Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 29, 1955
NUMBER 21, PAGE 8-9a

Letter To Brother Lemmons

Chester Estes, Sheffield, Alabama

Dear Brother Lemmons:

In reply to your defense of institutionalism: In the current issue of the Firm Foundation you refer to the sixth chapter of Acts. Because they made provisions for taking care of widows, you say they set up an institution. If you did not say that, just what was the point? You have gone on record advocating one kind of institutionalism. Now, is that the same kind we have today? Did the apostles select a board of trustees from various congregations, with a chairman, a treasurer, a farm foreman, athletic director, etc., in order to look after these widows? Since orphans must be cared for also, and we think of the Jerusalem church as the model church, then did they follow the same system in setting up, or instituting an orphan home? You might say, "they had no widows' home — they cared for them without a home." How do we know they did not care for their orphans without one? Why would they need one kind of home and not need the other? If the apostles did not institute such homes, and appoint such officers to look after them (no record of it), then why use Acts 6th chapter as proof of what is being done today? (I suppose you are defending what we have today.)

It seems you are saying that every time a congregation does a benevolent work it sets up an institution. In some places the brethren have three sermons on Sunday and dinner on the ground at the noon hour. Now, is that dinner prepared by the sisters an institution? Seems that is what you are saying. People will go to great depths of absurdity to prove a thing to be a necessity, simply because most people want it!!

Do you, Brother Lemmons, defend all institutions? The missionary society is one. A person who demands that we criticize institutions on the demerits of each separate institution should come forth and commend some we have on their merits — scriptural grounds. Do you defend all institutions (you admit we have them) we have today in the church? And, do you do it on the ground they are like the institution the apostles set up or established, or instituted, in Acts 6? If not, point out which ones are right and which are wrong. You will want to do this, since you have already taken in hand to redeem the brethren by restoring them to the institutionalism of Acts 6. This is the first attempt I remember seeing of a member of the body of Christ trying to defend institutionalism. They have been saying, "No such animal." This is the first attempt I have seen to defend it by an approved example. If that is not what you did, why did you write the article? Surely you wanted others to see what you thought was the truth. Surely you did not want to anathematize the brethren. It never dawned on me when I began preaching, 33 years ago, that one of the editors, one day, of one of "our" large "loyal" "brotherhood" papers would write an editorial defending institutionalism in the church. I do not recall any editorial from our late Brother Showalter defending institutionalism in the church.

Since we have been told that there is an approved example in Acts 6th chapter for what we have today in the way of orphan homes, just which one of our orphanhomes? In other words, tell us which are set up like the institution the apostles instituted. If you say that only the principle of an institution was there, but that we had to wait all these years for that simple principle to develop into our modern church institutions, then tell us what we might expect to have in the next 25 or 60 years.

You certainly have a peculiar definition of "institution". Let us try the word "denomination" — give it some not preferable meaning. Say, the word means anything named — or, as we say, denominated. Then let us paraphrase your words: "Whatever the congregational responsibility may be, some provision must be made for discharging it. Whatever provision may be made is then a congregational provision. When denominated (named) it becomes a denomination. Thus a vacation Bible school is a denomination (named or denominated). A singing school is a denomination (named or denominated). Whatever organized arrangement is made by a congregation for carrying out its responsibilities becomes a denomination when put into operation." If we cannot on the same ground substitute denomination for institution, why not? We will paraphrase again: "If shelter and food had been provided, it would have been a home — a widow's home. (food was provided. C. E.) It would have been a denomination. Was this denominationalism wrong?" If I cannot in like manner substitute denominationalism for institutionalism, picking some obscure meaning, why not?

You go on to say your divine, apostolic appointed, institution was "dangerous". Which institution is more dangerous, the one in Acts 6th chapter, or the ones you know some brethren are condemning? Or, is your fancied institution of Acts 6th chapter like the ones the brethren you criticize are condemning? If yes, you go on record in defense of all of them. If no, you and the Foundation should join those you criticize.

Do you maintain that the fancied "widow's home" of Acts 6 had trustees scattered over the then known world, and that many of the congregations had that home in their budgets, and that some of these widows supported themselves, some gave their estates, some were supported by their kin, and some by the church? That is what we have now, and you have made the comparison.

You, Brother Lemmons, and every one else, knows that all Christians believe the widows and orphans should be looked after. That is not the issue. Sectarians say we do not believe in the operation of the Holy Spirit in conversion, because we do not believe their theories about how he operates; some say we do not believe in the second coming of Christ, because we do not believe their theories that he will reign on earth a thousand years when he comes. We do believe in the operation of the Holy Spirit in conversion, through the word; we do believe that Jesus will come again, but those who misrepresent us are not honest. Because some brethren do not believe in certain methods of looking after widows and orphans does not mean they do not believe in these good works; because some do not believe in certain methods of congregational cooperation does not mean that they do not believe in congregational cooperation.

When the apostles instituted or denominated a system of taking care of their widows they prayed and laid their hands on the seven. You use Acts 6 as an example of what is done today. Must we infer that seven men must be selected as trustees anytime a congregation wants to look after widows, care for orphans, have a singing school, or have a vacation Bible school? And, since the seven (trustees) are so scattered over the world, who must authorize the selection? And, who has the authority to lay their hands on the trustees? And, who does the praying? Will the trustees be selected from the big churches? from the poor congregations or the rich congregations? from America? Europe? Africa? Australia? Ridiculous, you say! Is it any more so than trying to justify the institutionalism we have arrived at by taking Acts 6 as an approved example!

I wonder if you noticed in Acts 6 that Luke said, "their widows". Certainly, congregations should look after their widows and their orphans! That is a far cry from caring for everybody's widows and orphans. If some of the widows of the Jerusalem church had children who could care for them, they were no longer their widows, so taught Paul. Paul did not contradict the other apostles. All the needy widows in a congregation are not included in "their widows". The church is to be relieved from the support of widows who have near kin that can support them.

Where do you get the idea that they had to have a home to shelter the widows in the Jerusalem church, had they been in need of shelter? We do know they ate their food from house to house in Acts 2:46. We do not even know how they fed the widows. If they needed food, and they did, is it not reasonable that they may have needed shelter? If so, such was supplied. And, since the disciples were accustomed to going from home to home eating their bread, could not these widows have been sheltered in the same manner, from home to home, without some institution (something instituted) or some denomination (something denominated)? Were the widows fed and not given shelter? Or, did the disciples dine from house to house, but put the widows off over in a corner to themselves at a separate table? If they needed shelter, and perhaps they did, did the early disciples take care of all the shelter of the other needy disciples, but put the poor widows off in a home to themselves? Were they not allowed in the homes of the brethren?

You stated that the institution set up to care for the Grecian widows was dangerous, and that "the arrangement they had prior to that was dangerous". Just what arrangement did they have before? If they had some "arrangement" which was a "provision" on the part of the congregation prior to the new "arrangement" — was not the first arrangement an institution or denomination also, since it was, by some one, instituted or denominated? One institution instituted to supersede another institution! Still some say we have no institutionalism!

If the first arrangement (institution or denomination) was more dangerous than the one under the seven (which you seem to infer), why did God allow it to continue among the Jewish brethren? There is no record of change from the original method of taking care of Jewish widows. The new arrangement was to take care of the Grecian widows.