Presented in 2 lessons on Sunday, July 11, 2010 am            Listen  Lesson 1    Lesson 2

What is Institutionalism?

                Last week a lesson was presenting dealing the subject of how churches cooperated.  Based on conversations following that lesson, I felt that it would be a good idea to explain what is at the foundation of our differences with our institutional brethren.  In this lesson we want to examine what we mean by institutionalism and explain the primary differences.  But most importantly we will notice WHY these issues are “a big deal”.

                I want to begin by emphasizing that I realize many of the issues we will discuss are good works and they have a place in the life of a Christian and/or church.   I also want to emphasize that I do not question the sincerity of churches involved in the activities we are going to discuss.  But in ALL we do we MUST respect God’s boundaries (Col. 3:17, 1 Cor. 4:6).

 I.                    What is Institutionalism?

a.             My definition (and its use in this lesson) – a doctrine that supports the right of congregations of the Lord’s church to use its resources, including funds from its treasury, to build and maintain institutions OR the centralization of such funds from different congregations to do what is perceived to be the work of the church.

b.             Institutionalism involves a series of doctrinal issues that have been a cause of division (twice) between churches of Christ for a more than 100 years now.  The reasons for these divisions cannot be trivialized or relegated to matters of opinion and personality conflicts (i.e. let’s just agree to disagree), because they involve key doctrinal issues that affect the very definition of what the church and her work is AND differences in attitude toward the word of God.

c.              Some of the tenets of institutionalism that are of concern include:

                                 i.         The belief that the church can build and finance institutions out of the Lord’s treasury to do the works of evangelism, benevolence and edification.

                                ii.         The belief that churches can pool their resources (i.e. institutionalize) into a sponsoring church or organization to do the work of a local congregation.

                              iii.         The belief that the work of the church involves general benevolence to the community – in the form of benevolent programs to relieve suffering.  Some works that fit in this category would include  orphan and elderly homes, hospitals, soup kitchens, food and clothing pantries and relief agencies (both temporary and permanent) etc.

                              iv.         The belief that the church can organize, support and sponsor social and community activities such as schools (from pre-school through college), family life centers (gymnasiums & counseling services), day care centers, sponsoring ball teams and camps, etc.
 The rationalization is that such benevolence and social programs lead to opportunities to evangelize.  This is a form of the social gospel.

d.             Is there authority for such practices in scripture?  We CANNOT set aside authority to do what we THINK we can do or WANT to do.  There are MANY reasons why this is so.


 II.                  What are the main issues?

a.             The autonomy of the local congregation

                                 i.         The word autonomous means “self-governing” or “not subject to control from outside, independent” Random House Dictionary,

                                ii.         A fundamental characteristic of the church in the New Testament was how each congregation was TOTALLY autonomous from others.   Every congregation answered directly to the Lord for their own conduct (many of the letter were written to churches addressing their individual needs). 
As we noted last week, never do we read of congregations collectively pooling their resources to sponsor some work.  A congregation had complete discretion over their own funds.

                              iii.         The authority of elders was limited to the local church – Ac. 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:2

                              iv.         While institutional churches profess to respect autonomy – when they send their funds to a human organization or sponsoring church to do some work, they have surrendered their autonomy in that work OR they have usurped authority over the resources of another congregation.

b.             How do we use the Lord’s money

                                 i.         Anyone who respects authority understands that what is given to the Lord belongs to Him and it ought to be used according to His instructions and desires.
Acts 5:3-4, Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit.  What they gave up belonged to the Lord.

                                ii.         The question is HOW can it be used?
We KNOW there are limitations.  1 Timothy 5:16

                              iii.         As we study scriptures, whatever we determine to be a scriptural work of the church (and that includes HOW it is done) then we have authority to use resources of the church to accomplish that work.  Cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-2.  Note the collection was for a specified purpose – not to do whatever they wanted with it.  As you study that collection (i.e. last week – Can churches cooperate?) you find limitations that MUST be respected (such at autonomy, benevolence was temporary, for Christians only, with no sponsoring church or human organization created to do the work, etc.)

c.              What is the work of the church?

                                 i.         The work of the church consists of evangelism – preaching the gospel to the lost and the saved (1 Tim. 3:15, Phil. 4:15-16, etc.); benevolence toward needy saints (cf Acts 11:27-30, 2 Cor. 8:1-4, 1 Tim. 5:16, etc.), edification – spiritually building up the body (Eph. 4:11-16, 1 Cor. 14:12, 26, etc.); and worshipping God as we assemble together (John 4:24, 1 Cor. 11:20-34, Eph. 5:19, etc.)

                                ii.         In times past we have spent considerable time, examining exactly what could and could not be done in these various areas.  If we respect the authority of God’s word we will consider the limitations He has placed upon these works.

