Institutionalism – A Historical Perspective

Ryan Goodwin




            Many outsiders do not know there is a difference between one church of Christ and another. It is sometimes not obvious why there are two, three, or more churches in a particular town, until you peel away the layers and begin to understand the debate over institutionalism – a debate which has ripped apart our fellowship more significantly than any other. What resulted from the split over church-supported institutions was a new perspective on the churches of Christ. On one side of the division were brethren who chose a path leading to general denominational acceptance, conformity, and homogenization. On the other side were brethren who chose a path in the opposite direction: separation from the world, nonconformity, and a relegation to the “fringes” of the church of Christ, in general. But what are the real issues, and how are we to understand the split over institutionalism from its historical perspective?

            Even though we will not be addressing many scriptures until the next lesson, we need to understand the importance of seeing the history of this issue. To understand institutionalism today, we must know how it began. The same arguments that were made in the 1940s are still made today, friends.


Institutionalism Defined


            For our purposes, the term “institutionalism” can be defined in the following way, “Institutionalism is the doctrine of theory, which assumes that the congregations may or should financially support or underwrite certain charitable or religious organizations” (“Problems In The Church: Institutionalism”, William Wallace, It is not a matter of the existence of these human organizations being controversial, but their relationship to the local congregation. Are the Lord’s funds being distributed to them? Are local church elders diverting treasury funds to pay for orphan homes, religious colleges, food banks, book stores, or high schools? The primary arguments come from a misunderstanding about a few things:



Before World War II


            Churches of Christ were, for the most part, very poor and miniscule before World War II. They were often located in the cheapest part of a town, if they owned a building at all, and represented a rather small force in the religious world of the early Twentieth century. It was because of their uniquely sectarian (separatist) beliefs that many of our Christian forefathers remained distinct from the rest of the religious world (Romans 12:2). They were considered peculiar, and even “odd”, by denominational neighbors (Titus 2:14), and were hardly given any thought otherwise. By sheer poverty, institutionalism had a hard time breeding in the church of Christ environment. It was, for the most part, a moot point, and few preachers debated the issue at length. In fact, many preachers openly participated in small institutions at the time, such as minor missionary societies, church-sponsored publications, and preaching schools. In 1936, there were only seven colleges operated by members of the churches of Christ that were paid for out of church treasuries. In addition, several academies, seven orphanages, and two homes for the aged were paid for with church funds. The small number caused little alarm, except in the most perceptive preachers of the time. As early as 1922, however, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. had elaborated on the problems of institutional in a speech in Cordell, Oklahoma, “We have pointed out the central thought of the subject, namely, the school is an auxiliary to the home. This being true it is not the business of the church to run it. The church is not in the school business. The only way the church can scripturally do its work is through the elders of the local congregation” (“Foy E. Wallace, Jr.,” Terry Gardner, Faith and Facts, July 1996, p. 39).

            Abilene Christian College remained at the center of the institutional debate because it was the most visible and recognizable human institution supported by members of the churches of Christ. As early as the 1930s, the college’s leadership began making impassioned pleas to local churches for financial support. A minority of brethren, mostly in the North, were suspicious of the college, and a few people made it clear that they believe it was wrong for the college to ask for funds. C.R. Nichol said in the Firm Foundation magazine, “No, it is not right to take the money contributed by the church of Christ… and use it for schools” (“Religious Digest”, Nichol, Firm Foundation, August 11, 1931, p. 1). The debate became even more serious when G.C. Brewer, an influential preacher from Lubbock, Texas, became the figurehead for A.C.C. monetary support. He made several appeals in the early 1930s to churches and their elders to put Abilene in their regular church budgets. Practical applications:



            Because of preoccupation with more pressing issues such as Premillenialism, the institutional debate was left on the fringes of people’s thinking. The predominant thought of the time was, “We need to do more studying on the issue” (2 Timothy 3:7). Many cautioned against human institutions, but few outright condemned them. In fact, most preachers simply believed that each local church, being autonomous, could decide for itself how best to spend its money. The thing that changed conditions entirely was the advent of World War II. If economic depression had stunted institutionalism before the 1940s, then prosperity fed its insatiable appetite after than period. Practical application:



