Responsibility: Individual or Institutional

By Harry Osborne

Our country is undergoing another experiment of shifting the burden of solving social ills onto the government and its institutions. This is part of the constant cycle in which people grasp at the promises made that someone else can solve their problems and meet their responsibilities. Much the same type of promises were made to pass the so-called “Great Society” programs of the 1960s. Since poverty, crime and a variety of social ills have increased in the presence of those programs, it is obvious that they have not produced the “Great Society” promised.

In our time, we hear proposals for more government programs promising relief from our present problems. Whether or not the programs are enacted is a political issue which I have no interest in discussing here, but we may note that the basic problems we face in our society are not due to the absence of a governmental program. Murder, theft, immorality, hatred, dishonesty and other forms of ungodliness are not due to the absence of governmental programs, but are due to the wrong actions of individuals. Thus, they will not be solved by instituting a program, but by the proper actions of the individuals responsible.

A parallel can be drawn between the above and the way our institutional brethren seek to solve various ills around us. It seems that these brethren think the way to solve every problem is to set up an institution funded by appeals to various churches and depend upon the institution to do the work for them. This absolves them of personal responsibility to dirty their hands in the work since they did their part by giving into the treasury of the church which then funded the work to be done by the institution setup to solve the problem.

Our liberal brethren consistently justify such efforts by perverting passages which charge individuals with a given work into mandates for a church-funded institution to meet the charge. Lest some think this charge too harsh and our liberal brethren to have been misrepresented, let us look at a few examples of their institutional mind set and the means used to justify their treasured institutions.

Institutionalizing Matthew 25

The following was taken from an article by Larry Frank in the Christ’s Prison Fellowship newsletter of February 1990 appealing for support of the program:

We are frequently asked why and how we go about getting things done in our prison ministry. Considering that we are no doubt the low budget leader of the major ministries in Texas prisons, the question generated a desire to define some of the programs that occur in carrying out the ministry.

First, we believe as members of the body of Christ that we are encouraged by the Word of God to support others who use their individual gifts and talents in serving our Lord, “… for then, we will all go away into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46, NIV). Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, 0 blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink (impact church ministry); I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Homeless-visitor ministry); I was naked and you clothed me (benevolence ministry); I was sick and you visited me (Medical Center Chaplaincy-Hospital ministry); I was in prison and you came to me (Christ’s Prison Fellowship-Prison ministry)” (Matt. 25:34-36, NIV).

Second, Texas State policy and philosophy emanate from Brother Whitt’s “Christ’s Prison Fellowship” and in the Southern Region is under the oversight of the Elders of the Eldridge Road church of Christ in Sugar Land. We implement policy and programs through direct contact with prison officials, chaplains, inmates and families, and the best network of dedicated volunteers that one could expect or hope for (emphases his  HRO).

The context of Matthew 25 concerns the time when the sheep and goats will be separated in the final judgment. According to Mr. Frank, the Lord’s criteria for that separation will be whether local churches created enough bureaucratic institutions and sponsoring churches to fund others to do the work for them. If such were the case, I trust that our brother and those of like mind would have no fear of judgment, for they have created enough to make even Washington jealous.

However, Jesus will not judge me based upon whether I put a check into the plate to help fund a “Church of Christ Chaplain” program to visit the sick. He will judge me on the basis of what I did to personally meet the needs of the sick as I had opportunity. My responsibility to go to those in prison is not directed by the “policy and philosophy” emanating from Mr. Whitt’s institution, nor is it met by laying by in store on the first day of the week so that the local church here may surrender a part of its autonomous work to “the oversight of the Elders of the Eldridge Road church of Christ in Sugar Land.”

If there has ever been a clear statement of the institutional mentality, the above is it! Such thinking betrays the concept that one can fulfill his individual responsibility by proxy to the church and the church can fulfill its responsibility by proxy to an institution. While this thinking is a trademark of liberalism, it is absolutely foreign to the New Testament.

The need presented in Matthew 25:1-11 was not for a “Church of Christ Lamp Maintenance Program” under the oversight of the Elders of the Jerusalem church to facilitate the unlawful centralization of local churches and keep the lamps of foolish virgins shining worldwide. The need was for those foolish virgins to do what was their responsibility to do. In Matthew 25:14-30, Christ does not propose a “Church of Christ Investment Institution” to solve the problem of slothful servants who stuff their masters’ money in holes. He notes the individual responsibility of the one talent servant to do that which was his responsibility to do.

