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dot What is Institutionalism?
Who Wants to Know?

There are a growing number of people who claim to be members of the "Church of Christ", who do not know what "institutionalism" is all about. This includes members of both institutional and non-institutional congregations, from all over the world (including the United States). A quick study of the principles of institutionalism, then, should prove helpful to people in both "camps" who seek to know more what the ruckus was (or is) about.

This question is posed to me surprisingly often in connection with the listing I maintain of conservative, non-institutional Churches of Christ On-Line. The first time or two I was asked, I was somewhat taken aback by the question. But after the 6th or 7th time, I began to get the picture. In many areas, this is apparently simply not talked about either in Bible classes or in Christian homes, and there are whole generations of Christians who have grown up without ever hearing the word (though they have doubtless been exposed to the principles of) institutionalism.

So What is it?

A very simplistic definition of institutionalism is the doctrine or practice of a church sending money to an institution of some kind in order to carry out some work that the church has deemed worthy of support. In practice, this may include supporting missionary organizations, orphan's homes, nursing homes, schools, other churches, even political organizations.

While the principles at the heart of institutionalism have never changed, it is nevertheless remarkable to observe the proliferation of forms in which it has manifested itself through the years. It is important that we understand that institutionalism itself is none of these particular manifestations, but is rather an approach toward the Church and toward the Bible that make all these manifestations possible.

Where Did it Start?

I could contend, in a more detailed study of the subject, that it has been around in some embryonic form as far back as the days of Moses. But that's for another time and another study. Most recently, institutionalism has sprung fully-formed from the sweeping tide of an American religious revival.

In the early part of the 1800s, a growing number of religious people throughout the nation began questioning the complicated and conflicting creeds and doctrines they were practicing, and began to seek again the unadulterated, unmediated, unaltered Word of God as a standard for faith and practice. The movement came to be associated with its most prominent proponents, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and became known as the Restoration Movement. The famous phrase "We will speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent," dates in some form from this movement, most likely originally spoken by Thomas Campbell himself.

With the Restoration Movement came a burning desire to spread the newly discovered kernel of "restored" Christianity, in its simplest form. Like any devout Christians, influential men throughout the Lord's church sought ways to effectively bring souls to Christ throughout the world. It was in this effort that the idea was born that an organization should be created to coordinate and oversee the evangelism of nothing less than the whole world. The idea certainly lacked nothing in grandeur or nobility, and its appeal to the growing Christian body in the U.S. was palpable, both as Christians, and as Americans. The young country and the young movement shared an unshakeable belief in their abilities to permanently change and overcome any obstacle by throwing their money, talents, and sweat at it.

What's the Advantage?

The theory was almost purely classical macroeconomic theory. It stated basically that a single central organizing body could much more efficiently and thoroughly evangelize the world than a mass of small, disorganized, perhaps competings, bodies of believers scattered over the United States. A central organization could do more effective research on the most ripe mission fields, could track and coordinate the sending of missionaries and supplies to the most fertile areas, could manage funds in the most advantageous way, both cutting costs and overhead by combining the functions into one grand effort. Since no one congregation could do much by itself, said the institutionalists, they should all band together to do great things together!

The idea gained both supporters and opponents in growing numbers until it finally split the Churches of Christ in America in the late 19th century. Since then, the idea has been tried at other times among brethren, and of course is a fixture in denominational missionary efforts.

So What's Wrong With That?

While the arguments in favor of a missionary institution claim a number of attractive benefits, opponents then and now point to a variety of drawbacks and weaknesses in the plan. Opponents point out that all human organizations have an inexorable tendency toward bureaucracy, which accrete to an organization as it ages and grows, like barnacles on a ship. They further point out that it is a fact of human nature that a well-funded, succesful organization tends to draw to itself an ever-increasing number of individuals who seek, whether for noble purpose or base, to have a hand in that success, and influence over the spending of the funds. This inevitably leads to the politicization of the management of the organization, which in turn leads to the decline in focus of the organization on its original goals.

But these inherent structural problems, opponents must continue, are not the main problem with such a scheme. The main problem is this - there exists no New Testament pattern or teaching whatsoever which would introduce or support such a practice among congregations of the Lord's people.

In the New Testament, we have no indication that congregations gave money to any human institution for the carrying out of any of their work. There are a number of instances in which multiple congregations expended funds toward a common goal, but in every case, the money went directly from the contributor to the ultimate recipient. There was no intermediate authority over how the funds were spent. Even Paul, who was an apostle of the Lord, only acted as a catalyst for collection and a means of transport for the funds.

But How Can It Be Wrong To Do Good?

This is the crux of the problem, and the heart of the institutional question - "Can congregations give their funds into the oversight of some other organization to spend on their behalf without violating the pattern of cooperation revealed in the New Testament?"