The Debate Rages


            Many historians see the time period from 1945 to 1960 as being a golden age in American economic prosperity. The churches of Christ were not immune to the effects of new jobs, more money, and a greater interest in religion after the return of soldiers from Europe and the Pacific. One of the first major institutional battles that took place was over, yet again, the Missionary Society. Because of vast evangelistic opportunities around the world, and the money to suddenly do great new things, many church leaders became enthusiastic about preaching to the lost in both war-torn Europe and the “religiously ignorant” Pacific islanders. “With the return of peace, foreign mission work leaped forward in giant strides. The church stood optimistic and relatively harmonious when the clouds lifted, and the world seemed to be beckoning for American evangelists” (Search For The Ancient Order, Vol. 4, West, p. 354). But there was immediate resistance from the conservative minority. Some argued that cooperative efforts in evangelism were leading to the same problems the church had faced years before with Missionary Societies. The conservative thought was, “There is a difference between working cooperatively and working concurrently.” Concurrent evangelism meant working toward the same goals, side-by-side, as religious movement – while still maintaining church autonomy. However, working cooperatively, argued those in favor of the missions, produced greater fruits.

            As the mission-minded churches grew, so did their collections and budgets, thus prompting the construction of new buildings. Prosperity resulted in a new feeling of “legitimacy” in the eyes of the denominations surrounding churches of Christ. Local congregations suddenly got the feeling that with more prestigious locations, more educated preachers, and denominational symbols of their own (such as accredited colleges), they would be able to compete with the denominations in the religious market place of America. Practical applications:



            Inundated with new students, especially those returning from the war, colleges such as Abilene began pressing very hard for financial support from churches. As the money materialized, it became clear to many noninstitutionalists that they had been foolish for not fighting the battle harder thirty years earlier. J.D. Tant was among those who regretted not dealing with the issue, stating that “Bible colleges got control of the churches” thirty years earlier and had churned out a generation of young preachers who fully supported them. Many conservative preachers wanted to “throw on the brakes” and reevaluate the issue of church-supported colleges, but it was too late – they were in the minority, vastly outnumbered by their more prestigious liberal counterparts. Of all the colleges operated by members of the churches of Christ, Florida Christian College alone refused to accept funds from church treasuries.

            When it became clear that the subject would not remain in the category of “expediency” to many preachers, those who supported the institutions suddenly became impatient and wanted the matter settled. N.B. Hardeman pressed his opponents on the matter by pointing out supposed inconsistencies in their logic. Having supported orphan homes for years, many men like Foy E. Wallace, Jr. were taken to task for arguing so vehemently against colleges. “In his 1947 defense of church contributions to colleges, N.B. Hardeman seized the orphan home argument, noting that support for colleges and the homes ‘must stand or fall together’” (The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century, Harrell, p. 90). In the late 1940s, preachers scrambled to find a consistent position, and the only tight way to argue against the colleges was to throw in orphan and convalescent homes as well. Practical applications:



            The major figures in the debate over institutionalism were men like Fanning Yater Tant (son of J.D. Tant, the respected Texas frontier preacher), Roy E. Cogdill, and Foy E. Wallace, Jr. representing the noninstitutional perspective, and G.C. Brewer, N.B. Hardeman, and B.C. Goodpasture, representing the institutional persuasion. Not only was the divide doctrinal, but it also bore a striking resemblance to the division between the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ forty years earlier in the sense of economic prosperity. Noninstitutional churches tended to be poorer, and their preachers less educated, than the churches supporting large-scale radio programs and Christian colleges. Furthermore, the divide was also strikingly unbalanced. Possibly, only ten percent of churches of Christ in 1950s considered themselves allied with the noninstitutional movement. For men like G.C. Brewer, eloquent, liberal, and sometimes arrogant, the noninstitutionalists were simply pests that he believed would wipe themselves out eventually. Practical application:



The “Antis”


            The nexus to the entire debate was Bible authority. Both sides believed the other was missing the mark when it came to understanding proper application of the Bible to the contemporary world. Those who supported institutions believed it was a matter of expediency, just like owning a church building, praying a preacher, or anything else. They argued that their opponents were “binding where God hath loosed” and speaking where the Bible was silent. On the other hand, those in opposition argued that the institutionalists, were, in fact, speaking where the Bible was silent. The silence of the Bible did not give permission, they argued, to “fill in the blanks” and add to God’s word. They believed in the all-sufficiency of both the Bible and the church, and asserted that human institutions only distracted Christians from doing the work that was expected of them on an individual basis.

            Thus, the institutionalists dubbed their opponents as “antis” and sorted them in the same category as “one cup” churches, “no Bible class” church, “no located preacher” church, and other fringe elements of the Restoration Movement. Practical application: