The Society System
by Don Martin
Editor's Note: Don Martin has his own site called Bible Truths, where he does a great deal of excellent Bible teaching. The following article first appeared on that site. I asked Don if he would mind my adding this good article to the Gospel Anchor site, and he kindly consented.
The owner of the Gospel Anchor, Gene Frost, has written extensively on the society question and has produced some excellent material on the subject. Some of it has been reproduced on this site: The Support of Gospel Preachers. Gene also has a tract and a book on the subject. Click here to order that material.
The year was 1849, the city was Cincinnati, Ohio, and the location was Christian Chapel, corner of Walnut and Eighth Streets, the famous or infamous "Convention" met for four days (October 23-26) and as a result, the American Christian Missionary Society became a reality. This date and event is historically significant for churches of Christ in that it was a major beginning for the lasting fascination and preoccupation with societies and organization, other than the local church. D. S. Burnet expressed this society emphasis regarding his influence in the formation of the Missionary Society when he wrote, "I consider the inauguration of our society system which I vowed to urge upon the brethren as one of the most important acts of my career" (F. M. Greene, Christian Missions and Historical Sketches of Missionary Societies Among the Disciples of Christ, pg. 172). The American Christian Missionary Society was the pride of many brethren of the 1800's. However, the Missionary Society soon became a source of bitter strife and open division.
Organized Christianity, as established by God. The church Jesus promised to build came into existence on the first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection and ascension (Acts 2, cp. Vs. 47, KJV, 5: 11 ff.). In the First Century, the apostles and individual Christians went about teaching and preaching Jesus Christ (Acts 2: 14-47, 8: 4, 11: 19-21). The only organization involved in the dissemination of the gospel was the local church. Paul and his company were "sent away" on their three preaching trips by the church in Antioch of Syria (Acts 13: 3). Each time, they reported back to the church regarding their labors, experiences, and results (Acts 14: 26-28, 18: 22, 23, Paul could not return the third time because of his imprisonment in Rome, Acts 21-28). The local church is an organization. There are "members bishops and deacons" (Phili. 1: 1). The local church has a treasury and regular incoming funds to make possible the work of preaching to the lost, edifying the saved, and assisting needy saints (I Cor. 16: 1, 2,"in store" is from thesaurizo, from which we have derived "treasury," I Thes. 1: 8; Eph. 4: 16; 2 Cor. 8, 9). The local church is, " the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3: 15).
Brethren became tired of God's simple order. Some erroneously believe the only issue involved in the society and organization issue is church funding. Allow me to be plain: There is no authority for churches contributing to societies and organizations so that they can assist or perform the work God has assigned to the local church. Another issue, though, of equal importance in the "society system" is the belief that the only God appointed organization to perform "evangelism," edification, and benevolence can not as efficiently do the work as well as man devised organizations.
W. K. Pendleton, he presided over the October 23 meeting of the "Convention," stated in writing of the meeting the following:
"We met to consult the best ways for giving efficiency to our power .There are some duties of the church which a single congregation cannot, by her unaided strength, discharge .A primary object being to devise some scheme for a more effectual proclamation of the gospel in destitute places, both at home and abroad, the Convention took under consideration the organization of a Missionary Society" (W. K. Pendelton, "The Convention of Christian Churches," Millennial Harbinger, Third Series, Vol. 6, No. 12, pg. 689, 690).
Ben Franklin challenged the mindset that Christians are allowed to create substitute organizations. Hear him:
"The circumstance that they had no missionary societies in the first age of the church, of itself, does not prove that we may not have them. But the fact that the Lord ordained the congregations, with their officers, and made it their work to convert the world with the additional fact that we have their example in sending out preachers, with the circumstance, that they had no missionary societies, but the churches, proves that it is wrong for individuals to create missionary societies, separate from local churches, as substitutes to do the work which the Lord appointed for the churches .The simple question is, whether we shall honor the churches in working in them and making them effective as the Lord's appointed societies, in converting the world, or declare them insufficient to do the work which the Lord committed to them, and substitute a creation of our own hands, to do the work of the churches ordained by the Lord " (Ben Franklin, "Explanation for brother G. W. Elley," American Christian Review, Vol. 10, No. 19 (May 7, 1867), pg. 148).
David Lipscomb was another outspoken critic of the mind set that man can devise his organizations to do a better job than the church. He said: "To operate through an institution of man's devising in preference to the church of God is, in our esteem, to exalt man as of Superior wisdom and power to God " (David Lipscomb, "Destroying Church Cooperation," Gospel Advocate, Vol. 9, No. 6 (Feb. 7, 1867), pg. 115).
In spite of the divisive history of the society system syndrome, societies, organizations, and entities continue today. One such individually funded society is the Philippine Relief Fund. It is self-billed as a Benevolent Society. A number of brethren who are associated with non-institutional churches of Christ conceived and implemented this Benevolent Society.
In all fairness and for the sake of consistency of application, there are religious magazines among us that meet the criteria for being organizations (see the case of the Philippine Benevolent Society for an example of an organization, also see the addendum for further amplification and explanation). Some foundations essentially function as missionary societies, receiving contributions from individuals and endeavoring as an entity to spread the gospel. The "society system" is alive and active today. I have had society minded brethren tell me, "Don, we can do a better job executing the work of the church than the church can do." I have had to talk to some brethren about their liberal contributions to human organizations and their meager contributions into the local treasury. Their defense was, "If it were up to us, we would contribute all to ."
When will brethren be satisfied with God's plan and arrangement and cease interjecting their own? Not only are societies acting without authority when they endeavor to do the work assigned to the local church, but they also serve as a prolific source of politics and cliques among brethren. In closing, allow me to quote Jacob Creath:
" Ancient Christianity was spread by individuals, and not by societies or proxies, as is the modern gospels .The Jerusalem Church spread the gospel, or her members did individually, after the resurrection of Christ, before another church existed to assist her through Judea, Samaria, Phoenicia, Cyprus, Antioch in the first century of the Christian era (Acts chapters 1, 2 and 11). As this mother and model church spread the gospel, so did the other churches individually (not from societies), such as Antioch in Syria (Acts 13), and Thessalonica sounded out the gospel in Macedonia and Achaia (I Thess. 1: 8). Let any church now do the same as these ancient churches did; let each member do all he can to spread the gospel. If a church or person is not able to do anything to spread the gospel, nothing is required of that person " (Jacob Creath, "Missionary and Other Organizations Besides the Church, for Carrying Forward the Work of God," Gospel Advocate, Vol. VIII, No. 3 (Jan. 16, 1866). Pg. 41, 42).
"Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" Eph. 3: 21).
Addendum: The foregoing material has basically focused on the "Missionary Society" application. However, application to all three areas of the work assigned to the local church is understood. It should also be understood that the material under the canopy of "society system" is not addressing or intending to necessarily include two Christians simply acting in concert in some endeavor. Let it also be known that Bible Truths (this Web site) is not an organization. I (Don Martin) am the sole owner and totally in charge. I have invited material from other writers; however, they are not staff writers, nor do I have a board of directors, president, etc. There is no associated treasury (I pay all expenses) and I do not solicit funds from any.
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