A few days ago, Rufus Clifford, one of the elders here, lent me a book entitled Pursuing the Pattern, edited by Jim Deason. It contains 14 essays, half by preachers from non-institutional backgrounds, half by preachers from institutional backgrounds, addressing various topics related to institutionalism.
In particular, Rufus urged me to read the essays written by institutional brethren. He (correctly) observed that the only way to truly understand a position is to read defenses of that position by those who believe in it. It’s awfully easy for non-institutional Christians to set up strawmen and knock them down. However, that’s not fair either to the institutional perspective and those who support it.
The Sponsoring-Church Argument
As a result, I spent some time yesterday morning working my way through three of those essays. Most of what the authors said was familiar (I have heard James 1:27 used to argue church involvement in general benevolence before), but there was one argument that wasn’t. It appeared in the essay written by Glenn Ramsey, and it concerned the issue of whether churches can cooperate with one another in evangelism.
For those who aren’t familiar with the jargon, church cooperation is when a number of different congregations send money to a “sponsoring church”, which then doles out the money to various preachers. I’m honestly not sure what the point of doing things this way is, but the question isn’t whether the practice is expedient. It is whether it is lawful.
In defense of its lawfulness, Bro. Ramsey turns to two passages: 2 Corinthians 11:8-9 and Philippians 4:15-17 (this and the rest of his argument appear on pp. 83-84 of Pursuing the Pattern). In the former passage, Paul writes that he “robbed other churches”—accepted support from them—while he was preaching to the Corinthians, and that his needs were met by brethren from Macedonia. In the latter text, he notes that “in the beginning of the gospel”, only the church in Philippi shared financially with him after he left Macedonia.
Bro. Ramsey then proceeds to assert that these two passages describe the same circumstance. He argues that the different language in the two texts—Paul robbed other churches (plural), but was only in fellowship with the church in Philippi (singular) shows that Philippi acted as a sponsoring church, collecting money from other churches to send to Paul.
I have to admit that the argument is an ingenious one. I was reading right along, not really focusing my full attention on what was said, when all of a sudden I said, “Whoa! How did he get there?” I had to go back and examine the text in much greater detail.
Different Time Periods
Once I did so, though, a couple of problems with Bro. Ramsey’s claims emerged. First, it’s not at all clear to me that 2 Corinthians 11 and Philippians 4 are referring to the same time period. The phrase “in the beginning of the gospel” in Philippians is ambiguous. Most likely, it refers to the time immediately after Paul’s departure from Macedonia, approximately Acts 17:15-18:6. Certainly, there is no textual reason to insist that “the beginning of the gospel” covers the entirety of Paul’s 18-month stay in Corinth. By contrast, 2 Corinthians 11 appears to be a discussion of that whole 18-month span, if not also including the later “painful visit” of 2 Corinthians 2:1.
The two time periods thus don’t seem to line up exactly with one another, and if they aren’t an exact match, the argument breaks down. It’s entirely possible that Paul, when he first came to Corinth, was only supported by the brethren in Philippi. However, as his work there progressed, some of the other congregations in Macedonia (Thessalonica, say, or Berea) also began to send him money, leading to his statement that he robbed other churches. If this is what happened, there’s nothing in 1 Corinthians 11 that justifies the existence of sponsoring-church arrangements.
In Fellowship or Not?
In fact, I think the above is the best reading of the text because of the resolution it brings to the fellowship-or-not issue. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that this actually is the record of a first-century sponsoring-church arrangement. Thessalonica and Berea are sending money to Philippi, which then is passing it along to Paul. It seems to me that Bro. Ramsey wants to have this both ways. He wants Paul to be in enough fellowship with Thessalonica and Berea to rob them, but at the same time, Paul really isn’t in true fellowship with them. He’s only in true fellowship with Philippi.
Personally, I think that being in fellowship in some matter is like being pregnant. Either you is or you ain’t. Either Thessalonica and Berea are sending Paul money and establishing financial fellowship with him, or they aren’t. If they are, then Paul’s claim that only Philippi is helping him is untrue. If they aren’t, his claim to be robbing other churches, plural, is untrue. It makes more sense to read these two texts as describing different phases of Paul’s ministry instead, so that both are true at different times.
Admittedly, it’s possible that Paul could be using “churches” accommodatively to describe his relationship with Philippi only. However, that doesn’t really help Bro. Ramsey’s argument. If “churches” only describes Philippi, then only one church is involved in Paul’s support, and 2 Corinthians 11 offers no justification for having sponsoring churches.
There’s a reason why we speak of “establishing” authority from Scripture. It’s not enough for us to hypothesize that some practice may possibly be authorized. Instead, if we want to honor Christ as King, we have to prove from His word that He has given us authority.
Bro. Ramsey’s argument falls short of this standard. I’ll agree that it’s possible that Philippi was a first-century sponsoring church. However, that’s hardly the only way that we can read the texts he cites for support, and it’s not even the most likely reading. Possibility and proof are far from the same thing.
We can suppose all sorts of things about the New-Testament church, many of them far grander than the use of sponsoring churches to accomplish the work of evangelism. If we’re willing to accept supposition as our authority, we can suppose our way into the use of the instrument in worship, the practice of infant baptism, and the establishment of a denomination with a single earthly head. Many have done precisely this.
However, a church built on supposition isn’t built on much. Only if our beliefs and practices are based on the Scripture can we be sure that we are building on a firm foundation.