By Donald Townsley
My assignment has to do with one of the oldest questions to come out of efforts to restore the New Testament church in this country. The question of how congregations can cooperate in their work and not lose their independence came up early-on and has been discussed all the way through the restoration movement. The controversy of the last thirty-five (or more) years is only part of an on-going controversy that has been before God’s people for over one hundred years.
Barton W. Stone (and others) disagreed with the Presbyterian church on Calvinism. Stone began to preach that God’s love made salvation possible for all men who would accept His will. This caused his expulsion (and that of his followers) from the synod of Kentucky in 1803. He (and those who stood with him) set out to have no authority but the Bible. They formed the Springfield Presbytery, but soon saw that this organization was not in harmony with their plea for a return to the Word of God. So, on June 28, 1804 they issued “The Last Will and Testament” of the Springfield Presbytery an organization which had lasted less than a year.
Churches started by the Stone movement existed in many communities alongside churches started by the Campbell movement. These two groups found they had much in common – both denounced human creeds, and both advocated unity upon the basis of the revealed will of God. Many in these two groups wanted to unite, but they had some points of difference that had to be settled between them. One of the major points of difference was: “How can congregations of the Lord cooperate?” Those churches in the Campbell movement were in the Mahoning Association, and Stone thought they were too much like the Baptists. The Mahoning Association was dissolved in 1830, and Campbell and Stone got together in 1832. In his book, Quest For A Christian America (p. 7), brother Ed Harrell writes: “The actual process of union took place in an amazingly successful merging of local congregations at the grass roots level, or by simply agreeing to fellowship one another, that is, to accept one another as true ‘churches of Christ.”‘
The dissolving of the Mahoning Association did not stop the formation of organizations through which churches could cooperate. “Cooperations meetings” were held, which H. Leo Boles said was the first step toward the American Christian Missionary Society. At first the meetings were held only to promote the general interest in preaching the gospel, but they later took on the form of an organization. The brethren in a certain district or state would meet annually, report the progress of the Kingdom, and plan evangelistic work for the coming year. The work would then be put under the oversight of one congregation, the sponsoring church, then other churches sent their contributions to the church which had the oversight of the work. In an article entitled “Congregational Cooperation,” brother Earl West gives an example of the “Cooperation meetings” (where a president and secretary were elected), then goes on to say: “These district cooperation meetings were but miniature missionary societies, and quite naturally, the forerunner of the American Christian Missionary Society.” He also points out that Tennessee fell in line with other congregations in having district cooperation meetings; and when Tolbert Fanning began to have doubts that these organizations were pleasing to the Lord, he found himself at first standing alone in his section of the country. While brother Fanning had doubts, Alexander Campbell began to lay the groundwork (in the Millennial Harbinger) for the formation of the missionary society. By October of 1849 the American Christian Missionary Society was established in Cincinnati, Ohio with Alexander Campbell as its first president.
In 1855 Tolbert Fanning and William Lipscomb established the Gospel Advocate to give a thorough study to the subject of congregational cooperation. Fanning believed a change must take place in the way cooperation was viewed before any work could be done to the honor of God. During the Civil War, publication of the Advocate was suspended, but after the war, in 1866, David Lipscomb and Tolbert Fanning started publication again. They hoped that the new Advocate would provide a medium through which the whole Society question might be discussed. Lipscomb opposed the Society because it “was a human institution, organized and directed by man, but designed to do the work which God expected the local congregation to do.” He directed his opposition not only at the Missionary Society, but also at the is cooperation meetings” which were very popular in Tennessee and elsewhere. He considered these cooperation meetings as “missionary societies in embryo.”
The formation of the American Christian Missionary Society in 1849 brought division in the body of Christ, and by 1906 the federal government recognized the church of Christ and the Christian church as two distinct religious bodies in its census report. Churches of Christ followed the New Testament examples by supporting preachers directly (Phil. 4:14-17). Each congregation, acting independently of all other churches, sent support directly to the man (or men) in the field.
After World War I problems again arose in churches of Christ over the “one-man missionary society.” One man would collect money from churches and then send the money to the preacher in need of support. These promoters were soon stopped by brethren who loved the truth and who exposed the unscripturalness of the arrangement.
After World War II (in the middle of this century), the 46 sponsoring-church arrangement” as a way for churches of Christ to cooperate in mission work and benevolent work became a major issue. The Broadway church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas became a sponsoring-church to evangelize Germany; the Union Avenue church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee became a sponsoring church to evangelize Japan; and the Highland church of Christ in Abilene, Texas became the sponsoring-church for the Herald of Truth – a national radio broadcast. (The first program was aired by affiliates of the American Broadcasting Company on February 10, 1952. James W. Nichols preached the first sermon.)
