The churches of Christ (non-institutional)

The churches of Christ (non-institutional)
Churches of Christ (non-institutional)
Classification Christian, Restoration Movement
Orientation New Testament, Restorationism (Christian primitivism)
Polity Congregationalist
Separations Disciples of Christ

The label "non-institutional" refers to a distinct fellowship within the churches of Christ who do not agree with the support of para-church organizations (colleges, orphans' homes, etc.) by local congregations. They contend that the New Testament includes no authority for churches' support of such institutions. Instead they feel that it is a responsibility and duty of the individual to assist those in need. These local churches became separated from "mainline" (pro-institutional) churches of Christ because of these viewpoints, developing into a distinct segment of congregations by the 1960s.

This fellowship is estimated at about 120,000 members,[1] accounting for around 9% of the members of Churches of Christ in the United States and for about 15% of congregations. The degree to which members of a congregation associate and interact with members of other Churches of Christ varies greatly by area, from none at all to a considerable degree. Its preachers are trained in a variety of ways; while some study at Florida College — whose faculty and student body are largely non-institutional, though it has no formal ties to any church — most are mentored by a more experienced preacher or even self-trained, since there are no formal degree requirements in order to preach.

These congregations generally accept the description "non-institutional", although it will not be officially designated as such on signs, letterhead, or other distinctive "official" documents; they reject the epithet "anti" with which they were labeled by some in Churches of Christ in the 1950s and 1960s, and likewise the similar term, "non-cooperation movement". They consider themselves to be part of the original church that Christ started. A moderately successful movement in the 19th century Restoration Movement increased the number of U.S. members.

Many outside of these churches sometimes conflate them with other Churches of Christ which serve the Lord's Supper using a single cup and/or which refrain from having divided, age-distinct Bible classes ("Sunday School"). While the one-cup/non-class churches are almost always non-institutional, they separated from the rest long before the division over institutions; likewise, there is little association between members of the two groups, perhaps less than between the institutional and non-institutional branches.


Common beliefs

Note that because churches of Christ are autonomous with no central governing body, doctrine may vary between congregations. In general, these churches subscribe to the more conservative positions associated with churches of Christ in matters of authority, organization, and worship. Most congregations in this number can be differentiated from mainline churches by their strict adherence to the principle of church autonomy and by a differentiation of the role of the individual Christian and the church. These principles led to objections toward practices that became widespread in churches of Christ during the mid-twentieth century, namely:

  • Objection to support from the church treasury for institutions such as Bible colleges or orphans' homes. Those within non-institutional churches note a distinction between the work assigned the individual Christian and that assigned to the local church collectively (citing passages such as 1 Timothy 5:16). While individuals are charged to "do good to all men," (Galatians 6:10), this position notes that churches are only explicitly assigned a set number of duties (usually defined as evangelism, edification, and benevolence). They thus reject a church collectively giving its funds to an outside institution or setting up another under its control to do the work they see as assigned to the individual. For example, while they would refuse to give to an orphans' home or soup kitchen from the treasury, non-institutional churches would encourage members to help such causes individually.
  • Objection to churches pooling their resources to perform a work under the oversight of a single congregation or outside institution. Proponents of this position say that such cooperation was unheard of in the first century times and violates the autonomy of the local church. While noting that benevolence was at times sent from one church to another, they argue that this was always from a single church to a single church for the benefit of members of the latter and that no other arrangement for transfer of funds between churches is spoken of in the New Testament. Thus, while they would not give to a missionary society or undertake a "sponsoring church" arrangement, a non-institutional church would send money to an individual preacher, pointing toward the New Testament examples of this (Philippians 4:10-18; 1 Corinthians 9:7-14; 2 Corinthians 11:7-9).
  • Objection to church relief for non-Christians (defined by some members as those outside the church of Christ, with this term referring to the collection of all Christians, with membership in such determined by the addition thereto by God, according to Acts 2:47), especially as an evangelism tool. Proponents of this position point out that every New Testament example of support of needy individuals by churches was of a Christian. Thus, while encouraging individual members to seek out and personally help those in need, they hold such benevolence from the church is limited to only those it recognizes as faithful and needy Christians, per the New Testament examples. They reject 2 Corinthians 9:13 "the liberality of your contribution unto them and unto all" as an example, claiming that "all" means "all saints" rather than "all men".
  • Objection to a church kitchen or "fellowship hall," as well as other forms of church-sponsored social activity. Again making the distinction between the work of the church and that of individuals, those within non-institutional churches hold that social activity was an individual practice. Thus, using church funds to build a kitchen and eating facility is considered unscriptural, while members are encouraged to spend time together in eating and other activities at their own expense. In addition, they point to the language of 1 Corinthians 11:22-34 as forbidding the eating of a common meal as a work of the church.


