By Mike Willis
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sponsoring church idea of congregational cooperation and organization was born among the churches of Christ. Since then, it has been partially responsible for a rupture in the body of Christ which has completely divided brethren. From time to time, we need to recall what were the issues which separated us, lest we forget.
Someone might ask, “What is a sponsoring church?” It is true that one could read his Bible from cover to cover and never know what a sponsoring church is, for there is certainly no biblical example of one having existed in apostolic times. A person must study present day churches to find out what a sponsoring church is. By looking at what liberal churches are doing, a man can determine that a sponsoring church is a church which receives funds from another church or churches to oversee the spending of them in preaching the gospel. The sponsoring church, therefore, receives funds from many churches and forwards them to areas for evangelism. Hence, it is a church in which funds from several churches are centralized; it is a church which oversees the spending of funds received from other churches.
The Origin of the Sponsoring Church
Following World War II, many American churches decided to evangelize Europe. Their desire to evangelize these areas was commendable; however, in their zeal to do the work, they perverted the organization of the church. The method which they chose for evangelizing Europe was the sponsoring church. A church would pick a field, for example Germany, for evangelization. It would then call upon its sister congregations to send funds to it. The sponsoring church would then oversee the preaching of the gospel in Germany. Frequently, the sponsoring church not only supported the preacher but also owned the property of the churches meeting in Germany.
Another better known example of the sponsoring church is the Herald of Truth operation in Abilene, Texas. The Highland Church of Christ assumed oversight of the Herald of Truth program. Highland has called upon her sister congregations to send contributions to her in order to preach the gospel over radio and television. Thousands of churches have responded, sending their contributions to Highland for her to oversee and distribute.
Today, some of the sponsoring churches are not only overseeing the funds for evangelism of other congregations, some sponsoring churches are overseeing the entire program of work of another congregation. Hence, the sponsoring church oversees the contributing church in such an arrangement.
What Is Wrong With The Sponsoring Church?
Someone might ask, “What is wrong with the sponsoring church?” I have several objections to the sponsoring church arrangement which I would like for you to consider.
1. It is unauthorized in the Bible. There is neither general nor specific authority for a sponsoring church in all of God’s book; there is neither command, example, nor necessary inference of any church becoming a sponsoring church. Hence, in the absence of positive divine authority, the sponsoring church stands in exactly the same relationship to God’s word as does instrumental music in worship, sprinkling for baptism, baptism is an outward sign of an inward act, burning candles in worship, and any other innovation introduced into the work, worship, or organization of the church for which there is no Bible. A person does not have to find a scripture which says, “Thou shalt not have a sponsoring church,” in order for it to be sinful; the absence of positive divine authority for a sponsoring church is sufficient evidence that it stands condemned.
If I write not another line, the sponsoring church would stand condemned on this basis. Until positive divine authority can be produced authorizing the sponsoring church, the sponsoring church arrangement stands condemned as a sinful departure from God’s revelation.
2. It violates the limits of the elders’ authority. The authority of elders is either limited or unlimited. If it is unlimited, a group of elders could become the legislative and executive head of all of the churches. I know of no one who would state that the authority of the elders is unlimited. If the authority of elders is limited, we must turn to the pages of divine revelation to find out what limits are imposed on them. In addition to noticing that all authority resides in Christ (Matt. 28:18) which prohibits any legislative authority being given to the elders, the scriptures also reveal that the elders’ authority is limited to the congregation over which they were appointed. Notice these verses:
Take heed therfore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not be constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind (1 Pet. 5:2).
It is no accident that the Holy Spirit revealed that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church (Acts 14:23). That is the scope of authority which elders have; they have no authority outside of the local church.
One church cannot voluntarily allow the elders of another church to oversee any part of their work without violating the limits divinely imposed on the authority of elders. A given church cannot approach the elders of another church and request them to oversee that church, as some liberal churches are presently doing, without violating the limits of authority divinely imposed on elders. Furthermore, a local church cannot send a portion of its resources to another church, sometimes called a sponsoring church, for that church to oversee the spending thereof without violating the limits of the authority of elders.
Actually, the principle of church organization which is utilized by the sponsoring church brethren is exactly that which is used by Catholics and Christian Scientists. In the Catholic Church, all of the churches work through the church at Rome under the pope; in the sponsoring church, about 20% of all churches of Christ work through the Highland Church in Abilene under its elders. In the Christian Scientist religion, all of the local congregations work through the Mother Church in Boston. Each of these methods. of church organization can be diagramed as follows:
If a person can see that the pattern of church organization used by the Catholics and the Christian Scientists is wrong, he can also see that the sponsoring church pattern of church organization is wrong. It gives the sponsoring church oversight over more than God intended.
