Individually Supported Societies On the Side Line

by Bob W. Lovelace

March 01, 2001

     Men reasoned in the 1800's that what the New Testament did not specifically forbid was authorized. With small churches and financial ability often negligible, men eager to do the work of evangelism had difficulty in raising enough support. When the initial proposal of churches cooperating in small districts, without any extensive organization, failed to rally enough support then many churches formed cooperative efforts. The "district" cooperatives soon initiated "state meetings" and finally "brotherhood meetings" in the form of societies. With a desire for centralization in order to expedite all things necessary to the support of evangelistic work the United Christian Missionary Society came into existence on Oct. 24, 1849, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

     Another digression often overlooked by brethren was the little talked about "individually supported societies" at this time. J. T. Johnson wrote in the Christian Journal:

     "It seems to me, that the churches have resolved that they will not engage in this branch of duty (the duty of sustaining and sending forth evangelists). ... Let such a course be adopted, as that now in operation in several states. Let a separate, independent, voluntary association of brethren, be formed, pledging themselves to each other to pay certain sums annually to this purpose, so long as they continue members; and let this amount be expended in evangelical efforts, under the direction of a committee selected for that purpose."

     In December of 1844 a proposal was announced to brethren in various counties of Kentucky for a meeting of brethren at Danville on the second Saturday in January, 1845. A plan was proposed and adopted. The cooperation was designed to be permanent, not yearly: An individual not congregational association. Objecting on the basis that the local church is God's divine arrangement for collective cooperation among christians in worship and evangelism, opponents reasoned that the societies displayed a depreciation of the church and called men's attention away from God's divine institution. The issue did not go away. As one brother put it in our day: "What need have we of a human society to propagate the gospel when we have the divine arrangement appointed to the same end? To create such is to express a dissatisfaction with the Lord's arrangement, or in other words is a 'depreciation of the church.'"

      (These notes adapted from the following. For a broader knowledge see Gospel Anchor, Vol. 1, Sept. 1974 through Aug. 1975, Old Issues Do Not Fade Away #3 by Gene Frost pg. 201 beginning.) See brother Frost's articles on "The Support of Gospel Preachers" elsewhere on this web site.

     We saw the same "individually supported society" concept crop up again in the 1950s. There is a lesson here on apostasy repeating itself. Along with the sponsoring church arrangement, and the church supported societies such as the orphan homes and colleges, the "individually supported" Gospel Press reincarnated the old errors of centralization. It has been stated that opposition to the "individually supported society" was light possibly because brethren were concentrating on the error of the sponsoring church arrangement in benevolence and evangelism, or because some brethren at the forefront of the battle against institutionalism were themselves involved in similar operations, i.e. their collective efforts were being supported by individuals. The Gospel Press was identified as "supported by individual members of the CHURCH Of CHRIST". Appeals were made for funds from individuals. At its beginning it was stated that the work was supported entirely by individuals. As a non profit organization its chief design was to publicize the church through articles in national magazines and broadcast the truth.

      (These notes adapted from the following. For a broader knowledge see Gospel Anchor, Vol. 1, Sept. 1974 through Aug. 1975, Old Issues Do Not Fade Away (V) by Gene Frost pg. 263 beginning)

     Brethren need to keep in mind when they read and review such things that scriptural precedence should keep them from participating in all such individually supported societies. Churches of Christ were not supported in the New Testament by collectives established by men! Nor did evangelists establish collectives with a pooled resource from which they did evangelistic work. And neither members or evangelists solicited funds from the brethren to perpetuate a collective's pooled resource from which to do evangelistic work. Brethren rightly charged the individually supported society with depreciating the New Testament church.

     Invariably brethren who desire to build such individually supported societies will point to Paul and others who went out to do evangelistic work. But there was no collective treasury from which they worked. Support from churches were sent to the preacher (2 Cor. 11:8). At times individual preachers had to work to give assistance to even those among the group with whom they were traveling (Acts 20:34). That's an individual doing his own work in assisting other preachers! Co-laborers in the New Testament retained oversight over their own money and activities. As we look at the scriptures there are certain things you don't find about evangelists out working together:

1. You don't find a collective treasury out of which the group worked in order to evangelize.
2. You don't find a group supported as a "unit."
3. A group is "not" supported as a "unit" either by a church or churches, or by an individual or individuals.

     This is important! We're studying God's will on this subject. When you have individuals or local churches supporting evangelists as a "unit," i.e. as a "group" working out of their own treasury then you've got something that is outside the authority of God's word. Look at their independence as they went out together. John Mark left and went back in Acts 13:13. Paul didn't like it and he disagreed with Barnabas about him going out again with them (Acts 15:39). But then, Paul didn't seem too pleased that Apolos wasn't ready to go to Corinth just because he ached for him to go there (I Cor. 16:12). But that's all right, for Apolos had his work to do just as Paul had his own to do. And Baranabas and John Mark did the same work that Paul was doing! While there was cooperative action in some going out together, each maintained their independence, hence concurrent cooperation among individuals. By contrast in the local church the money pooled (given by each member) becomes the treasury of the collectivity. If brethren today want to work the same WAY they did then, then DO IT THE WAY THEY DID IT! Plenty of preachers have through the centuries. But don't come along and refer to what they did to try to justify building individually supported societies. And top that by having these societies soliciting funds from brethren for the treasury of the society.

     Today, here and there and most everywhere it seems foundations are cropping up. The name doesn't change the character of the thing. Changing the name, calling it a foundation, or a non-profit organization, doesn't make it scriptural. The name change thing is as old as Liberalism itself ~ call it something else and maybe brethren will go along with it. Don't call it a missionary society because they might remember the apostasy of the 1950s. But then again, do call it a foundation set up to do evangelistic work and be proud of it. Where are we headed once again? In days gone by the cry went out that there was no fervor among the churches therefore we best do evangelistic work another way. Or, there is a great need therefore the "end" result (meeting that need) justifies the means taken to reach that goal. And now some of these foundations are soliciting for individual contributions!

     We have moved on one more step.

by Bob Lovelace

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