by Tim Haile
April 9, 2000
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I realize there are a couple of different directions one could go with the above title. Under such a heading I could discuss the Christian's influence upon society, per passages like Matthew 5:13-16 and Philippians 2:15, but that isn't my purpose in this article. For our present purposes I will rely upon the first definition of the word society that is offered in the Random House Webster's College Dictionary. The word "society" is described as "an organized group of persons associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes." Thus, when I speak of "societal Christianity" I have reference to the practice of Christians forming agencies, societies, organizations or foundations as distinct from God's ordained "society" of Christians, the local church. Their purpose is to perform the work that God has assigned to the local church. These societies are secular organizations and are intermediate agencies that stand between the "need" and the need "suppliers." This society involves far more than simple concurrent or independent action. It is a separate, third party established for the purpose of soliciting and collecting funds or materials from one group of people, then redistributing those funds or materials to another group.
No Other Collective But The Church
We used to hear good sermons stressing the all-sufficiency and ability of the local church to successfully perform the spiritual works that God wants collectives to perform. It was emphasized that no organization larger than, smaller than or other than, the local church is authorized to do the works that God has specifically assigned to the local church. Do brethren now believe this, or were brethren before just whistling in the wind? Do brethren really oppose the society, or do they only oppose the methods by which some societies are funded?
Not All Societies Are Wrong
God did not legislate in the areas of domestic, political, economic and social alliances. Thousands of organizations exist under these various headings and providing these organizations are not involved in sinful practices, Christians may work with them and through them. Individual Christians may contribute to or be helped by such a society, because God did not legislate regarding societies in the secular realm. Contributing time and money to non-religious, philanthropic societies may serve as one way for individual Christians to "do good unto all men" (Gal. 6:10).
What About Religious / Benevolent Societies?
Some charitable institutions are affiliated with false religious organizations, which means that handling fees from financial contributions bolster those religious groups. By contributing to them Christians assist in the propagation of soul-damning false doctrines. The apostle John tells us not to support those who do not bring the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9-11).
There are relief organizations that have been established and operated by brethren. For reasons stated above, there would be nothing wrong with such societies if they did not involve religious and spiritual elements. There is nothing wrong with individual Christians working through organizations that provide general humanitarian relief. I do not object to the society merely on the basis of it being operated by Christians, but on the basis that it collects money from Christians for the specific purpose of helping Christians, thereby functioning in the same capacity of the local church. It supplants the local church; it rejects the wisdom of God in favor of the wisdom of men.
The question is often asked, "How do we distinguish the spiritual organization from the secular one?" To do this one must consider a particular society's purpose and performance. If the benevolent society's charter agreement involves Christians collecting funds from Christians in order to redistribute those funds to other Christians, then there is a definite spiritual component to that society. Such societies are established and operated upon a spiritual relationship. The end result is the formation of a spiritually motivated benevolent organization that is separate from and in addition to the local churches, and presumes to do the work that God has assigned to those churches.
Let me emphasize that my objection is not based merely upon the fact that those involved are Christians, and it is not based merely upon the fact that these Christians are organized together. I object to Christians establishing organizations based upon the same condition necessary to local church membership (agreement by "faithful" Christians), to perform a collective work that was assigned to local churches ("the fellowship of ministering to the saints"- 2 Cor. 8:4). When Christian directors solicit funds from Christian contributors, then distribute those funds to needy Christians, they follow the very pattern revealed in scripture for the administering of church benevolence. Such benevolent societies leave the realm of "secular" work and enter the realm of "spiritual" work.
The "Philippine Relief Fund"
One of the newest societies to exist among brethren is the "Philippine Relief Fund." Wallace Little serves as temporary director of this fund. In a general electronic mailing, brother Little described the organization as follows:
"We are an INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE (IRS) approved benevolent association, established for the purpose of providing funds for medical benevolence for faithful Filipino brethren in need of care, but this being beyond their financial ability. As a poor nation, there is much of this kind of need, and our brethren are at the bottom end of its very low economic totem pole. I am one of fourteen directors of the PRF. The names and addresses of all directors are included in the bylaws."
