Early Church Councils and Church of Christ Committees

By Lee Rogel

Within recent years there have developed different types of cooperative efforts among liberal churches of Christ. They involve many matters ranging from evangelism to youth rallies and recreational/social promotions. Although these are under the sponsoring church arrangement, they have taken a different form: organizations apart from, in addition to, the church known as “committee” arrangements. Again, this is bringing the churches closer to the formation of the papal system than anything known before.

In order to understand how much it resembles the beginning of the rise of the papacy, we need to observe some historical facts about the emergence of “Church Councils” in the early centuries which finally led to the formation of the Catholic church. Thus, let us see how the recent development of committees among churches resemble these early Church Councils, and in turn, how they take on the appearance and structure of Catholicism.

Within the third century, when the organization and government of the church became more complex and powerful, a system was arranged known as church councils. Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2), says that these “church councils” were at first 1POmmittees made up of representatives of bishops, presbyters, deacons and “laymen.” Each church sent a representative, or several representatives, to these councils. At first, they were loosely organized and no church had any jurisdiction or authority over these councils. They simply came to discuss certain matters and no church had the authority to bind then decisions upon the churches that sent their representatives to these councils. However, as time went on, and church government became more competitive and powerful, the presiding Bishop of a church in a District or Patriarchate assumed more and more authority. Thus, from a loosely organized committee (or council) there developed the structural form of the papacy.

At present there are not too many such arrangements among liberal brethren – but they are beginning to develop – and apostasy knows no stopping place. There are a number of these in some parts of the country, especially in the northeastern states. To give you an illustration of this arrangement which is identical to the early church councils, and the departure from the New Testament pattern of church organizations. I will cite only one example. And please note that this has already passed the first stage of the system of church council of the second and third centuries. But this one example represents another danger developing among the liberal churches.

Back in 1975, the churches of Christ in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area were planning a “Campaign for Christ” to be held the following year. Gaston D. Cogdell, then preacher for the Clifton church, prepared a lengthy defense of this plan. Notice some of the plans he proposed in the planning of this campaign promotion. The title of this written defense is two fines long, so I’ll not give it.

The formation of a committee made up of representatives of several congregations to advise and assist in a joint evangelistic endeavor, is not unscriptural because such a committee is simply an aid to the church in carrying out its most important work-seeking and saving the lost” (p. 2, all emphasis mine, LR).

Notice three things in his statement:

1. He is defending the set-up of another organization, a “Council” or “Committee” separate and apart from the local church organization. By doing this he must defend the missionary societies which Alexander Campbell started over 100 years ago.

2. He calls this an “aid” to the work of evangelism. Of course, through the years we tried to prove that organizations are not “aids” in doing the work; they use various aids, but the organization is never an aid of and within itself.

3. Each representative from his respective congregation has an equal right to make suggestions, outline plans for this Campaign. He emphatically claims so in his article! But is this really so?

Now notice how conflicting and absurd his “reasoning” is. He readily condemns the missionary society for the very thing he defends in his case for the “76 Campaign” under the committee set-up. Notice what he says about the missionary society, and then how he contradicts himself in his promotion.

Both the United Christian Missionary Society and the centralized denominational governing bodies are autonomous groups, which exercise authority over those congregations which are members of the fellowship with which they are identified (p. 5).

Now notice how he defends the authority of the Clifton Church over the committee of representatives of various local churches.

The elders of the sponsoring church (Clifton-LR) have sole final authority in all matters, and the decisions of the campaign committee are all subject to the approval of the overseeing eldership, but the committee itself is not under the overseeing eldership, but the members of the committee are under the authority of the elders of the various congregations they represent” (p. 5 – all emphasis mine – LR).

Just how does brother Cogdell propose to prove that which he contradicts? That the sponsoring church does not have authority over the committee, if at the same time it has “sole final authority in all matters and decisions of the campaign committee” and are “subject to the approval of the overseeing eldership?”

First, “overseeing” implies authority over that committee. Next, the committee can make suggestions, offer ideas and plans, but the sponsoring church makes the final decisions. The committee has no voice or authority. It can only make suggestions. It has no authority in a single decision. This automatically places it under the oversight or authority of the “Overseeing” or sponsoring elders. The committee is subject to the authority of the sponsoring church. And remember again, this committee is not a local church, but another organization, like the missionary society or the church councils of the early ages.

