Human Religious Institutions
by Tim Haile
Men love their religious institutions. Those who design, create and operate such establishments get great satisfaction from their accomplishments. In this regard, there is a similarity between the founders of religious institutions and secular institutions. Both are pleased with their inventions. But, unlike the founders of most secular institutions, the founders of spiritual institutions see themselves as doing a religiously good work. They see themselves as helping God. They feel good about creating an organization that provides a spiritual purpose and accomplishes what they see as spiritual good.
There are several obvious reasons why men so love their religious institutions:
1. The human institution is always what its founder wants and creates it to be, and it is never anything else. It may be a worship/praise organization, a benevolent organization, an edification organization, or an evangelistic organization. The founder always gets to make the decision that shapes and defines his institution. He does what he wants to do, and no one else has the right or ability to make him do anything else. He does with his organization as he pleases, and the organization reflects his wisdom. Men are glorified through their institutions.
The local church was designed by God, and it reflects His wisdom (Eph. 3:10, 11). God is glorified through the church (Eph. 3:21). God designed the local church to accomplish the work that He wants saints to collectively do. This includes all of the above: worship (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 14:23, 26), benevolence (2 Cor. 8:1; 1 Cor. 16:1-3), edification (Eph. 4:16), and evangelism (Acts 13:1-3; 1 Thess. 1:8). Functioning in, and through the local church, men are required to respect Godís design, and they are not at liberty to alter the nature of the divine institution. This is one of the reasons why some men form their own religious organizations; they design their own organizations in such a way that allows them to accomplish their own purposes. By distinguishing their spiritually-purposed organizations from the church, men feel comfortable detaching themselves from rules that govern the church.
2. The human institution always serves the purpose of its founder, and it never does anything else. It behaves as the founder authorizes and charters. The organization carries out the religious intentions of the founder. The founder fixes both the mission and the agenda of his organization.
The local church has been divinely entrusted to carry out the purposes and works that have been designed and assigned by God (Eph. 4:12-16). Christ is the head of the church, and the church behaves as Christ directs (Eph. 5:23). He holds local churches in His right hand (Rev. 1:20). When a local church ceases to carry out the intentions of Christ, and ceases to function according to His authority, Christ ceases to recognize that church as belonging to Him. He withdraws His fellowship from that church. The candlestick representing its divine identity is removed, and the church is lost (Rev. 2:5).
By forming oneís own religious organization, and not functioning through the local church, one presumes to rid himself of the shackles of divine authority that restrains the local church from doing either more or less than what God prescribes. This makes the human institution quite appealing in the minds of many. It is liberating. People feel free to do what they want to do with their own human religious organizations.
3. The human institution is always governed by the form of leadership that is decided by the founder, and it is never governed any other way. Whether by one-man rule, as in a sole proprietorship, or by a board of directors, the founder decides the type of leadership that best suits his organization, and he decides the kind of qualifications the leaders must possess. Leadership may exist throughout the organization in the form of a multi-tiered hierarchy. The leadership may make decisions as they judge best, and they may make decisions for the organization regardless of its nature and scope. If it is a global organization, then decisions can be passed down from a centralized headquarters and bound upon all members of the organization, including satellite locations and subsidiary entities.
The local church is governed by divinely qualified elders. The qualifications are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. One may not serve as an elder who lacks these qualifications. There can be no "one-man-rule" in a church belonging to Christ (Acts 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; Tit. 1:5). Elders have no right to make decisions for churches where they are not members (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
Human religious organizations do not place these divine limitations upon their leaders. They do not require a multiplicity of leaders. They do not require Godís qualifications. They do not limit the scope of the leadersí oversight to just the group of people and the location where they are. They do not forbid hierarchical arrangements of leadership. Again, it is clear why some men would choose to establish their own religious organizations: they can rule them and run them as they please. They are not limited by the New Testament pattern of organization. They can do the work of the church without the leadership requirements that God binds upon the local church.