Brother Little described the organization as "an IRS-approved benevolent organization," pointing out that they offer "the same kind of Federal Income Tax deduction as is given for contributions to local churches." He said contributions would be accepted "ONLY from individuals."
In the above paragraph, brother Little explained who the recipients of the relief would be. Let us now consider how he describes the society's administrators:
"All directors are faithful Christians. Some are also elders or preachers, or both. Several have been to the Philippines personally and [sic] seen the need here. All have been involved with God's work in this nation, either directly or indirectly."
Notice that the PRF was established by "faithful Christians" to provide medical care for "faithful Filipino brethren." This organization is a substitute for God's arrangement in the area of collective benevolent action involving only Christians. When a famine struck Judea, disciples of the Antioch church sent relief to the affected Judean churches (Acts 11:27-30). When members of the Jerusalem church began to be in need, the churches of Macedonia and Achaia sent relief to them (Romans 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:1-4). Organizations that compete with local churches depreciate local churches.
What About A
"Judean Relief Fund?"
If one argues that such organizations are acceptable today, he must also argue that it would have been acceptable in the first century. Society proponents would have to reason that a chartered agency would have been an acceptable alternative to the benevolent practice revealed in Acts 11:28-30! According to such reasoning, rather than serving as simple messengers and deliverers for the Antioch church, Paul and Barnabas could have formed their own benevolent society to relieve the needy, and they could have solicited funds from individual contributors to finance their work. Of course, if divine authority existed for one such society, then it would have existed for others. This means it would have been necessary for Paul and Barnabas to name their society in order to distinguish it from similar societies of their day. They could have called it the "Judean Relief Fund," abbreviated "JRF." Rather than serving and carrying out the wishes and instructions of the Antioch church, Paul and Barnabas could have solicited and disbursed the funds themselves, right? To be consistent, society defenders will have to argue that this society method would have been just as scriptural and just as right as the biblically stated method recorded in Acts 11:28-30!
Had brother Little and others established a truly eleemosynary organization for general humanitarian purposes, they would not have overstepped the bounds of specific authority. I do not object to this society merely on the basis of it being operated by Christians, but on the basis of it being operated by Christians, and collecting money from Christians, for the purpose of helping Christians! Such an arrangement supplants the local church. If Christians may establish organizations and collect funds to perform the work of benevolence, may they also establish organizations and collect funds to perform the works of edification and evangelism? May they set up schools and colleges to train young men how to be preachers, teachers, deacons and elders? Would this not have also authorized the United Christian Missionary Society?
The Bible pattern tells us how first century preachers were supported:
1) Preachers were sometimes supported by local churches. Preachers supported in this manner were always supported directly by a church or churches, and not through intermediate churches or agencies. While at Corinth, Paul was supported simultaneously from a multiplicity of churches. He said, "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them to do you service" (2 Cor. 11:8). Each contributing church retained its own autonomy by supplying Paul's needs directly, delivering their support by their own chosen messengers (Phil. 4:14-18). He used the expression "robbed" to emphasize the fact that the Corinthian church had the primary obligation to support him while he worked with them (1 Cor. 9:6-14). However, Paul chose not to accept personal financial support from Corinth (2 Cor. 11:7,9).
2) Preachers sometimes supported themselves by means of secular work. Acts 18:3 tells us that while Paul was at Corinth, he fell back on a craft he had learned. He joined Aquila and Priscilla in making "tents." In 2 Thessalonians 3:8 Paul spoke of the long hours that he and his companions worked "that they might not be chargeable" to any of those saints.
