The Church and Societies


I was recently reading Bainton’s Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, which is a history of pacifist thought within Christianity. In his chapter on Waterloo to Armageddon (19th century up to WWI), the following quotation caught my attention, especially as it would relate to Churches of Christ.

“The technique developed for fostering these reforms was the founding of societies, each directed to a specific objective and recruiting all who agreed on the one goal, however diverse their religious or other affiliations. In consequence, Christian influence in this period cannot be traced by observing the actions of churches. One must rather examine the religious allegiance of the individual members of societies” (Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, p. 191).

While societies played a vital role in the peace movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were met with a critical eye by Churches of Christ. The Missionary Society would notably play a role in the division between the Disciples and Churches of Christ at the turn of the century, but for someone like David Lipscomb all societies were suspect, as can be seen in the two quotations below.

In a question about the “difference, if any, between the church and Sunday school as organized bodies,” Lipscomb replied in the following manner.

“…We cannot do a thing in the name of Christ when it is done as a member of a body not authorized by him. Christ never ordained any organization except his churches. In these, as members of his body, his children must work. No Sunday school or missionary or charitable organization outside of his church has ever been authorized. No Christian has a right to work in any of these human organizations. He must do what he does as a member of the body of Christ…” (David Lipscomb, Queries and Answers, p. 80).

Of course, some nuance should be considered in his statement as he founded and taught at the Nashville Bible School.

When asked about whether Christians should join a fraternal order, Lipscomb made similar statements.

“It depends very much on the kind of a Christian a man proposes to be whether it is wrong for him to join the fraternal orders or not. If he intends to make an earnest, faithful, devoted Christian, he has no time, taste, or service for anything, save the church of Christ; if he intends to live the Christian life and make himself a follower of Christ and fit himself in character for heaven, he will give his talent, means, time, and love to the church of Christ, with none to bestow on any other association or brotherhood; but if he only intends to profess to be a Christian, not to make a strict member, and live a life of ease and pleasure and trust church membership to save him, without a godly and holy life, he had as well join these brotherhoods and divide his time and means with these as to take any other course of life that will not develop the Christian character…” (David Lipscomb, Queries and Answers, p. 183-4).

For Lipscomb, his pacifism was supported by a separation of the church and the world. He did not vote or participate in the political process. He did not seek to enact social change through societies or benevolent institutions. The Christian’s energies should be completely devoted to the church, and his influence should be seen through the church. Through spreading and enacting the gospel, the church would be a light to the world. Of course, not everyone would agree with Lipscomb’s views on the Christian and the government, but a strong reliance on the kingdom of God as opposed to the kingdoms of the world was a major theme that flowed through Lipscomb’s fore-bearers and contemporaries like Barton Stone, Philip Fall, Tolbert Fanning and James Harding.

Churches of Christ would continue to grapple with the function of the church within society. Toward the middle of the 20th century, there was a dispute over the existence of parachurch organizations like “Christian” schools and orphan homes/homes for aged. Could the church support and/or operate such institutions?

Of course, both sides claimed Lipscomb’s teachings and beliefs.  The proponents looked to Lipscomb’s emphasis upon good works in the church. The opponents of church-related institutions quoted his disdain for institutions and societies as separate entities from the church. The anti-institutional brethren would make a strong distinction between church action and individual action, creating a dichotomy between individual and corporate action in order to preserve the church’s mission as relating to spiritual matters. The existence and details of such distinctions would be fiercely debated within the churches.

Additionally, to consider what Lipscomb might have said on the subject, other questions may be needed. Were these organizations humanly devised? Would they diminish or take away from the concept of the church? Would they divide or co-opt the loyalties of the Christian?

One other connection was made in my mind as I thought through this subject, and it reaches outside of the circles of Churches of Christ. Tim Keller suggests in his book on Generous Justice that separate organizations should be created by Christians for the purpose of social justice in order to preserve the church’s primary function of proclaiming the gospel. This prevents the church from forsaking her primary responsibility. That adds a slight twist to the non-institutional position.

As usual I don’t have answers for everything, but it helps me to think through it when I consider the flow of thoughts and reasons, make connections and contrast opposing viewpoints. The role of the church and the relationship of the Christian to the world are pretty foundational subjects to consider.

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One Response to The Church and Societies

  1. Luke Douthitt says:

    Ooh! Good thoughts. I think I would have liked Mr. Lipscomb.

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