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 Vol. 7, No. 4 

April 2005


~ Page 8 ~

What Is a "Missionary Society"?

By Wayne Jackson

[Christian Courier 40 (2005): 39.]

In the mid-to-late 1800's there was a tragic split in the American "restoration" movement--the noble effort that sought to throw off the shackles of modern denominationalism and return to primitive Christianity. The key issues precipitating the division were: (a) the introduction of instrumental music as an accompaniment of Christian worship; and, (b) the crafting of the "missionary society." Our focus in this brief piece will be to consider the problems associated with the missionary society, since this has become a "hot button" topic in recent years.

In the late-40's/early-50's there was a division in the church that involved, at least in part, a disagreement between brethren over whether or not churches could support chartered "homes" that specifically were designed for the care of destitute children. Prior to this time, there was no serious dispute about the matter; such was deemed a perfectly scriptural way of helping orphaned youngsters.

When it became expedient (or was required by law) for such arrangements to "incorporate" --so as to meet certain standards or to seek the protection of the law against frivolous litigation--some brethren rose up in opposition. They claimed that a "human institution" had been formed (with a board of directors, etc.), and that such was unscriptural.

It was irrelevant to them that absolutely nothing had changed in basic structure--except that the work now had a "legal" status, rather than the more informal arrangement of the past. The critical cry became, "an 'institution' parallel to the missionary society has been formed! We must break away. We will be known henceforth as 'non-institutional' brethren." These brethren, sincere as they were, simply did not understand the nature of a missionary society. In general, a missionary society operates in the following fashion.

A group of churches will agree to enter into an arrangement with one another for the purpose of doing mission work. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with such a plan--provided the organizational structure does not go awry.

But that was precisely the problem. In the "society" arrangement, it was agreed, by the participating churches, that each would send representatives to periodical meetings. Those representatives were empowered to form and ratify policy. The representatives subsequently would return to their respective churches with the decisions of the "society." The congregations then, by their own agreement, were bound by the rules of the delegates. Hence, churches fell under the control of a body that was independent of any one congregation.

This type of arrangement is wrong. It subordinates local congregations to a legislative body--a circumstance void of New Testament authority. As a matter of fact, no local church can ever be made subservient to another congregation. All congregations are independent and self-governing in matters of expediency.

How do the common arrangements of congregation cooperation today (e.g., one church helping another with a particular mission work, or in facilitating the care of orphaned children via a home), parallel the sort of abuse that is characteristic of the "society" structure? There is no resemblance.

How is the "missionary society" arrangement related to the practice of a church using the "incorporation" procedure to conform to law in the ownership of real property? No parallel exists.

How does the "missionary society" plan bear any resemblance to individual Christians, working together in special cooperative ways, yet seek the incorporation process so as to benefit from legitimate tax provisions, or for the protection of their personal assets? There is no commonality. And attempts to "taint" such efforts by assigning negative expressions, like "missionary society" or "para-church organization," do not alter the true nature of the work. Nor does the use of these "loaded" terms pass for sound argumentation, though such methodology is commonly employed by those who seek to establish their cause by less-than-honorable means. In the practices sketched above, there is nothing remotely related to a missionary society.

We appreciate brethren who seek to respect Bible authority relative to teaching and benevolent methods, but our so-called "non-institutional" brothers have gone much too far in their criticisms, and tragic division has been the result. Unfortunately, there are a few others, though not associated with that movement, who have picked up the same jargon. Caution should be exercised lest one reacts without proper knowledge.

[The Editor of any journal populates it with articles with which he concurs. Brother Jackson's article here is a much needed caution for a brotherhood that is painfully aware of the grave dangers that derive from either binding where God has not bound or loosing where God has not loosed. Yet, sincere brethren, with whom we share a high regard for the inerrant Scriptures, sometimes gravitate toward making religious rules where God has not. Religiously, to err on the side of caution is still error. Thank you, brother Jackson, for an excellent lesson. ~ Editor]Image

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