History and Background of the Institutional Controversy (3)

By Steve Wolfgang

The Yellow Tag of Quarantine

Although discussions of these issues would persist and churches would continue to divide for at least another decade, by 1954 the editor of the Gospel Advocate was quite willing to entertain a motion that the “yellow tag of quarantine” (the stigma of which probably cannot be realized except by a generation which knew not antibiotics and the post-World War II “wonder drugs”) be hung on the door of the infested “antis” in order to contain their contagion.(1)

In such an environment, the pressure on other institutions (particularly the newer schools such as Florida Christian College) to “go along” and “line up” could be resisted only at great risk to the financial health and “brotherhood prestige” (read: ability to attract tuition paying students and potential donors) of its administration and faculty. Business ventures (such as the CEI bookstore, for example) were boycotted if the positions of their owners and operators were considered heterodox.

Nor were the pressures any less on churches, many of which at least partially rationalized a $10 or $20 monthly orphanage donation on the grounds of “showing that we’re not anti.” Deacons and church treasurers who dared to reveal reservations about church support of institutions are known to have been told either to write a check to an institution or resign and go elsewhere.

For that matter, individual preachers, too many to be merely anecdotal, have reported cancellation of meetings, threats of termination of job or outside support (“if you espouse such a doctrine you won’t have any place to preach”) and occasional firings from local congregations because they dared to preach (or to preach against a majority view) on such controversial subjects. “Confessions” of wayward souls who repented, recanted, and were reclaimed from the heresy of “anti-ism” were featured prominently in the Gospel Advocate and included a stellar cast: Earl West, Pat Hardeman, Hugo McCord, C.M. Pullias, John D. Cox, and a host of others.(2)

The list goes on: “no anti need apply” in solicitations for preachers: “the closest thing to an anti church in the New Testament was “Anti-och”; fertilizer bags waved from the pulpit; “James 1:27” and/or “Galatians 6:10” printed in church ads and painted on church signs dotting the landscape. Lawsuits over property disputes, paraded across the pages of daily metropolitan newspapers for all the unbelieving world to see, while not commonplace, were not unknown.(3) Instances of fisticuffs and scuffles in the lobby were not uncommon. Carnality and ugliness abounded.

In short, by the early 1960’s a clear message had been delivered to the minority tagged “anti” by the majority. Delivered with all the smug superiority and condescension of an older sibling, it said, “Go away, kid – you bother me.” As Filbeck has demonstrated in his chronicle of the missionary society controversies,(4) a similar mentality had evolved which was no longer willing to consider optional what had been first defended as mere expendiencies. The colleges, orphanages and other institutions appended to the churches now seemed to many to be indispensible – absolutely necessary – to the work of the church. Seen in this light, it was an easy step to elevate their value well above whatever questionable virtue the maintenance of fellowship with the cantankerous “antis” might possess. Noninstitutional brethren could be deemed expendable if they could not agree to go along and get along. Many seemed to believe their fellowship less valuable to the cause than the emerging network of colleges and other institutions erected and funded by the churches, ostensibly to the greater glory of God.

It is no doubt true that there may have been instances of non-institutional brethren who used “mirror logic,” vacating the premises before they were invited to leave, displaying rancorous attitudes in the process, heaping derision and vilification upon their “liberal” opponents. I am not arguing that non-institutional brethren always behaved themselves as they should; surely there is enough sin to go around in this or any other division. Whatever the case, the division over institutionalism was clearly induced by much moreAndamental causes than that some brethren on either side behaved themselves in a manner unbecoming to Christians – which is at least part of the reason why it will take more than simply “talking” orforming newfriendships with each other to heal this breach. Division did not come simply because brethren mistreated each other (though no doubt some did), but was due to much more basic causes. It will not be reversed unless and until those more fundamental problems are remedied.

And whatever may be said of the conduct of individuals of either persuasion, it is certainly true that the levers of brotherhood “power” were clearly with the institutional majority, and the message they sent, perceived by their non-institutional brethren was a rough equivalent of “Go play in the traffic.”

