Institutionalism: From Catholic Origin

By Lee Rogol


At the very beginning of this series of articles, I pointed out that I wanted to approach the current issues (sponsoring churches, Committees or “Church Councils”, and institutionalism) from a different viewpoint. Being a former Adventist, I keep abreast of the developments within that denomination. There is quite a stir among them over the very things that came into and divided churches of Christ. These are the very things Adventists are now objecting to, and in numerous cases, dividing over. Since many in that denomination realize these things as unscriptural, let their objections be a lesson to the liberal churches that are practicing the very things even the denomination realizes is unscriptural.

We observed that many Adventists object to the hierarchal system of church government, the General Conference, and they present valid arguments that such a hierarchal arrangement is of Catholic origin. We observed that “hierarchy” among Catholics and Adventists, and “sponsoring” churches/elders are the same in design and function.

Now I wish to deal with Institutionalism and use the same basis for my arguments against this arrangement. There are several things we must observe about institutionalism. First, brethren, not God, set up these institutions through which churches carry out their work in benevolence and other functions. (And most of the work is not the work of the church in the first place.) Next, it is interesting to note that institutionalism found its origin in Catholicism. You don’t read of any institution in the New Testament as an adjunct to the church. This is the same as sponsoring churches and “Committees,” which in reality are the same as “Church Councils” of the early centuries in church history.

Adventists Condemn Institutionalism

It is interesting to note that the very objections many Adventists have to institutionalism are the very same we’ve been trying to point out to our liberal brethren for many years. They didn’t listen to us, so just maybe they’ll take heed to what a denominationalists has to say about it. If not, then our liberal brethren are defending the very thing many Adventists find unscriptural in their denomination. Will liberal brethren continue to defend what even denominationalists know is wrong? And all the liberal promotions among churches of Christ were “borrowed from” denominations when they first began to appear among us.

In Judged By The Gospel, Robert Brinsmead (a prominent Adventist minister for many years), makes several critical attacks on the institutions among them. Before going further, let me say that Brinsmead has abandoned Sabbath keeping. But this has no affect on what he has written, for he wrote it long before he gave up the Sabbath. So Adventists have no grounds to discount his statement because he was then writing as a sincere Adventist. On page 275 he wrote: “. . . we need to acknowledge some of the dangerous tendencies in Adventists institutionalism.” (This deals with their schools, hospitals and charitable organizations, as well as publishing houses.) Notice further:

In the first place, the same identification of the organization with the church which marked the development of the Roman Catholic system, has, to a large extent taken place in Adventism (p. 275)

Notice how Mr. Brimsmead points out the deteriorating effects of institutionalism on the church:

Institutionalism does not always encourage the aggressive spirit of a movement …. Nearly all the money and talent is drained from the little churches and conveyed to these centers, while many little churches are impoverished and ready to die (p. 276).

Institutionalism is also associated with another crippling tendency. This is the development of a top-heavy, nonproductive resource consuming bureaucracy. Religious institutions are not immune to the tendency to become self-perpetuating bureaucracies whose primary concern is their own safety, aggrandizement and glory. As the bureaucracy expands, more and more of the church’s resources are consumed by administration, and very little actually reaches the “front lines” (p. 278).

Quotation From Still Another Denominational Leader

. . . something is seriously wrong with modern Christianity …. History indicates that all movements tend to become institutionalized. This is what happened to the religious movements of the past, and the modern religious movement will be no exception (A Quest For Vitality In Religion, Edge, F.E.; pref. pp. 9-10).

Although this author is a denominationalist (not an adventist), he hit the nail on the head in his observation. He realized that “something is wrong with modern Christianity” and connected it with “institutionalized” religion. This author further pointed out that people become more stirred up and involved in social or political matters than in religious. People become more loyal and dedicated to a political system or party, or to a social problem then they do to Christ and spiritual obligations. So, Christians build their institutions to do what they should do as an individual duty, and thus they feel satisfied that they have fulfilled their obligations by letting these institutions do their work for them.

One of our own brethren (who defends the very thing in practice which he opposes in his writing) analyzed the same danger signal of digression.

At the close of the apostolic age, when the last apostle had died, the church was known only by the individual congregations scattered over the world. The work of Christ through the church was carried on through the influence of the local church in its community. Even in apostolic times the church felt no need of an organization devised by human planning, through which the church could cooperate to evangelize the world. They had a fervency and zeal, and history of the church has well shown that the less zeal and devotion there is in the church, the more institutionalism and human organizations are needed (Search For The Ancient Order, West, E.I. Vol. 1, pp. 169-170; all emphasis mine – LR).

Thus, what I fail to do is not so obvious because, on an institutional scale, I can say, “Look what we are doing.” Because we have a huge institutional machine, I can be lulled into a false sense of security and pride in failing as an individual because “we” – the institution is doing the work that needs to be done. As Mr. Brinsmead pointed out that the more these institutions take over the work, the weaker the denominational church becomes, so brother West quoted David Lipscomb’s observation along the same line: “When the Society prospers, the congregations become inactive, allowing the work to be taken over by these human organizations” (Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 59).

Crossroads: A Threat To Institutionalism

The liberals fear and oppose the Crossroads Movement with a passion. It is not because the Crossroads church is so liberal. Many liberal churches are as far out in liberalism as the Crossroads church. So they do not oppose Crossroads because of their liberalism, but because it presents a serious threat to their great institutions. I really believe this is why the liberals fear the Crossroads movement.

I am not defending Crossroads any more than I am defending liberalism in other churches. But they are getting far better results than other liberals do through their institutions. I truly believe the liberals fear the Crossroads movement because it is a threat to these institutions which take over the individual responsibility of each member. Members, who have no zeal, give their work over to their institutions fear that the work and objection of Crossroads is a real threat to the existence of their institutions. So, destroy the Crossroads and preserve “our institutions.”

The evil that sponsoring churches/elders and institutionalism creates is pride, power struggle seeking preeminence and control. The wider in area the sponsoring program, the more prominence and prestige is given to the sponsor. This, in turn, exalts the pride of men seeking preeminence which makes their lust for power and control more determined. Institutional orphans’ homes have their superintendents, managers, directors, etc. Do away with these institutions and these power structures would fall to pieces like the great image of Daniel 2.

Of course, Crossroads finds its supreme power in Chuck Lukas, of the Crossroads church in Gainesville, Florida. But still, the Crossroads concept is that each member devotes about all his time in active evangelism. And this is where the threat to sponsoring churches/elders and institutions lies. This is the conflict between the individual effort of each member dedicated to evangelism and institutional efforts and arrangements is the clash between Crossroads and institutional brethren.

If all the liberal brethren would accept the Crossroads method, it would be the end of sponsoring churches and institutions. And those in prominent positions would lose their power and glory. And thus they oppose Crossroads. As I said, the ultimate power of Crossroads lies in Chuck Lukas. But as a movement, it is on a broad scale of personal commitment to the work that the sponsoring churches/elders and institutions fear and oppose so strongly. They fear that the individual efforts under the Crossroads program is bringing more results than institutionalized religious arrangements. The more effective and wide-spread Crossroads becomes, the more institutional brethren fear they will lose their influence and control over the churches across the land. So actually, the conflict is not over scriptural issues, but over a deadly competition, for self-preservation.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 9, pp. 261-262
May 3, 1984