                              iii.         Today, institutional churches acknowledge these as the works the church can do.  However, many such congregations have redefined each work of the church – both what it is and how it is to be done.
 Evangelism is often carried out by sponsoring churches and campaigns –In addition to this, many churches will sponsor an area of the world to evangelize and seek the support of other congregations to send them money to do the work. Such works violate congregational autonomy and rules of cooperation in scripture.
 Benevolence is extended not just to saints, but generally to all who are need y within a community – this is done by creating permanent organizations or long term projects – both of which are foreign to the New Testament pattern. 
The “justification” for such, among other things includes such is used as a tool to evangelize.  Such is also justified by verses which speak of “doing good”.  The reasoning is that because it is a “good work”, it must be pleasing to God. 
BUT, the question I ask is, WHO determines what is and is not a good work? Furthermore, it is not a question of whether we should be concerned with these things, but HOW is it to be done? 
There is not a single example in scripture of a church engaged in general benevolence.  It just does NOT exist!  In fact, 1 Timothy 5:16 RESTRICTS benevolence within the local congregation.  Every example of benevolence was for needy SAINTS – 2 Cor. 8:4, Rom. 1:26, Acs.11:29
In the name of edification, churches have engaged in all sorts of recreational and social activities, often building, with the Lord’s money, facilities for such uses.  This is often done in the name of fellowship, so much so that the term fellowship has come to be associated with these types of activities.    Also the term edification, which means “to build up” is broadly interpreted to include anything we do together – whether spiritual or physical.
When an uninformed person reads the term fellowship in scripture, they often associate it with these types of works.  But the term in scripture, means “sharing” and  is used primarily of a spiritual relationship one has either with God or with his brethren.  See Rom. 15:26, 2 Corinthians 8:4, 1 John 1:6-7.

d.             The difference between the church and the individual

                                 i.         Institutionalism misunderstands the distinction between the church and the individual.  One of the main arguments used to justify general benevolence is to say that what the individual Christian can do, the church can do.   Based upon this they will appeal to passages like James 1:27 and Galatians 6:10 which address our need to take care of the needy (and not just Christians).

                                ii.         But the Bible makes a CLEAR distinction between the church and the individual.  There are things to be done as the church, such as certain acts of worship (i.e. the Lord’s Supper – Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33), and there are responsibilities that individuals have which are distinguished from the church  (consider 1 Timothy 5:8, 16 & Matt. 18:15-17). 

                              iii.         Also, when examining the context of both James 1:27 and Galatians 6:10 you will see clear reference to individual Christians rather than the assembled church body.


 III.               What’s the big deal?

a.             The above point demonstrates some of the main doctrinal differences between institutional congregations and non-institutional congregations.   I am sure there are other differences, but these are key errors that we cannot ignore when it comes to fellowship with one another and with God.  
As stated earlier, these issues are at the core of what the church actually is AND how we approach the word of God.
A note of observation:  Not every institutional congregation espouses all of these errors. Honesty in our studies demands that we consider each congregation individually before we begin making accusations.  But as a rule, most of these issues will be found together in a congregation to one degree or another.   So what is the big deal?

b.             It is about authority – at the foundation of our differences is how we establish authority for all that we do (Rev. 22:18, 19; cf. Deut. 4:1-2).  IF we are going to truly respect the word of God and its boundaries, we must consider these things.   2 Timothy 2:15 tells us we must “rightly divide the word of truth.”  1 Pet. 4:11 challenges us to speak only as “the oracles of God”
When discussing these issues with one of the institutional persuasion you will usually find a more LIBERAL approach to the Bible.
One of the biggest justifications for institutionalism is the silence of God’s word.  It is sometimes argued what is not specifically prohibited is authorized. 
The scriptures WARN us against appealing to silence for justification (1 Cor. 4:6, Heb. 7:12-14, 2 John 9, Acts 15:24).  ANYTIME one appeals to silence for authority it is an admission that authority is lacking or at least questionable.
If they address these issues with a liberal mindset, what is next?  We CANNOT twist the scriptures and expect God to be please with us (2 Peter 3:15-16).

c.              It is about responsibility – in many of the actions we have discussed, individual (and autonomous congregational) responsibilities are delegated to some organization or sponsoring church.
In the end, we will stand before God and answer for our own conduct – 2 Cor. 5:10.  We cannot rely upon someone else to save us by proxy.  The same is true of the work of the church.  You cannot relegate your responsibilities as the Lord’s church to anyone or anything else. 

