By Morris W. R. Bailey
Having pointed out in my 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, I now propose to point out its counterpart in
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 in which the resources of a number of local congregations are centralized under some such arrangement as a sponsoring church in evangelism, or a benevolent society in the care of orphans and widows. Such arrangements are based on the same concept of universal church action. So, paradoxical as it appears, brethren rejecting the missionary society itself have adopted the premise which gave it birth.
Alexander Campbell, as pointed out in the previous article, conceived of the kingdom (church universal) as being composed of all local congregations in the aggregate. A few brethren, today, with some variation in the terms used, have adopted basically the same argument. Using Paul’s reference to the church as the body of Christ, with many members thereof (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 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 that has been made 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 of Christ are local congregations. So the only difference is that sectarians make denominations the members of the universal church, while brethren make local congregations the members. Of course neither are right, for the members of the body of Christ (or church universal) are neither denominations nor local congregations, but individual Christians.
Consider these facts: Before Pentecost in 33 A.D., the kingdom, or church, was preached as being 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 the saved being added to it day by day (Acts 2:47). But on the day of Pentecost, and for some time afterward, there was but one local congregation in existence — the church at Jerusalem. Was the church in the universal sense (composed of all the saved) in existence? Was Christ head over all things to the body (Eph. 1:22,23) on Pentecost? Or was it just a member of the body that was set up that day? And was the body of Christ (the church) formed, just one member at a time as new congregations were established? When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof” (1 Cor. 12:27), did he mean that they were members of the church universal, or just members of -a member of the universal church?
Admissions of Universal Church Action
That current cooperative movements with benevolent institutions operated by boards of directors through which many congregations do their benevolent work involve the concept of universal church action has been admitted by some who have been deeply involved in the defense of at least some of the modern orphan homes. As an example, Brother Roy Lanier, Sr., who claimed to occupy a middle-of-the-road position in regard to current issues, wrote a series of articles under that heading in the Firm Foundation a number of years ago in which he strongly opposed the building and church support of orphan homes which were separate and apart from the church and operated by the 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 local church.
That Brother Lanier believed that such homes under a board was universal church action is seen in a paragraph quoted from the above article:
“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 above quotation that Brother Lanier paralleled the benevolent societies of today with their boards of directors 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 men. Both are chartered organizations, with a president and board of directors. And both serve as a means for an unlimited number of congregations to pool their financial resources in doing work assigned to the church.
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. The only difference is that in the area of benevolence the central agency is a corporate institution under a board of directors, while in evangelism the central agency is a local congregation under elders who have assumed more authority than God ever gave them. Of this, the Herald of Truth is a prime example. Sponsored by the Highland church at Abilene, Texas, it is the central agency through which some two thousand local congregations cooperate in the field of evangelism via 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 above quotations it is plainly obvious that Highland church considers the Herald of Truth to be her own exclusive work. In the Tant-Harper debate Brother Harper said that if you can figure out who is paying for the program you will know whose program it is. The inference he left 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 requires the contributions of those hundreds of other congregations without which the program could not continue. Does not that fact make the Herald of Truth program the work of the contributing congregations as well as Highland’s?
And that was the position taken by Guy N. Woods in the Cogdill-Woods debate at Birmingham, Alabama. Twice, on pages 194 and 237, he said that the program was the work of all the contributing congregations, with Highland church having the oversight thereof. This only serves to pinpoint the fact that insofar as the Herald of Truth is concerned, Highland elders are functioning not just as elders of a local work, but of a brotherhood work and therefore 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 influence 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.
So to paraphrase the words of Brother Roy Lamer quoted earlier: “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 organizing a sponsoring congregation?”
Some of the defenders of the Herald of Truth have been able to see the danger that inheres in one congregation, or group of elders becoming the medium for a brotherhood work. Some three or four years ago when the program had fallen upon evil days with the control having passed into the hands of a committee, one of its former defenders, Ira Rice, Jr. said, “Do you recall just a few years ago, when some of us used to wonder 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 is no longer unthinkable. The unthinkable has happened.”
Congregational Action: The New Testament Pattern
In contrast to the colossal, and sometimes grandiose programs that men have set in action today, the work that God has assigned to the church was done in New Testament times by local congregations, each working under the oversight of its elders. That they cooperated in programs that sometimes exceeded the financial ability of any one congregation is not denied. But it was a cooperation that recognized the independence of each congregation.
1. Churches of Macedonia and Achaia and Galatia cooperated in sending relief to brethren in Judea where there was a famine (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1.) No benevolent society was formed through which those churches functioned. Nor is there any evidence that any of the receiving churches acted as a sponsoring church for the others. Each church raised its own contribution, and selected 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 is there any evidence that any congregation acted as “the 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 Philippi’s contribution to Paul (Phil. 4:15,16) said,
“Here 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 authorized the 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: 47, pp. 748-749
December 1, 1977