Are We Authorized to Organize Religious Societies?
In the previous study on the subject of religious societies, we noted how Alexander Campbell, one of the most influential restorationists from the early 1800’s, was much in favor of the formation of religious organizations and societies, for the purpose of more efficiently evangelizing the world.
For the sake of anyone who is not familiar with the term “restorationist”, that simply refers to someone who is seeking to restore Christianity to the pattern given in the new testament. The new testament gives us all that we need to know, dealing with the purpose of the body of Christ, which most people call the church, and with it’s organization, with it’s worship, with it’s specific doctrine, or in other words, it’s teaching. And the new testament also gives us the only authorized pattern to follow concerning the conduct and behavior of individual Christians.
The bible puts it this way, in 2 Peter 1, verse 3; “Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything, pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own excellence.”
But the question of the day was; Are religious societies scriptural? In other words, is there any scriptural evidence, that the existence of societies are authorized in the bible? And that question is just as pertinent today, as it was in the 1800’s.
Alexander Campbell, and those who shared his opinions, believed that, yes indeed, the bible authorized the existence of organizations and societies, whose purpose was to aid in, and to accomplish, the duty of evangelizing the world. Campbell and others simply saw these societies as a matter of expediency in the work of evangelism. In other words, they saw it in the same way that we might view the use of an automobile, in transporting us to the area that needs to be evangelized. You can walk wherever you might need to go, but traveling in a car would be that much more expedient.
And so those who promoted societies, knew that the church has the responsibility to spread the word throughout the country and the world, and therefore, they felt that by organizing societies, they could accomplish this work, that much more expediently, or efficiently.
Campbell used his “Millennium Harbinger” publication, to promote the idea of church co-operation. That was his main objective.
We see co-operation between congregations all the time today. One congregation might initiate a specific work, which might be sending a team of preachers to some part of the world, or it might be a radio or television program, like the Gospel Broadcasting Network, or something like that. And then other congregations contribute to that particular work, as they see fit. That’s congregational co-operation, or “church co-operation”.
We see that principle of congregational co-operation in the bible, when we read of the different congregations all giving to the relief of the church in Jerusalem. An example would be the congregations in Macedonia. It says in 2 Cor chapter 8, verses 3 & 4; “For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty, for the favor of participation in the service to the saints.”
So you can see, the scriptural example is for congregations to give “of their own accord”, as the scripture says, “according to their ability”, in order to help the members of another congregation. In this case, the work was to provide for the needs of the members of that particular congregation, but it could just as well be, that a congregation is engaging in the work of helping people somewhere else, and they can’t do it by themselves, and so other congregations join in, and contribute to the work. And so you have congregational co-operation, specifically authorized in the bible.
A Foundational Rationale
Now let’s see how Alexander Campbell laid out his rationale to promote the formation of religious societies.
Campbell started out with two foundational statements:
First; Jesus left the conversion of the world, up to the body of Christ. In other words: The conversion of the world is the responsibility of the church.
Second; The agency to be used for this conversion, is the word of God.
These two points are clear to everyone. For example; Ephesians 3, verse 11, says that “..the manifold wisdom of God, might now be made known by the church.” Verse 12 says; “This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And as for the word being the “agency” to be used for conversion, Romans 1, verse 16 clearly says; “I am not ashamed of the gospel (which is the word of God) for it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe..”
Campbell builds His Case
From these two foundational points, Campbell goes on with his argument for societies with these points:
Each member of the Lord’s body is responsible to do the preaching of the word.
If the task is too great for individual members to complete, then the local congregation must take over.
If the task then becomes too great for the local congregation to complete, other congregations should join together in the work.
He sums up his views with this quote; “A church can do what an individual disciple cannot, and so can a district of churches do what a single congregation cannot.” This quote was published in the May 1831 edition of the Millennial Harbinger. Notice how he uses the phrase “a district of churches”.
In the October 1931 edition, Campbell wrote this:
“Agreeably, to the reason and nature of things, which must never be lost sight of, and to all that is said or implied in the New Testament upon this subject, it behooves the churches at this time, to regard their location, as respects states and counties, in their efforts to convert the world.”
What Campbell was saying here, was that many congregations existed in poor areas of the country, and in “frontier” areas, where there was neither the money nor the talent available to do a proper job of evangelizing the surrounding areas. Therefore those congregations should consider that fact in judging whether or not to form societies in which to “pool their resources” to accomplish the work.
But Campbell went on in his article with these words:
“The only question is; How shall this be done to the best advantage? The New Testament furnishes the principles which call forth our energies, but suggests no plan.”
