“Non-institutional” churches do not support institutions other than God’s institutions of the church and the home. Are their convictions merely opinion or necessary to following Christ? The sincerity of these churches and their Christian examples are admirable and encouraging. However, are these scriptural beliefs? This author pleads with all readers to go to the Bible and reconsider the collection and its ministry for the saints.
Is Institutionalism a Sin?
“Institutionalism” is a broad term and can be ambiguous to define. Non-institutional leaders teach that there is only one institution of God, the church (maybe two including the home as an institution). They find that churches bypass the authority of elders when they support any organization of Christians or an individual Christian within an organization serving in benevolence, evangelism, education and, or training preachers.
Non-institutional churches do not support from their collection an organized group of house parents, counselors, and managers that make up a home for orphans. These churches cannot support in good conscience an organized group of teachers, evangelists, and preachers training students who form a school, college, or university. Instead of generally giving to an organization, these churches give only directly to such people who may work independently from any such organization. These congregations may give like this, but this is their opinion. If they bind upon other churches, then they exclude other churches from fellowship. These Christians are very generous and often do support these institutions from each person’s own giving.
Where Is the Authority?
Non-institutional churches are right in so many things regarding salvation, baptism, worship in assembly, and elders in church organization. However, the leadership of these churches need to reexamine the use of scriptural authority for consistency. They ask, “Where is the authority?” A worthy and necessary question for things for which God has specifically addressed, but this is misleading otherwise if God has given liberty.
Regarding things that God has specified in His written Word, they are right that Christians need biblical authority. However, God’s specific authority does not extend beyond anything that God does not address in Scripture. For example, God gives no authority for driving cars to a congregation’s building and Christians are at liberty for choosing transportation. “Non-institutional” congregations do not need authority for using websites and using PowerPoint presentations in the assembly. In these instances, non-institutional churches do recognize that God’s authority does not apply to what God has not specifically addressed in Scripture on these matters.
When is authority not needed? When God does not specify how Christians are to accomplish a command, then there is freedom. When the Scriptures have not given any specific instructions, this leaves liberty. When a Christian brings food to a mourning neighbor, it does not matter whether one brings the food in a glass dish or basket, but whatever is expedient. However, when specifics are given in God’s Word, then Christians must observe these instructions completely. When considering worship in assembly and church government, Christians must have God’s authority. Why? This is because God has given specific commands regarding assembly and polity. Therefore, one must be careful not to exclude matters of liberty and expediency by misapplying the specifics of authority in God’s Word.
Posing the question, “Is that authorized?” can go beyond what is written in Scripture. How? Consider: Where is authority in the Bible to teach the gospel using projectors? There is none. Why do Christians have no problem with a projector that God did not authorize? Because the Bible has no specifics on how believers display the sacred Scriptures, but God blesses Christians when they do. What about the use of codex-books rather than scrolls? Where is the authority? The first-century church initially used scrolls until the rise of the codex. No authority exists for this change, yet no one judges churches for using a bound book for the Scriptures without scriptural authority. Christians are free to choose unless God specified otherwise in the Scriptures.
Disputing over authority about subjects that God did not specifically address is avoidable. Such disputes are unfruitful, distracting, and often harmful (2 Tim 2:23–36). The authority of God’s Word does overcome the traditions of men. Adding incense to prayers, prayers to the dead, and sprinkling and pouring for baptism are wrong by adding to God’s Word (Gal 3:15; 2 John 9). Yes, unauthorized worship is wrong, because God has specified the true worship that God authorized. Changing church government is sinful, because God has specifically authorized Christ as the Head and He established elders over individual congregations. Unless the aim is to cause many divisions by a neglectful misapplication of biblical authority, then all Christians must plead for authority according to what God has revealed in Scripture (cf. 2 Tim 3:16–17). Christians must not add or annul from God’s covenant (cf. Gal 3:15).
Are Sponsoring Churches Wrong?
