via The Preceptor, Vol. 1, No. 6, April 1952.
A constant threat to man's spiritual life in every age has been the disposition to substitute human wisdom for divine, and to do God's work man's way. When God tells man what to do, but does not tell him how to do it, man is left to his own judgment in the way it should be done. But when God tells man both what to do and how to do it, man has no alternative but to obey. Every effort on man's part to improve on God's way has proved fatal. The history of Israel and of the early church demonstrates this point; but though the point is demonstrated, man refuses to learn.
When God commanded that the ark of the covenant should be built, He provided not only the details of its construction, but also for its transportation. Two staves were to be made, and two rings were to be provided on each side "wherewith to bear the ark. The staves shall be in the rings of the ark: they shall not be taken from it" (Exodus 25:12-15). When the tabernacle had been set up and sanctified, covered wagons and oxen were given to the sons of Gershon and Merari by which to transport certain parts of the structure. "But unto the sons of Kohath he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary belonged unto them; they bare it upon their shoulders" (Numbers 7:9). The sanctuary should be borne upon the shoulders of the sons of Kohath. This was the divine order. Further the penalty for touching the sanctuary was death: "The sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch the sanctuary, lest they die" (Numbers 4:15; cf. 1:51).
Years passed and men became careless of the divine arrangement. Not withstanding the divine injunction that the things pertaining to the holy place should be borne upon the shoulders of the sons of Kohath, when the ark of the covenant was to have been brought from the house of Abinadab by David, "They set the ark of God upon a new cart...and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart" (II Samuel 6:3). The story of what followed is familiar to all, how, as they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, "Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error (rashness); and there he died by the ark of God" (II Samuel 6:6,7).
The moral should need little comment, it stands out as a red light of warning to all who come after. When God lays upon an individual or group a responsibility and gives specific instructions for the carrying out of that responsibility, pointing out the penalty for the violation of the injunction given, the consequences for violation are as certain as is the character of God. "If we are faithless, He abideth faithful; for He cannot deny Himself" (II Timothy 2:13). One cannot shift the divine obligation placed upon his shoulders to some "new cart" of his own creation, the product of his own ingenuity, and not suffer the consequence.
The New Covenant Principle
When God gave the New Covenant He made it clear that its laws should be written upon the hearts of His people: "I will put My laws into their mind, and on their heart also will I write them" (Hebrews 8:10); "not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh" (II Corinthians 3:3). With the law upon the heart of the individual, each one in the church should bear his share of the load (Galatians 6:5); to each, as individuals, was given responsibility of stewardship "according to his several ability" (Matthew 25:14,15).
Faith and obedience to the gospel are personal; we all know that parent cannot at this point act for the children. Worship also is individual, no one can worship God for another, nor can he be a moral individual by "proxy". Stewardship of goods is likewise individual, "Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store" (I Corinthians 16:2); and "Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart" (II Corinthians 9:7). One cannot do in proportion to another, nor by proxy; his giving must be individual, according to a stewardship unto God. The same can be said of ministering. When Jesus commended those on His right hand in the judgment, He commended not according to the work of a congregation, but according to the faithfulness of the individual (Matthew 25). Peter writes, "According as each hath received a gift, ministering it among themselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God" (I Peter 4:10). Whether the gifts are special or natural, the principle is the same -- faithful use according to the gift to the individual.
In order that the gospel should be preached to the uttermost bounds of the inhabited earth, and that the kingdom should be extended from "sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth," God gave some to be evangelists. The work of an evangelist is learned from a study of Philip and his work, and from Timothy and the two books addressed to him, and from Titus and the book bearing his name. Both to those without and to those within the church the evangelist is to "preach the Word." He is a "minister of Christ Jesus," a teacher of the church, and one upon whom the responsibility falls to set in order newly founded congregations. Like others, his is a stewardship of responsibility according to ability. Upon his shoulders is to be borne the load summarized in the Word, "do the work of an evangelist" (II Timothy 4:5).
When God "gave some to be pastors" the same principle adheres. He was laying upon the shoulders of certain men duties which they were to bear. These duties could not be carried out by proxy -- the elders were not to create "new carts" by which to bear them. Their work is likewise clearly set forth in the New Covenant. They are to be overseers, able to admonish the disorderly, encourage the faint-hearted, support the weak, and to see that none render unto any one evil for evil. They were to be held responsible as watchmen of souls, whose prime duty is that of shepherding the flock of God -- and that according to the Will of God.
