In this unusually-lengthy column I explore the interesting possibility that the self-described “non-institutional” wing of the Churches of Christ might spring from premises that are excessively and unbiblically institutional. In the next (final) serving of random thoughts on this theme, I want to ramble about the American danger of over-emphasizing the individual to the neglect of a sense of community in the body of Christ.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the divisive climax of a controversy within the Churches of Christ as an estimated fifteen percent of churches, who charged that certain mainstream funding practices were inconsistent with the body’s traditional interpretation of biblical principles, sometimes pulled away and sometimes were driven out from the original mainstream fellowship. Like the War Between the States, this conflict was also fratricidal. Good people suffered on all sides, churches divided, and families split as the Churches of Christ–which had started as a unity movement–chose to divide rather than to practice their historical principle of congregational autonomy.
In retrospect, I wonder whether the whole controversy might have been the bitter fruit of a confused hermeneutic, which a few chief men, less hungry for righteousness than for personal glory, hijacked to become their weapon of choice in the interest of their own private goals. There is no need to call names. Such people are known by their attitudes and their conduct. They should not be confused with thousands of others who, following those who supposedly knew the way, sought only to please God according to the way they had been taught.
Driving the Restoration Movement from its inception was a philosophy loosely known as Scottish common sense Realism, which taught that every human possesses in “common” a “sense” that enables him or her to detect, receive, and enjoy “reality” (truth). For Thomas and Alexander Campbell, this philosophy validated their expectation of restoring the “ancient order” of “New Testament Christianity,” a goal that the Campbells considered as divinely inevitable as the achievement of America’s “manifest destiny.” In their minds, both accomplishments would become reality because both were part of God’s gospel agenda for the triumph of Jesus Christ.
The initial motivation, expressed by Alexander Campbell, was the return of Christ and the consummation of the Kingdom of God. The sequence of anticipated events went as follows. Those who cast their lot with “the current reformation,” as Campbell called it, would restore “the ancient order.” Restoration would be the means for uniting believers. A united church would convert the world, which would usher in the millennium, which–at its end–would trigger Jesus’ return. Brother Alex was post-millennial in his eschatology, a viewpoint marked by optimism that the Civil War would soon “cure.”
From the beginning, the Movement thought of the church in the New Testament as the Institution that contained all true believers, but which itself was separate from and more than those people (or even those people plus Christ). Perhaps around the 1880s or 1890s, certain regional leaders developed a notion that the Institution (“the church”) could not do anything acting in its corporate capacity unless the New Testament “authorized” such action in certain carefully-defined ways, sometimes summarized as “direct command, approved apostolic example and necessary inference.”
This formula itself, sometimes abbreviated “CENI,” appears nowhere in Scripture. Even worse, “restoring the church” came to be seen as the way of salvation, and inevitably, in the minds of many, the “Plan” replaced the “Man.” The idealized Institution (“the church”) increased, and Jesus decreased. Fortunately, that was not true of every individual, and a faithful gospel witness continued and was passed down in many Churches of Christ.
As the Movement grew and churches increased in number, some churches began to work together, mingling their money in support of a common cause, and also to financially support other institutions already doing certain works desired, rather than reinventing every wheel. These details fit situations in mid-20th century America, but they were not even imagined among the house-churches of the first-century, Greco-Roman world reflected in the New Testament.
Although otherwise blameless, these innovative practices failed to meet strict CENI standards. When the mainstream of the Movement chose not to apply the CENI theories consistently, a few strong-willed preachers escalated the conflict by declaring the mainstram hell-bound if it did not. Certain mainstream power brokers retaliated by issuing a “quarantine” against the “antis,” and the gap on the partisan chart grew even wider.
Ironically, the strict CENI dissenters labelled the mainstream “institutional” and claimed the label “non-institutional” for themselves. But the whole theoretical basis for the “non-institutional” practices depended on viewing the church as an Institution rather than as people, and on the assumption that (because of CENI) many obviously-good works were admirable if done by individual Christians, but were sinful if financed by “the church” (the Institution).
Baffled by what I suspected to be an artificial distinction, I found a detailed concordance (both in Greek and in English) and looked up every use of the word “church” (ekklesia) in both the Old and the New Testaments, paying special attention to every verb used with church / ekklesia as either subject or object. Whether active or passive, every one was talking about action done by, or done to, people. Nowhere does the Bible speak of action by or on the ekklesia or “church” tthat involves an institution rather than live human beings. There is one verse thatdistinguishes between an individual’s personal responsibility and the broader responsibility of a local congregation of believers (“church”).
That is 1 Timothy 5:16, which discusses the care of Christian widows. Paul says that some widows are the responsibility of the whole body of believers in a particular place, but that a believer whose family includes a widow should step up and assume personal responsibility for her care before trying to shift responsibility on his brothers and sisters who make up his local church. There clearly is a difference between one’s personal duty to care for one’s own relatives, and the duty of a local group of believers who are the “church” to care for those relatives. This scenario is totally different from the distinction being discussed above that led to my study.