By Morris W. R. Bailey
Having pointed out in a previous article that the concept of a universal church government ultimately led to the rise of the papal office, I shall now show that it was the concept of activating the universal church in the field of evangelism that led to the formation of the missionary society of a hundred and twenty-five years ago, with the resultant division that in turn produced the Christian church.
Strange as it seems, the missionary society was, in a large measure, the “brain child” of Alexander Campbell. Students of restoration history have speculated much as to the apparent inconsistency of his arguments favoring the society, in the light of previously made statements concerning the all-sufficiency of the church. One thing seems evident, and that is that Campbell never became completely divorced from the concept of associations. Taking a charitable view of his actions, we may suggest that he was studying his way out of denominationalism, and probably did not have the clear perception of things that others have later had. Someone has said that, pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants can see farther than the giants themselves can.
Be that as it may, the principle on which Campbell sought to justify the formation of the society was that of universal church action. His reasoning was that no one congregation had the resources nor the ability to evangelize the world. Such a program, he reasoned, must be the result of the joint effort of all congregations. Typical of his thinking in this regard he wrote.
“Now if Christ’s kingdom consists of ten thousand families, or churches-particular distinct, and independent communities–how are they to act in concert, maintain unity or interests, or cooperate in any system of conservation or enlargement, unless by consultation and systematic cooperation? I affirm it to be, in my humble opinion, and from years of observation and experience impossible” (from Millennial Harbinger, Feb., 1842).
From the above quotation, and others, it is evident that Alexander Campbell based his reasoning on two mistaken premises.
1. Speaking (correctly) of the church universal as the kingdom, he assumed (incorrectly) that it was composed of all the local congregations in the aggregate.
2. Assuming that God had given no pattern for church cooperation, he thus concluded that men were free to form their own pattern whereby congregations could cooperate with one another in preaching the gospel. Out of this reasoning the American Christian Missionary Society was organized in 1849.
Had Campbell’s premises been correct there would be no doubt as to the validity of his conclusion. But he was wrong in thinking of the church universal (or kingdom) as being composed of all local congregations in the aggregate. As a kingdom its membership is made up of individual citizens (Eph. 2:19; Phil. 3:20). As the body of Christ it is composed of individual members (Romans 12:4,5; 1 Cor. 12:12,27). As the house (family) of God its membership is those who are “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26).
Campbell was likewise wrong in his assumption that God had left men free to provide whatever organization for the cooperation of local churches seemed most expedient. A fact overlooked by him and all other proponents of such universal church action is that God provided organization for the local congregation. He not only ordained that there be elders in every church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5), but he also ordained that they were to be chosen with care, and laid down specific qualifications that must be met by those aspiring to be elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). While these qualifications have been the occasion for much discussion, and while they set a high standard, they are not such as to place the office of an elder out of reach. This is obvious from the fact that Paul and Barnabas, on the return part of the first missionary journey, appointed elders in churches that were comparatively young.
This raises a question that was overlooked by Campbell and all others whose reasoning has led them to conclude that God left man free to devise and form a universal or general organization to coordinate the work of thousands of local congregations. The question: Does it not seem strange that God, who gave specific organization to the local congregation (Phil. 1:1), and required specific qualifications of its officers, left it to the wisdom of man to determine the type of universal organization necessary to coordinate the efforts (whether evangelistic or benevolent) of thousands of local congregations, and to determine the qualifications of its officers? Strange indeed!
God’s Wisdom — Through the Church
To the Ephesians Paul wrote that, ‘To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God; according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10, 11).
Paul thus taught that the church is the culmination of God’s eternal purpose, and manifests his divine wisdom. That wisdom is especially seen as it relates to its autonomous feature, with elders in every congregation, whose oversight is limited to that congregation. Some things to be considered are:
1. In every congregation actively engaged in the Lord’s work there will be day to day decisions regarding its various activities that must be made by its overseers (elders). Who is better qualified to make those decisions than men of similar cultural backgrounds and living under similar conditions to the backgrounds and conditions of those being overseen? How could a man, or group of men, living in Rome, or Constantinople, or London effectively and efficiently oversee a congregation. located in the United States, or Canada? How could such do the work that God has committed to elders? How could they feed the local congregation, as is required of its elders (Acts 20:28)? How could they “exhort in sound doctrine and convict the gainsayer” (Titus 3:9), from a distance of possibly thousands of miles? How could they administer discipline, as is sometimes required of the local congregation (1 Cor. 5:4, 5)? And how could they effectively and efficiently oversee the distribution of any necessary benevolence as was done by elders in New Testament times (Acts 11:29,30)? All these, and any other activities of a congregation can be most effectively overseen and administered by men of that congregation, familiar with local conditions.
2. Another fact, often overlooked, in connection with autonomous government of the local congregation, is that of the possible (we may say, even probable) effect of any apostasy that might occur. The corruption of a universal form of church government would, in all probability result in the apostasy of the church, universal. Of this, the Roman Catholic church is a prime example. There, the pope, being the supreme head dictates the policies of that body. Every Roman Catholic, and every Catholic congregation throughout the world is obligated to accept and abide by his decrees.
While autonomous government of the local congregation does not insure against apostasy in that congregation, it does serve to localize its pernicious influence, and renders it less likely that other congregations will be corrupted. Paul foretold the coming apostasy of some of the elders of the church at Ephesus. He said, “I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29,30). Their corrupting influence would be confined, for the most part, to the church at Ephesus.
In the second and third chapters of Revelation John was writing to seven churches of Asia (Rev. 1:4). Some of those churches, especially Sardis and Laodicea, had become corrupted (Rev. 3:2,16). But their condition, displeasing as it was to the Lord, had not effected the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia against whom Jesus brought no criticism.
Thus we have shown that just as the concept of universal church government eventually culminated in the papal system, so the concept of universal church action in evangelism was responsible for another apostasy that sabotaged the restoration movement early in its history and led to the formation of what is known as the. Christian church, some branches of which have openly identified themselves with the denominational world.
In an article to follow I propose to point out that the concept of universal church action is responsible, in a large degree for many current promotions among brethren.
Truth Magazine XXI: 45, pp. 710-711
November 17, 1977