When accounting time comes to all, whether to the evangelist, the elder or to the obscure members of the flock, the question will not be one of what a group did, or of what the congregation did, but of what the individual did. "So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12; II Corinthians 5:10). The individual responsibility and obligation must not be lost sight of. That which I am to do, I must do. The obligation placed on my shoulder cannot be borne by another, or by a device of my own creation and fancy. As I view it, this principle is basic.
"New Carts" Today
To this writer it appears that the question of institutionalism is one of shifting responsibilities from the shoulders where God has put them to "new carts" of man's own devising. Institutionalism takes root and buds in a congregation long before it blossoms into an institution of some kind, foreign to the church of the New Testament.
There can surely be no criticism of a congregation supporting an evangelist, engaging him to preach, teach, and do any and all the work which pertains to him as summarized by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. But institutionalism begins to take root when the members begin to shift the work of the individuals to his shoulders, doing it by proxy as they support the preacher and he does their work. The same can be said of the elders. Whether consciously or unconsciously, there is a tendency among elders today to shift more and more of their responsible work to the shoulders of the preach-er, till he becomes, whether in name or not, the "pastor" of the church. The evangelist is a divinely appointed servant; but the digression from God's way by making the evangelist a worker by proxy of the congregation, and a bearer of the load of the elders is to create a "new cart", which leads to the touching of God's divine law whereby some hapless Uzzah is bound to get hurt.
With institutionalism rooted in the congregation, and the various individuals accustomed to doing things by proxy and of shifting obligations from the shoulders of the individuals to new carts, it is an easy matter to do the same for family and congregational responsibilities. The work of teaching, evangelizing and benevolence is individual and congregational. When shifted from these divinely appointed shoulders to something else, a "new cart" must become that something else. And again the oxen stumble and the ark is touched, and someone dies.
As in the case of the individual, the great Head of the church has given to no congregation an obligation greater than its ability. But He does expect each congregation to measure up to His demands according to that ability. This is clearly set forth in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, where, after criticizing, the mandate is act, "or else!" The let-down in the church which has called for "new carts" on which to bear the work of the Lord has been and continues to be found in the disposition to carry out the will of God in a half-way or less than half-way manner. This disposition is observed in evangelism, benevolence and in teaching. From responsible shoulders to "new carts" the work is transferred. Has not our present-day question of institutionalism grown out of this disposition? It so seems to this writer. If this be true, then the remedy will be found only in a return to the divine pattern of each bearing his own burden. When this is done there will be no need for the new carts appearing here and there.
This same principle is seen further in newspaper advertising, radio work and in Sunday morning Bible classes. Newspaper advertising is good for some purposes, but when a half-page or less is bought in a local paper through which to tell the world what the church is doing, the expenditure is foolish. The divine method of advertising has been clearly stated by Jesus when He said, "Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Peter echoes the same principle (I Peter 2:11,12). Can this method be improved upon? If the church is doing anything the world will recognize it; if not, any boast through papers will fall on deaf ears.
Radio is a splendid supplement to preaching and personal teaching; but when it becomes a substitute for the actual personal contact it avails little. It may become a "new cart" on which to carry the obligation of personal teaching. The Sunday morning Bible class is a splendid arrangement for supplementing home teaching; but when it becomes a substitute for parental responsibility to teach and train children, the parents become responsible for shifting responsibility placed upon their shoulders to the new cart, thus seeking to lessen their own obligation in the matter.
In matters that pertain to the church, many years ago I was impressed with a statement from the pen of brother A. Campbell which I wish to pass on to others who may not as yet have read it. Speaking of the early church, Campbell said,"They knew nothing of the hobbies of modern times. In their church capacity alone they moved. They neither transformed themselves into any other kind of association, nor did they fracture and sever themselves into divers societies. They viewed the church of Jesus Christ as the scheme of Heaven to ameliorate the world; as members of it, they considered themselves bound to do all they could for the glory of God and the good of men. They dare not transfer to a missionary society, or Bible Society, or education society, a cent or a prayer, lest in so doing they should rob the church of its glory, and exalt the inventions of men above the wisdom of God. In their church capacity alone they moved" (Christian Baptist, pgs. 6,7). Let us follow this pattern and beware of "New Carts" as means of carrying out the will of God.