by Irven Lee (1914-1991)
April 1, 1958
A good friend that I have known and appreciated a long time sent a letter of inquiry which prompted this answer. Since so many are wondering about the same problems, I am making a few copies of the letter [that I wrote in response] with the hope that good can come of it.
You recently wrote to me concerning some of the institutions that brethren are operating among us. In that letter, you mentioned the close tie of friendship that has existed between us over the years. That friendship is one of my very pleasant treasures, and I hope that the tie can be just as close at the time of death even if we live to be as old as the oldest of those we have known and loved. In this letter, I want to speak frankly as friends can speak. There is no fear that you will twist things said out of their context to use them unkindly. If you find me wrong you will want to help.
I confess that I fear that the church our Lord purchased with his own blood will be harmed very much in our generation by the "aids" and "good ideas" that well-meaning brethren have offered. I might say that much harm in many places has already become very evident.
Let me hasten to say that the church supported institutions that men have planned and started grew out of men's desire to do good and help in the Lord's work. I know too much about the spirit of sacrifice and unselfishness of several of those who founded these institutions and promoted them to question their motives.
It is just as evident that much good has been accomplished by these efforts even if the harm I see and fear becomes especially serious. Good boys and girls have been fed, clothed, and trained for useful service in the Kingdom. Many institutions have done many good things. There is still fear in my heart that they may do much harm. The end does not always justify the means, and the firstfruit observed is not always the final harvest.
I have observed that these institutions sometimes come to mean more to their friends than the church itself. We work most and show more zeal for the thing that has come to have first place in our hearts. The brotherhood is being divided over the church support of human institutions. Those who would walk out of the assembly with a show of anger to build a congregation that would do its work through "cooperatives" are not those, generally, who attend night services, encourage little struggling congregations, or spend hours in trying to reach neighbors. In one such case, a congregation of one hundred formed in protest against the church's hesitancy to do its work through benevolent societies. In this case, the prayer meeting attendance was not affected. This is an example of a movement that put the church to an open shame because "our" institutions came to have first place in the hearts. If I baptized as many as the most capable you know and was as unselfish in dealing with the poor as Barnabas and Dorcas, I would still be marked as a fanatic by such friends of institutionalism if I did not give a little to some cooperative movement, or, at least, help promote such.
Unfair pressure is often exerted by these movements. Patient, zealous, and unselfish preachers of the gospel are marked as "cranks" if they preach a carefully planned lesson of warning concerning the danger of going beyond that which is written into the realm of human doctrine. Such preachers are "moved" regardless of the work they have done to build up the church or to help the needy. They must promote the newest big church institution or give up the work of preaching for the congregations that can be "lined up." The "pressure" methods of forcing their way are wrong even if the projects are right within themselves. Some of us know this pressure by first-hand information. I preached a sermon one Tuesday night, the last portion of which was considered very detrimental to a powerful brotherhood project. "Headquarters" was made aware of the sermon before bedtime that night. Two members of the board met in secret with the elders on Friday night. My work there "began to end," and I moved by request. In my more than twenty years of preaching, elders had never asked that I leave and, as far as I know, had never desired that I do so.
The problem of what to do about human organizations larger than and smaller than the local church is not a new problem. Studying the history and problems of the church in America in the last one hundred fifty years can be very helpful. It is the story of continual and everlasting problems with institutions which "good men" have offered as "aids" in the Lord's work. There have been "Ladies Aid Societies" to take care of the needy out of the hands of the Lord's appointed officers - the elders. "Sunday Schools" were organized with their own treasuries and officers without a scriptural pattern. Colleges began to be established from funds raised by the churches. The missionary society is now over one hundred years old. A study of its history is easy, and it illustrates every phase of the problem.
Good men started the missionary society, and they wanted to advance the cause of truth. Alexander was its first president. Almost every "faithful" gospel preacher of the time favored the society. This was true of the mature scholars among our brethren as well as among the less trained and younger brethren. They were shocked at and rather cruel to Jacob Creath and a few others who doubted the wisdom of trying some plan not recommended in the Scriptures.