Some non-institutional leaders consider sinful the act of giving financial support from one congregation to another congregation who would deliver that support unto missionaries and other workers. According to “non-institutional” leaders, churches must give directly to missionaries and to needy Christians, and never pass their giving through the hands of another congregation, organization, or person. They find that giving to other churches through another church to missionaries is to give authority to another congregation to govern those missionaries like a missionary society. They find that some congregations have made themselves into missionary societies that bypass the authority of other church elders. This can be a real concern if passive elders turn their oversight over to another eldership. The non-institutional brethren are right that missionary societies are not scriptural and not the biblical way. Missionary societies do often bypass the autonomous government of churches. If a missionary society were simply a group of missionaries, then this would be of little concern, but rather these missionary societies are often boards who circumvent church autonomy and govern missionaries. These also neglect the personal fellowship between congregations and missionaries.
Another valid point of “non-institutionalism” is that a congregation could act as a missionary society, and so one eldership could bypass the elders of other congregations. Yes, this is wrong for any eldership or board to govern the work excluding other elders and churches. One eldership over another is an unscriptural hierarchy. However, this is not common practice or an intention.
Some non-institutional leaders can accuse other churches of acting as a missionary society too hastily. Christians must not hear a charge without by two or three witnesses (2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19). However, no such practice is prevalent. Where are the testimonies and accounts of such abuses? Have elders given to other churches whose elders pass their gift to a common missionary? Yes. Does doing this give one eldership a higher authority over another? No. Have these supporting elders who give to another church also given up their oversight and any personal relationship with the missionary? No. This is all cooperation between churches. Is such cooperation scriptural? What does the written Word reveal?
Sending financial support by cooperation with other congregations is scriptural, practical, and less expensive. The churches of Galatia (1 Cor 16:1), the churches of Macedonia (2 Cor 8:1), and the brethren in Achaia (Rom 15:26) all worked together having their collections gathered together and delivered to the church elders in Jerusalem for needy saints. They did this all together. This is cooperation that “non-institutional” churches do not practice and believe this is wrong, because this would either support a central church, person, or group of people as an “institution” that could bypass the oversight of elders of other congregations. However, church cooperation is scriptural.
Were the churches in Judea “sponsoring churches”? These Judean churches received help in their famine and these churches oversaw its distribution (Acts 11:29–30). On this occasion, which elders determined who got what support? Were the elders in Judea bypassing the oversight of other church leaders by receiving and distributing this gift?
The later giving to Jerusalem for which 1 Corinthians 16:3 shows the church at Corinth participated with the churches of Galatia to send money by approving of someone to go with Paul for delivering their gift to Judea. Was Paul another “unauthorized institution”? Was he bypassing the elders? This cannot be! Furthermore, would Paul receive support from congregations for his work and share such with other Christians who helped him like his scribes (Tertius, Luke, or Sosthenes), messengers (like Epaphroditus), fellow teachers (like Apollos), and those he trained (like Timothy)? Would Paul have then established an “institution” contrary to the church of Christ? No. Would giving to Paul and his fellow workers support an institution contrary to the church? No. Would he then have bypassed the elders? No.
Anyone could label any organization for Christian service as an “institution” to reject it. This is the overt fault of “non-institutionalism.” God did not authorize such behavior. Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul sent Titus with another man chosen by the churches. Were these men sponsored messengers and their home congregations “sponsoring churches”? No. However, the churches employed such men as the “messengers of the church” (2 Cor 8:23). Did this bypass the elders of other churches when each church selected a messenger? No. Congregational support can pass through the care of others even when they are organized, yet this is not making any person, group, or congregation an unauthorized institution that bypasses the authority of an eldership, which is something that all Christians must oppose.
Should “Christian” Schools Exist?
