Institutionalism – Observations and Objections


Ryan Goodwin




            Institutionalism has been one of the most divisive elements of church of Christ history that it can hardly be compared to anything else. For our purposes, the term “institutionalism” will be defined in the following way, “Institutionalism is the doctrine or 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? By nature, larger, wealthier, and more urban churches tend to drift toward supporting human institutions for various reasons. Many church leaders believe that it is okay to use the Lord’s money for orphan homes, Christian colleges, and convalescent homes because we are commanded in the Bible to help in these endeavors. Other people believe that whatever the individual can do, the church can do (and vise versa). Still others contend that in order to compete with the denominations around us, we need to secularize and make our churches more appealing in the marketplace of religions.

            In our previous lesson on the subject of institutionalism, we considered the historical background of the division, making applications to situations today. Many of our young people do not know much about the debate over church support of institutions; they know that we do not participate in the activity, but are almost entirely unaware of why. It is not personal preference or a matter of opinion (to be decided on later by God). We do not abstain from supporting these institutions with the church treasury because we are unloving, uncaring, or selfish. Rather, it is a matter of truth and principle. The difference between the institutional mindset and its opposing force is that only one side actually holds Bible authority with the highest respect.

            What we will do in this lesson is examine some of the primary arguments made by institutionalists, and offer a Biblical rebuttal to each of them.


The Bible Model


            If we ascertain what the model is in the Bible, then good and honest hermeneutics would immediately make all deviations unsound. It is always best in any debate to begin with the truth, laying down a foundation of understanding before moving on to things that are deviant. In the same way, there is a very specific way that currency experts are trained to detect counterfeit bills: they do not waste their time studying every fraudulent form of a denomination, but focus on studying those bills that are genuine. By learning about the truth first and foremost, the expert is able to conclude that any variation is counterfeit. In the Bible, we are told some things about the benevolent activities funded by the church treasury:



The Business of the Church


            It is not the church’s business to do many of the things that people want it to. If God wanted the church to support orphan homes, Christian colleges, and publication companies, He would have asked it to. Rather, the church is in the business of providing a collective arrangement of support for Christians (both physically and spiritually). Apart from supporting Christians, the church is also designed by God to be a refuge for His ambassadors unto the world (2 Corinthians 5:20). It is not the business of the church to teach macramé classes, build hospitals, run an adult basketball league, sponsor a college, or own a bookstore. The problem with instituting all of these human functions is that they go beyond the scope of God’s intentions. The silence of the scriptures does not give permission in any matter (Leviticus 10:1-3, “Which the Lord had not commanded”; Matthew 15:1-9; Acts 15:22-24, “To whom we gave no instruction”; 2 John 9). When we make a church-supported human institution, it does one of two sinful things:



Church Benevolence To Unbelievers


            The church is never commanded or permitted in the New Testament to give financial support to unbelievers. There are several verses, however, that are abused by institutionalists to prove their point, however:


“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).


            Some say that since this verse is addressed to the “church of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2) that it permits those churches to do good to those outside of the household of faith from the church treasury. The argument is, “We are told to do good to all men, therefore, we can set up a food bank at the church building for the homeless in our community.”

            But it is dangerous to assume that everything written in every epistle is meant to apply to the congregation. One writer who believed that the church can financially assist unbelievers based on Galatians 6:10, revealed his inconsistency by stating, “A thing may be a good or benevolent work and yet not be a work in which the church is authorized to engage.  For example the church is not authorized to enter into a money making project or business as a means of raising funds” (“Debate On Benevolence,” Gospel Anchor, May 1995, p. 19). It is hypocrisy to make this claim, however, since the same logic that opens up Galatians 6:10 to congregational benevolence also opens up Ephesians 6:5-9 to congregational engagement in secular business. Just because something is stated in a letter addressed to a congregation does not mean all things contained therein are either binding or permitted at the congregational level. In fact, when New Testament writers intended for a specific application to be made to the local church, they stated it clearly, leaving no room for confusion. When the church is commanded to do things, it is stated that way (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 11:18-34, 14, 16:1-4).

            Besides, the context of Galatians 6:10 demands that it be interpreted to mean the obligation is individualistic. Notice some of the words used in the preceding verses: 6:1 “yourself, you”; 6:2 “one another’s”; 6:3 “anyone thinks he is..”; 6:4 “let each one”; 6:5 “each one shall bear his own load”; 6:6 “let the one”; 6:7 “whatever a man”; 6:8 “For the one”. The “we” of 6:10 refers to individuals not congregations. Paul included himself in these verses, which means the lexical category is “individuals”. If the logic allows for the church to support a Christian college, orphan home, or Bible academy, then does it not also mean the church can give financial support to local hospitals, the Red Cross, American Heart Association, the YMCA, and the Humane Society, since individuals give to these organizations?


