What Is Institutionalism?

by Gardner Hall

When young disciples ask, “What is institutionalism?” ...

How should we answer them? A simple definition is that institutionalism is seeing God’s church as a network of congregations with its traditions and organizations. Biblically, God’s church is His saved people whose names are written in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). Only He knows who they are.

The historical divisions over institutionalism in the 1950s had to do with whether congregations should financially support organizations and projects associated with the network - at first orphanages and national radio broadcasts - later, colleges, clinics, ranches, camps, and other brotherhood establishments. Many church networks in Latin America and Africa formed national organizations that exert considerable influence today. Apologists for church-supported institutions considered many who opposed them to be pharisaical, binding laws on congregations, especially on the use of their funds, that are not in the scriptures. They called them “antis” and considered them disloyal. The controversy's heat and smoke often covered the fundamental underlying issue:  What is God’s church?

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the positions of known disciples in the 1950s and 1960s (certainly, there were questionable attitudes on both sides), the fundamental question remains – How do we see “church,” especially Christ’s church?

  1. Do we see it organizationally, as a network of congregations that comes from a historical movement, “The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement”?
  2. Or do we see it relationally, as individuals whose names are written in heaven?

Even among congregations known historically as “noninstitutional,” the first organizational concept, #1, still rears its head. It’s so hard to erase it! It’s easy to see “church” as a network of congregations roughly defined by church directories and even by schools, bookstores, and publications we like. That concept is constitutionalism, whether church funds are involved or not.

Of course, there are some known brethren with whom we are more comfortable because of shared positions on various important issues. That’s inevitable. The challenge is to avoid equating that group (that “fellowship,” if you will) with Christ’s church. It’s hard to leave the determination of which specific individuals are saved and, therefore, in Christ’s universal body in God’s hands. And yet, that’s his business and his alone! Only he knows how far he will extend his mercy.

Our concern should be following Jesus, accepting only the authority of his word, while meeting with others locally with whom we can work and worship without violating our conscience. As we do so, we should lovingly engage those with whom we have differences because many of those divergences are vital, having to do with distancing ourselves from Christ and his simplicity. We should especially appreciate and seek contact with fellow baptized believers willing to communicate with us despite differences. But we should never forget God’s mercy in the process.

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