Now there’s a statement that many people took exception to, or disagreed with; That the New Testament offers no plan of HOW to evangelize the world. But here’s how he continued:
“The churches in every county, have from scripture and reason, all authority to bring their combined energies home, that they may, and ought to, cooperate with their weaker neighbors, in the same state and so on, increasing the circle of their co-operations, as they fill up the interior, with all light and goodness, until the knowledge of the glory of the Lord covers the whole earth.”
So that goes along with his earlier statement, that “A church can do what an individual disciple cannot do, and so can a district of churches do what a single congregation cannot.” The only problem is that nowhere in the new testament, do we read about a “district of churches”.
We read about the “congregations of Macedonia”, in 2 Cor chapter 8. And we read about the “congregations of Galatia”, in 1 Cor chapter 16. But we never read about any “districts” of congregations. We simply read about individual congregations, in various areas. And then of course we read about the body of Christ as a whole, such as in 1 Cor 12, verse 27, which says; “Now you are Christ’s Body, and individually, members of it. So then individual Christians in a certain location, make up the local congregations, and individuals collectively throughout the world, make up the body of Christ as a whole.
A District of Churches ?
When Campbell used the term “districts of churches”, in his newspaper, one person wrote back with this very simple response; “There never was, and there never can be, any occasion for such a combination of churches, to build up the Redeemer’s kingdom.”
But Campbell and others simply saw societies, as an “expedient method” of carrying out the command to, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations..” Mat 28, verse 19
Now just so we all understand what the term “expedient” means; An expedient, is something that is not specified in any command from God, but rather, is something that makes carrying out the command possible, or even more efficient. Synonyms for the word expedient, are.. “convenient, or practical, or advantageous.”
For instance; If you’re going to “Go therefore..” as Mat 28;19 says; You’re going to have to use some method of “going”. So it might be expedient to drive a car, or to fly in a plane, or to go in a boat, or maybe you’d have to go on foot. It would depend upon where you’re going. So then, the car, or the plane, or the boat, or a good pair of walking shoes, would be called “expedients”, to carrying out the command to “Go”.
And so again, Alexander Campbell’s rationale, was that since Jesus gave the responsibility of converting people, to the church; And since the means of converting people was to be through preaching the word of God; Then it was simply a matter of expediency, HOW the word gets preached.
So Campbell considered the church as a whole, in other words, as the church universal. And he posed this question.. Should individuals preach the word? Or should congregations preach the word? Or should districts of congregations preach the word? Or should an evangelical society preach the word? Campbell said, ALL of these ways are acceptable, and expedient. They ALL fulfil the responsibility of the church, in the universal sense, to go everywhere, preaching and converting the world.
Only the Bible Has the True Answers
To solve this problem, and to answer this question about whether societies are simply expediencies, we need to go to the bible, just like we do to answer any religious question. What does the bible say about it?
The bible says, in Acts 8, verse 4; “Therefore, those who were scattered, went everywhere preaching the word.” There’s clear authorization for individual Christians to preach the word.
Ephesians 3, verse 11 says; “In order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church.” And keep in mind, that the word “church”, is NOT an accurate translation. The proper meaning of the word translated as “church”, is.. “An assembly, or a congregation”. The word literally means, “to call out from”. Thus the word refers to the people, who have been called out from the world, and who have been added to God’s kingdom. And so when the scripture says; “..that the manifold wisdom of God might be made know through the assembly of the called out, it’s speaking about INDIVIDUAL Christians. And it can refer to Christians working together as a congregation of those called out of the world. And congregations can work together with other congregations. But there simply is NO other group of Christians, known to the bible.
Listen to how Earl West, the author of “The Search For The Ancient Order”, describes the facts, as laid out in the bible. These will be his direct words:
“It will be necessary to notice at this point a particular concept which Campbell held, which clashed with that held by many others. Over these concepts, considerable division was yet to come.
The church of the New Testament is spoken of in two different senses; The universal and the local. The church universal, consisted of all baptized believers. The church in this sense is spoken of in the scriptures as the body of Christ, the kingdom of Christ, the hosue of God, the temple of God, etc. The church universal has but one officer; Christ, who is head of the body, the king over the kingdom.
In New Testament times, this king appointed His special ambassadors to establish the church and to indoctrinate it, in it’s infancy. The apostles, strictly speaking. were not officers of the church. They existed BEFORE the church did, and were appointed by Christ, not by the church. They were officers “pro tempore”, (“pro tempore” means to act in someone’s absence. So the apostles were acting in the absence of Christ, after he left the earth) So, they were officers “pro tempore”, and with the close of the first century, they left the church in the form of individual congregations, overseen by bishops, or elders, to accomplish the work of converting the world to Christ.
