Church Supported Orphan Homes

By Mike Willis

Among the things which have driven a wedge between brethren in the past twenty-five to thirty years has been the church support of orphan homes. Charges have been hurled back and forth through these years; alienation has set in; contact between brethren has been nearly completely broken. There is a call being sounded by some brethren for unity (a unity-in-diversity which simply postulates unity despite our differences). Inasmuch as some are calling for unity, it is necessary that everyone understand what has divided us. It seems rather naive to think that we can be united without discussing what divided us in the first place.

Some False Charges

Before discussing what issues actually are dividing brethren with reference to church support of orphan homes, I would like to dispose of several blatantly false charges which have sometimes been hurled at those opposed to church support of orphan homes.

1. “The anti’s do not believe in taking care of orphans.” Sometimes people have charged that we do not believe in taking care of orphans when discussing this issue. Lest someone be inclined to believe that lie, let me categorically state that I believe that God has commanded Christians to take care of widows and orphans to the best of their ability. James plainly taught this to be the responsibility of the Christian when he write, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted front the world” (Jas. 1:27). We are commanded to do good to all men, but especially to the house of God, as we have the opportunity (Gal. 6:10).

I have been busy this morning working to find a home for an orphan. In the past couple of years, I have helped to find homes for three different children. I have never known of a case of an individual in need of a home being left destitute by those who stand opposed to church support of orphan homes. As a matter of fact, I have heard several preaching brethren state that they could personally find enough homes for orphaned children to empty any orphan home presently being supported by church contributions. Hence, those who state that “the anti’s do not believe in taking care of orphans” are telling a lie. The lie is told with the intention of deceiving and prejudicing.

2. “The anti’s are trying to bind a method of orphan care not legislated by God. ” Sometimes brethren are told that this whole debate is concerned with methods. That simply is not the case. Everybody to my knowledge admits that, in caring for orphans, methods will need to be used to care for them. No one is opposed to renting or buying a house, employing a full-time doctor or using a doctor on a per visit basis, buying clothes, food, and shoes for a child. Everyone admits that in caring for orphans these things will have to be done and that judgment will dictate which method is best for accomplishing these purposes. No one is condemning anyone else for matters of judgment.

What is being discussed is which organization should provide the services, the church or a human institution? What is being discussed is whether the church or the individual Christian is obligated in these areas. However, once these two matters are determined, brethren are not divided over matters of judgment regarding mere methods or caring for orphan children. Though brethren may not agree with each other’s judgment in these regards, both sides have enough maturity to realize that judgmental matters should not divide us.

What Are The Issues?

We are then faced with the question, “What are the issues which are dividing brethren?” This is not a difficult question to answer. As a matter of fact, I think that I can summarize the differences in two points. The matters which are dividing us are as follows:

1. A difference regarding whether or not the church has an obligation to care for non-Christians. Some people call this the “general benevolence” question. The question boils down to this issue: has God placed upon the local church the obligation to care for the poor and indigents of the world? Is the church involved in the same kind of work as the Salvation Army?

Behind this question is the more general question of how involved should the church be in social works. Those who are calling for the church to be establishing and maintaining orphan homes are also calling for churches to establish and maintain colleges, old folks’ homes, medical missionaries and clinics (in other words, church supported hospitals), church sponsored recreation, and other social works. At some point in time, the question must be raised, “Is the church to be involved in social works of this nature.”

Some years ago, Luther Blackmon showed the relationship of church support of orphan homes to the general idea of church involvement in social work. He commented,

The orphan home is the key that unlocked the treasuries of the churches of Christ to human institutions. And now that the unauthorized benevolent institutions have been accepted and are defended as a part of our traditional practice, the wedge has been driven and the leak in the dike has become a flood. Now we are hearing such expressions as “where there is no pattern,” and “we do a lot of things for which we don’t have scriptural authority,” and “where does the Bible say we can’t do it this way?” Some are clamoring for “Church of Christ” hospitals. During the last lectureship at David Lipscomb College brother Marshall Keeble, well known Negro evangelist prophesied that in a few years we would have them. He allowed he would rather be shot by a Christian nurse and cut on by a Christian doctor than by some sectarian. That was his proof for “Church of Christ” hospitals. But that is as good as anyone can give for “Church of Christ” orphan homes. The same Bible that says visit the fatherless says visit the sick. If visiting the fatherless demands that the church set up orphan homes, visit the sick demands that the church set up hospitals (quoted from the tract, “Benevolence, The Brethren and The Bible”).

Brother Blackmon correctly perceived that the orphan home issue was but the tip of the iceberg of the larger issue of church involvement in the social issues of the given day.

