The Controversy Over Institutionalism

Text: 1 Timothy 3:15

The church is the pillar and support of the truth. It is fully capable as God designed it to do the work that the Lord gave it to do. Do we believe that? Sixty years ago in this country, brethren fought battles over “institutionalism.” It was not a new issue then. It is also still around today. It is important that we understand the issue.

What Is “Institutionalism”?

  • Institutionalism covers two basic areas – (1) forming/funding human organizations to do the work of the church; (2) funding organizations from the church treasury to do works that have not been given to the church
  • The issue has been a point of controversy among brethren in this country for almost 200 years

What Work Has God Given the Local Church?

  • Evangelism (1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:8) – the gospel is God’s power for salvation (Romans 1:16); the church helps spread this message (Romans 10:13-15)
  • Edification (Ephesians 4:16; 2 Timothy 2:2) – done by “leaders” in the church (Ephesians 4:11-12) and by all Christians (Hebrews 3:12-13; 10:24-25)
  • Benevolence (Acts 4:32-35; 11:29-30) – limited to Christians (Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:4); usually temporary (1 Timothy 5:3-10); also a last resort (1 Timothy 5:16)

How We Can Do These Works as Individuals

  • Individually we can evangelize (Acts 8:4; 1 Peter 3:15)
  • Individually we can edify our brethren (Hebrews 3:13; Ephesians 4:29)
  • Individually we can do benevolence (Galatians 6:10; James 1:27)
  • Not only CAN we do these things, we OUGHT to do them

The Question of Authority

  • Does the NT authorize us to form/fund human organizations to do the works given to the church? – ex: missionary society
  • Does the NT authorize the church to fund organizations to do works never given to the church? – ex: college, orphan home, publishing company, etc.
  • Why these questions are important – all things must be authorized (Colossians 3:17; Matthew 7:21-23)
  • How to establish authority – go to the Bible (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Timothy 1:13); look for direct commands (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25), express statements (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26), approved examples (cf. Acts 20:7), and necessary inferences (cf. Matthew 26:17, 26; Exodus 12:15); this is not a contrived man-made hermeneutic, it is how all communication works
  • Authority for the local church to do its work – [see earlier point on evangelism, edification, and benevolence]
  • When God specifies something, everything else is excluded (Hebrews 7:14) – when God specifies one thing, we have no authority to do something else; when God does not specify one thing, we have a degree of liberty as to what we will do
  • God specified the local church as the organization through which Christians work together collectively
  • God also specified the works that the local church is to do
  • Therefore, the practice of “institutionalism” is unauthorized – unspecified organization and/or unspecified works


  • Sometimes we need to revisit these issues because they never really go away
  • The Lord wants His church to do His work in the way He instructed
  • We do not need to look for other works for the church to do
  • We also do not need to look for other organizations to do what we can do through the church

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