3. It destroys the equality of the churches. In the sponsoring church arrangement, the equality of the churches is destroyed. The churches fall into two categories: contributing church and sponsoring church. The contributing church can only do one thing – send money to the sponsoring church. The contributing churches have alsolutely no say in how these resources are spent. On the other hand, the sponsoring church has total authority over the spending of the resources of all of the churches. Hence, it is in a position of greater authority than that of the contributing congregations. The equality of the church is, therefore, destroyed by the sponsoring church arrangement.
4. It destroys congregational autonomy. When one congregation oversees another, the congregation which is being overseen has lost its autonomy. In some sponsoring church arrangements, the entire program of one church is voluntarily surrendered to the oversight of the elders of another church. No one could question that the autonomy of such a church is lost. In other sponsoring church arrangements, the deeds of property of the overseen church is held in the name of the sponsoring church. Even in the sponsoring church arrangements in which only funds are transferred from one congregation to another, the transferred funds of the contributing church are overseen by the sponsoring church. The fact that they are voluntarily surrendered does not change the fact one church is overseeing at least a part of the program of work of another church. Hence, congregational autonomy is destroyed.
5. It denies the all-sufficiency of the local church. The sponsoring church idea of congregational cooperation was born out of infidelity. Brethren lost faith in the ability of the local church to do the work which God gave the church to do. Here are some statements which indicate the kind of infidelity which gave birth to the sponsoring church:
. . . In sponsoring a missionary, a church simply underwrites his support. It is, therefore, responsible to the missionary for the amount that it takes for his maintenance, and it is also responsible to any brethren, who may be willing to help support the missionary, for the missionary’s soundness, for his Christian character, and for his qualifications as a missionary. This whole idea was born because of a very sad condition that existed in the brotherhood forty or fifty years ago (G.C. Brewer, Gospel Advocate [27 August 1953], p. 544).
If a sad condition existed because churches were not doing what they should, churches should have been admonished to do the work which God gave them to do. However, instead of this having occurred, the sponsoring church was created.
The absence of an organized missionary society among churches of Christ created several unique handicaps in selection and preparation of qualified missionary workers. Since no official board existed, congregations were free to select and send (William S. Banowsky, The Mirror of a Movement, pp. 273-274).
Notice that Banowsky describes the condition prior to the establishment of the sponsoring church as a “unique handicap.” God’s divine arrangement is described as a “unique handicap”1 This is the type of infidelity which gave birth to the sponsoring church idea of congregational cooperation and organization. Brethren became convinced that the local churches alone were unable to evangelize the world; consequently, they set out to devise programs which would work better. The result was the sponsoring church.
6. It seeks to activate the universal church. The Lord, in His divine wisdom, provided no organization for the church universal and no program of work was commited to it. The Lord only provided for the organization of the local church and gave a program of work only to the local church. Hence, the Lord has provided for no church organization greater than, smaller than, or other than the local church.
Brethren have not been content with the Lord’s divine arrangement, however. In 1849, brethren created the American Christian Missionary Society through which all of the local churches could work. The ACMS received contributions from local churches; their program of work activated, or sought to activate, all of the local congregations. It was an attempt to activate the universal church. The sponsoring church program does exactly the same thing. It seeks to get all of the local churches contributing to a given sponsoring church in order to present a nationally televised radio and television program.
God has given no program of work to the universal church. There is no pattern of organization for the universal church and no program of work committed to it. As a matter of fact, the universal church is not composed of all of the individual congregations; it is composed of all saved individuals. Hence, any attempt to activate the universal church is born of a misconception of the church. We simply must remember that the universal church has no organization, no officers, and no mission. If God had intended for the church universal to function, he would have described its organization, named its officers, stipulated the limit of their authority, defined their responsibilities, and. given their qualifications. He did all of these for the local church and none of them for the church universal. Hence, He must not have intended for the universal church to function.
Perhaps others would bring other indictments against the sponsoring church pattern of cooperation and organization. However, these are sufficient to clearly identify the arrangement as sinful. Whether we are discussing the sponsoring church program of the Herald of Truth, World Radio, or one church overseeing another, the sponsoring church arrangement stands condemned by the word of God.
Those who are seeking to walk by the Book, will not participate in things for which no Bible authority can be given. Hence, they will abstain from participation in sponsoring church programs of work.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 43, pp. 691-693
October 30, 1980