By Ron Halbrook
III. Apostasy Through Centralization
A. Danger of Apostasy. If we are disciples of Christ, we cannot substitute some other pattern for his own pattern of independent and autonomous churches, each overseeing its own work. When elders advocate a different practice, they speak “perverse things” which lead men away from Christ in the name of following him (Acts 20:30). When preachers defend another practice, they “depart from the faith” and fail their mission to “preach the word” and to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:1; 1:3; 2 Tim. 4:2). Brethren who follow such elders and preachers are following blind guides – “both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14).
B. Pattern of Centralization. Over and over in history, the people of God have proven themselves vulnerable to the temptation to centralize their work. In the pattern of apostasy, Israel desired a king, large city churches carried out area-wide programs leading to the papacy, and brethren formed missionary societies one hundred years ago. Churches today centralize their work of evangelism in the Herald of Truth, benevolence in orphanages, and edification in church supported colleges.
C. Revelation vs. Substitution. We must learn again the vital difference between divine revelation and human substitutions. Is Jesus Christ divine, or only a great human teacher? Must we immerse in baptism, or will sprinkling do? Are we limited to singing, or is playing instruments acceptable? If the church is to preach the gospel, does that exclude from its mission political work, economic reforms, social service, and entertainment? When God revealed the local church and equipped each one to do its own work, may we substitute churches working through human institutions (church supported schools, camps, orphanages, colleges, etc.) and the centralized elderships of the sponsoring church idea (Herald of Truth, World Radio, etc.)? If any one of these substitutions is acceptable to God, all of them are!
D. Divine vs. Human Organization. Does the authority of God’s Word and the voice of his Son mean anything to us? The voice of the Good Shepherd authorizes the local church to conduct its own work of evangelism, edification, and benevolence. It may use agents and methods, buy goods and services. We can all agree to that because the divine organization of the church is revealed – thus saith the Scriptures! But church donations to human institutions, including the brotherhood eldership of sponsoring churches, for any endeavor, is emphatically not authorized in the teaching of Christ. Since the law of Moses authorized a priesthood from Levi and “spake nothing” concerning Judah, the effect was to forbid, exclude, and prohibit priests from Judah (Heb. 7:14). To bind circumcision today, when the inspired men “gave no such commandment,” is to pervert the gospel (Acts 15:24; Gal. 1:7). God’s revealed plan for the local church has the emphatic effect of forbidding, excluding, and prohibiting us from forming human institutions to coordinate and centralize the work of the churches.
E. What’s the Difference? “What’s the difference? We are all doing a good work either way,” someone says. It makes a great difference to God, whether it does to men, whether we speak “as the oracles of God” or not. It makes a big difference to God whether we practice what is revealed in “the doctrine of Christ” or go beyond that revelation (1 Pet. 4:11; 2 Jn. 9). God’s plan for the local church is in the Bible, in the oracles of God, in the doctrine of Christ. We can put our finger on the Book, chapter, and verse for it. Now, here is the difference: human institutions, societies, conventions, boards, headquarters, and centralizing elderships for church cooperation are not in the Bible. They are not in the oracles of God, not in the doctrine of Christ. We can not put our finger on the Book, chapter, and verse which authorizes any of them!
F. Centralization Is Just One Phase of Apostasy. It is no accident or coincidence that the big city churches of the 1940s which aspired to be sponsoring churches also wanted to use much of the money raised for a massive benevolence program to the general public in Europe – a sort of Marshall Plan for the churches of Christ. These same churches became much interested in supporting colleges, orphanages, camps – and then clinics, convalescent homes, hospitals, and something called “medical missions.” These same churches pioneered church kitchens, “fellowship halls” (euphemism for rooms used for suppers, parties, and games), recreational programs, and “family life” centers (glorified gymnasiums). These churches are into everything from job training to legal services. These same churches are broadening their concepts of grace and fellowship, participating in ministerial associations and interdenominational services, and generally entering the mainstream of Protestant denominationalism.
It is no accident or coincidence that our studies for three days have covered that whole spectrum. Those of us who protest “liberalism” realize that this problem is much deeper than one specific program or issue over which we differ. The fundamental problem is a gradual loss of respect for the authority of God’s Word – a creeping “loose constructionism” opening the way to a whole complex of concepts and, practices which are foreign to the Bible. Such teaching eats as a vicious and violent cancer deeper and deeper into the vitals of faith (2 Tim. 2:17; 2:13).
Conclusion: Let Us Stand With Christ – Hear His Voice! Those who love the Good Shepherd and hear his voice must not be seduced by illusions of a grace, peace, and unity which tolerate liberalism. Rather we must take the mighty weapons of truth and press the war against apostasy, “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God,-and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:35). We are not trying to destroy souls – we are trying to destroy the digression that destroys souls. We do not hate our digressive brother, but labor in love to convert him from the error of his way in order to save a soul from death and to hide a multitude of sins (Jas. 5:19-20).
As much as we love our erring brethren and long for fellowship with them, we love Christ even more and desire fellowship with God above all other desires. The lines of truth and fellowship are drawn by the Lord himself in Scripture. They are not ours to barter and negotiate. We cannot apologize for them nor compromise them – not in this place, or any place, not at this time, or any time. We can extend hands of love, courtesy, and concern for the welfare of our erring brethren, but not “the right hands of fellowship” which betoken unity in Christ, in work, and in worship.
Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds (2 Jn. 9-11).
May God help us all to accept and to abide in the teaching delivered by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.(1) May we follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, and flee from the voice of every stranger.
1. Another sign of digression is the effort to limit “doctrine of Christ” in 2 Jn. 9 to the doctrine that Jesus is the Christ. This limitation greatly broadens the lines of fellowship, but it is a false unity. My book on The Doctrine of Christ and Unity of the Saints (Marion, Ind.; Cogdill Foundation Publ., 1977) is a detailed examination of 2 Jn. 9.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 18, pp. 556-557
September 21, 1989