by Cecil Hook
SERVANTS THAT BECAME RULERS
There are three servants that have become our masters, yea, four came to serve God’s people and stayed to rule. These servants that betrayed us are (1) the Sunday School, (2) the paid ministry, (3) the church building, and (4) the budget.
Good and expedient devices and methods can be used in accomplishing our spiritual objectives. These devices and methods, however, should serve our needs rather than taking over individual responsibility, limiting individual initiative, or becoming a yoke upon our necks. These four servants have violated the trust we placed in them.
I. THE SUNDAY SCHOOL. I recall as a child when Bible classes came to our area. Many sincere disciples thought it sinful to divide the assembly in order to teach. Most congregations added classes anyway, and the system developed to the extent that many sincere disciples consider it a sin not to attend the classes. I suppose a fellow has lived too long when he lives from the time that it is wrong to attend classes to the time that it is wrong not to attend them.
Bible classes were organized to supplement home and individual teaching. They were an aid to the parent. But gradually, through our undiscerning promotion of them, they took over the responsibility of the home. Most Christian homes, I fear, have no regular teaching. If parents shift the responsibility to the church, the class is no longer a servant — the supplement; it becomes the ruler in the child’s spiritual education. And when the church program seems ineffective, the parent can complain, “The church is not doing enough for my child,” and can change to another congregation that has a greater youth program.
God’s youth program is the family, his school is the home, and his teachers are the parents. If parents take ten minutes a day in reading, teaching, praying, and interacting spiritually with their children, they will accomplish much more than perfect attendance in the church program can do.
Parental teaching makes spirituality a part of real life. Otherwise, we impress on our children that religion is in another realm — in a church building, only with church people, in a holy King James Version sort of language, needing professionals, who often employ an unnatural preacher tone. But the home is where the daily life is, and parental interaction makes it practical. It makes religion centered on daily life rather than centered on weekly and semi-weekly church activities. And parents can better adapt the training to the needs of the individual child.
It would be hard to re-establish the practice of this parental responsibility, but it wasn’t easy to build the Bible class system to take over the responsibility. If we will spend only a fraction of the effort, time, emphasis, and money to re-establish parental teaching as we have done to enthrone and maintain the class system, it will be accomplished. Then classes can become servants again.
2. PAID MINISTRY. If we are not to muzzle the ox — the elder who labors in preaching and teaching — but consider that “the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:17f), then the validity of a paid ministry is established. Such occupational service enlarges and supplements the labors of others. Corporately, the disciples may accomplish what they cannot do individually. But the individual responsibility comes first. When the individual responsibility is surrendered to the church program, then the servant has become the master.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul affirms the right of supported evangelists, but the great apostle and evangelist showed us a preferred way by being a tentmaking evangelist.
Our Movement began and thrived with few church-supported ministers. Elders and other capable persons taught and edified the congregations. Support was given to the evangelists more commonly. Gradually, the emphasis was shifted and support for evangelism was supplanted by support for the ministry. Many of us still call ourselves evangelists/preachers, but our primary function is to minister to the saved. Ministry has gained priority, and only after the ministry is satisfied do we generally consider supporting evangelism.
The minister has become essential. No congregation is thought to have a chance of success without a paid professional. A small congregation will scream nationwide for help to support a minister to save it from doom and to promise it prosperity. A formal pulpit message is considered a necessity twice each Sunday. There are countless non- professional ministers who are qualified and willing to serve the pulpits of churches throughout our nation, but they are not used because they are not professionals. The preaching talents of men are bid for in salary like star athletes while the mission fields go begging.
The teacher’s role is not quite as important today as it was in the early church. The message was in Spirit-directed men then. The extant scriptures had to be read and taught to the illiterate public. Now most everyone has a Bible and can read it for himself, and he has literature, tapes, films, video, radio, and television to help him. Our pulpit method has become institutionalized.