3) Preachers were sometimes assisted by individual saints (Rom. 16:2-4,6; Acts 16:15; 2 Jn. 10-11; 3 Jn. 5-8; Gal. 6:6). When this was done the money went directly to the support of the preacher. These passages do not authorize the practice of a "one man missionary society" where contributions from individual Christians are channeled through a preacher and into the hands of other preachers. Such an arrangement is unscriptural. Galatians 6:6 says the one who is taught is to "share with" (NASB) or "communicate unto" (KJV) the one who teaches "in all good things." This means the one who is "taught in the word" has "fellowship" with the one who teaches. The word "fellowship" is translated from the word koinoneo, which is the same term found in other support passages including Philippians 4:15 and 2 John 11.
4) Any of the above combinations.
Why Does It Matter?
God has specified how preachers may be supported to preach the gospel. In each of the above methods, either individuals or churches made the decision about how their money was spent. Personal responsibility was not forfeited. According to Galatians 6:6, the individual who assists a truth teacher "shares with him" in that good work. Equally, according to 2 John 11, the individual who assists a false teacher "partakes with him" in that "evil" work. The supporter is directly accountable for how his money is to be spent.
The same principle is taught with regard to local churches. The church at Philippi had "fellowship" with Paul in "the defense and confirmation of the gospel" (Phil. 1:7,5). In the same vein, the church at Pergamos would be held responsible for allowing the doctrines of Balak and the Nicolaitans to be taught. God holds churches responsible just as He holds individuals responsible. The evangelistic society breaks the divine arrangement and confuses responsibility. By placing the intermediate agency between the primary parties, a triangular relationship is formed. The society takes control and assumes the responsibility that the contributor relinquished.
It is sometimes profitable to consider a thing by taking its premise to its fullest possible end. Let us try this reasoning in connection with the concept of the individually supported evangelistic society.
The "Individually" Supported Missionary Society
Those in favor of individually supported preaching societies know better than to support these societies from the church treasury, for such would be a clear violation of the New Testament pattern (Acts 13:1-3; 2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:15-17). However, these same people have no problem forming and funding institutions to provide spiritual services, so long as individuals contribute the funds. Is God's pattern that easy to get around?
Our Big Society
Honest Christians will accept the logical consequence of their position. If it is okay for individual Christians to fund evangelistic societies, then what would be wrong with a worldwide, "Herald of Truth" type society, as long as it were funded by individuals? We could have our own kind of Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, or Pat Robertson, leading our own gigantic evangelistic society. Just think, what a program it could be! I am not thinking in small, regional terms, and I don't want you to either. If the evangelistic society is scriptural to form and fund then it is scriptural regardless of the size. If the only difference between the small evangelistic society and the big society is the size, then it is time for us to get serious. All we need to do is seek out an individual with enough foresight, vision, personal motivation and fund raising ability, and we will be ready to build our great evangelistic society! Are you ready?
If individually funded evangelistic societies are scriptural, then let us work to enlist the help of every Christian on the planet. Wealthier saints could contribute generously, but with even modest contributions from "individual" saints, we could quickly catapult such an organization into the forefront of modern evangelistic effort. With enough "individual" support and involvement we could finance a full-scale, earth-wide program of Bible teaching. We could hire and send out preachers "into all the world." We would have enough money to finance large scale gospel preaching using mediums including Radio, TV, the Internet, and printed publications!
Of course, we must not forget the personal touch. These methods are powerful tools, but the society would need to train and send men out into fields that are already "white unto harvest." From those generous "individual" contributions, the society could recruit and train men for mission work. Experienced society directors should be able to match the right preachers to the right fields, obtaining maximum results! Isn't this exciting? There could be a chief "director" who served as a sort of "field general," sending the appropriate men into hot-spot areas when trouble arose. And believe me, there will be trouble. Anytime the truth is taught there is always the chance of resistance (Matt. 10:34). This is exactly why our great "society" would need a well-trained, sort of "special operations" team, equipped to refute every form of error imaginable. I'm getting excited! What a project it would be, and this is the great part: absolutely no funds are contributed by local churches. "Individual" Christians from all over the whole world will fund the whole organization!
