The Brown Street church of Christ is what brethren refer to as a non-institutional church. What that means is that we oppose human organizations doing the work that God gave to the church specifically, that is, to individuals who make up the universal church and to local churches made up of individual Christians. There has arisen among non-institutional brethren a difference in thinking about what it really means to be non-institutional. Some have concluded that being non-institutional only means that a local church is not to use the Lord’s money to build and maintain an earthly organization to do the work of the church. Certainly, that is a part of the institutional issue. The question is, does institutionalism encompass more than that? I believe it does. It is my firm conviction that under no circumstance is an organization, created by man, permitted to do the work God gave the church to do.
There are now some conservative brethren using organizations like colleges, camps, and companies, to preach the gospel of Christ. Brethren attempt to justify human institutions doing the work of the church by suggesting the following:
It Is Okay if the Lord’s Money Is Not Used
It is sometimes argued that the only thing we oppose, as non-institutional brethren, is using the Lord’s money to subsidize institutions; thus, if money from a local church is not used to fund an organization, it can do the work of the church. Here is an excerpt from a camp’s website.
“We are not a church camp. We are not supported by the church financially…”
Clearly this camp believes that it would be wrong to receive money from a local church, and to that we would all agree. However, it is also clear that the camp believes that if the Lord’s money is not used, everything is okay. For the record, this particular camp doesn’t believe it is doing the work of the church when it demands that all campers engage in Bible study, but that is something to be debated later. The use of the Lord’s money is the main issue I’m addressing here. Many brethren, of which I would be one, have always opposed human organizations doing the work of the church, regardless of how it is funded. Since God specified the work the church is to do, no other institution is authorized to do it, period. I would admit that what divided brethren in years past, primarily had to do with the misuse of the Lord’s money by local churches, but that was not the issue exclusively. Listen to this statement by Roy Cogdill.
Roy Cogdill (Gospel Guardian – June 16, 1966)
“Human societies to take over and do the work of the church which the Lord built His church to do are spiritual forgeries for they are unauthorized in the scriptures. The only thing that God ever built in the way of religious organizations is the church. He gave it order and arrangement that it might accomplish His will. In the New Testament days, the local “churches of Christ (Rom. 16:16) did the greatest job of propagating the truth and furthering the borders of the kingdom of Christ that has ever been done…”
All these years later, the truth of Roy’s comments is still true. Human societies (organizations or institutions) are still unauthorized in the scriptures.
Individuals Christians Have Generic Authority to Use Human Organizations
Brethren are now trying to justify human organizations doing the work of the church by emphasizing that individual Christians have the right to preach the gospel however they want to since God has not specified by what means they can preach the gospel. The primary point being that individual Christians have the generic authority to use a human organization.
We need to consider this idea of using human organizations a little further. The truth is, even local churches can use human organizations to do its work. For example, a local church can use a post office, a human organization, to carry support to preachers in different parts of the world. In that case, the work of evangelism is still being done by a local church; it is merely paying the post office for a service. So, the issue here is not how the work is to be done, or even what work is to be done, but WHO is to do the work. Yes, an individual Christian can use an organization to do its work, but what the individual cannot do is turn its work over to an organization and let it do the work. Take the Florida College lectures for example. Who is doing the work of evangelism in that case? It is certainly not the work of an individual, or even a group of individuals; it is the work of the college, and everybody knows it. It is not a case where an individual is simply using an institution, in this case a college, to do its work; it is the college doing the work. As Roy Cogdill said back in the sixties, that is unauthorized in the scriptures.
The biggest danger I see among sincere brethren is when a band of Christians decide to do something that is the work of the church. The question of whether the work is being done by a group of individuals or by an organization can easily be confused. Two practices that have become increasingly popular over time are Christians having camps and retreats. Both can be done in a scriptural way, and both can be done unscripturally as well. Take the women’s retreats that Christians are participating in all over the country. Is there anything wrong with women who are Christians getting away to spend time with other women who share their convictions, and to engage in spiritual activities such as Bible study and prayer? No! However, if an organization is formed (offices and officers are established, a treasury is formed, and bylaws are put in place, etc.), and this newly formed organization takes control of the work that is supposed to be done by local churches and individual Christians, an unscriptural practice begins. It is here where the Christians involved tend to claim that it is still them doing the work as individual Christians. I think some brethren need to stop and consider who is really doing the work under consideration. Please know, that I am not questioning the sincerity of brethren, but I do believe brethren should be more careful in this area. I have often said that when it comes to the camps doing the work of the church, all doubt can be easily removed by taking the business of teaching the Bible out of the curriculum and allowing Bible study to just be voluntary. The camp that I referred to before clearly makes a distinction between individual activity and camp activity. Listen to another excerpt from their website.
“Sports are offered in two categories: Competitive and Free Time. The competitive sports, Capture-the-Flag and Ultimate Frisbee, count toward points in the team competition and therefore all campers must participate. During free time, however, campers have the opportunity to participate in pickup games of volleyball, softball, soccer, etc., or to enjoy indoor games and crafts.”
Since teaching the Bible is the work of the church, and studying the Bible is the duty of the Christian, it should be in the second category. However, most camps put it in the first, that is, the “all campers must participate” category. That makes it something the camp is doing, not just a bunch of Christians. The problem is, brethren haven’t thought enough about the question, “who is doing the work—the individual or an organization. The way it is done in most cases, it is the organization.
The main point here, though, is that some conclude that it is okay for the organization, whether it is in the form of a camp, college, or anything else, to do the work of the church, if it is initiated by an individual rather than a local church. But where is the authority for that? Again, an individual has the right to preach the gospel any way he or she wants. A preacher can even use an institution as an aid in some way, like Paul did when he used the school of Tyrannus. Paul did not turn the work of preaching the gospel over to the school of Tyrannus, he merely used its facility as a place to do the work. That is obviously okay. An individual can decide how, when and where he is going to preach the gospel, but not who, that is, he cannot form an organization to do the work for him. I’m afraid that this is exactly what many sincere, conservative brethren are doing in the form of colleges, camps, and companies. Let’s think about this issue with clear minds.