The “church universal” as such, was not left with ANY specific “work” to do. but ALL work to be done, was left up to the local congregations. Hence, in New Testament times, the only organization of Christians to exist, was the local church, or the local congregation. It is obvious then, that the PLAN of the New Testament, by which the world was to be converted, was through the establishing of local congregations in every community of the world, and then these local “churches”, in turn, under Christ’s direction, were to convert those within it’s reach.
From Jerusalem to Judea, thence to Samaria, and finally, to the uttermost parts of the earth, congregations were planted in New Testament times, without the aid of any organization, other than the local church, and souls were converted to Christ.”
God Has Given the Plan !
So you can see that when Alexander Campbell said; “The New Testament furnishes the PRINCIPLES which call forth our energies, but suggests no PLAN..” He was grossly mistaken. He was right about the New Testament furnishing the principles; Those principles being that it was the body of Christ that was left with the responsibility of converting the world, and that it was the word of God that was to be used as the means of doing the converting.
But Campbell was completely wrong in claiming that the New Testament left us with no PLAN. The plan is made clear, that the manner in which the body of Christ was to convert the world, was through the efforts of individual Christians, and through the congregations to which those Christians belonged. But there are no OTHER group of Christians, that are even authorized to exist!
In Exodus 25, verse 40, Moses was told by God; “And see that you make these things, after the pattern for them, which was shown to you on the mountain.” When God gives instructions, we need to obey them explicitly!
The writer of the Hebrew letter reminds us, that the things of old “were a copy, and a shadow, of the heavenly things to come.” And he warns us, just like God warned Moses, by saying; “See that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” Hebrews 8, verse 5.
Alexander Campbell made the claim, that societies were simply “expedients” to fulfill the command to “Go, therefore, and make disciples..” But if that were the case, then individual Christians, and congregations of Christians, would also be nothing more than “expedients”. But that’s NOT the case. Individual Christians, and congregations made up of individual Christians, are the very SUBJECT of the command. We are the ones responsible for obeying the commands.
If I were given the command to go and preach the gospel (and I HAVE been given that command) would it just be a matter of expediency for me to say; I think I’ll have my old friend Joe, do that for me, instead of me doing it myself? That wouldn’t be expediency, that would be disobedience! If I was the one told to go, then I’d better be going. I can choose HOW I go, that would be expediency, but I had better be the one going, not my old friend Joe.
Individuals and Congregations Do the Work
The universal body of Christ, is an entity made up of all saved believers. But the church universal, as a complete entity, was not left with any work to do. All the work is to be done by individual Christians and individual congregations, although many times Christians and congregations may choose to co-operate with one another, and work together. This is a concept that the rest of the religious world seems unable to grasp. “The manifold wisdom of God, is to be made known by the church”, through the local congregations, and through individual Christians.
Listen to just one more passage from the author, Earl West; And I’m going to paraphrase this a little bit..
Ecclesiasticisms (which are man-made religious organizations) unknown to the bible, owe their origin either directly or indirectly, to the concept of viewing the church from the universal standpoint. In other words, when they ask themselves; “What should the church be doing”.. Instead of considering what the local congregation should be doing, they try to consider what the church universal should be doing.
Roman Catholicism is the most extreme example of this. Beginning with the consideration of the church universal, they reason that there must be one universal leader on earth, to reign in the place of Christ. And so they came up with the Pope. Then they assume that the apostles must also have their successors, and so they came up with a hierarchy of Bishops.
The Synods and Conferences of Protestantism have all started from the same perspective; They simply haven’t carried it to the extreme that the Catholics have. And the brethren of the 1800’s who were pushing for societies and councils, were also looking at the church universal, when they were trying to figure out the best way to evangelize the world. And so Campbell reasoned, that if the church is going to convert the world, then we need to organize the individual congregations into districts, where they can work more efficiently. And we’ve got to have specific societies to address specific problems that need to be handled. And he called this, “expediency”.
But God in His wisdom, didn’t commit the conversion of the world to the church universal. He committed that responsibility to individual Christians, working together within their respective congregations.
And if Christians would go everywhere preaching the word, just like they did when they were scattered from Jerusalem, then congregations would sprout up everywhere, and in due time, the whole world would be evangelized. But we’ve got to follow the pattern. God said; “See that you make all things according to the pattern”
We can pattern ourselves after God’s word, by hearing the word, by believing the word, by repenting of our sins, by confessing His name, and by being baptized for the forgiveness of our sins. And then by preaching His word, everywhere we go. But it would NOT be expedient, to ask some society, foreign to the bible, to go for us. We must do it ourselves, as Christians, and as congregations of Christians. That is God’s will, according to His word!
Thanks for studying the word with me, and let us all pray for a greater understanding of His word as we continue to study.
Please leave me any questions or comments that you may have, in the space below. Your input is always helpful and appreciated.