The advocates of the missionary society insisted that the command to go preach is a general command and that God did not say how it should be done. What could be wrong with a society whose sole purpose was to preach the gospel, they reasoned. They made rather convincing arguments to the effect that it was expedient to have the society because the churches could do their work better that way than any other way. They reminded our brethren - the moss-backs, the antis, the cranks, the fanatics - that the Bible did not say it was wrong to have a society. That made it appear that the "cranks" were making a law against the society when God had not made such law.
The missionary society did not cause men to do more "mission" work. It is evident as can be that the Christian church with its society has not grown as fast as the church has without it. The cooperative idea relieved the individual and the local church of much of their feeling of responsibility. They need not start new congregations since that would be done by headquarters. The society absorbed much of the money in costs of operation, and they cut the link between the congregation and the preacher on the field, so there was less personal interest in his work and less joy of accomplishment on the part of the congregation sending funds. The good done by the society's preachers blinded the eyes to the deadening effect of the plan. None saw the final harvest in its horror. Division, modernism, and the growth of another group glad to take its place as a denomination was the outgrowth.
This society was well received for several years. There finally came a period of heated discussion. After nearly sixty years (1849-1906) the United States census recognized two groups. Notice this line as a typical pattern for problems over some institution offered as an "aid" to brethren.
25 or 30 years 25 or 30 years Then... Approval Controversy Division
If the benevolent and recreational societies and other such human offerings do not follow the same pattern, it will make a unique chapter in the history of the restoration movement in America.
Think of church-supported schools. Campbell wanted to train young preachers, and he was capable of the task. He was a trained school man with a wonderful mind and a great insight into the truth. He traveled thousands of miles to raise money for the churches to aid a school. His school at Bethany and others that soon began in a similar way have long since departed from the narrow path. In fact, no real opposition to church support arose until the schools began to err grievously and abuse their powers. The church finally split three ways after the "explosion" came. Some went all out for support from the churches; other brethren said schools can be conducted by the brethren if they will keep their place as schools and stay out of the church treasuries, and some said that brethren must not build "Bible Schools" under any kind of setup.
The Sunday School movement had its three-way split. Some opposed all classes, others said the institutional setup was acceptable, and many said classes were very appropriate but they, like all other efforts of the body, should be under the elders.
These "good ideas" were not good if they wounded the spiritual body of Christ. No more modern offering will be good if it divides the body of Christ. The human element added is the thing that brought the problem. There would have been no division or confusion if all could have spoken only as the oracles of God with full confidence that the inspired scriptures will furnish one completely to every good work. It has been ninety years since John T. Welsh wrote: "I think it is an undeniable truth, that men never departed from primitive Christianity until they lost faith in it. And no Christian ever yet adopted human systems and appliances until his faith becomes weak in the divine. ... We want more faith and less machinery, more work and less talk, more faith and less planning. The Lord has given us the plan, and bids us go work in his vineyard; but instead of going to work with the tools he has furnished, we spend all the day in making new ones which in our wisdom, we think will work better. Let us quit it and go to work with a hearty good will."
Certain dangers have become realities in each battle over institutions. Some churches have divided. Bitterness is a natural ingredient in all such occasions because the devil has a hand in each. Some congregations that do not come to open division become so torn by internal factions that they become inactive and lukewarm. The big church supported institutions dominate the churches that support them. They become a super-government to "request" and "advise" by very effective means in many local affairs. Must the church face this now in regard to the "homes"? Are the three "dangers" not already realities in dozens of communities?
The missionary and educational work could have been done without the church dominating institutions, so can the benevolent work be done in our day. It is not necessary to take the widows from Alabama and send them to Tennessee. It is not necessary to take fatherless children from Kentucky and send them to Texas. Each community can care for its own except in very unusual times. Sister congregations can send funds to the elders in a critical area if this is needed. There is scriptural authority for this simple plan but not for the boards and plans for consolidation. Through the centuries the benevolent work has been done without modern machinery and suggested bodies.
