The Churches of Christ have long had a dilemma, ever since they adopted the restrictive example rule. The restrictive example goes something like: If you can’t find an example of it in the bible it is not authorized by God. This started us down a road that became ever rockier with hairpin turns.
The restrictive example is evident in two rules in the Churches of Christ: instrumental music and Sunday worship. Instrumental music is never mentioned in church worship in the New Testament. Plucking the instrumental strings of the heart is mentioned, so it follows (in Church of Christ logic) that only singing and plucking the strings of the heart is allowed in congregational worship today. Likewise Sunday worship is the only day mentioned when the early Christians met together to “break bread”, therefore Sunday is mandated as the only day one can (and must) break the bread of the Lord’s Supper. And further since Sunday occurs every week, then the Lord’s Supper must be celebrated every Sunday.
This principle of restricting the worship and work of the congregation to examples and commands in the New Testament has had some painful consequences. The Sunday school movement (which began in the 1780s in Britain) became a flash point when it reached Churches of Christ on the frontier of the United States. Some Churches of Christ (about 600) object to the dividing up of the congregation into divisions for Sunday school, something they view as unauthorized in the New Testament. My mother grew up in a no Sunday school Church of Christ in the rural southwestern United States in the 1930s. Another disagreement arose when the factories during World War II began running 7 days a week to keep up with the war demand, and churches began offering the Lord’s Supper on Sunday evenings for those who had to work in the factories on Sunday mornings. Some objected, saying there was no example of a second serving of the Lord’s Supper on a Sunday in the New Testament.
To answer these objections elaborate arguments were devised that examined when an example was binding, when an example was restrictive, and when an example was merely an example of one of our freedoms. These arguments have made great sense to members of the Churches of Christ, and no sense at all to anyone outside the Churches of Christ. (Kind of like how Rush Limbaugh makes great sense to ultra conservatives concerned about the cliff we are headed to with out-of-control bleeding-heart spending, but he makes no sense at all to people concerned about our diplomatic stance to the outside world.)
But the organizations that have had the most influence in Churches of Christ: Magazines and Colleges, were never fully examined in the same exacting light. During the 1940s through 1960s the Churches of Christ split off a 10% splinter group, the non-institutional Churches of Christ: those who objected to the use of church money for things not authorized in the New Testament, such as supporting a sponsoring congregation for missionaries, or a sponsoring church for orphanages, or a sponsoring church for a national evangelistic TV show (The Herald of Truth), or supporting a Christian college with church money.Examples in the New Testament could be found for sending money from churches to the poor church in Jerusalem to support the needy. Examples could be found for sending money to missionaries. But no greater organization can be found in the New Testament than the local congregation. This battle had been fought back in the 1840s between those who wanted to organize the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches/Disciples of Christ into an association (not a denomination!) of churches that would cooperate to form a Missionary Society (with Alexander Campbell as the first president, in 1849), as well as a disagreement about using organs for music in churches. There was a split between the Bible belt churches and the northern churches (Midlanders), the northern churches becoming the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ and the southern and Bible belt churches becoming the Churches of Christ. So why, the non-institutional churches wanted to know, why were we having the same argument all over again a hundred years later?
A simultaneous argument arose about kitchens in the church building (and fellowship halls) and joy buses. Kitchens meant the church was spending money on unauthorized entertainment activities, and joy buses meant–actually I’m not sure what the objection was to joy buses that picked up neighborhood children for Sunday school–except the prizes given away on the bus to entice children to attend. (I grew up in non-institutional churches where every preacher gathering had to have a re-hash of “the split” and how traumatic it was and how dishonest the other side had been, etc. Non-institutional Church of Christers can tell whether it is one of theirs or one of ours by driving by the church building. If it has a basketball hoop and a joy bus in the parking lot it is one of theirs.)
So why was there never a problem with Christian colleges and journals (magazines)? Clearly these were organizations separate and apart from the local congregation, bigger than the local congregation, set up to do the Lord’s work, but never authorized in the New Testament. Did we humans know better than Christ who founded the church and set it up as local congregations with Christ as the head? The Churches of Christ have always been adamant that we are not a denomination with a hierarchy and a man-made creed book, we are only congregations organized according to the New Testament, with Christ as our head, and our headquarters in heaven. All the denominations don’t care about the Bible, they just have man-made creed books and headquarters on earth.
But our Christian colleges hold daily chapel services and annual lectureships, inviting prominent preachers (and not inviting the more controversial preachers). Christian Colleges, and the preacher training schools that preceded them, train the preachers that congregations hire. (There was a small wing of the Churches of Christ that refused to hire located preachers, calling themselves the “mutual edification” or “shared ministry” brethren, believing the New Testament only authorized traveling evangelists. And there still is a strong belief in the Churches of Christ not to ordain preachers, because all preachers were to be lay ministers, avoiding hierarchy.) The only thing that Christian colleges don’t do that congregations do is serve the Lord’s Supper.
Magazines, like colleges, wield tremendous influence, and can bring a prominent preacher who does not hold to the party line to his knees. Why was there never a louder objection to these organizations, not authorized by example or command in the New Testament?
The defense I have heard for these organization is: we are free to do anything outside the congregation, especially outside the worship service. The view is that we only need specific authority for the worship service. We can band together in unauthorized organizations as long as we are not substituting our college or magazine for the local congregation. A similar argument is used by some to say we can use instrumental music in worship outside the congregation. However, this argument for freedom was never extended logically to include the Missionary Society the Churches of Christ had split over in the 1850s, or the hierarchies of the denominations.