Separation, Growth and Development

And so they did. Despite the disdainful portrayals and reports of impending doom quoted at the beginning of this paper, “antiism” seems not to have perished from the earth just yet. A clearer, more objective view is provided by Bill Humble: “The most serious issue that churches of Christ have faced in this century is church cooperation and ‘institutionalism.’ Led by Roy Cogdill, Yater Tant, and the Gospel Guardian, a substantial number of churches have come to oppose such cooperative programs of evangelism as the Herald of Truth and the homes for orphans and aged, as they are presently organized. During the past 15 years many debates have been held, churches have divided, and fellowship has been broken. This is the most serious division, numberswise, that churches of Christ have suffered. Whether the division is final, or whether it can be healed, is yet to be determined.”(5)

Perhaps the note of hopeful optimism struck here was induced by the Arlington Meeting, conducted about the time Humble’s book was being written, and in which he participated. Although one can applaud the good intentions and positive tone of that meeting (the book which came from it is one of the best tools for study of this controversy), time has revealed, however, that Arlington accomplished little in healing division, restoring fellowship, or reversing any of the trends which produced the division in the first place.

I enter this section with trepidation, since what I propose to do is objectionable to some as an attempt to “number Israel” or “count the faithful” – thankless tasks which would perhaps be scripturally objectionable even if they were not impossible. Some have even objected to gatherings such as these as attempts to “line up” churches and brethren into groups or to promote a “we-consciousness” which might be viewed as a precursor to behaving like a sect. I share some of these concerns, but in an attempt to provide some dimensions to the problem, I venture the following information.

Brother Lynn has turned his energies in the last decade to the gathering of factual data about numbers of congregations, etc. Using some of his information, I am led to believe that as of 1987 there were approximately 1,959 congregations which could reasonably be identified as opposing centralization and cooperative endeavors in the work of the church. Although the number of members in those churches was not easily available. I put pencil to paper and, based on older data he provided me several years ago, calculated that the average membership in a “non-mainstream” church was a fraction less than 95 members per congregation (and a fraction larger, in fact, than the average for “mainstream” churches – which simply shows that aside from the “100 Largest Churches of Christ” which used to be listed occasionally in the Gospel Advocate’ it is apparent that the average churches on each side are quite similar to each other in size).(6)

Among the members of these churches, there is enough interest in religious journalism to support a number of papers which still reflect the non-institutional viewpoint. The largest of these are the monthlies Christianity and Searching the Scriptures with about 6500 and 5500 subscribers, respectively. Guardian of Truth (result of the 1981 merger of the Gospel Guardian and TRUTH Magazine), is issued twice monthly, has about 4500 subscribers, publishes books, tracts, and Bible class literature, and operates bookstores in Bowling Green, KY and Athens, AL. Other journals include Faith and Facts, Gospel Anchor, Sentry, and Torch, which are monthly or quarterly publications with smaller subscription lists.

Florida College, in suburban Tampa, is an accredited junior college which also offers a four-year Bible curriculum. Existing for years without soliciting or accepting contributions from churches, it is patronized largely by members of churches of Christ which oppose such church support of institutions. It currently enrolls 380 students from 35 states and seven foreign countries.(7)

A fairly popular feature in the training of younger preachers has been an “apprentice”-type relationship in which a congregation with an older preacher will employ a young man for a period of time (usually a year or so) to study with the older man, share preaching and teaching responsibilities, and “learn by doing.” Several congregations, notably in Washington, California, Kentucky and Florida, have had more extensive arrangements of “special classes” for the instruction and training of young men desiring to preach.

Although most churches of the non-institutional persuasion obviously do not participate in evangelistic projects such as Herald of Truth, various churches have for years maintained wide-area radio broadcasts on clear-channel stations (Arch Street in Little Rock, for example). Over the last fifteen years, however, a more popular approach has been.the proliferation of local “call-in” type programs on local radio (or, more recently, local cable TV outlets). Churches in several major metropolitan areas have found mass mailings of correspondence courses using city directories to “target” areas to be successful in reaching new converts.

In foreign evangelism, non-institutional churches have usually opted for other means than sending “American missionaries” overseas for extended periods (though non-institutional churches presently support about twenty such men in England, Ireland, Norway, West Germany, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and elsewhere). Sometimes foreign nationals are brought to the U.S. for a period of study and then supported for a period of time in their native culture by American churches (examples of men trained in this way include Canada, Australia, and other places). Other native preachers converted (either by Americans or foreign nationals trained in America) and working in their own culture are heavily supported by American churches. I would estimate that a fairly high percentage of non-institutional churches have supported men engaged in foreign evangelism.(8)

