and action.

(4) The institutional leaders act to quarantine or boycott voices of protest and opposition.

(5) The institutional boards have authority over a function, which is made possible by the pooling of resources of churches of Christ. The power arising from the concentration of the funds of many congregations is in the hands of a few.

The real issue in institutionalism is centralization. As long as brethren refuse to maintain a separation of church and institution, centralization hovers as a threat to the identity and integrity of every church of Christ.

In national affairs, there is a controversy over the possibility of government aid to church institutions. The matter of separation of church and state is involved. Governmental grants to church institutions involve a violation of church state relation provided for by the national constitution.

In church affairs, the matter of separation of church and institution is involved Church grants to institutions involve a threat to the autonomy of local churches and constitute a violation of the independent function of local churches provided for by the New Testament.

Let the institutions exist independent of church funds, and the particular problem of centralization involved in the control of church funds is eliminated. This does not entirely set aside the problem of institutional centralization, but it takes the power of church money concentration out of the hands of the few.

Institutional centralization is a menace to the Lord's church. Whatever good the institutions may have done in the field of benevolence and education is offset by the harmful effects of a developing ecclesiasticism.

Truth Magazine VII: 6, pp. 2-3
March 1963