Orphan schools existed among us before the day when free schools with free transportation were in every community, but the orphan homes that exist among us are, as far as I know, younger than I. My high school girl is older than most of them. Men of many good traits started them and operate them, but part of the price for this particular plan is to be a divided church. This seems evident since many local communities have already witnessed the bitter division and the sickening faction. Many communities are "in line" with headquarters on who may preach regularly or in meetings. Lines are being drawn fast. Expect it sooner or later in the churches in that area. Much prayerful study in advance of that day can help much. Some "homes" show far more tendency to dominate the churches than others. The personality of the superintendent enters into this.
There are many homes wanting children, but few children are available for them. There is no situation that demands the grouping of many children under one roof. In twenty-five years of preaching, I have not found children that needed homes but that homes could be found for them. I wish I could help some fine homes that I know of to get children. If you learn of such and need help in finding a home I believe I can help find Christian parents delighted to get them. Some few officials in state welfare departments have been found guilty of taking large bribes in getting children for people willing to "pay." If a few hundred more were in brotherhood "homes" there would be fewer available to those brethren who are eager to care for them.
The most expensive and least desirable way to care for children is in the orphan's home setup. States have learned this and prefer the foster home as more desirable for the child and less expensive. The orphan's home is a modern experiment that had been found to be inexpedient before our brethren started them. In a careful study, this becomes evident.
In the orphanage, the child remains an "orphan." That means he is still without parents. When he is cared for in the home where there is a family unit with a father and mother he has parents even if they are not related by blood. The child needs the lap to sit on and the parents to run to with his personal problems that love and affection can solve. Even children who, because of unfortunate conditions in the home, must be cared for temporarily can find places in homes in the community.
In the orphanage there is a constant change of matrons as the child grows up into another "department," or as matrons resign for easier work. Some of the finest people become matrons but find it next to impossible to live up to the many responsibilities of the difficult though unselfish work. This situation is not the fault of a superintendent or board. It is an unhappy weakness of the system. Many feel that in the orphanage the home is "restored." The fact may be that the children are kept from having a home (parents) by being taken in there even though they have food, clothing, shelter, and many other essentials. Children in the average homes have less spent for them than orphans in the average orphan's home among us. Their toys, clothes, etc., come with the personal love of parents attached. The doll is not just a doll but it is a doll that some loved one gave. The home is better for the child because his great need is for parents and their loving care. A child needs a lap to sit on where he can find love and security. Food, medical care, shelter, supervision, and schooling do not necessarily mean home. One mentioned to me recently that during army life he had food, shelter, clothes, and supervision, but he was eager to go home. The child may not, of course, be able to analyze his need, but he may be starved for affection in the midst of good people and plenty of the things money can buy.
The orphan's home setup is not necessary and it is not best for the child. It is not best for the church because it is taking the church through the same struggle through which it has passed with other "helpful" human plans. The centralized plan for caring for the aged and the orphans is not the best for the individual Christian who can and should "visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction." When Cincinnati became the center for missionary work, the individuals lost zeal. They contributed their coins on Sunday, a small portion of which was sent to headquarters, and the work was left to the society. Those who advocate the benevolent homes so boldly can often satisfy their consciences by sending very little from the whole congregation each month. Few congregations contribute enough to support one child. Each tends to feel some relief as an individual with the thought that the church is doing the work through the "homes."
The Christian religion is a "Do It Yourself" religion. The Bible does not teach that we should get money by begging, sales, games, or just any method. Rather, it teaches that each should give. Hiring a group of singers who sing beautifully is not what the Lord asked. He wants us to do the singing. Even if we support a man to spend full-time teaching and preaching we are still obligated to teach our children and our neighbors. The individual is to practice his own pure religion. He is not to feel relieved of all obligation of benevolence when he makes a contribution on Sunday. He will be placed on the left on the last day if he does not minister to the needy himself (Matthew 25:41-46).