What do you think about my proposed plan? Sound good? Personally, I can find only one problem with our big plan. IT IS COMPLETELY UNSCRIPTURAL! It binds Christians together in an organization that is larger than God intended. It depreciates the church that was purchased with the blood of God (Acts 20:28). It replaces the wisdom of God with the wisdom of men. It goes the way of denominationalism and institutionalism.
Why Do People Like Evangelistic Societies?
I think I understand the reasons for people favoring the society system. Many people have good intentions and want only to take advantage of opportunities to spread the gospel and do other spiritual works. These endeavors seem like such good works. But just because a thing "seems" good, doesn't necessarily mean that it is good (Prov. 14:12). I understand that this answer is not conclusive. That is, a thing may seem good that actually is good. What makes a thing spiritually good is scriptural authority for it. Yes, God is pleased when sinners are taught and hungry saints are fed, but we must understand that God has appointed the collective through which saints are to do these works. He has assigned them to the local church (1 Thess. 1:8; Rom. 15:25-26; Eph. 4:12; 1 Tim. 3:15).
Another reason for the appeal of the human society is that it doesn't have the restrictions that God placed upon the local church. For the most part, programs and activities can be carried out at the discretion of those directing the institution. Local churches are limited by divine laws (1 Peter 5:2), whereas institutions have no such limitations. Also, contributions to the society can be made at any time, whereas local churches are instructed to collect their funds by free will contributions upon the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2). With the society, distributions and disbursements of the funds are not subject to the scrutiny of local church members or elders (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Preachers can run the program and they don't have to answer to anyone. I certainly don't mean to indict the motives of all preachers who are involved in such programs, but I will say that God's system has certain safeguards built into it that protect against politics, abuse and mismanagement. The human institution has no divinely specified organization or system of checks and balances. It may even have one man as its head. A local church may not.
Another appealing thing about the society is the potential size and power of such an organization. The very notion of a "local" church precludes it from ever becoming as extensive as the society is capable of becoming. The "corporate" philosophy is prominent in American ideology. People like to think "big." Some Christians may have adopted this "big" thinking. The problem is that the "big" way is not necessarily God's way.
Concerning "Individual" and "Concurrent" Action
My criticisms of the society system must not be construed as an indictment of simple, individual Christianity. The Bible emphasizes such action. Passages like Matthew 25:34-40; 1 Timothy 5:16; Galatians 6:10 and Acts 8:4 show us that we may, as individual saints, act independently of others in relieving the needs of saints, sinners, and family members, and in teaching saints and sinners.
Neither do I question the right of individual Christians to engage in concurrent action. Two or more brethren may work together in a business enterprise, such as producing and selling a product (Acts 18:3). Two or more brethren may also work together in conducting a spiritual work (Acts 15:40; 18:5). However, let us understand that, just as Paul, Silas and Timothy were not supported as a unit, we have no right to organize such units today.
I do question the practice of forming, funding, and operating human institutions that are designed to do the work that God assigned to the local church. After reading something like the above, the first question on the minds of many, is:
What About Colleges and Publishing Foundations?
These are sensitive subjects with many people. Possibly a little too sensitive. Could it be that some are aware of violations of the above principles by some of these organizations? Do some organizations serve as missionary societies rather than legitimate business enterprises? I will allow the reader to decide that question based upon information and knowledge that you have.
It is my sincere hope that honest Christians will be able to peacefully discuss any matter that pertains to "life and godliness," for the New Testament addresses these areas (2 Pet. 1:3). We must not develop such affection for a human institution that we become unwilling to even consider the possibility of that institution doing something wrong. Some appear to be more willing to defend their favorite college or publishing company than they are the scriptures.