Non-institutional churches perceive that there is no authority for “Christian” schools. They mean this in two ways. They do not believe in supporting such organizations by congregational support, and many do not believe in calling such an institution “Christian.” However, these Christians do support schools organized by Christians as individuals apart from the church collection. These convictions are not wrong until such divide Christians. All Christians on all sides of these issues should sincerely consider Romans 14 and avoid causing another brother to stumble.
What does the Bible say about schools? The early churches supported the apostle Paul to teach in the school of Tyrannus for two years (Acts 19:9–10). His teaching in this school was to convert and to teach Christians. Paul was rightly supported by congregations, and he was not usurping the authority of elders. He was evangelizing, making disciples, and most likely training others to become teachers (cf. 2 Tim 2:2). Who was supporting those who were receiving instruction? Would Paul have used support from churches to support his students? Must congregations and individuals give directly to each student? Does this mean that congregations could not help needy students except individually? No. Those who supported Paul supported those whom he trained.
A school is simply an organization of teachers instructing and training students, and such a school often includes other people who are necessary administrators for the organization of the teachers and students. Paul had his administrators and helpers in ministry such as scribes and fellow teacher. If Christians compose an organization for the education of Christians to teach a trade or for the training of Christian preachers and teachers, then the adjective “Christian” does describe them in their organization. This is reasonable and scriptural use for the word “Christian” to describe disciples who identify by the name of “Christ” in an organized work.
A few among these congregations believe that the congregation should not have Bible studies in their building besides the gathering of the whole congregation. In other words, they do not have separate studies for children and leave this to their parents. Parents have the right to make this personal decision. Furthermore, such churches are right that the assembly should include the whole congregation, but this does not exclude using the building for other studies and other works (1 Cor 14:23). Is it a waste to use a building for only two or three hours a week?
Some of these congregations look down on Bible studies called by other names like “VBS,” “Bible School,” “Ladies’ Day,” and “Bible Class.” This is because the descriptive names for such Bible studies are not verbatim in the Scriptures and may sound denominational. These names simply specify the different approaches for the evangelizing the world and for the edification of the church. Christians should prefer to use other terms apart from denominational terms, but this does not change the scriptural work of studying together and with all people. Christians should not avoid Bible classes because “class” is not biblical and John Wesley organized believers via “Bible classes.” From the beginning of the church, there have been different studies for children, for women, and for evangelism (Titus 2:3–5). However, many object when a name is given to the study. Would they have not referred to these studies in specific ways when the women gathered for teaching or when the children regularly gathered to learn the words of Christ? Would they have called women studying “the women’s bible study” or “women’s meeting”? Again, Christians must be very careful not to misuse of biblical authority to support these conclusions when the New Testament gives freedom.
Should Christians Eat in the Church Building?
Many of the non-institutional leaders find that kitchens in church buildings are unauthorized, yet they accept bathrooms and baptisteries. The Scriptures authorize none of these, but these are not unauthorized. Some of these churches refuse to fellowship congregations who have inherited a building with a room large enough to serve others and provide a place of fellowship. While there is no explicit reference to churches purchasing their own places of meeting from the church collection, non-institutional churches reject this practice of building rooms for “socializing,” which those who accept this call “fellowship.”
What is wrong with a congregation using the kitchen in their building that they have inherited or purchased? Is there anything wrong with a congregation building a room for Bible studies and other meetings? This is not unauthorized. What would be wrong in eating in such a room outside the assembly? What would be wrong in having the supplies and appliances available to prepare meals for those in lengthy studies and labors of the church? Must those laboring around the building leave the building for every meal. Paul did not leave the upper room to eat when he taught in Acts 20. Can one not do a day’s work without returning home, going out, or stepping off the property to eat a sack lunch? Why cannot needy Christians eat on the grounds?
If eating in the location of the assembly in wrong, then the apostle Paul should have known before he ate his own meal at the meeting of Christians in Troas (Acts 20:7, 11). There is apostolic precedent to eat in such a place. However, Christians are not to eat the Lord’s Supper as a common meal in the assembly (1 Cor 11:17–34). The Spirit of Christ spoke through Paul revealing, “For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is filled. […] But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come” (1 Cor 11:21, 33). Many cite these scriptures to condemn eating together in the meeting room of the congregation. Yes, outside of the assembly, they broke their bread together in their houses (Acts 2:46), yet Paul ate in this meeting place of the assembly.