Many of the children in the orphanage today have mothers living, so they are not available for adoption. The much more appropriate plan would be to help the mothers keep their own children. A widow may find it next to impossible to earn her living and care for the children. She deserves help from her neighbors as she makes worthy efforts. We realize that it is difficult to qualify as a child-placing agency, so we are not rebuking the homes for not letting their children out into private homes that want them. If they are in the orphanage they are no longer available to private homes. Their lot is cast.
When great interest in a missionary society was aroused there can an epidemic of institutions that offered themselves as "aids." One seems to have been started with motives as worthy as were the motives that started another. There were state societies as well as the national organization. One "aid" was the "Christian Woman's Board of Missions." This was organized in 1875 in addition to the general society. The church supported colleges, the institutional Sunday schools, and many other human plans had their place in this epidemic of human institutions.
In our day there is an epidemic again. The orphan home movement is growing rapidly in number and wealth. Many take this as a good sign. We may also notice that many churches are building their kitchens and "fellowship" halls, as well as recreation halls. Many schools are talking about church funds. Some are eager to see a "Church of Christ Hospital." Some congregations operate "Church of Christ Farms." There are many plans offered where radio work and work abroad can be centralized. One church may be available to employ workers for Korea, another for Japan, another for Germany, etc. These churches are glad to receive great sums from smaller congregations to do great things abroad. The elderships of these large congregations may do much good, but many disadvantages of the missionary society plan may reveal themselves. We cannot give book, chapter, and verse for this plan, for it was not the system used in that day when inspired men lived. The system they used worked and it was the Lord's way. We may have the ideas associated with the society movements of seventy-five years ago reorganized and presented under new names and forms. Churches may now have "choruses" but not choirs. The latter name would not be accepted. We should all take heed lest we drift away from things written (Hebrews 2:1-2). Trying to help the Lord's church improve its organizational setup is dangerous work. The local church and the individual members can do the work without universal church action or clubs within the congregation. Has the day come close when the congregation's primary task will be to raise money for camps, schools, homes, national radio programs, centralized plans of foreign work, etc., rather than the carrying out of its own program of edification, benevolence, and evangelism?
Many times we fail to do as much as we should in the name of the Lord. Sermons need to be preached. New organizations are not needed. Teaching concerning the great commission and liberal giving was needed one hundred years ago. The missionary society was not. Teaching concerning benevolent work and liberal giving is needed today. We do not need any benevolent societies to take this work from the individual and the local church. More teaching can lead to more work. Action on the part of each Christian is the Lord's plan. He suggests nothing which leaves the feeling with the individual that "they" will do it, or that we will do it through "them."
There is a place for publishers but no "Church of Christ Publishing House." There is a great need for hospitals, but the church is not assigned the task of building hospitals. It is fine to have schools and it is wonderful if Christians teach, but the church is not in the business of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Let worthy institutions exist in their own sphere. The church can buy groceries for the widow, but the church cannot scripturally run the store. We may teach by radio, chart, class, or any way because the command to teach is general. The Lord does not give the details or limits as to how the teaching or benevolence is to be done. Surely we are safe in believing that such work is to be done by the individual with or without the support from other individuals or from the church treasury. No church-supported society is authorized to do any of it. The church can just as effectively do its benevolent work through its members with no unnatural home of society as it can do its evangelistic work without a society. Let worthy institutions like banks, schools, hospitals, parks, publishing houses, etc., exist apart from the church. Let the church and every member of it be awake to duty.
Many institutions such as "Sunday Schools," Ladies Aids, and Youth Clubs are not necessary at all. Work of edification and benevolence can be done under the elders. The church has its work of evangelism, edification, and benevolence assigned and a divine plan calling for elders and deacons. The Bible is complete (II Timothy 3:16-17).
The orphan homes, even in this day of their rapid spread, take care of comparatively few orphans. The same is true of the homes for the aged. Most needy people are cared for as they were before the modern movement. It would be good for the cause of truth if more teaching on our individual duties had been done and fewer thousands had been spent to afford state or area-wide efforts. The terrible bitterness brought by the introduction and defense of these institutions would not have been if they had never been introduced, and the poor would have been cared for in better ways. The Bible suggests enough, and it does not suggest one of these human plans of centralization. That which leads to division or harm is not best even though the idea may appear to be good.