Institutionalizing James 1:27

A notice was sent to “Churches of Christ, Greater Houston Area” a few days ago by the First Colony Church of Christ regarding “Preachers’ Luncheon, Month of October, 1993.” In the notice, Homer O. Gainer, “Program Chairman,” informs as follows:

On each Tuesday during the month of October, 1993 we will be privileged to hear speakers who are closely associated with childcare operations. The teaching of James 1:27 remains relevant.

The speakers are: Benny Glover (Boles Home), Gene Boone (Foster Home), Dempsey Simpson (Medina Home), Ed Moore (Sunny Glen Children’s Home).

The first thing that interested me about this announcement was the fact that our liberal brethren no longer go through the charade of calling their institutions “orphan homes.” They correctly call them “childcare operations.” The named institutions have for years been filled with children who have fathers and mothers and cannot properly be called “orphans.” They are institutions which cannot and will not place children in the “home” authorized by God in Genesis 2 for the raising of children.

The second thing which caught my attention in the ad was the abuse of James 1:27 which says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Since the children in the above institutions are not orphans, how are they justified in this passage? Obviously, they are not!

Who is given this charge in the text? The same man who is charged to bridle his tongue in verse 26 and to “keep oneself unspotted from the world” in verse 27 is also charged “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.” Does a local church have a tongue in the middle aisle that needs to be bridled? Does a church-funded institution have one? No, but an individual does.

My individual charge to bridle my tongue cannot be met by the local church and its programs, whether lawful or unlawful. Neither can that responsibility be met by an institution. I must take responsibility for my tongue by acting in ways to control it. Only then have I met the charge of this passage. My individual responsibility to help the orphans cannot be passed off to the local church or an institution either.

The liberals’ attempt to paint us as heartless orphan haters is a lie! The guilt actually rests with their efforts to escape the demands of individual responsibility and place it upon someone else while leaving themselves with only the need to write a check and put it in the plate on Sunday.

Institutionalize It All

A few years ago, I received a brochure appealing for churches of Christ to help fund the Nigerian Christian Hospital, described as a “benevolent work supplementary to the extensive evangelistic ministries” in Nigeria. After the bold heading, “Is Medical Missions Scripturally Sound?,” the appeal attempted to justify the work biblically. It claimed such works to be authorized upon the basis of the good Samaritan (Luk. 10), avoidance of the Pharisee’s neglecting the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23), and the customary misuse of Matthew 25 discussed earlier. It then added the following for good measure:

Providing medical care is pure religion (James 1:27). It shows the love of God (1 John 3:17). It fulfills the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). It changes our words into deeds (1 John 3:18).

NCH is serving about 100,000 people who would have no other modem medical facility if we were not there. In an effort to preach Christ to them, we cannot say “go, be warmed and filled” (Jas. 2:16), without attempting to help them.

Yes! It is scriptural, like feeding the hungry and caring for the orphans and widows.

Somewhere in the passages listed, I missed the part about the “Church of Christ Hospital” to fulfill the commands. An examination of the passages shows that they actually charge individual Christians with various responsibilities. None of them has the slightest connection with providing medical services in the name of evangelism!

With that type of exegesis, I wonder if these brethren will build new wings onto their church hospital and justify them with equally inventive uses of Scripture. How about building an aerobics workout center so that the church can fulfill the command to “exercise thyself” (1 Tim. 4:7)? They can ignore the fact that Timothy was the one commanded and that the exercise involved was “unto godliness” rather than physical fitness. How about a heart surgery wing? After all, Jesus wanted to correct it when he saw those whose “heart is waxed gross” (Matt. 13:15) or those with “hardness of heart” (Mk. 16:14). If they charged the same rate as American hospitals, it would be more scriptural  for they could honestly say in the consultation before surgery, “Where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). Space prohibits discussion of other inventive ways to justify further expansion.


Though the degree of the brazen misuse of Scripture has changed as our liberal brethren sought to justify their unauthorized institutions, the fact remains that they were initiated by misusing and abusing Scripture. It has gotten to the point now that even some of our liberal brethren are increasingly uncomfortable with the proliferation of institutions among them. The arrival of the “Bread for the Hungry World” program jointly funded by “churches of Christ” and Christian churches has caused this element to react in horror. They do not like the ultimate end of institutionalism, but they still want to hold on to the “innocent, little orphan homes.” It is about time that they wake up and realize that their institutions are neither for “orphans,” nor are they “innocent.” As they awake to this realization, let us be ready to help teach them the nature of individual responsibility and call them to join in the true practice of pure and undefiled religion.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 2, p. 13-15
January 20, 1994