The non-institutional churches quote the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:22, “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the assembly of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.” These Corinthian Christians were shaming the assembly. The Corinthian Christians should not eat the Lord’s Supper for hunger and to fill themselves with drink. However, this first-century occurrence has nothing to do with eating in a room of a church building outside of the assembly.
When any of these congregations need something, they often do not object to doing so indirectly through another person besides the church collection. Why not provide housing for the preacher with a large room and a large kitchen? Then the congregation could eat together, and “non-institutional” churches would see nothing wrong with this. However, the congregations who have church buildings with kitchens are doing the same when they provide a place for the ministers to eat and the church to fellowship.
According to them, churches are not authorized to build a building on the church’s property where someone might eat and socialize unless that place is the minister’s home. Those who say that the church had no buildings for meeting besides houses should reconsider. The first churches met in synagogues (Jas 2:2 ASV; cf. Acts 18:7–8; 1 Cor 11:22, 34), halls (Acts 19:9), the porch of the temple (Acts 2:46), and upper-rooms that were built for festal gatherings, funerals, and more (Acts 20:7–8). Upper rooms were places of eating, yet that room or the home below had such rooms that would have a kitchen. Christians can assemble and worship in many places even places with kitchens.
Should Christians Share with All from the Church Collection?
In the Scriptures, needy Christians received help from the collection. The non-institutional churches would say that the collection is only for Christians. However, they allow visitors to come into the shelter, protection, and comfort of their buildings that the congregation provides and maintains through the church collection. In the Scriptures, visitors did come under the same shelter of Christians gather as churches (1 Cor 14:16, 24; Jas 2:1–4). Guests to non-institutional churches use their roofs, walls, bathrooms, air-conditioning, heating, carpet, pews, songbooks, lighting, projector, and so on, which they purchased through the congregation’s collection. However, will they give the needy guest food or water purchased from the church collection? Most object. The guests who believed and were baptized entered into their baptisteries as unsaved to rise saved provided by the church collection. Christians used the collection of the church to help the lost, but the Scriptures do limit this help (1 Tim 5:3–16).
The non-institutional congregations also aid God’s institution of the home through individual foster parents, yet they object to providing for house parents of an orphanage from the collection. They do this because these house parents are a part of an organization or “institution,” and they are not working independently as foster parents. A few have admitted that their collection cannot go to help orphans, because these children are not yet Christians. This is not an accusation that these Christians have the heart of any Pharisee, yet this reasoning does appear to many as the Pharisees’ Corban in Mark 7:10–13. The Pharisees refused to help their own parents, because they claimed their money for giving was given to God. Some will only give to repentant baptized believers.
What does the Bible say about helping non-Christians? In 2 Corinthians 9:12–13, Paul may make a strong case for helping the needs of the saints and sharing liberally with all. However, some Christians understand that this passage is referring to specific saints in Judea and the reference to “all” includes all Christians and not all people. There is no reason to argue this point.
Suppose a non-institutional church survived a storm and purchased a water tank with their collection to aid the needy members of the church. Would any surplus go to waste at their building while others were in need? Would the church not give to their neighbors because the church believed that they purchased the water from the church collection? Could not the members take their share and give it freely to their neighbors and in doing so demonstrate the glory of Christ? Could Christians not take their individual shares and give to their neighbors? “Non-institutional” convictions would not allow them to do that if strictly applied. These churches share their building, air-conditioning, and water in their bathrooms with their neighbors, but they might think twice about giving disaster relief to neighbors from the church collection. What a shame and a waste of goodwill! For these churches are tender-hearted, kind, and care for others, but these beliefs restrict them.
