By Ed Harrell
No destructive theme is more recurrent in religious history than the human tendency to create auxiliary organizations designed to help the churches carry out their spiritual missions. No doubt many such enterprises are begun by well-intentioned men who believe they can help the churches work together more efficiently. In fact, however, missionary and benevolent organizations have been ineffective and self-serving burdens on the churches they were created to serve. Religious history clearly testifies that the emergence of denominational institutions is a measure of decay within a religious group. Missionary societies signal a decline of interest by local churches in preaching the gospel and the appearance of benevolent organizations is symbolic of a similar disinterest in genuine benevolence.
While such practical evidence argues against the support of such organizations, our objections to them rest on a far more fundamental and biblical question. Did New Testament churches relate themselves financially or organizationally to such institutions to accomplish their work? The silence of the Scriptures is resoundingly clear. New Testament churches preached the gospel and relieved the needy themselves. (See, for instance, 2 Cor. 11:8 and 1 Cor. 16:1,2.) If one is committed to the restoration of New Testament Christianity, the question of authority simply cannot be ignored.
The American Christian Missionary Society
The efforts to restore New Testament Christianity in America in the nineteenth century included strong anti-institutional teaching. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone joined with other western preachers (particularly the anti-mission Baptists) in condemning the young missionary societies which had been formed by nearly every American denomination in the early nineteenth century. Alexander Campbell wrote in 1823: “Their churches (early Christians) were not fractured into missionary societies, bible societies, education societies; nor did they dream of organizing such in the world. The head of a believing household was not in those days a president or manager of a board of foreign missions; his wife, the president of some female education society; his eldest son, the recording secretary of ‘some domestic Bible society; his eldest daughter, the corresponding secretary of a mite society; his servant maid, the vice-president of a rag society. . . . They knew nothing of the hobbies of modern times. In their church capacity alone they moved” [“The Christian Religion,” Christian Baptist, I (August, 1823), 6-7].
The early protest against missionary societies was two-pronged. [For a thorough discussion of these issues, see Bill J. Humble, “The Missionary Society Controversy in the Restoration Movement, 1823-1875” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Iowa, 1964).] Over and Over the restorers argued that the “church alone” was capable of carrying out all of its responsibilities. On the other hand, much of the attack was based on the abuses so clearly connected with the organizations. The less-educated and less-cultured preachers of the West were offended by the presumptuousness of the denominational leaders who had placed themselves at the head of these organizations.
The dual nature of the protest became apparent in the 1840s when efforts began to establish a missionary society supported by the churches within the restoration movement. Most of the early restorers, including Alexander Campbell, supported the establishment of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849. The early supporters of the society included such later opponents as Benjamin Franklin, Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. Its most outspoken critics in the beginning were Canadian David Oliphant and Kentuckian Jacob Creath, Jr. In a series of articles in the Millennial Harbinger, Creath accused Campbell of renouncing his earlier arguments against societies. Campbell replied that he had been opposed to the abuses connected with the societies and not with the principle of churches cooperating through organizations.
During the remainder of the nineteenth century the missionary society became the focus for a debate which would end with the separation of the churches of Christ from the more liberal Christian Churches. The restoration movement did not divide because of the existence of the missionary society – rather, the society provided a means for testing one’s commitment to the restoration plea. The founding of the society was symptomatic of a desire for denominational status; it resulted from a call for all “prominent brethren” to meet in Cincinnati. The loose interpretation of the restoration plea which justified the society would clearly allow much more innovation; in the course of the nineteenth century scores of other organizations appeared as the Christian Church established its denominational identity.
Thousands of Christians in the nineteenth century were forced to reevaluate their initial acceptance of the society. By 1855 Tolbert Fanning was opposing its existence in the Gospel Advocate. Partly, they judged that the missionary society did not work. It was no more immune from human abuse than the other societies which had been opposed in the past. Southerners were particularly offended when the American Christian Missionary Society passed resolutions supporting the Union during the Civil War. The ineffectiveness of the missionary society as a means of evangelization has been confirmed in the century and a half of its existence.
