By Ron Halbrook
“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 from the world” (Jas. 1:27). This passage tells “himself” or “oneself” (AV) the personal responsibility which he has to help the needy. During the battle over church-sponsored institutions, this passage has been used to justify churches building, maintaining, and sending donations to institutions which care for the needy. Detailed arguments have been made on the passage, pro and con, but sometimes a man’s experience in life gives him insight into what a passage teaches-and why.
In 1926, brother Carson Isenberg’s father died, leaving a wife and six children. Individual Christians in the Mud Lick (Tompkinsville), Kentucky area aided this family in their needs for about three years. They brought corn, sacks of flour, and other staples of life from time to time, visiting the fatherless and a widow in their desperation. Finally, someone proposed that the children be put in Potter’s Orphan Home at Bowling Green, Kentucky and just let a nearby church send about $10.00 per month in order to visit the fatherless and widows! So, about 1929-30 brother Isenberg stayed at Potters for six months; he was ten years old. The children were split up according to age. Carson remembers that when the officials were too busy to give leis three-year-old brother personal attention, they kept him out of trouble by penning his gown under a bed post.
After several boys had run away and been returned, the officials called everyone together and offered to send anyone home who was thinking about running away. Carson knew that his physical needs were being met but also knew that institutional care was no substitute for mother and home. Seeing an opportunity to return to his loved ones, he claimed that he was considering running away. He then lived with his grandparents, while his other brothers and sisters stayed at Potters.
Carson Isenberg obeyed the gospel in 1952 and about ten years later began to face the institutional controversy. Although he had never thought these problems out before, the expression, “Let not the church be charged,” kept coming to his mind. But something else made an even deeper impression on his conscience. “I looked at what the Christians started out doing around Mud Lick and at what they ended up doing. They took their individual duty and shifted it to Potters Orphan Home, with the idea of letting the church send periodic donations of money. The individuals who started out visiting the fatherless and widows as James 1:27 teaches ended up not visiting the fatherless and widows. ” Brother Isenberg saw that institutionalism was destroying the personal dedication and service of Christians. In view of his own experience, such a movement could have no attraction to him. “Once we were in the Orphan Home, not a one of the people who had been helping us ever came to see us.” Fortunately, the church in question repudiated institutionalism some years later.
We have been told over and over for the last 25 years that James 1:27 tells us the responsibility and that we may choose any way, method, means, or expediency to discharge it. The work and function of the human institution is “how” the church fulfills its duty, we are told. No, actually, the human institution is selecting its own “how” and the church is sending donations to finance the institution, while individual Christians are relieved of the work which they must do to be pure and undefiled. These church-supported human institutions are not the “How” of James 1:27. They are rather the “how” in how to not visit the fatherless and widows.
When brethren lose the spirit of zeal, sacrifice, and unselfishness, they lose interest in pure and undefiled religion. They pass to the church that work which belongs not to the church but to themselves. Rather than do that work, the church then passes the buck to some human organization. This is how to not practice pure and undefiled religion. This is how to look into the perfect law of liberty and how to not continue therein. How to visit the needy is not the problem. The problem is that some brethren have learned how to not visit!
Truth Magazine XXII: 44, pp. 714-715
November 9, 1978