Brethren have a scriptural right to operate a school, and individual Christians have the right to send their children to such a school. In doing so, the individual Christian merely pays for a service. He spends his own money as he sees fit, and he may choose to quit at any time. There is nothing wrong with a school having faculty and students who are predominantly Christians. In fact, this is exactly the kind of environment that sincere Christians hope to construct. In an ideal world this condition would exist in all schools. Both the teachers and all accountable students would be conscientious Christians. No right thinking person objects to this arrangement.
No scripture is violated when secular education is taught in that school and no scriptures are violated when the Bible is taught in that school. Students who pay for Bible teaching are merely paying for a service in the same way that one pays for a service by purchasing commentaries and other literature.
When The College Becomes Wrong
A school becomes wrong when it attempts to do the work that God assigned to the local church. This would occur if a school or college solicited and/or accepted funds for the purpose of preaching the gospel to others. As we noted above, such a practice would take the college out of the secular and business realm, and would place it also in the spiritual realm. It would have a dual role. In its role in evangelizing it would be an evangelistic organization. It would supplant and depreciate the church by seeking to carry out the work that God assigned to local churches.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, by soliciting funds from either churches or individuals for the purpose of evangelistic endeavors, the college becomes guilty of mobilizing individual saints (the church universal) by binding them together in an organization that is larger than, and other than, God intended. Such violates the New Testament pattern.
A school becomes wrong if it promotes itself as a spiritual institution. There is nothing wrong with promoting a spiritual environment; that is, an environment where individual Christians freely discuss spiritual things like God and the Bible. As I said before, ideally this is the type of environment that Christians hope to accomplish everywhere, not just in schools. Obviously, I have no objection to such an atmosphere. However, I do object to forming and funding any organization, other than a local church (Phil. 1:1), that would classify itself as a spiritual institution.
A school becomes hypocritical if it claims to constitute a spiritual fellowship, while ignoring God's laws governing fellowship. For example, impenitent, immoral and disorderly people are to be withdrawn from, according to 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6. Schools that represent themselves as being spiritual institutions, conduct mandatory worship services, and claim to promote "spiritual principles," would be obligated to follow God's rules as expressed in the above passages. Such a claim obligates the school to "withdraw" from the ungodly and "note" those who refuse to obey apostolic teaching.
Such a school or college faces the same dilemma with regard to doctrinal purity. The school that classifies itself as a spiritual institution obligates itself to divine fellowship guidelines and restrictions. This would mean that the school is prohibited from using, and financially supporting those who do not abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9-11). By using such men, the school becomes a "partaker" in such a person's "evil deeds." Individuals who endorse them do so now.
What about Florida College?
If FC operates strictly as an educational institution, fine -- it can provide a useful service. But if they envision themselves to be a spiritual fellowship to engage in evangelistic endeavors, to assume the role of a church-related school whose function is to furnish guidance to the churches and to train their personnel, then these are unauthorized assumptions.
There is nothing wrong with brethren establishing and operating a business whose purpose is to sell Bibles and religious materials. They do not compete with or supplant the church. They merely provide a service to churches and individuals. If however, such an organization were to use its facilities, resources and personnel to solicit funds from individuals for the purpose of evangelistic efforts, they trample upon God's specified arrangement and depreciate and supplant the local church.
I would urge brethren to operate colleges and publishing companies as businesses in which individuals pay for the service that is provided. Schools and colleges should do the job of providing a healthy education, not providing structure and machinery through which Christians may carry out the work of evangelism. Neither should foundations and publishing companies consider such their work. They may serve a useful purpose in printing edifying and instructive literature that individuals may purchase for their own personal development, but that is all. Let them leave the work of the church alone.
The "society" question is an important one. When it comes to organized, collective action, God has entrusted local churches with the task of preaching the gospel (1 Tim. 3:15; Acts 13:1-3; 15:3). God is glorified through this arrangement (Eph. 3:21). Men may organize, raise funds and conduct activities in the domestic, political, economic and social realms, but in the spiritual realm, God has spoken. Let us be content with what he has said.
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