By Morris W. R. Bailey
Having pointed out in a previous article that the concept of universal church action was, in a great degree, responsible for the introduction of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849, with Alexander Campbell as its first president, we now turn our attention to
Modern Cooperative Movements
Some one has said that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. Whether it is through ignorance of history, or ignorance of the Bible, or both, the fact is that history is being repeated today in modern cooperative movements, since they are, for the most part, based on the same concept of universal church action as brought the missionary society into existence. Paradoxical as it appears, brethren rejecting the missionary society itself have adopted the premise on which it was founded.
Campbell, as pointed out in the previous article, conceived of the kingdom (church universal) as being composed of all local congregations in the aggregate. Many brethren today, with some variation of terms used, have adopted basically the same argument, Using Paul’s reference to the church as the body of Christ with many members (Rom. 12:4, 5. 1 Cor. 12:12), the argument has been made that the body of Christ which is the church universal is made up of all the local congregations.
Over the years brethren have met and answered the old sectarian argument based on the vine and the branches (John 15:5). The argument made by sectarians is that the vine is the church universal (they call it the invisible church), and the branches are the various denominations. Now we have brethren making basically the same argument in that they tell us that the members of the body are local congregations. So the only difference is that sectarians make denominations the members of the universal church, and brethren make local congregations the members. But neither are right, for the members of the body of Christ (church universal) are neither denominations, nor local congregations, but individual disciples.
Consider these facts. Before Pentecost 33 A. D. the kingdom, or church, was preached as at hand (Matt. 3:1,2. Luke 10:9). But following the first gospel sermon preached on Pentecost we find the church in existence, with people being added to it (Acts 2:47). But on that day, and for some time afterward, there was but one local congregation in existence-the church at Jerusalem. Was the body of Christ (church universal) in existence? Was Christ head over all things to the body (Eph. 1:22,23)? Or was it just a member of the body that was set up that day? Was the body of Christ formed, just one member (local congregation) at a time? And when Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and several members thereof” (1 Cor. 12:27), did he mean that they were members of the church universal, or just members of one member of the universal church?
Admissions Of Universal Church Action
That the current cooperative movements, with benevolent institutions operated by boards of directors, through which many churches do their benevolent work, function on the concept of universal church action, has been admitted even by some who are deeply involved in the defense of some of the modern orphan homes. As an example, one writer, who claimed to occupy a middle-of-the-road position on current issues, opposed the building and church support of orphan homes separate and apart from the church, and operated by a board of directors from various parts of the country. His position was, that such homes, to be scriptural, must be under the elders of the church.
That this brother believed that such homes under a board were universal church action is seem in a statement taken from an article in the Firm Foundation of March, 1957.
“But if some say that these homes are avenues through which the universal church takes care of the needy, I ask for the authority to activate the universal church. If it was sinful for the brethren of a century ago to activate the universal church in forming the missionary society, why is it now right to activate the universal church in forming a benevolent society?”
It is thus obvious from the foregoing quotation that this brother paralleled the benevolent societies of today with the missionary society of a hundred years ago in that they were both a means of activating the universal church, In this he was correct. Both are human institutions, devised by the wisdom of man. , Both are chartered organizations. Both serve as a means for an unlimited number of churches to function through them in doing work assigned to the church.
The argument of this brother, however, loses much of its force since the homes that he defends also have their boards. The only difference then between the homes he defends and the homes he opposes is that the homes that he defends are under the elders of the church. They are, however, also under a board as is evident from their charters. So if the homes under a board that he opposes constitute universal church action, so do the homes that he defends.
The Sponsoring Church – Universal Church Action
The same principle of universal church action has been followed, though not openly admitted, in the sponsoring church concept of evangelism. Of this, the Herald of Truth is a prime example. Sponsored by the Highland church at Abilene, Texas it has become the central agency through which some two or three thousand congregations function in the field of evangelism by means of radio and television. Highland church claims to have complete control over the program. In a brochure published by Highland church early in the history of the program, they said, “The Herald of Truth program is the work of Fifth and Highland church . . . the elders of this congregation direct and oversee every phase of this work from the preparation of these sermons to mailing copies of these sermons.” In another statement of policy in the same brochure they said, “Questions and criticisms are welcomed, but since this is. a work of Highland congregation, to maintain its autonomy or independence the elders must make the decisions.”
From the foregoing quotations it is plainly obvious that Highland church considers the Herald of Truth to be exclusively her own work. In the Tant-Harper debate E.R. Harper said that if you can figure out who is paying for the program you will know whose program it is. The inference was that Highland was paying for the program. But the fact is that Highland was not then and is not now paying for the program. It takes the contributions of those thousands of other congregations, and without which the program could not continue. Does not that make it the work of the supporting congregations as well as Highland’s?
That was the position of Guy N. Woods in the Cogdill Woods Debate. Twice-on pages 194 & 237-he said that the program was the work of all the contributing churches with Highland church having the oversight. This does not help the case one bit, and in fact serves to pin-point the fact that insofar as the Herald of Truth is concerned, Highland elders are functioning as brotherhood elders, and to that degree universal elders. They may deny it, but their denial reminds me of the story of the man who came home one night much the worse for alcohol. When his wife chided him for being drunk, he replied, “I may be a bit under the alfluence of alcohol, but I’m not as think as you drunk I am.” His denial of being drunk was contradicted by his actions. And when elders begin overseeing a brotherhood work they become brotherhood elders in spite of any denials.
Some of the defenders of the Herald of Truth have been able to see the inherent danger in one church or group of elders, becoming the medium for a brotherhood work. Some three or four years ago when the program had fallen on evil days with the control of the program passing into the hands of a committee, one of its former defenders said, “Do you recall just a few years ago, when some of us used to ponder whatever would happen to the churches of Christ if the forces of error should ever get hold of the Herald of Truth? I can just hear the anti-cooperationists rising up as one man to chide ‘I told you so’. However, brethren, it no longer is unthinkable. The unthinkable has happened.”
Congregational Action – The New Testament Pattern
In contrast to the colossal, and sometimes complicated, programs that men have set in motion today, the work that God has assigned to the church was done in New Testament times by local congregations, each under the oversight of its elders. That they cooperated in programs that exceeded the ability of any one congregation is not denied. But it was a cooperation that recognized and honored the independence of each congregation. Two examples will suffice.
1. Churches of Macedonia and Achaia and Galatia cooperated in sending relief to famine-stricken saints at Jerusalem (Romans 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1). No benevolent society was formed through which those congregations functioned. Each church raised its own contribution, and chose its own messengers to carry the relief to its destination (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:23).
2. Churches cooperated in evangelism. A number of churches sent wages to Paul while he labored at Corinth (2 Cor. 10:8). No missionary society was formed, nor did any church act as a “sponsoring church.” Each church sent its contribution by its own messenger (2 Cor. 10:9; Phil. 2:25).
We close this article with a quotation with which we heartily concur. In the Gospel Advocate Annual Lesson Commentary, page 341, Guy N. Woods, in commenting on the Philippian church’s contribution to Paul (Phil. 4:15,16), said,
“Hear too, we see the simple manner in which the church at Philippi joined with Paul in the work of preaching the gospel. There was no ‘missionary society’ in evidence, and none was needed. The brethren simply raised the money and sent it directly to Paul. This is the way that it should be done today. No organization was needed to accomplish the work the Lord has authorized his church to do. When men become dissatisfied with God’s arrangement and set up one of their own, they have already crossed the threshold of apostasy. Let us be satisfied with the Lord’s manner of doing things.”
To which we say a hearty, Amen.
Truth Magazine XXI: 46, pp. 727-728
November 24, 1977