What Is a Missionary Society?

By Wayne Jackson

In the mid-to-late 1800’s there was a tragic split in the American “restoration” movement — that noble effort that seeks to throw off the shackles of modern denominationalism and return to primitive Christianity.

The key issues precipitating the division were the introduction of instrumental music as an accompaniment to singing in Christian worship; and, the crafting of the “missionary society.”

Our focus in this brief piece will be to consider the problems associated with the missionary society, since this has become a volatile topic in recent years.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was a division in the church that involved, at least in part, a disagreement between Christians over whether or not churches could support “chartered homes” that specifically were designed for the care of destitute children. Prior to this time, there was no serious dispute about the matter, and such was deemed a perfectly scriptural way of helping orphaned youngsters.

With the passing of time, it was deemed expedient (or in some cases was required by law) for such arrangements to “incorporate.” The benefits of this formality were to seek protection against frivolous litigation, and/or to take advantage of tax relief. In some states the process was required to satisfy legal standards.

As these issues developed, some rose up in opposition. The charge was made that a “human institution” had been formed (with a board of directors, etc.), and that such was an unscriptural mechanism. Of course they did not object to “churches” incorporating, which, legally speaking, necessitated a “board of directors.” It was acknowledged that a church, incorporated or otherwise, was simply a church.

It was irrelevant to the objectors that absolutely nothing had changed in basic structure — except that the work now had a “legal” status, rather than the more informal arrangement of the past. The critical cry became: “An ‘institution’ parallel to the missionary society has been formed! We must break away. We will be known henceforth as ‘non-institutional’ brethren.” These people, sincere as they were, simply did not understand the nature of a “missionary society.”

In general, a missionary society operates in the following fashion. A group of churches will agree to enter into an arrangement with one another for the purpose of doing mission work. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with such a plan — provided the organizational structure does not go awry.

But that was precisely the problem. In the “society” arrangement it was agreed, by the participating churches, that each would send representatives to periodical meetings. Those representatives were empowered to form and ratify policy. The representatives subsequently would return to their respective churches with the decisions of the “society.” The congregations then, by their own agreement, were bound by the rules of the delegates. Hence churches fell under the control of a body that was independent of any one congregation.

This type of arrangement is wrong. It subordinates local congregations to a legislative body — a circumstance void of New Testament authority. As a matter of fact, no local church can ever be made subservient to another church. All congregations are independent and self-governing in matters of expediency.

How do the common arrangements of congregational cooperation today (e.g., one church helping another with a particular mission work, or in facilitating the care of orphaned children via a home), parallel the sort of abuse that is characteristic of the “society” structure? There is no resemblance.

How is the “missionary society” arrangement related to the practice of a church using the “incorporation” procedure to conform to law in the ownership of real property? No parallel exists.

How does the “missionary society” plan bear any resemblance to individual Christians working together in special cooperative ways, yet seeking the incorporation process so as to benefit from legitimate tax provisions, or for the protection of their personal assets?

There is no commonality. And attempts to “taint” such efforts by assigning negative expressions, like “missionary society” or “para-church organization,” do not alter the true nature of the work. Nor does the use of these “loaded” terms pass for sound argumentation, though such methodology is employed commonly by those who seek to establish their cause by emotional appeal, rather than by logical and scriptural argument.

We appreciate people who seek to respect Bible authority relative to teaching and benevolent methods, but some well-meaning folks have gone much too far in their criticisms, and tragic division has been the result.

Unfortunately, there are a few others, though not formally organized, who have adopted this critical jargon and carelessly throw it around without having skillfully analyzed their position. Caution should be exercised lest one reacts without proper knowledge.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.