One of the difficulties in chronicling the history of a group of autonomous churches is that there is little truly common history to document. With no formal ties between congregations, most activity is either the action of an individual congregation (and thus local in scope) or the activity of individuals separate from churches (and thus technically not an act of the churches themselves). Generally, the only things that have had widespread impact are issues that bring about debate and division. With that in mind, there are two major controversies that non-institutional churches have faced in the past century: institutionalism and debate over marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

Division over institutionalism

The lack of denominational infrastructure leaves a vacuum for intercongregational discourse among Churches of Christ, one that often has been filled by publications and extra-church institutions such as colleges. These organizations, though overseen and run by members of Churches of Christ, were usually considered the work of individual Christians separate from the churches themselves. Among "brotherhood papers" in the mid-twentieth century, the Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation were the oldest and most influential. Among colleges, the largest were Abilene Christian College, Pepperdine, Freed-Hardeman College, David Lipscomb College, and Harding College.

Prior to World War II, the practice of local church support for outside institutions (mostly colleges) was uncommon in churches of Christ, but not unheard of. Such arrangements tended to be kept quiet, and the Bible colleges loosely associated with churches of Christ always denied they lobbied churches for money. These denials were not always true, but they helped to defuse dissension over the issue, as most objectors were loath to interfere with church autonomy.

First rumblings

In the 1930s, however, some men began actively promoting church funding of Bible colleges. The most prominent of these was G. C. Brewer, who throughout the decade engaged in a running debate with various people on the issue. He had begun advancing his theories in a speech at the 1931 Abilene Christian College Lectures. In 1933, he had written a series of articles in the Gospel Advocate arguing that churches should support educational institutions and charities from their treasuries.[2] He continued this line of argumentation throughout the decade.

Finally, Brewer's unscripted remarks in support of church funding for colleges at the 1938 Abilene Christian College lectures provoked great controversy. Several writers, such as Foy E. Wallace, Jr., and W. W. Otey, wrote and spoke in opposition to Brewer; Otey's 1938 article in Firm Foundation included statements from leaders of colleges that they "regretted" Brewer's statements. Publicly, Brewer's position received little support; privately, however, prominent men such as B. C. Goodpasture, N. B. Hardeman, and Robert M. Alexander agreed with the proposition, though most were noncommital when asked specifically about their position. World War II largely suspended the debate, as the question of pacifism took center stage in "brotherhood papers." However, division had not been prevented, only postponed.

The aftermath of World War II

After the conclusion of World War II, several factors worked together to bring the institutional question back to the foreground.

First, many of the previous generation of perceived leaders (such as Daniel Sommer, J. D. Tant, Joe Warlick, and F. B. Srygley) had died, leaving others with different beliefs and dispositions to take their place. The most notable of these was Goodpasture, who had ascended to be editor of the Gospel Advocate in 1939; he is generally regarded as the most influential figure among Churches of Christ at this time.

Also, the Depression and war had led to lower enrollment at many Bible colleges; this in turn caused many of the colleges to postpone expansion and even maintenance. However, the G.I. Bill brought with it an influx of enrollment at these colleges. Bible colleges thus found themselves in need of immediate funds to renovate and expand to meet a swelling demand.

Finally, evangelism in Europe became possible after the war. However, the expense involved was considerable. As a result, some congregations and individuals began experimenting with various methods of congregational cooperation. The most notable of these was the "sponsoring church" arrangement, where one congregation oversees a project using resources pooled from other congregations. The best-known of these efforts was the Herald of Truth, a nationwide radio program begun by the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, in 1952.

Controversy and division erupt

The issue of church support for institutions arose anew quickly after the war. Many of those who had been silent before now saw much to gain by raising the issue. No longer was it a mere hypothetical question, but one where a strict interpretation of congregational independence and separation of the individual and the church would, in their estimation, lead to lost opportunities.