You realize that I have worked with private schools for nearly twenty years. I can add the word that such work has brought me into close contact with some very able men who have given themselves to the defense of the church-supported institutions. I have heard many preachers advocate such. Officials of two orphan homes have invited me to consider being superintendent. These invitations grew out of the fact that I have worked with children through the years, and out of the fact that it is difficult to get men for the work. They likely asked many others. I appreciate their confidence and hope to always be counted a personal friend by these people. My contact with some of the homes has made it evident that good people work there and do much good. I fear the ultimate harvest and do not believe the plan to be wise. I do respect many of the workers for their sincerity and unselfishness.
It is not easy to be right. Most of us, if not all of us, have let words or deeds ion regard to these issues that threaten the church today reveal inconsistencies in one way or another. We need to be patient with one another and not rush into unkind use of words like fanatics, cranks, etc.. Each of us should be willing to change position and practice any time or as often as he is convinced that he should to please the Lord. We should never change just to get in line with the crowd or to avoid a struggle for right. There is a line between the wise and the unwise, truth and error, the right and the wrong. Time will make this line clear on this issue just as it has on the missionary society issue. Courteous patient understanding will not do harm but will allow truth to have a free hand. We can pray one for another and for the victory of the truth. Love of truth is one of the things that should be in each heart along with a love for God and man. Love will do much to hold us together while the line between right and wrong comes into clearer view from a more careful study of the Scripture. It is evident that we should teach others whatever truth we recognize. It is never wise to try to drive because we then only drive a wedge. Our first goal should be to see the church spared the open shame that error and division can bring. We cannot., of course, have peace at the price of error's being enthroned. We must be willing to study both sides and learn the things that are to be learned before we can claim an honest right to stand anywhere. Impulse and emotion are not the two factors that should make all decisions. Following the preacher we like is not safe. Preachers differ. There are preachers available to teach every false doctrine under the sun. So each must study to show himself approved unto God (II Timothy 2:15).
The conflict between the "progressive" and "non-progressive" elements in the church seems to be a constant threat. You realize that members of the Christian Church thought they were progressive and our grandfathers were non-progressive. The two groups differed in their practice as to the use of the instrument in worship and some said this was the only difference. The real difference was in attitude toward the Bible. One group felt free to add a thing if the Bible did not specifically forbid. The other group felt that a thing should not be included in the worship without scriptural authority. Time revealed the big difference.
The "progressives" of fifty years ago are brothers to the "liberals" of today. The "moss-back, non-progressive" group of that generation are the conservatives or "fanatics" of our day on the issues of our time. If a church splits into two groups today over the benevolent societies, the one that favors church support for the societies, the one that favors church support for the societies will be the one that is more likely to have a "church of Christ baseball team," a well-equipped kitchen and fellowship hall, a place in its budget for churches that sponsor Korea, Japan, or Germany, etc. It is less likely to own a much-used tent for starting new congregations, to send its own directly supported men into some "mission" field. The preacher is likely to be encouraged to have a "broad mind" and not be so offensive by preaching about "one body, one faith, and one baptism." The use of the instrument was only a symptom of the weakened faith. The aid (usually small) sent to some institution is a symptom that men are thinking more highly of themselves and their plans than of the limits of God's law. Time will reveal a wider gap than was first realized. One group is "modern," the other is "narrow." Must we divide every fifty years? How will the liberal and conservative conflict reveal itself at the turn of the next century? The Lord only knows. The arguments will be the same even if the names of the institutions or objects of innovation are new. The proper use of our eyes and ears would prevent the devil's leading us through the same rut every few decades. Preachers of the Christian Church do not doubt the salvation of pious un-immersed, or that people who "trust the Lord" are saved. We may live long enough to see the harvest of the liberal-conservative struggle of our day.