4. Human religious organizations are almost unlimited in their methods of fundraising. They may sell all types of services, from food to gasoline, and all types of products, from books to bullets, in order to fund their religious agenda. Thankfully, respect for the New Testament pattern does at least keep some brethren from accepting church funds for their evangelistic and benevolent organizations. Non-church evangelistic collectives often operate with funds raised by products or services that they sell. Colleges pay for lectureships with money made by the college. Publishing companies pay for lectureships with money made from the sale of religious materials. Incidentally, since religious bookstores are retail businesses, if they are authorized to sponsor evangelistic lectureships, then any other retail business would be just as authorized. If we are going to approve lectureships that are conducted by religious bookstores and colleges, then we should also approve if Wal-Mart starts conducting Bible lectureships. And the size and scope of the lectureship should not be an issue. If Wal-Mart finds itself under the leadership of saints, and they decide to use their extensive financial resources to fund an international Bible forum and lectureship, then some brethren would not be able to oppose it for any reason at all.
Local churches are limited in their methods of fundraising. The New Testament pattern is clear: local churches collect funds by the free-will contributions that are given by saints on each first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1, 2; Acts 2:42). No other local-church fund-raising method is authorized by Scripture. Churches are not authorized to operate retail business or sell services in order to make money. Since human institutions are almost unlimited in their money-making methods, this makes the human institution very enticing to many people. Funds are necessary to carry out various plans and programs. Works like benevolence and evangelism can be very expensive, especially when done overseas, on other continents and in other countries. It takes money to preach the gospel, and the larger the work, the more expensive it will be to perform. By operating through the human organization, people can do the work of the church, but without the financial limitations of the local church. They can raise money any way that they see fit, and on any day that they see fit. They are not limited by free-will contributions of saints on the first day of the week.
We have warned institutionalists about taking on spiritual works that are larger than any one church can support, which requires them to use unauthorized collection and funding methods. By the reasoning of some non-institutional brethren, the only thing wrong with the institutional practice is the fact that checks are written by the members of the local church collective, rather than by the members of the local church distributively and individually. There is certainly a difference between the church and the individual, but what about in an area where God has specified how the individual is to function collectively? This is the question that needs to be considered.
5. The scope of the work of the human religious institution can be either as large, or as small as the founder decides. It may be designed in such a way so as to be limited to a certain area, or it may be designed to perform a worldwide function.
God has designed the local church in such a way that it is limited in its scope. Local churches contain several built-in safety mechanisms that prevent them from organizing brethren at a global level. These mechanisms result in logistical limitations upon the local church. As noted above, local churches are divinely limited, in their purpose and work, by the scope of their leadership (even in specific localities, in cases where there are multiple churches) and by their fund-raising methods. There are also logistical limitations because of the size of assemblies. The Jerusalem church did originally have several thousand members (Acts 2:41,47; 5:14), but even they became financially destitute and in need of assistance from others (Rom. 15:25,26; 1 Cor. 16:3). Teaching done by a local church may influence the thinking of people in other places (1 Thess. 1:7,8), but the influence is through the gospel, not through organization and control. Human religious organizations are appealing to some folks, because they are not limited in their size and scope by the various mechanisms that limit the local church. And if it is right to organize brethren for spiritual purposes on a national level, then it is right to organize them on an international level. Need we remind ourselves that the universal church has no organic function?
If men could accomplish their spiritual goals through the organization of the local church, then that is what they would do. But, why design, build and operate a human institution that does exactly what the local church does? The existence of thousands of non-church religious entities, from denominations to Bible colleges and publishing companies (gone awry), proves and demonstrates that men are not content with the various divine limitations that govern local churches. They want to do more (or less) than the local church can do, which leads inexorably to the establishment of foundations, organizations, institutions, cooperatives, or collectives that will be capable of facilitating them in the accomplish their spiritual goals. Sadly, many of Godís people seem unable to avoid the institutional mindset. They feel helpless and spiritually inefficient operating collectively within the confines of what God has authorized, that is, the local church. Brethren must rid themselves of this mentality. They must place their faith in Godís spiritual arrangements. Let the publishing company be the publishing company; let the religious bookstore be the bookstore; let the college be the college, and let us respect divine authority for how we are to function collectively. "Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" (Ephesians 3:21).