The pro-institutional camp learned from the experience of the 1930s and the tepid support for sending money to colleges from the church treasury. They tried a different tactic, tying church support of colleges with church support of other institutions, namely orphans' homes. As Hardeman wrote in 1947, "I have always believed that a church has the right to contribute to a school or an orphanage if it so desired... The same principle that permits one must also permit the other. They must stand or fall together."[3]

The addition of the emotional element of "starving orphans" proved successful at persuading many who had been on the fence to the institutional side during the 1950s. However, it also led to rancor; what had previously been a largely civil debate erupted into name-calling and bitter dissension. Those who objected to churches funding private institutions were often referred to as "orphan haters", "Pharisees," and the like;[4] for their part, non-institutionals such as Wallace returned (and at times initiated) the rhetorical fire. Well-known preachers with ties to the colleges became increasingly assertive in condemning anyone who disagreed. Accusations of coercion and intimidation swirled around the colleges. Those with outside businesses, particularly on the non-institutional side, often found themselves facing boycotts organized by those opposing their position.

The leading voices of the institutional movement were men such as Brewer, Hardeman, Alexander, and Goodpasture. The non-institutional side of the debate was led by men such as Wallace, Roy Cogdill, and Fanning Yater Tant. From the beginning, the non-institutional side found itself outmaneuvered by the institutionals, who held the reins of power at all the large Bible colleges and the most popular of publications. It was not aided by infighting between the various proponents, climaxing in the 1951 split of the Fourth and Groesbeck Church of Christ in Lufkin, Texas, leading to two congregations, one with Cogdill as preacher, the other with Wallace's brother Cled preaching.[5] Foy Wallace, the most polarizing figure in the debate, thereafter ceased arguing for a non-institutional position; indeed, by the mid-1960s, he associated himself exclusively with institutional churches.

Late 1954 provided two factors key to the developing split. First, in October, G. H. P. Showalter, the editor of Firm Foundation, died and was replaced by Reuel Lemmons. The paper had in previous years stood opposed to the colleges on many matters and had positioned itself under Showalter as a place for balanced debate. Under Lemmons, however, the paper took an increasingly pro-institutional position.

The second, and more important, event occurred in the Gospel Advocate in December of that year. Goodpasture called for a "yellow tag of quarantine" to be imposed upon any who espoused the non-institutional position. Historian Ed Harrell contrasted Goodpasture with the "fighting style" of Foy Wallace thus: "Foy Wallace scorched heretics; Goodpasture warned them they would lose their position within the brotherhood."[6] His political style led him "to cut his losses and to consolidate his assets," in the words of historian Richard Hughes.[7] As part of this effort, non-institutionals were to be ejected from existing congregations, preachers who took this position were to be fired and any meetings they were to hold at institutional churches were to be cancelled, and congregations that resisted were blackballed. The thrust of the institutional movement turned from persuasion to isolation of its opponents.

Across the next decade, bitter division erupted in Churches of Christ throughout the nation. Debates were held over the issues, though usually positions had already hardened beyond persuasion. Preachers who were suspected of taking heretical positions were ordered to publicly refute said position as a condition of employment; indeed, the Gospel Advocate became a forum for some better-known preachers to recant publicly previous positions opposing institutionalism.[8] Some churches found themselves pressured into making token donations to institutions in order to avoid being called "anti's." Fistfights were not unheard of. Members espousing a minority position in a congregation found themselves ousted, and lawsuits over building ownership followed from some of these divisions.[9] These exiles then often banded together to form new congregations; many rural communities today are home to two small Churches of Christ as the legacy of this division.

By the end of the 1960s, the isolation of non-institutionals from the mainline churches was concluded. Contact between churches and individuals on both sides of the divide was mostly ended, and those in both branches continued on practicing the beliefs which they had come to see as the only correct ones.

Aftermath of the division

The 1970s and 1980s were a time of rebuilding for most non-institutional churches. In most instances, they had been the ones to lose buildings, positions, and jobs as a result of the division. Unity largely reigned during this period in most non-institutional churches. The most significant discussion of this time was a mirror of a "unity in diversity" debate taking place in institutional churches; however, it gained little lasting traction in the more conservative non-institutional branch in spite of the efforts of men such as Carl Ketcherside and Edward Fudge.

Most within non-institutional churches refer to themselves as "conservative" Churches of Christ and the mainline churches as "liberal," which leads to some confusion as the mainline churches use these terms to refer to two separate strands within their churches. Many in the non-institutional groups are unaware of any differences in the institutional groups, considering them all to be "liberal." Meanwhile, many in the institutional groups are unaware of the reason for, or even the existence of, the non-institutional groups.