Obviously, churches of the non-institutional persuasion do not donate financially to benevolent institutions; instead, they have “practiced what they preached” and provided such care individually. In 1965, Eugene Britnell surveyed 60 preachers who opposed church support of institutional orphan homes and accumulated a list of 450 orphans and widows cared for by such Christians (“Our Defense to Those Who Falsely Accuse Us”). In documentation assembled for the Willis-Inman Debate (1966), Cecil Willis gathered information demonstrating that 17 children had been adopted or cared for by the faculty at Florida College, which at that time consisted of about 25 families; and that the eight families represented by the editorial staff of the Gospel Guardian had provided homes at one time or another for at least ten children who were not the natural offspring of those families. (This is perhaps also the place to notice that a reading of the Advocate and Firm Foundation for 1958-1962 demonstrates that the “institutional” brethren came very near fragmenting themselves over whether orphanages could be organized under a corporate board or must be overseen directly by elders of a church.)

Current Perceptions

As I prepared for this meeting, it occurred to me that some attempt to gauge how the non-institutional brethren see their counterparts among the institutional churches might prove useful. To that end, I mailed more than 100 questionnaires to various preachers, elders, and members of my acquaintance from coast to coast. As I explained earlier, I make no claim for it as a scientific polling device, but I received about 50 completed questionnaires from people in fifteen states, who took the time to share with me their perceptions of the past controversy, the current state of affairs, how they felt about the past, present and future of the churches embracing the two persuasions, and where they feel the “institutional” churches are headed. As time permits, I would like to share some of their reactions with you.(9)

As one might expect, they were not generally appreciative of institutional brethren, although when I asked them to list what they saw as positive features of institutional churches, most listed zeal, sincere willingness to reach the lost, and similar traits. Several of the preachers who personally participated in this controversy observed that (in the words of one who says he “was one of the first gospel preachers to be ‘fired’ because of my stand on the issues”), “we could have been more temperate and patient with those with whom we differed.”

Most reported little, if any, contact with institutional brethren, although one older preacher in the West reported that “I have had a pleasant relationship with ____________. We have coffee together and have discussed our differences. We have mutually shared problems which are experienced in both liberal and conservative camps. . . . I see no hope for [unity] if we mutually isolate ourselves from all communication.” But a California preacher’s comment is typical of several responses: “The more ‘conservative-liberals’ don’t seem to be as susceptible to discussions. Still seem to have the attitude promoted by the Gospel Advocate of ‘ignore them, don’t acknowledge them, and they’ll go away!. . . Most of those who reported having discussions with institutional brethren found them amiable, despite the common notion that discussions promote disharmony. One well-known conservative preacher opined, “When we pull in our horns and show kindness and less disagreeableness, they generally are more receptive.” But most seemed to be of the opinion that “bad attitudes” or “hot-headedness” were not major factors in the controversy, and certainly not the basic reasons which produced division.

Many respondents seemed frustrated that most institutional preachers did not, in their opinion, seem to realize what it is that disturbs the “conservatives.” One young conservative preacher reported initiating informal discussions with an older “institutional” preacher who has had at least one formal debate on these issues. The older preacher admitted “not fully understanding” any distinction between the individual and the church, and reported “never getting bro. Turner’s point about the church not being composed of congregations” – both points which to conservative brethren seem basic and fundamental. But perhaps more than anything else, the respondents registered an air of resignation borne of their past experiences that nothing much has changed even in the best of circumstances; that institutional brethren seemed, in their experience, totally unwilling to yield in their allegience to their institutions. One Florida preacher, in a discussion with the superintendent of a church-supported orphanage, asked, “If all the money you are now receiving from churches could be replaced by money from individual contributions, would you take your hand out of the church treasuries and thus stop the division of churches over this matterT He answered no, he would not.”

When asked where they see the institutional brethren heading, most responded by noting the growing fissures evident among brethren who have been united in the past in their support of institutions. Many agreed in essence with the analysis of one young preacher who left an institutional church after attending both Lipscomb and Harding Graduate School, and who from that perspective predicted, “they must divide – they are already divided in many cases. Their differences between one another are too great for them to continue to work together.” One Texas preacher noted specifically that “the more liberal element in institutionalism continues to control highly visible institutions (colleges, etc.). The more conservative element in institutionalism is being left behind and is trying to form a coalition through lectureships and journals. Yet some of the most vocal conservatives are amazingly tolerant in having fellowship with the more liberal element.”