More important, however, was the scriptural issue raised by the society. Was there a New Testament precedent for such a missionary organization? One’s answer to that question revealed his understanding of the restoration plea. If Christians were to be bound by New Testament precedent, there was no authority for the society. If one was not bound, then the doors were open for countless additions. Thus, the missionary society issue provided a focus for a debate which had far larger implications.
Benevolent organizations which ostensibly served and were supported by local congregations were also opposed by the early leaders of the restoration movement. Barton Stone asked: “I would simply ask, what have the divine writers of the New Testament said respecting these societies? They are all silent as the grave” [“Dover Association,” Christian Messenger, VI (Nov., 1932), 344]. And yet, in spite of such objections, an orphan school was supported by some churches as early as 1846 and in the nineteenth century feeble efforts were also made to establish church supported homes for the aged and hospitals.
When the conservative restorers separated themselves from the Christian Churches in the nineteenth century, most understood the anti-institutional nature of their protest. Tolbert Fanning wrote in 1856: “I doubt the policy of establishing orphan schools. . . on the ground that these orphan schools, to my mind, are attempting to perform, in part, the labor which it is the imperious duty of each congregation to do” [“Institutions Originating in the Wisdom of Good Men – How Far Should They Be Encouraged,” Gospel Advocate, II (October, 1856), 308-3 10]. Very few benevolent institutions were supported by churches of Christ prior to 1950, and never without protest from those who opposed all church supported institutions. Nonetheless, by 1950 a few weak and struggling orphan homes had been established, and, along with the small schools operated by Christians, they had become the symbols of a renewed sense of denominational consciousness and pride. One recent church historian, describing the growth of institutions in the churches in Texas, entitled his chapter on that subject, “The Churches of Christ Become a Major Religious Body” [Stephen Daniel Eckstein, Jr., History of the Churches of Christ in Texas, 1824-1950 (Austin: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1963)].
A challenge to the existence of such benevolent organizations was launched in 1949 in the Gospel Guardian, first under the leadership of Foy Wallace, Jr. and later by Roy Cogdill and Fanning Yater Tant. For the next several decades those within the restoration movement were once again called upon to judge the existing institutions within the context of the restoration plea.
While opponents of the missionary society had been quick to point out that such societies were ineffective, those opposed to benevolent organizations were more reluctant to attack the usefulness of such institutions as orphan homes. To do so seemed cruel and unfeeling, and the defenders of the homes often painted their opponents in those tones. But, in fact, all modern social theory argues that such institutions are undesirable. In all likelihood, the time will come when they will no longer be allowed by law. Unfortunate scandals in recent years in several institutions have simply confirmed that orphan children need the environment of a real home. God wisely placed that responsibility upon individuals [Jas. 1:27].
The real issue raised in the orphan home controversy, however, was the old one of scriptural authority. It took two forms. First, was there a New Testament precedent which allowed churches to turn over their obligation to relieve the needy to an institution, supporting that organization with funds from the local church treasury? It is clear that in New Testament days churches took care of their own needy. Second, did New Testament churches relieve all needy people or was each group’s benevolent responsibility to the “saints”? Every New Testament text affirms the latter, more realistic, end. (See, for instance, 2 Cor. chapters 8 and 9.)
The questions raised by the existence of church supported benevolent organizations, then, once again provided a focus for a division with the restoration movement. The churches divided not over orphan homes, however, but over differing applications of the restoration plea. In the thirty-five years since 1950 it has become clear that the arguments which allow church support of benevolent institutions also open the gates for the support of countless other institutions.
The growth of institutionalism in the churches of Christ has always been symptomatic of much larger problems in the minds of the people. The growth of institutions is often an unconscious (and sometimes conscious) effort to activate the universal church (to form a denomination). It signifies an unwillingness to accept the local church as the functioning unit of the church of Christ.
Most important, institutionalism marks the abandonment of the restoration plea for a return to New Testament Christianity. There is no New Testament precedent for church support for any institution. I have no doubt that many such efforts have innocent origins. Over and over again Christians have been challenged to abandon institutions which have arisen without scriptural authority; such a step demands loyalty to biblical truth, rather than self-interest. Thus, institutionalism has become a repeated focus for dividing the body of Christ.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 1, pp. 3-4, 18
January 2, 1986