We think to improve the work of the congregation by supporting men for all the ministries — youth, education, jail, singles, aged, personal evangelism, counseling, secretarial work, janitorial work, and so forth. These are fine as long as they supplement and aid the efforts of the members of the body. But the servant easily becomes the master as the individuals relinquish their work to those paid to do it. Services rendered by hired personnel cannot convey personal love and discipleship like those rendered through personal initiative. The members hire these professionals to do their work and, when the program does not thrive, the professional is replaced by one who offers greater promise, even if a higher salary is needed to get him. The various gifts in the body are smothered and the function as a body becomes sluggish.
I realize fully that I am undermining my own life-long work by what I am writing. The professional ministry has become ruler in my lifetime. I have helped to develop the problem, and I am now trying to help to solve it.
Any claims that the church cannot thrive without a paid ministry were disproved in our Movement in the last century; these claims are also disproved today by the Mormons who, without paid personnel, are growing faster and larger than we are.
3. THE CHURCH BUILDING. There is no mention of church-owned property in the New Testament writings, and secular writers mention church buildings early in the third century. Some place to meet is necessary, whether the church owns or rents the building or meets in private quarters. The building serves a need, but this servant has raised from its obscure beginning to become a tyrant, ruling many congregations with a stranglehold.
Many of us can remember when our buildings were cracker boxes, causing us to develop an inferiority complex about them. So it was more a matter of pride than wisdom that moved us to put our money into real estate. We have come to equate success with the size of our physical plant even though it is never filled and is used only four out of each 168 hours each week — or less!
Too, we have been few in number in small congregations. So we developed a pride in numbers also. As our congregations have grown in size, we have felt it imperative to have all the members meet at the same time. This has multiplied the expense of our structures several times. A church plant that cares for 300 persons can care for a thousand or fifteen hundred by having multiple assemblies. The savings on auditorium, classrooms, parking, utilities, and upkeep can release many thousands of dollars for evangelism and benevolence in most congregations.
The building is king, living sumptuously off the financial resources while missions and the needy beg for the crumbs that fall from the table. We hear of million dollar collections for buildings. Would it not be nice to hear churches boast of million dollar collections for evangelism and missions? But we love our king!
4. THE BUDGET. The idea of a church budget is foreign to the scriptures. Special collections were taken for the poor, and some help was sent to Paul to aid in his evangelistic activities. There is no indication that these were perpetuated in a regular budgeted program. These examples indicate that we may pool our resources in a congregation to do a corporate work too large for the individual. A common treasury can aid and supplement the work of individuals. But this servant has grown to be a demanding ruler.
Primary responsibility for caring for the hungry, sick, aged, widow, orphan, and destitute is placed on the individual. In serving these we serve Christ. That is the character of pure religion. But now the church has taken these ministries and put them in a budgeted program — usually about 2% of the budget — and demands our money to expedite them. So now, if a person who is hungry, sick, or needs rent or utilities paid approaches a member for help, the member explains, “What you would have gained from me is given to God! (Matt. 15:1-9). I can’t help you. I have given my money to the church. Go to the church where perhaps you can be included in the impersonal program budgeted by the church.”
We have even heard disciples warned against “eldering their own money,” insisting that they should do their work through the church “so Christ will get the glory!” So we give to the church rather than to persons. But churches don’t have religion; only individuals have religion. The church has wrested these personal responsibilities from its members, robbing them of the joy of service and the demonstration of concern which is so convincing to the lost.
Someone may think that the church would be left to wither away and die if we dethroned these four rulers. But look at the New Testament writings again. There you will discover that the church did not depend upon Bible classes, paid ministry, church buildings, or budgets; it took the Roman Empire without these rulers! The Stone-Campbell Movement became the largest indigenous religious body in America in the nineteenth century with little aid from these four methods and devices. We may think that it couldn’t happen, but it did.
In our effort to get back to basics, it would be wise for us to reconsider the place of those things, especially in view of the fact that our progress has slowed since becoming enslaved to those servants. We cannot expect the masters to free us, nor can we abandon commitments already made or the buildings already in use. Change of course will be gradual. Let us start by giving renewed stress to individual responsibilities.