1. B.C. Goodpasture, “An Elder Writes,” Gospel Advocate 96:46 (November 18,1954, p. 906; and “They Commend the Elder Who Wrote,” Gospel Advocate 96:49 (December 9, 1954), p. 962; Cecil B. Douthitt, “The Yellow Tag of Quarantine,” Gospel Guardian 6:35 (January 13, 1955), p. 1.

2. See Earl West, “A Statement and an Explanation,” Gospel Advocate September 19, 1957, p. 594, and other statements in succeeding issues over the following year.

3. See James P. Needham, The Truth About the Trouble at Taylor Boulevard (Louisville, KY, privately published, 1964). That the old “fertilizer-on-the-yard” argument is alive and well is readily apparent in Furman Kearley, “By All Means Save Some,” Gospel Advocate 130:11 (November 1988), p. 5.

4. Filbeck, The First Fifty Years, 36-46.

5. Humble, Story of the Restoration, p. 74. The note of cautious optimism struck here may be due to the Arlington Meeting, held about the time Humble’s book was written and in which he participated. However, the positive tone produced by Arlington was short-lived. An attempt at a follow-up meeting at Leakey, TX a year later produced the following exchange: One preacher said, ‘Give us the Scripture authorizing the things you are doing and advocating; that is all we ask.’ A prominent preacher retorted, ‘Give us Scripture! Give us Scripture! You can teach an old green parrot to say “Give us Scripture.” That is all you fellows say.’ I was amazed! . . . Some churches could surely use an old green parrot to cry out, ‘Give us Scripture! Give us Scripture!’ . . . Few preachers are saying it” (Joe Fitch, “An Old Green Parrot,” in Plain Talk [Oaks-West Church of Christ, Burnet, TX] 6:2 [April, 1969], p. 3; see Robert F. Turner, “That Leakey Meeting,” Plain Talk 5:12 [February, 1969], p. 2).

6. The Guardian of Truth Directory of Churches of Christ 1989 lists approximately 2,265 congregations in the United States; other information from Mac Lynn to Steve Wolfgang, September 29, 1987 (letter and enclosures: “Statistical Summary” and “Congregational Character” for 1987 edition of Where the Saints Meet); 1981 data reported in Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., “Reasons for Optimism Regarding Prospects for Church Growth,” Gospel-Advocate 123:11 (June 4, 1981), p. 327. The figures for average members per congregation are 94.97 for all “Churches of Christ” (12,706 congregations with 1,206,799 members), with the average for “mainstream” churches (10,165 congregations with 965,439 members) marginally smaller than those for “non-mainstream” churches (2,541 congregations with 241,330 members). Figures for 1997 indicate 13,364 total “churches of Christ” with 1,275,533 members; noninstitutional churches number 1,959 (about 15 percent of the total congregations claiming to be “churches of Christ”; no-class and one-cup churches comprise 1085 congregations. For a discussion of various aspects of “counting the Christians” see Mac Lynn, “The 100 Largest,” Gospel Advocate 121:22 (May 31, 1979), 344345; Carl W. Wade, “Where Are We Now?” Firm Foundation 96:42 (October 16, 1979), p. 659; and periodic issues of Mac Lynn’s Missions Bulletin, issued from 1977-1987 by White Station and Ross Road Churches, Memphis, TN.

7. Florida College News Bulletin, October 1988, p. 1. The congregation at Danville, KY for a number of years has offered special training classes, taught by the local preacher, one of the elders, and other preachers. About 75 men have been in the program; many of them are now preaching in fifteen states was well as Canada, Mexico, South America, Spain, and West Germany.

8. For current information on various aspects of foreign evangelism by non-institutional churches, see Sewell Halls monthly columns in Christianity published monthly at Jacksonville, FL).

9. In order to encourage the respondents to speak as candidly as possible, I promised that no one would be quoted by name. It is clear, however, that both my questions and many of my respondents’ answers have been heavily influenced by the historical interpretation advanced by Ed Harrell. Anyone who really wants to understand the conservative mentality of non-institutional brethren needs to read, for example, “The Emergence of the Church of Christ Denomination” (reprinted many times as a tract; originally in Gospel Guardian 18:40, 41, 42 [February 16, 23 and March 2, 1967); “Some Practical Observations on the Middle of the Road,” Gospel Guardian 20 (September 5, 1968), 273-278; “Emergence of the Church of Christ Denomination Update,” Vanguard 5:2 (January 25, 1979); and Harrell’s 1981 Florida College lecture on B.C. Goodpasture, op. cit.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 9, pp. 272-275
May 4, 1989