We cannot let outstanding preachers decide for us because some decide one way and others decide another way. Each must do his own study for each must give an account for his own deeds. There are three positions on any issue. Some are for the brotherhood projects, some are against them, and some seek to avoid having an influence. Each man does have an influence, and our Lord explains that "he that is not for me is against me." We are either right or wrong. One who knows right and will not stand for it because of his love for income and praise of men is not one of the Lord's jewels. There is more room for respect for one who is sincere and zealous in his stand for what he believes even though he is wrong than for one who knows the truth and is too selfish to stand firmly for the truth in love. One should not hurry to a decision before studying, and one should not stubbornly hold to error after learning better, but it is high time to study because the problem is here. Institutions are calling for hundreds of thousands of dollars from the churches and putting pressure on those that they call fanatics. This is either right or wrong.
You may wonder about my interest in schools operated by Christians. For fourteen years I served as president of little schools. I did not then think that churches should give to the schools, and that is still my conviction. For almost the entire time I served in this capacity praise was common for this stand from most preachers. The time has come when it is cause for my being labeled a hobbyist. A true confession is that I did not realize how much was involved at the time. It was evident that the churches about us would have suffered much if we had tried to get funds from their treasuries. For expediency's sake and to avoid burdening them with school work, which is not the mission of the church, we remained independent. I made mistakes many times, but I am thankful for the conviction that was developed early. I was slow in coming to realize the danger and significance of the other movements among us. As time passes I see that a storm is approaching, and I should have studied more and taught more on this vital point of keeping human institutions off the neck of the church. Schools, publishing houses, and many other things have a right to exist as servants of mankind but not as a super-government for the church or as a parasite on the church. The administrators of most of the colleges operated by our brethren have taken the very "liberal" view of this crisis. I am embarrassed and ashamed of this. The constant need for funds brings them close to men of wealth. Those who are among the rich find it hard to have child-like faith in the Lord's plan. The temptation to trust in riches is evidently great. They made money by their own plans, and they see the need for business (human) plans in the work of the church. How easy it is for our desires to become our beliefs. Schools followed the digressive movement in the last half of the last century. They seem to be following, with very few exceptions, the "liberal" movement now. I stand amazed. It is evident that the church bought by the blood of Christ should be first in our hearts and affections.
D...., this letter is long. In fact, it is a sermon that I recently preached except for a number of scripture references that I used in the sermon. I am enclosing a list of several references on this vital theme. The Bible teaches us God's will and He knows best. We should not go beyond the commands, approved examples, and necessary inferences of the law of Christ. Please do not feel that I am being unkind or that I am trying to force something on you. Be careful not to accept anything I suggest unless it is in harmony with the book. Let me say again that I appreciate your letter and that I treasure your friendship. Give my love to my friends there. I hope all of you are well. We are at present. Come to see us at any time you can.
The following references are to scriptural statements I have recently studied in meditating on the theme of benevolence. They teach the Lord's will and plan for this phase of Christian duty. You may notice that the church did give to "saints" or to the "brethren." There is no record of the church as a body giving to men of the world. No gospel preacher of that day started an evangelistic campaign by giving great amounts of food and clothing. They first preached and taught those who were baptized to be liberal. They taught by both precept and example.
Simplicity characterized their very liberal work of benevolence. There is no scriptural picture of "boards" and large institutions through which the work was done. Congregations did send to elders in areas of special need. Individual Christians were to bear one another's burdens and to do good to all men as they had an opportunity.
- Matthew 5:16; 6:1-4, 19-20; 10:42; 19:21; 20:28; 25:31-46
- Mark 12:41-44; 14:3-7
- Luke 6:38; 10:30-35; 12:13-21; 16:25
- Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37; 6:1-7; 9:39; 11:28-30; 20:33-35
- Romans 15:25-26, 30-31
- I Corinthians 16:1-3
- II Corinthians 8 and 9
- Galatians 6:1-10
- Ephesians 4:28
- II Thessalonians 3:10
- I Timothy 5:3-16; 6:17-19
- Hebrews 6:10; 13:16
- James 1:22-27; 2:15-17
- I John 3:16-19