Controversies over divorce

The late 1980s saw the beginning of the first widespread debate and division over doctrine among these churches since the institutional division itself. Noted scholar and writer Homer Hailey, well into his 80s at the time, had for decades held a divergent view among non-institutional Churches of Christ regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The typical view in that fellowship is that divorces for any reason save adultery on the part of one's mate are immoral, and any subsequent remarriage after such a divorce is likewise sinful. Hailey believed that those who were not Christians were not subject to Biblical commands regarding divorce; thus, whatever marriage they were in at the time of conversion, regardless of prior divorces, was the one that God recognized.

While his belief was known to those close to him, Hailey claimed he had only publicly taught his view twice; he had received sporadic criticism from various preachers over the years, but no substantial dispute had arisen. In March 1988, however, Hailey presented his views to a small church in Belen, New Mexico, at their request; Ron Halbrook, a preacher associated with the magazine Guardian of Truth and former student of Hailey, was invited to present an opposing viewpoint.[10] The speeches were taped and circulated, and by the end of the year, Guardian of Truth printed Halbrook's account. Various "brotherhood papers" picked up on the debate and declared their position, usually opposed.

Hailey, after perceiving personal attacks, wrote and published a booklet titled "The Divorced and Remarried Who Would Come to God." It was agreed with by some and disputed by others in writing and preaching. One of the more balanced, and sometimes quite personal, replies to Hailey's booklet was written by Refugio, Texas preacher and former Hailey student, Royce P. Bell, and published in the June 1994 (Vol. XX, No. 10) issue of Gospel Anchor magazine.

A side debate over fellowship with those holding such a position also came to the forefront, triggered by David Edwin Harrell writing in Christianity Magazine that such a doctrine was not grounds for disassociation. The original issue spawned debate over perhaps a dozen related, yet separate, issues, continuing beyond Hailey's death in 2000. The debate focused largely around two general camps, one associated with the Guardian of Truth (now renamed Truth Magazine) and the other loosely centered around Florida College and now-defunct Christianity Magazine.

In the most recent of these controversies, some associated with Truth Magazine itself have come under criticism for advocating so-called "mental divorce" (whether someone who was legally divorced for reasons other than adultery can later "put away" their now-remarried former mate). The controversy struggles with defining Biblical "putting away" in the context of American law and protocol. In the course of this debate, Truth's editor, Mike Willis, wrote an opinion piece expressing his view that divorce (though not remarriage) is permissible for a number of reasons other than infidelity; further controversy has ensued.[11]

Present day

The ultimate impact of these debates within the non-institutional Churches of Christ has yet to be determined. In keeping with the autonomous nature of these churches, many churches and members are unaware of or unconcerned about such controversies.

By 2005 there were between 2,200 and 2,300 non-institutional Churches of Christ in all 50 states. Of these congregations approximately 13.5% were in Texas followed by Kentucky and Alabama with 9% and Florida with 7.5%. Although exact attendance figures for non-institutional Churches of Christ are impossible to determine, most reliable estimates would place the attendance of these churches at between 130,000 and 145,000.[12][13]


  1. ^ Ross, Bobby Jr (March 2007). "Who are we?". The Christian Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-10-29. 
  2. ^ Harrell, David Edwin: The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, page 79. The University of Alabama Press: 2000.
  3. ^ Hardeman, N.B.: "The Banner Boys Become Enraged", Firm Foundation, July 14, 1947
  4. ^ Hughes, Richard: Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Stories of Churches of Christ in America, page 233
  5. ^ Harrell, David Edwin: The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, page 126-127. The University of Alabama Press: 2000.
  6. ^ Harrell, David Edwin: "B.C. Goodpasture: Leader of Institutional Thought", page 250. They Being Dead Yet Speak: Florida College Annual Lectures 1981, Florida College Bookstore, 1981
  7. ^ Hughes, Richard: Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Stories of Churches of Christ in America, page 238
  8. ^ Harrell, David Edwin: The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, page 140-142. The University of Alabama Press: 2000.
  9. ^ Wolfgang, Steve (1989-05-04). "History and Background of the Institutional Controversy (3): The Yellow Tag of Quarantine". Guardian of Truth. Truth Magazine. pp. 272–275. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  10. ^ Hailey, Homer (1989-02-02). "Comments Regarding My Views on Divorce and Remarriage". Guardian of Truth. Truth Magazine. pp. 70–71. Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  11. ^ "Mike Willis in CO" (WMA). MentalDivorce. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  12. ^ Lynn, Mac: Churches of Christ in the United States 2000
  13. ^ 2005-2006 Directory of Churches of Christ, Guardian of Truth Foundation

External links

Note: Because of the autonomous nature of Churches of Christ, there are no "official" group-wide links. The following are the sites of individuals and single congregations.



Miscellaneous links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.