These unscriptural arrangements were being exposed and opposed by such men as Roy E. Cogdill, Yater Tant, James W. Adams, W. Curtis Porter, Cecil B. Douthitt, Robert C. Welch, Robert H. Farish, Cled Wallace, Marshall Patton, and Foy E. Wallace, Jr., just to name a few. Brethren began to debate the issue of “sponsoring-church evangelism” from the mid-fifties through the sixties. Debates were held in such cities as Indianapolis, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Abilene, Texas; Florence, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky; Tampa, Florida; and Montgomery, Alabama.
Brethren who supported the sponsoring-church arrangement considered Guy N. Woods champion of their cause on the debate platform. Woods was met in debate by such men as Roy E. Cogdill, A.C. Grider, James P. Miller, and others.
By the mid-fifties churches began to divide over these issues (institutionalism and sponsoring-church arrangements). In November and December of 1954, B.C. Goodpasture, editor of the Gospel Advocate, spearheaded a movement to “quarantine” those preachers who opposed sponsoring-churches and human institutions in the budgets of churches. Brethren who opposed were branded as “antis”; preachers who opposed began to be fired and to have their meetings cancelled; brethren began to be forced from buildings they had helped to build into schoolhouses and store buildings to start over so they could follow the New Testament pattern; families were divided and friendships were broken! The spirit of innovation, fiendish and lawless, had taken over! The battle was heated and heartbreaking! It soon became apparent that the great majority of churches would align with the innovations and that a separation was inevitable. Those of us who opposed these unscriptural arrangements began to realize that the sweet fellowship of the past would be no more! It was with sadness we recognized (from studying past history) that this apostasy would reach its flood-tide and dock in the port of denominationalism!
A close look today at those who aligned with the spirit of innovation will show that the tide of apostasy is high. A few men among them are trying to hold back the move that is underway to have fellowship with the Christian Church. These men are fighting an impossible battle! They are trying to hold to the “old paths” and, at the same time endorse the sponsoring-church and human institutions when these are the very things that opened the gates of digression! The “conservative institutionalists” among the liberals have but one way to go if they want to hold to the “old paths” – that way is to give up innovations, repent, and come back to the truth. One cannot hold to error while trying to fight error and ever gain any ground! J.W. McGarvey tried to do this and failed!
The “sponsoring-church” concept is one which tries to activate the church universal in a central organization by having many churches pool their funds under one eldership. When this is done you have churches of Christ collectively acting together through a central agency – the sponsoringchurch. The work done through this arrangement is not being done by a local church because the sponsoring-church is larger than a local church. The elders of a sponsoringchurch have assumed a work larger than a local congregation – a work of brotherhood proportions! It is a work which places the funds of a number of congregations under the direction of one eldership – the sponsoring-church eldership. The elders are no longer elders of a local church but have become “brotherhood elders,” functioning in an office which the New Testament knows nothing aboutl In the New Testament elders were local (1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28). The work of elders in the New Testament is assigned, not assumed (1 Pet. 5:1-3). The work of “sponsoring-church elders” is assumed. There is no New Testament authority for an “assumed” work, therefore, in the creation of the sponsoring-church you have a functioning unit unknown to the New Testament.
There is no evidence in the New Testament that any congregation did its work through another congregation. Antioch made up her own contribution and sent it directly to the elders of the churches which were in need in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). Here we have a church with an abundance sending to churches in need that they might do their own assigned work, not a “brotherhood work.” The church at Corinth made up her own funds by the giving of her members and sent it directly to Jerusalem by the messenger of her own choosing (1 Cor. 16:1-3). The Jerusalem church was in need (Rom. 15:25-27), and this contribution was to help her do her own work, not some “brotherhood work.” The churches of Macedonia sent wages directly to Paul as he preached the gospel in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:7-9). Each church supported him directly, they did not do their work through a sponsoring-church. Paul did not have a “sponsoringchurch” gathering funds for him from all over the brotherhood. He taught that churches were to have direct fellowship with the preacher whom they support (Phil. 1:5). The church at Philippi was one of the Macedonian churches which acted independently in sending support to Paul. They sent it to him by Epaphroditus, their messenger (Phil. 4:14-18). No church in New Testament times ever sent money to another church to preach the gospel – they always sent directly to the preacher. Someone will probably ask what difference it makes – well, the difference is that one is found in the New Testament and the other is not! That makes a big difference if you are going to work by the authority of the New Testament (2 John 9)!
The impact of the sponsoring-church upon the Lord’s church has been tremendously devastating! It has sown discord and division, and has opened the floodgates for many more innovations! It is the tide that (has) is sweeping the majority of churches of Christ into the mainstream of denominationalism. It has caused untold thousands to be lost in a Devil’s hell! Only the judgment will reveal the damage it has done!
Guardian of Truth XXX: 1, pp. 9-10, 21
January 2, 1986