Non-institutional churches refrain from helping Christian orphan homes and elderly homes from the church collection. They only help if they are able as individuals. However, the purpose of the church collection is to do what individual Christians cannot do alone. Would they think the apostles would have hesitated to aid widows who lived together and were cared for by organized caretakers? The apostles oversaw the care of needy widows. Some were neglected from the “daily distribution” in Acts 6:1, and that distribution came from the collection (Acts 4:34–35). However, according to most non-institutional churches, giving to such widows who have organized Christian caregivers from the collection is wrong; although, doing so supports their elderly and orphans. They believe that one should only help from one’s own income as God blesses them. They are right to be so generous individually rather than expecting only the church to carry the burden. This is how they apply and observe James 1:27, which reveals, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit [look after] orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
How Are Non-Institutional Churches Right?
Church collections do have limits. Those who do not work do not eat (2 Thess 3:10). The Scriptures teach that widows are first helped by family and then by the church (1 Tim 5:16). If Christian widows are first helped by their family, then would this not apply that all Christians first seek aid from their family? The principle is from Scripture, “But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God” (1 Tim 5:4). Paul also noted, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). Christians are to honor father and mother by caring for them as they age. Christians are to show piety and support to their own families first, and then the church can help true widows without families to support them. Non-institutional churches are right to give cautiously to those who are truly in need.
Why would any Christian easily give money to needy unbelievers before caring for their own? The collection should aid the family of God before unbelievers. Paul referred to the purpose of the collect as “the relief of the saints” and “the ministry of the saints” (1 Cor 8:4; 9:1). The congregational collection should first be distributed to true widows in constant distress and to needy Christians for disaster relief. At the same time, this does not mean that churches, who are able, cannot show charity to their denominational and unbelieving neighbors from their abundance in the ministry of the saints. No need to write large checks or give cash to help the needy false teacher or atheist around the corner, but rather Christians can give a cup of water, a bag of food, clothing, or shelter to everyone whether as an individual or from the abundance of collective support of the church. Giving to the lost and unbelievers is not the primary purpose of church collections, but the purpose of the collection is for sharing the gospel, supporting true widows, and helping Christians through disaster relief. Non-institutional churches are right to emphasize the purpose of the collection as for “the ministry of the saints.”
One minister personally observed thousands of dollars given in groceries to the unfaithful in a the community in Christian love, yet the people of the world never considered the gentle invitations to come to Christ. They never stepped through the door on the Lord’s Day to hear the gospel of Christ that compelled these Christians to give to them in the first place. In fact, the minister witnessed that many resented the faith of these Christians who helped them (Matt 6:33). After feeding the five thousand, Jesus did not give those coming to Him again when they would not partake of Him as the bread of life (John 6).
Elders must remain good stewards of the collections. The priority for the collection is to support the saints first as they seek first the kingdom of God and the bread of life. In observation, Christians would be better to give from collections to needy saints and then give to unbelievers out of one’s own pockets. Those unbelievers would more likely consider the personal charity and faith of individual Christians rather than disregard mass distribution from a church as charity for little recognition of Jesus Christ. The cautious giving of “non-institutional” churches should encourage all churches of Christ to be good stewards of the collection.
Should These Matters Cause Division?
Let the non-institutional churches have their convictions and work by the wisdom that God has given them. May God bless all Christians humbly to love one another so as to cause further study on these matters. However, opposition to institutionalism is a position dividing many believers. This writer encourages all to continue to lead by their example of generosity and pattern of right giving. For this reason, this writer pleads with all to go back to the Bible and reconsider giving. Likewise, may all Christians consider further biblical ways to give and maintain the church collection. This writer urges all Christians not to push “non-institutional” believers away or call them “legalists” or “antis.” May God help all Christians so that there are no divisions among the church.
[I, Scott Shifferd, as the author edited this article soon after writing to remove the author’s aggressive stance against non-institutional churches for a more gentler, kinder, and move loving approach.]