Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 17, 1951
NUMBER 3, PAGE 1,15b

The Issue Of Institutionalism -- No. 3

Bryan Vinson, Dallas, Texas

The political, social, and economic developments of our nation are inextricably intertwined. The centralization of political power is reflected by the social changes wrought in the last two decades. Noteworthy among these changes is the decline in direct charity and a corresponding development of organized and professional charity. Our drift toward socialism, or a socialized state, is alarmingly pronounced; and little or nothing is being done effectively to arrest it. This development of a social state in our political economy is certainly having an easily discernible counterpart in the church.

Most obvious of the ways in which the socialistic philosophy is affecting the church is the shift in responsibility from the individual to the congregation to the institution. As this trend continues and accelerates, we note the ever-increasing number of institutions, the growing needs (and appeals) of each institution, and the urgency with which these appeals are pressed. We are solemnly advised that it is the divinely enjoined obligation of the congregations of the Lord to respond to every appeal, and to supply every need announced. Fearful, indeed, shall be the eternal consequences of our failure to respond generously! None of the institutions ever seems to have a recession in its needs, but, on the contrary, in the grandiose expansion of their programs and the enlargement of their physical properties, the needs continue to increase and pile up. Apparently any individual is free at any time to start one of these institutions and then inform the churches that it is their duty to support it. To forestall any doubts as to the scripturalness of his project, he may induce some elders somewhere (either nearby or a thousand miles away) to "take the oversight" of his project. With such an attractive arrangement his appeals are well-nigh irresistible.

The Scripturalness?

While many objections might be registered against the institutions on the grounds of their practical necessity, and, on the other hand, much might be said in their defense, yet all such discussions would leave undetermined the supremely vital question of their scripturalness. Once that question can be settled absolutely, then the matter of resolving doubts and questions as to their practicability can be dealt with. But until the scripturalness of such arrangements is established, all other questions concerning them are of secondary importance. The question of whether these institutions are scriptural involves the principle of authority, and defining where and with whom this authority rests. Let us, therefore, with brevity, endeavor to determine insofar as is necessary the answer as to what authority means, with whom it resides, and where it is exercised.

First, it should be observed that authority is defined as "the right to command, and the power to enforce one's will." All authority in the universe resides originally and inherently in Jehovah as Creator. Civil authority, possessed and exercised by man in a variety of forms, exists with divine sanction. Such authority functions in the sphere of human relations, and never with propriety in the spiritual sphere. Hence, God has granted to man great latitude in the operation of his civil authority. But in the realm of religion such is not the case. God has given Christ "all authority in heaven and on earth." The word of Christ is the final and complete authority in every matter of the religious sphere.

Christ does not exercise his authority arbitrarily. Man must become a voluntary subject of our Lord, and when he does so, he is constituted a citizen in the kingdom over which Christ is King. Christ is the King over his kingdom; he is the head of the body, which is his church. Consequently, as Lord he is sovereign over the people who make up his church. The relation of the Christian to Christ is so complete and so intimate that it is accurately expressed not only in saying that Christ is the head of the church, but even that he is the "head over all things to the church." Enthroned at the right hand of God, he delegated authority to a select group, the apostles, to speak to the peoples of this world and to present his rightful claim of sovereignty over their lives. In order that no mistake at all might be made in this presentation, he sent the Holy Spirit to guide these apostles into all truth.

The Church — Local And Universal

Now it is evident that in the execution of their responsibility the apostles never made anything save Christians; they constituted these people, in their relations to Christ and to one another, into nothing save churches or congregations. In their individual and congregational capacities alone these Christians were to perform every duty enjoined upon them as followers of Christ.

The church, as all of us have understood, is spoken of in two senses: the local congregation, and the church in the aggregate, or universal meaning. In the latter sense it has no organic existence on this earth; hence, it is no ecclesiasticism. Only as a local congregation, with elders and deacons, does the congregation exist as a concrete, organic, and functioning body of people according to the divine arrangement. In Acts 14:23 we read of elders being appointed in every church. These elders were overseers of the church ("over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers"), simply that and nothing more. There were no elders over anything save over the local congregation. They were never elders over another congregation, nor did they oversee the work of another congregation.

At Quinlan, Texas, we have the curious anomaly of an elder of the church there engaged in the work of superintending, overseeing, an institution that is not the church, but claiming to be doing the work of the church. And in doing this work it is subject to a board of trustees, which board of trustees, in turn, is subject to the elders of the church in Terrell, Texas!

If putting one human board under the elders of a church makes it scriptural, then why cannot we also put missionary boards under the elders of a local church, and thereby make them scriptural? Or, may I ask, has that already been done? Then the colleges among us (since they are controlled by members of the church, and are, therefore, "Christian")—why not put them under an eldership and let them become legitimate wards of the church? Hospitals should be next on the agenda of brotherhood activities, each of them under a local eldership!

I have been much impressed in reading the history of the restoration movement, particularly of the development of the digression, and of the divergent attitudes of these able and devout brethren who were on opposite sides of the controversy that raged. Viewing the matter objectively, I believe I can perceive the radical differences in the respective reasonings on the issue of the missionary society. The proponents reasoned from the concept of the church in its universal sense, whereas those who opposed the innovations were seeing the church in its local and congregational sense. When we, in turn, read the New Testament, it must be clear that the latter concept is the only one therein which reveals the church as a concrete, living, functioning organization. In his "Search For the Ancient Order," Vol. 2, brother West sets forth very clearly the divergent views.

Since beginning preparation of these articles, I have noticed the invitation from brother Tant welcoming the discussion of this question through the pages of the Gospel Guardian. For a satisfactory and enlightening discussion, both sides should be presented. And every writer should make his appeal to the word of God. Further, all that is said or written should be on the issue, with proper respect for the feelings and sincerity of all on both sides. There is certainly no proper place in such a discussion for any kind of personal reflection or for the impugning of anybody's motives. I believe that those who operate these homes, and who are soliciting the churches for support, are under the most compelling obligation to defend their position. Only by doing so can they merit the confidence they now enjoy. A failure to do so will be calculated to create doubt as to the security of their position, just as a refusal by the digressives to defend their innovations is construed as a consciousness on their part of the indefensibility of such practices.

(Editor's Note: Look for an article next week setting forth the position of the Gospel Guardian on these matters.)