Though the individual Christian has a responsibility to help unfortunate suffering people as he has the opportunity (Mk. 9:41; Matt. 25:31-36; 1 Tim. 6:17-18; Jas. 2:14-17; etc.), Christ has not placed upon the local church the responsibility of relieving the needs of the poor and suffering of the entire world. Rather, the work of the local church is primarily evangelistic in nature; its work of benevolence is secondary, inasmuch as it has a responsibility only to the poor among the saints. Notice that the passages which speak of church supported benevolent work speak only of the church helping saints (cf. Acts 2:43-46; 6:1-6; 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15:25-31). Although there can be no doubt that the first century had its share of orphans and poor people, we can only read where the church helped saints from its first-day-of-the-week treasury.

If our liberal brethren are going to preach that the church should become involved in the support of such social programs, they should provide the Bible authority for the church to support poor non-Christians. In the absence of Bible authority for the church to help non-Christians, the practice of involving the church in general benevolence stands condemned.

2. The second issue which divides brethren with reference to church support of orphan homes presupposes that the church has a financial responsibility to nonbelievers. This is granted for the sake of argument, not granted as proven. Hence, the second area of disagreement is this: assuming that the church has the responsibility to care for orphans, the church is fully sufficient to take care of them without the creation of another institution to do that work for it.

This position pertains to the all-sufficiency of the church. The church is all-sufficient to accomplish whatever work God gave it to do. It is all-sufficient in the realm of evangelism; therefore, there is no need for the creation of a church supported missionary society. The church supported missionary society is created because men do not believe that the church, unaided by human institutions, can accomplish the great work of taking the gospel to the whole world. If this argument has any validity with reference to the missionary society, it has the same validity for benevolent work; the conclusion with reference to benevolence would be the same as with reference to evangelism. If it is wrong for the church to send funds to a human institution to do its work of evangelism, it is also wrong for the church to send funds to a human institution to do its work of benevolence: If God has placed the responsibility of caring for the poor and indigents of this world upon the church, His church is fully sufficient to do this job without making donations to a human institution to do the work for it.

Hence, if proposition number one is granted, the second disagreement would continue to divide us. God does not allow the church to do its work through another human institution. The church is responsible for doing the work which God gave it to do. It is fully capable of doing whatever work God has charged it with doing without depending upon a human institution to do it for the church.

The Issue And Division

The issue of church support of orphan homes is dividing us. Brethren are being forced or have been forced to choose whether to leave a given congregation which decided to contribute to some human institution to care for orphan or forsaken children, or else to violate their consciences. In some cases, the contribution to the human institution was clearly a token contribution to demonstrate where the church stood on the issue. For a congregation of 200 people to send a contribution of $25.00 per month to an orphan home was certainly not significant toward relieving the needs of orphans, assuming the church had a responsibility toward them in the first place. If the responsibility was placed on the church, a church of that size should be sendin 5-10 times that much money per month to meet its obligations. However, the contribution was sent as a token to indicate which side of the fence the church stood on. It resulted in the divison of the body of Christ!

Hence, we are divided brethren. Now, some are calling for unity – the very same unity which we called for prior to, during, and after the division occurred. There is this significant difference. The approach to unity which today’s liberals are calling for demands that we bury our heads in the sand with reference to what divides us. That kind of unity allows the sinful practice to continue; the one practicing the controverted matter which divides us not called upon to quit practicing his sin. Rather, the one opposing the practice is told to quit opposing it. If this kind of unity will work, it will work on the issue of instrumental music in worship, church support of missionary societies, and the purpose of baptism. That this is the brand of unity proposed is obvious to anyone willing to see. I have not heard any of our liberal brethren confessing that they sinned when they introduced church support of orphan homes. What I have heard is a group of brethren calling for us to extend the right hands of fellowship to those who introduced the church support of human institutions, to those who continue to send contributions to human institutions, and to those who defend as biblically authorized the practice of sending contributions from the church treasuries to human institutions as warranted by God. I can see no way for unity to exist so long as we continue to be divided over this issue.

Either the liberals were wrong in introducing the church support of orphan homes, in which case they loosed where God has bound, or we were wrong in opposing church support of orphan homes, in which case we bound where God has loosed. In either case, a full discussion of what divided us is going to be necessary before unity can be restored. Someone will have to repent of his sin before unity can be restored. Someone will have to ask God’s forgiveness before unity can be restored. Yes, the issues of church support of orphan homes continues to divide us. Beneath the issue lies the crucial difference of attitudes toward Bible authority and that is why the division continues until repentance occurs.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 41, pp. 659-661
October 16, 1980