By Johnny Stringer
Sadness burdens our hearts as we contemplate the division that exists among brethren in Christ. Some of us cannot in good conscience participate in activities that many churches of Christ engage in. For example, many congregations give money to institutions which have no scriptural right to control the money of churches. Those of us who oppose this institutionalism cannot be a part of churches which engage in it, for our participation in the actions of those churches would violate our consciences. Hence, to avoid participation in what we believe to be wrong, we must separate ourselves from institutional churches. Division, therefore, is inevitable.
Yet, many institutional brethren do not understand why there cannot be peaceful co-existence between institutional and non-institutional brethren. They point out that within non-institutional congregations, there are numerous disagreements. Some do things that others cannot in good conscience do; yet, we tolerate one another so that the peace and harmony of the congregation is not destroyed. For example, there are disagreements on whether Christians may participate in war, be policemen, or have a Christmas tree. God’s word is clear, but in trying to apply biblical principles to the many circumstances of life, brethren do not always reach the same conclusions. In such cases, we exercise the tolerance taught in Romans 14. Why, then, it is argued, can we not be as tolerant with those who disagree with us on the institutional question as we are with those who disagree with us on these other questions?
Two Kinds of Questions
There is a vast difference in the nature of the institutional question and the nature of these other questions-These other questions pertain to private, individual practices. Each individual can practice his belief without affecting anyone else. No one must participate in anything which violates his conscience. Hence, the peace and harmony of the congregation does not have to be affected. This is the kind of questions discussed in Romans 14.
The institutional question, however, is in a different category. It pertains not to the private practice of an individual, but to the collective activity of the congregation. Each individual cannot practice his belief without affecting anyone else; rather, all in the congregation participate. Hence, if some cannot in good conscience participate, the peace and harmony of the congregation is necessarily affected. To apply Romans 14 to a question involving collective activity is to apply it/to a type of question it was not written to deal with.
It is argued, however, that if there are two congregations in an area, one institutional and one non-institutional, then the brethren who are non-institutional do not have to participate in the practice which violates their conscience. They can be members of the non-institutional church; and since they do not have to be involved in the practices they think are wrong, they can exercise tolerance toward those in the institutional congregation – just as they do toward those with whom they differ on questions involving private, individual practices. Hence, the non-institutional and the institutional brethren can overlook differences, accept one another, announce one another’s gospel meetings, etc. Of course, if noninstitutional brethren could exercise such tolerance toward institutional brethren, we could do the same toward churches using instrumental music in worship.
Binding Practices on Others
One reason this is impossible is that institutional brethren bind their unscriptural practices on others. In matters of private, individual practices like those described in Romans 14 no one has the right to bind his practice on anyone else, and Paul forbade such. But when men introduce unscriptural practices into a congregation, they are binding those practices on all who remain in that congregation. People must participate if they are members of that congregation. Similarly, a congregation which engages in these practices binds them on all who would become a part of that congregation.
Those discussed in Romans 14 did not bind their practices on anyone. In matters of private, individual practices, those who differ can be in the same congregation without anyone being bound to participate in a practice he believes to be wrong. We cannot be tolerant of those who bind unscriptural practices on everyone who would be a part of their congregation.
Another reason we cannot be tolerant of institutional brethren is that institutionalism is a source of division. Congregations have had to split because it was introduced and many could not in good conscience participate. In view of God’s hatred of him “that soweth discord among the brethren” (Prov. 6:16-19), can we be tolerant of practices that make it impossible for unity to exist and have torn up congregations all over the country?
1 Corinthians 1:10 teaches that we are to speak the same thing, have no divisions among us, and be joined together in the same mind and judgment. This does not mean that there must be no disagreements whatever, for Romans 14 allows for disagreements within limits. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is condemning divisions. Hence, the point is that Christians must be in agreement to the extent that they are able to work and worship together in harmony and do not have to divide. Disagreements over collective congregational activity preclude such unity; they are inherently divisive. We cannot be tolerant of practices which make it impossible to have the kind of unity God requires.
Brethren, scriptural unity is possible. God’s teaching regarding collective activity is sufficiently clear that we can reach a common understanding. This must be true, for God requires that we agree to the extent that we can work and worship together; and God does not require the impossible. The problem is not that God’s word is unclear; the problem is the attitudes with which God’s word is approached.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 6, p. 178
March 16, 1989