Institutionalism and Church Supported Orphanages


     Since the inception of the Lord's church on the first Pentecost following Jesus' death and resurrection, there have been many efforts expended by the devil to curtail and destroy her. The destruction and loss of identity has not usually come at once, but over time and through progressive digression. One major threat to the church during the last especially 65 years has been what historians call institutionalism. Institutionalism involves financially and politically burdening local churches to regularly support various human institutions such as colleges, missionary societies, and orphanages. It is claimed that these institutions can perform specific work of the church better than the local church; hence, they should be placed on the budgets of local churches. When institutions are desired, other forms of reasoning have also been witnessed. I recall the following statement made by Batsell Baxter relative to schools:

     "It is my conviction that the schools need to be dependent upon the churches for their financial life blood in order for the schools to remain permanently loyal to the goals and principles the Bible teaches" Questions and Issues of the Day, pg. 30, ca. 1964).

     Baxter made another statement at the same time that is also of great historic interest. "The orphan home and the Christian school must stand or fall together" (Ibid. pg. 29, I shall shortly revisit this statement).

     Relative to schools being placed in the budgets of local churches, October 18, 1954 is note worthy. W. L. Totty affirmed the following proposition:

     "It is scripturally right for churches to contribute money from the church treasuries to support what is commonly called a Bible College in its work."

     While institutionalsim such as church supported colleges has advanced and been accepted to the point that it is seldom even questioned in some circles today, this was not always the case. One of the largest "Christian colleges" involving members of the Church of Christ is Abilene Christian University. The founder of Abilene Christian University wrote as follows in 1930 concerning the church and institutions, including the college:

     "There were no 'brotherhood colleges,' 'church papers,' 'church orphanages,' 'old folk's homes,' and the like, among apostolic congregations…Individual Christians, any number, may scripturally engage in any worthwhile work, such as running colleges, papers, and orphanages, and other individual Christians may properly assist them in every proper way; but no local congregation should be called upon as such, to contribute a thing to any such enterprise. Such a call would be out of harmony with the word of the living God. And if any congregation so contributes, it transcends its scriptural prerogatives" (Gospel Advocate, March 13, 1930, it is my understanding that Abilene Christian University to this day does not accept monies from churches).

     Those who opposed church supported institutions are often labeled as being "anti" and uncooperative. However, institutionalism was once staunchly opposed by many within churches of Christ. Consider a few quotations from well-known men of yesterday:

    "Institutionalism has destroyed the life and energy of the church today! …The next religious war will be fought around the issue of institutionalism" (W. E. Brightwell, Gospel Advocate, November 29, 1934).

     "The ship of Zion has floundered more than once on the sandbar of institutionalism. The tendency to organize is a characteristic of the age. On the theory that the end justifies the means, brethren have now scrupled to form organizations in the church to do the work the church itself was designed to do. All such organizations usurp the work of the church, and are unnecessary and sinful" (Guy N. Woods, Abilene Christian College Lectures, 1939).

     "The church is about to become the unwitting and unwilling victim of institutionalism and institutionalism is about to become a racket….Institutionalism was the taproot of digression. It has always been the fatal blow to congregational independence" (Foy E. Wallace, Jr. Bible Banner, July, 1939).

     Regarding orphan homes in particular, John D. Cox stated in a sermon that he preached in Florence, Alabama, February 12, 1950:

     "Now, word has been getting around that I am opposed to Child Haven - to that Orphan Home - but it seems that the word is not getting around as to why I am opposed to it….The issue is not whether the church should or should not do such work, but the issue is through what organization should it be done - through the church or some institutions or organization that has been set up by men supported by the church?"

     Guy N. Woods succinctly stated the issue in 1946: "There is no place for charitable organizations in the work of the New Testament church. It is the only charitable organization that the Lord authorizes, or that is needed to do the work the Lord expects his people to do" (The Annual Lesson Commentary for December 15, 1946).

     Let us now return to Batsell Baxter's statement, "The orphan home and the Christian school must stand or fall together." Brethren appear to forget history and plunge on to commit the same mistakes over again. In 1849 the American Christian Missionary Society was introduced to church budgets. Many opposed the church contributing to a missionary society instead of performing itself the work God has assigned to the church under the oversight of the local elders (I Tim. 3: 15, I Pet. 5: 1, 2). In 1906 there had been so much division over the presence of the American Christian Missionary Society that the federal government recognized the church of Christ and the Christian Church (proponents of the missionary society) as two different religious organizations. Institutionalism had again reared its ugly head in the late 1920's in the promotion of orphan home support by churches. Hear C. M. Pullias:

     "A great apostasy, maybe, is being planned unaware in the various things that local churches are doing under the eldership. Institutionalism is dangerous because it is a departure from the apostolic way. Human societies to do missionary work is wrong, but no more so than some human organization to take care of the orphans or old people or even the young folks" (Life and Works of C. M. Pullias, page 577).

     Consider the statements of Baxter and Pullias. Baxter said, "The orphan home and the Christian school must stand or fall together." Pullias said, "Human societies to do missionary work is wrong, but no more so than some human organization to take care of the orphans or old people or even the young folks." Indeed, if it is scriptural for the church to support orphan homes, it is also scriptural for the church to support colleges, missionary societies, and homes for unwed mothers, etc. If not, why not?

