Churches of Christ are not all the same. That’s obvious to anyone who examines them all; there are differences on a number of issues. One thing that divides churches of Christ is the issue of “institutionalism.” As we begin this brief study, it is necessary to first of all define what we’re talking about. Institutionalism is the idea of the local church paying a human institution to do the work of the church, rather then send the money directly to the need. Generally, various local churches will all contribute to the same institution. That institution, whether big or small, will then oversee the dispersion of those funds. There are other errors typically involved with institutionalism, but in this article, we’ll try to stick to the main issue.
The local church is authorized to take up a collection of money (1 Cor. 16:1-2). The money that is collected each Sunday forms what we call a “common fund” or treasury (see Acts 4:34-35 for more on this). As certain needs arise locally or abroad, the church is authorized to draw from that treasury with the intent of meeting those needs. In other words, it is in keeping with the New Testament pattern that local churches send financial relief to meet certain needs that may arise. What are those needs? What are legitimate ways for the church to spend its money? Let’s look at a few things.
First of all, it is obvious that the local church is authorized to send relief to needy saints (NOTE: This gets into one of the other vices often tied to institutionalism, that is, the relief of saint and sinner alike, which the Bible does not authorize.). In Acts 11:28-30, the prophet Agabus came to Antioch and told the brethren there that a famine would occur in the land of Judea. Upon hearing this, the disciples decided to send relief to the “brethren” dwelling in Judea. “This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” Also, in Romans 15:25-26, Paul writes, “But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem.” In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul instructed the Corinthians to take up a collection for the saints, and when he came in the future, he would take their donation to the needy saints in Jerusalem (vs. 3). There is more on this in 2 Corinthians 8-9.
Now, we’ve seen the church’s efforts in the realm of benevolence, and we’ve even noticed how the church’s benevolence was limited to needy Christians. But regarding institutionalism, here’s the question: in each case, did the churches send the relief directly to the need, or did they set up institutions (apart from the church) to oversee the dispersion of those funds? The answer is clear. No institutions were set up. The church always had oversight over the dispersion of its own funds. They made the decision and sent the money directly to the need. Where is the authority, then, for churches today to contract out their benevolence to some human institution…to surrender the oversight…the power, the control…to something other than the church?
Another example that we might consider is the support of evangelists. “Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Preachers and evangelists may be supported, and the church is authorized to provide that support not only for local preachers, but for preachers working in other areas. Notice Philippians 4:15-16: “Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities.” Notice once again how the church sent the relief (this time in support of the evangelist Paul) directly to the one who needed it, Paul. There was no “missionary society” or human institution standing between the Thessalonian church and Paul.
These few points are sufficient in pointing out the iniquity of institutionalism. Instead of looking at this as a small matter, we need to have the mindset that we’re going to follow the pattern of the New Testament and do only what we’re authorized to do. Institutionalism isn’t authorized!