d.             It is about ignorance – we might ask, “If what you say is the truth (i.e. the non-institutional position) why are these things so readily accepted by so many?”  One of the reasons is ignorance.
 Many institutional congregations do not spend much time addressing these issues (and some of our non-institutional brethren are equally guilty of this). They treat these issues as if everyone agrees that they are acceptable (and with most of the religious world, they are not only acceptable, but expected). People simply do not study the issues and ASSUME they are acceptable. 
  Are assumptions an acceptable way to establish authority?   Consider 1 Kings 13:11-34 where an unnamed prophet condemns Jeroboam for his sins in worship against God.  He was instructed to not eat with anyone in that place.  But an old (and lonely) prophet wanted his company and lied to him saying that the Lord had instructed him to bring the younger prophet back (vs. 18).  The younger prophet ASSUMED he told the truth.  He didn’t and the young prophet died.
Israel ASSUMED they could conquer Ai with a small force after Jericho, but God was not with them.  They had failed to inquire of Him (Joshua 7).
Consider Paul - Acts 23:1 who in good conscience persecuted Christians (Ac. 22:34).  1 Timothy 1:13 – he did it IGNORANTLY! 
Prov. 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (16:25)
Others (not all) are dishonest about our differences and use prejudicial labels like “anti’s” or “orphan haters”.  In preparing for this lesson, I came across a number of hateful distortions about our convictions.  A few years back, Contending for the Faith (a periodical published by brethren of the institutional persuasion) marked Brian Yeager who renounced and repented of having been in this false system by saying, “Hence, Yeager and the Butler congregation now hold views which imply: 1. A Christian who takes one thin dime out of the church treasury to buy milk to feed a starving infant will go to hell when he dies unless he repents of such a sin… 4.  It is a sin for a Christian mother to breast feed here infant child or to give it a bottle of milk in the church building…” (Contending for the Faith, September, 2001)  Friends these are prejudicial statements that promote ignorance rather than honest examination.  USUALLY, when such rhetoric is used there is not good reasoning behind the position being defended (i.e. it has holes in it, etc.).
Another website, in an article entitled, “Those Man-made laws from Anti-“institutionalism” Churches”, equated  our asking, ‘Where is the authority?’ for some of the actions we are discussing to not having specific authority to drive a car to the church building or websites and power points. 
Acts 17:30-31 warns us that ignorance is not acceptable.  Romans 10:1-3 speaks of the ignorance of the Jews.
One final thought here: Isaiah 55:8-9 notes that the ways of God and not the ways of man.  RESPECT GOD’S WAYS!

e.              It is about attitude – who are we trying to please?  The above innovations that we have been discussing are about appealing to men and their cravings rather than God.   Many of the innovations appeal to the carnal man instead of his soul.  They appeal to man’s wisdom for justification.
 In reality it is selling out the gospel to be like the nations around us. (cf. 1 Sam. 8:19-20) - remember how Israel asked for a king to be like the nations around them.  Even when warned of the dangers, they didn’t care.  Samuel was right.
Have you noticed how far too many today see the church as nothing more than a social organization? When looking for a church, they ask, “What do you have to offer us?”  And they are not talking about scripture!  We continually have people knocking on our door requesting handouts.  They are NOT interested in the gospel but in some social need being satisfied.
In all we do, we need an attitude check.  It BETTER be about pleasing God rather than ourselves – Col. 3:17.
Don’t forget how upset Jesus was when they turned the temple into a house of merchandise – Matt. 21:12-13, John 2:13-17.

f.              It is about God’s pattern?  I am convinced that God in His infinite wisdom knew what He was doing when the church was planned, bought with the blood or Christ and begun on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).  As it developed, the pattern God set in motion worked and to this day it will still work.  God doesn’t need our help to improve upon His pattern any more than he needed Abraham’s help in fulfilling His promise to him (cf. Gen. 15:1-3, 16:1-4).  Instead He needs our RESPECT for His word and ways!

g.              It is about what is next.  An honest institutional preacher or brother will admit there are no examples of the way they carry out their work in the Bible (which is why they appeal to silence and implications).  What I have noticed about innovations is that with very few exceptions, it only takes a few years for the next generation to “push the envelope” a little further.  WHERE WILL IT STOP?  This is seen in the differences between institutional churches now and when we divided some 60 years ago.  It is seen in where “Christian churches” are now compare to when we divided in the late 1800’s over the missionary society and instrumental music.


                Friends, we cannot afford to just ignore differences that undermine the very foundation of our faith and the Lord’s church.  What I have presented in this lesson is just an introduction.  There is so much more to consider in each of the points we have identified.  Let me encourage you to study these thoughts further considering God’s word and work.  Perhaps at some future time, we can address these issues more fully from the pulpit.  In the meantime, think about these things prayerfully and strive to please God and yourself.  Think about it.