Or at least, this was the core problem until about a generation ago. While 2nd John 9 seems to explain how God feels about those who "go onward" past the bounds of His law, within the past 30 years, the question has had this addendum tacked on: ""And if it does violate the New Testament pattern of cooperation, does that matter?"

Both questions are indicative of an underlying belief, or set of beliefs, which animate and drive the approach and conclusions in study of the Scriptures. But the more recent portion of the question is, again, a slightly different topic, one for a different study. For that question is an older problem than even institutionalism. The question, "Does it matter?" is being asked of more and more doctrinal questions. Of course, the negative answer to that question was originally suggested by a certain reptile to a certain seemingly naive young lady several thousand years ago in a certain garden, and we will not pursue it further here.

But what about the first question? Does it violate the pattern? "But wait," cries the advocate. "What about all those advantages? If it helps the gospel to be spread to more people, and more effectively carries out the Great Commission, and saves souls while saving the Lord's money, how can you claim that it could be wrong? Why would God NOT want us to do that?"

Well, the answer is that I do not stand as the determiner of what's wrong; God does. And He has revealed what is right and what is wrong, what is His way and what is the Broad way, in His book. And while I don't know all the reasons for all the things God specifies as right and wrong, I do know where to go to find out whether things are right or wrong. And that's to the Book.

I firmly believe that if God had wanted us to create organizations of our own to carry out the tasks He set for us to accomplish, both individually and as congregations of His body, He would have mentioned something about it in the Book. It's not as though it's exactly rocket science; organizations and their benefits have been well-known at least as far back as Egypt (which had an organized army and organized slave labor, as well as a hierarchical government bureaucracy to oversee both occasionally unruly bodies). So it seems to follow that if we cannot find any indication that God wants us to set up organizations to do His work, that it must be because He does not want us to do so, rather than that He didn't know how, or forgot to mention it, or just didn't think it needed pointing out.

Which, of course, brings us back to our original question: "Does it violate the pattern?" Many people did not believe that it did, while a lesser number stubbornly insisted that it was a violation. The groups eventually split and went their separate ways.

But What About Orphan's Homes?

Some orphan's homes were being supported by churches by the early 1900s. But the idea gained tremendous popularity in the 1950s, both among "institutional" (in that they supported missionary societies) Christians and non-institutional ones. This idea was that since churches have a responsibility to care for needy orphans, the most responsible, effective, and efficient means to do would be for these small, relatively poor congregations to pool their meager funds and establish homes for orphans to live in, and care for the unfortunate urchins.

The idea proved extremely popular among a large segment of the Christians who were sworn enemies of the missionary societies. But this seemed something unassailable in its righteousness, and clearly a superior means to carry out the good work to be done among the orphans.

But just as the missionary society had, the idea gained both supporters and opponents, and proved to be explosive again, splitting the body of Christ once again throughout the country, with a great deal of acrimony to go along with it. Those who opposed orphan's homes were labeled as "antis", along with other, less savory approbations ("child-haters", etc.)

Leaving aside for a moment the tremendous relative deficiency of institutional care versus family care for children (yet another fertile topic for study), note that this "new" idea has some familiar characteristics:

  1. It's to accomplish a good work (teaching, orphan care)
  2. The work is challenging and expensive (big world to teach, lots of little urchin mouths to feed)
  3. Economies of scale can be had by centralizing oversight of effort and cooperation between congregations which don't have much money individually, but together are financially strong.
So how is this a new idea? Why did it go over so well, even among those who would never have dreamed of sending a penny to a missionary society? I would suggest 2 reasons: (1) Emotion - a poor little orphan child makes a delicious icon for those seeking to drum up support by pulling heartstrings, and (2) Ignorance - those who opposed missionary societies but supported orphan's homes failed to realize that they were one and the same structure, founded on one and the same theory. And that theory is Institutionalism, according to the simple definition which we set out at the beginning: That a church may send money to an institution of some kind in order to carry out some work that it has deemed worthy of support.

So What's the Answer? But a bit of objectivity and reasoning clearly shows that they are peas in a pod. Likewise schools, hospitals, or any other organization set up and supported by churches in the pursuit of "good works". The question remains: "Do they violate the pattern?"

The answer is simple - insofar as they are completely absent from the pattern, they cannot be said to adhere to the pattern. And what is not in the pattern is outside the pattern. And when we venture outside the pattern which God has given us, we have ventured outside the Truth.

So Where Can I Read More?

There are more detailed studies of the issue, including some specific cases not included here at a couple of places you can visit:

I would encourage you to read Irven Lee's "A Friendly Letter On Benevolence" for a fascinating, personal, and prescient look at the issue from a respected preacher embroiled in the middle of the controversy in 1958.

Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. - 1 Cor. 16:13

Questions or Comments? Let us hear them!
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