But there is another contradiction here. This committee is made up of representatives of cooperating churches. This means that as the sponsoring church has sole authority over the committee, it simultaneously has authority over the churches who send their representatives to that committee. These representatives speak for, or are voices for their respective churches. So, the sponsoring church does, not in theory, but in fact, have control over cooperating churches by the very fact of having authority over the committee made up of the representatives the churches send to the committee. Each man on the committee represents and speaks in behalf of the church that sends him and, therefore, to deny the committee any authority is to simultaneously deny the churches any authority. Thus the sponsoring church in reality exercises authority over the local churches by exercising authority over the Committee made up of representatives of individual local churches.

Now, let’s go back to what brother Cogdell said earlier about the Christian Missionary Society, etc., that they are autonomous groups “which exercise authority over the congregations which are members of the fellowship. . .”

The committee referred to by brother Cogdell in connection with the “Campaign for Christ ’76” is an independent, separate organization from the local church. It is an organization within itself exactly as the missionary society in every detail of its characteristic features. It is an organization set up which in no way is a local church; thus it is an organization apart from the church, but working for the church.

The New Testament pattern for church organization is autonomous, with no strings attached either to another church or an organization apart from the church. The New Testament church needs no other organization through which it carries on its work. Both, the missionary society and this committee are organizations apart from the church, yet doing the work for the local church.

What is the difference between the missionary society exercising control over local churches (which brother Cogdell pointed out) and the Clifton church exercising control over the committee? Neither is a local church! Pray tell me again, “What is the difference between the missionary society having authority over “congregations which are members of the fellowship . . .” and the Clifton church exercising authority over the committee, which is identical to the missionary society because it is another organization in either case of local autonomy of churches?”

Whereas the missionary society controls the local churches, the Clifton church controls the Society known as the “committee.” Furthermore, the Clifton church has authority over local churches in every way as the Missionary Society. And so, the Missionary Society known as the “committee” is controlled by the Clifton church because the final decision of that Committee rests within the authority of the Clifton church. And that authority reaches to the local churches that send their representatives to that committee over which the Clifton church has absolute authority.

Do not forget what we’ve observed earlier about the emergence of church councils in the second and third centuries. At the beginning no church had final authority in any decision over any other local church. The church council had no authority over any church that sent its representative to it. But this campaign committee has taken several steps further toward the papal structure in that the committee, which is the same as early church councils in nature. It is under the authority of the overseeing church. And let it be known that the terms, definitions and arrangements of such things as “sponsoring” and “overseeing” are the same in concept and structure as “hierarchy, ” which is identified with Catholicism. And I don’t think they selected and use such terms (over-seeing) by chance or accident. I believe they chose the words to define and describe exactly what they mean and what their purpose is. I believe these men are well acquainted with English grammar to know what words to choose to describe what arrangement and work they seek to arrange.

They know their grammar, by which they seek terms to describe what they seek to arrange and establish, but don’t know their Scriptures well enough, or as well as their grammar, to know these very arrangements are without divine authority, or “works of iniquity.” Don’t you wish they knew their Scriptures so they could point to the authority for their actions – to understand what is scriptural authority – as well as they can pick out proper grammatical terms to define their. unscriptural practices? This is what is so absurd about the whole matter: they deliberately set up false practices and are experts in grammatically defining them as the dictionary gives the proper terms, but seemingly care little about scriptural definitions of the identity of the New Testament church in teaching, organization and work. They ought to realize that their terms to define their arrangements are identical to Catholic terms to define their unauthorized arrangements.

So, let us know that such arrangements are more closely identified with the structure of the papacy, or Catholicism, than what is found in many denominations. When the church was established on Pentecost, there was no thought in the mind of Christ and His apostles that it should develop into the papal system. And here, in the twentieth century, the church is headed for Catholicism, as surely as did the early church after the falling away.

I merely cited this one example of this departure into Catholicism. It is another innovation by the liberals which proves their greater disregard for scriptural authority and their lack of desire to maintain the church according to the identity and pattern of the New Testament. It’s not just one church involved in a sponsoring type arrangement. This involves a sponsoring church to create, construct a church council, a missionary society – another organization – apart from the church through which churches carry out their functions. And it is slowly, but surely growing. Other examples could be cited, but these are enough to let us see (and shudder) at the insidious danger of Catholicism lurking in the liberal churches of Christ.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 8, pp. 237-238, 240
April 19, 1984