On the Support of Human Institutions
According to God’s eternal purpose, the Lord Jesus lived, suffered, died, and was raised again in power so that man could be reconciled to God in the body, or church, of Christ (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 3:10-11). Christians should reflect the attributes of Jesus their Lord and Master and do good to people, seeking their best interest, providing benevolence, and visiting widows and orphans in their distress (Galatians 2:10, 6:10, James 1:27). From the beginning of the pages of Scripture until the end God is concerned about the welfare of His people; institutions, structures, and systems will all be destroyed, but the people of God will remain (Revelation 21:1-22:6).
In light of the Industrial Revolution, modern Western culture has become infatuated with institutions and systems all in the name of efficiency. Churches and denominations have followed suit. Within the Restoration Movement (also known as the Stone-Campbell movement), this trend was first seen in the promotion of the missionary society, one of the catalysts for the division between “Churches of Christ” and the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church). In the 1940s and 1950s the congregational support of human institutions would again become a major divisive issue within churches of Christ: many began to agitate for congregational support of church-affiliated colleges and universities. Such agitation would normally begin with appeals to support an orphan’s home or fund some other form of benevolent society or institution; once it was agreed upon that such an institution could be financially supported from the church treasury, it would not be nearly as difficult to convince such people that colleges and universities could be thus supported as well. Yet what do the Scriptures teach?
The New Testament provides no command, example, or necessary inference suggesting that local congregations in the first century provided any sort of financial assistance to non-believers nor funded human institutions or systems. When local congregations provided benevolence to fellow Christians they did so directly to their own members in need or sent assistance through a chosen representative to the elders of the local congregation where the need was dire (Acts 4:34-35, 11:28-30). Individual Christians, following Jesus’ example, provided assistance, financial or otherwise, to those who were in need (Galatians 2:10, 6:10). Not for nothing does James declare that pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God involved visiting widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27): providing financial assistance is well and good, but God expects Christians to put in their own time and energy into serving those who are distressed and oppressed, not expect to have the church pay others to do that work for them.
Education in the will of the Lord as revealed in Scripture is a part of the church’s mission and how it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11-16); nevertheless, the New Testament betrays no understanding of congregational financial support of any institution of learning. Jesus mentored and trained the twelve (Mark 3:14); Paul mentored and trained Timothy, Titus, and others, and expected them to do the same (2 Timothy 2:2).
Therefore it is evident that the Scriptures provide no authority or evidence for the claim that human institutions like orphan’s homes, disaster relief organizations, colleges, or universities should be financially supported by local congregations. This does not mean that orphan’s homes, disaster relief organizations, colleges, or universities are in and of themselves sinful or wrong; they may have their benefits, and individuals have every right to help establish such organizations and/or fund such organizations.
Even if we believe and feel strongly that individuals can and should support such human institutions we do well to remember that God’s primary interest is in people, not in institutions, organizations, structures, or systems. We should not assume that providing financial support to charitable institutions means that we have entirely fulfilled God’s expectations for us in terms of helping those who are in need.
Institutions, organizations, and systems have a tendency to dehumanize people and treat them like numbers. Many times people need mentoring and someone who cares; institutions and/or check distributors can do no such thing. Furthermore, people’s lives are messy; working with them can involve transformative experiences but also a lot of grief and pain. Many fall for the premise that it is better to streamline the process, be more efficient, and have systems take care of the problems.
And yet the problems of humanity often involve alienation and separation; institutions and systems do not help this trend. When we need assistance, we would appreciate help given directly by other people, and to know that others care about us. Should we not do so to others as well (Luke 6:31)?
There are times and places where the support of human institutions and organizations can be beneficial. But we do well to remember that salvation will not be found in any such institution or organization; it is not for the church to be involved with such institutions and organizations; we must never forget about God’s concern for people, and we do well to share that concern. May we help people, and visit those in need, and glorify and honor God!
Ethan R. Longhenry