“This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).


            Many utilize the same flawed logic in this verse as they do in Galatians 6:10, arguing that whatever the individual can do in “pure, undefiled religion” is acceptable for the church as well. After all, asserts the institutionalist, why would God not permit His church to participate in pure and undefiled religion?

           But context again must be carefully considered. Look at other phrase found in chapter one of this book: 1:3,4,5 “any of you”,6 “let him”, 12 “blessed is a man”, 13 “let no one say”, 14 “each one”, 19 “everyone”, 22 “prove yourselves”, 23 “anyone”, 24 “he”, 25 “one”, 26 “this man's religion is worthless”.  In fact the verse itself is individual in nature (“keep oneself”). The noninstitutionalist is not arguing that the church cannot participate in pure and undefiled religion, but James 1:27 is only defining “pure and undefiled” religion for the individual. There are other verses that discuss the obligations of the congregation.

            Another objection to the noninstitutionalist is that our position “would require that each individual member of the church must, if able, take at least two orphans and at least two widows (the words are plural) into his own home and support them, in order to engage in pure and undefiled religion.” But that is a ridiculous statement because it assumes that James 1:27 cannot really apply to the individual because it would be impractical. First, the word “visit” does not mean “take into your home” or “adopt”. It means what it says it means. Second, if this verse applies only on a congregational setting than that means any church without the financial capability of supporting at least two orphans and two widows is not practicing pure and undefiled religion. As individuals, we are not expected to help everybody in the entire world, but only those we are able to (Matthew 25:15).


“Because of the proof given by this ministry they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all” (2 Corinthians 9:13).


            Some have attempted to make the expression “and to all” refer to non-Christians. But the “to them” here refers only to the needy saints of Jerusalem contextually (2 Corinthians 9:1-2, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). The “and to all” refers to Christians aside from those in Jerusalem for a few reasons. Notice that the “and to all” will respond to the monetary gift in the following ways: they will glorify God that the Corinthians obeyed the Gospel (9:13), they will pray for the Corinthians (9:14), they will yearn for them (9:14), and will one day reciprocate (2 Corinthians 8:14). It does not sound like the response of unbelievers through the assistance of a church –supported human institution, does it?  


The Individual and the Church


            The argument is often made that since the church is composed of individuals, then whatever we are allowed to do as individuals, the church is permitted to undertake as well. This would necessarily include the use of the funds collected on the first day of the week for the church treasury. Though seemingly logical on the outside, this belief has far-reaching consequences. Not everything that is righteously expected of the individual can also be expected of the congregation, and vise versa. And the logic becomes very flawed when we consider some examples of individual acts of righteousness that are clearly not desired by God in a congregational setting:



The All-Sufficiency of the Church


            The church is completely and totally sufficient for everything that it was designed to do. There are very few things that God wants from the church: limited benevolence for other Christians only, edification, Biblical education, fellowship in worship, the spreading of the Gospel, and the support of preachers and missionaries. These are the clearly stated duties of the church of Christ. Anything beyond this is going too far (2 John 9). Individual Christians are asked to do many others things, but these are not in the context of the congregation’s mission. The church should not support orphan homes, convalescent homes, Christian colleges, or periodicals because it is sufficient for doing what it was asked to do by God. We have been given all things pertaining to life and godliness, according to 2 Peter 1:3, so anything beyond what we find in the Bible (try finding the words “Christian college”, “orphan home”, or “Gospel Advocate” in the Word of God) would clearly not have anything to do with life and godliness. Being a noninstitutionalist does not mean I am preventing the church from practicing “pure and undefiled religion”. It simply means I want the church to abstain from doing activities that have nothing to do with either the Christian life or godliness.


Our Challenge


            The challenge for us is to practice what we preach. Institutionalists assert (often quite truthfully) that their human institutions get more done for the world than all of us put together. They claim that we are all selfish, close-minded, and unloving toward a world of hurt, scared, starving, and needy people. If we are to receive eternal life when all is said and done, we must live the life of Christ. We must show by our individual actions that we care for others, and do not need an institution to do it for us. Remember Matthew 25:34-46.