     Much of the issue of institutionalism involves a failure to distinguish between collective and individual action. The statement, "What the individual can do, the church can do" is faulty and lacking biblical sanction. For instance, Paul clearly shows there are some things that the individual Christian is required to do as opposed to the church (I Tim. 5: 16). Moreover, there are matters in certain circumstances that the Christian is to do that would be wrong for the church to do (ibid.). The scriptures do address the subject of orphans and widows. However, the question is do the scriptures teach individual action or that churches are to place orphanages and homes for widows in their budgets or even build such institutions? James wrote:

     "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (Jas. 1: 27).

     Upon consideration of the verse and context, it becomes evident that James is discussing the individual Christian (vs. 23-17). Regarding the Greek word rendered "visit" (episkeptomai), W. E. Vines comments thus:

     "…Primarily, "to inspect" (a late form of episkopeo, "to look upon, care for, excercise oversight"), signifies (a) "to visit" with help, of the act of God, Luke 1: 68, 78; 7: 16; Acts 15:14; Heb. 2: 6; (b) "to visit" the sick and afflicted, Matt. 25: 36, 43; Jas. 1: 27; (c) "to go and see," "pay a visit to," Acts 7: 23; 15: 36; (d) "to look out" certain men for a purpose, Acts 6: 3. See LOOK."

     James 1: 27, I submit, does not carry the action of a church building or maintaining an orphanage or home for widows. The action is individual, personal, and direct. Children need a home environment rather than an institution.

     Many churches that have orphanages and homes for widows in their budgets are also in violation of I Timothy 5: 16. I have asked members of churches of Christ that support homes of widows if they financially assist their needy mother or father. "I do not help them myself, but the church does," has often been the reply. Paul said the children and/or grandchildren have the first duty to assist rather than the church (I Tim. 5: 16).

     Besides, the work of the local church is clearly set forth. Preaching the gospel to the lost and edifying the saved is the work of the church (I Tim. 3: 15, Eph. 4: 16, 2 Tim. 4: 1-5, benevolence for needy saints was done when there was a need, I Cor. 16: 1, 2). Some local churches are so burdened ("charged") with supporting hospitals, colleges, schools, day cares, homes for unwed mothers, homes for boys, etc. that they have little ability to support the preaching of the gospel (cp. I Tim. 5: 16).

     The study of orphanages is of great importance in any study of institutionalism because the orphan home has often been used to pave the way for other church supported institutions. The reasoning has been, "The little orphans are starving and the church must help." In the first place, there are few true "orphans." In many of these cases, the parents of the children need to be held responsible for the support of their children (cp. I Tim. 5: 8). In the second place, there is usually no real appeal for direct help. What is wanted is for churches to place orphanages in their budgets. I have experienced more than one incident where I knew of an orphan and a family that wanted to adopt. However, an orphanage became involved and refused to offer adoption. You see, orphanages make money based on the number of children that they have institutionalized (I do not mean to say that all who work within such institutions are callous to the real needs of children). The point that I am making is that people are often moved to agree to church support of an orphanage before they would be prompted to agree to church supported colleges. Hence, there is the emotional element present in the orphan home issue. However, remember the words of Baxter: "The orphan home and the Christian school must stand or fall together." I have heard preachers say to a church, "You support orphan homes, therefore, you can also support a college out of the treasury." Based on the persuasion of consistency, I have known of churches being persuaded to support other institutions.

     Let us briefly now consider the fact and historic development of orphanages among churches of Christ.  Based on charters of all the benevolent institutions, certain facts emerge. In the year 1940 there were seven orphan homes in operation among those associated with churches of Christ. In 1950, there were three additional orphanages. From 1950 until 1960, there were seventeen more homes established, making a total twenty-seven. As seen, there was opposition to church support of all institutions including orphanages from the first. However, as their number increased, so did the opposition. The first orphanage established by churches of Christ subsequent to the division over the missionary society of 1849 and mechanical music in 1860 was the Tennessee Orphan Home in Columbia, Tennessee. The Tennessee Orphan Home was chartered in 1909 and officially opened in September 5, 1910. Notice that prior to 1910, church supported orphanages was not a practice. However, we are told, "The church is not faithful unless orphanages are in the budgets."

     I have talked to scores of preachers, elders, and members who are opposed to church supported colleges and other institutions. However, they are in favor of orphanages. Their defense of orphanages is not based on the scriptures, but purely on emotion and misinformation. Yet, church financed orphanages constitute the very backbone of institutionalism because such blackmails people into accepting other institutions into the budgets of local churches.

     As seen, during New Testament times, each church preached the gospel and edified itself under the guidance of the local eldership (Acts 20: 28, I Pet. 5: 2, Eph. 4: 16). Each local church acted as its own missionary society, if you will, and edification entity. There were no outside agencies and the church did not have such exterior organizations in their budgets. Even in the matter of benevolence, each church took care of their needs. When the need surpassed the ability of the local church, other churches assisted (Acts 11: 27-30, I Cor. 16: 1, 2). Again, though, there were no benevolent societies interwoven as part of the work of the local churches. Human institutions are parasitic in nature. Once they become attached to local churches, they drain the churches and redirect their mission. Brethren must insist on book, chapter, and verse for all believed and practiced and avoid the manipulative appeal of emotional alleged starving orphans, the impetus for the bulk of institutionalism ( I Pet. 4: 11, 2 Jn. 9-11).  (For similar reading click on, "The Herald of Truth" and "I Timothy 5, Widows and Church Versus Individual Action")  (Read about privately funded institutionalism by click on, "The Guardian of Truth Foundation and Florida College".)