Understanding Non-Institutional Churches of Christ: Some Suggestions for First Reads

I offer for this installment the suggestions of my friend Chris Cotten.  Several weeks ago I asked Chris to consider guest-posting to eScriptorium a short reading list on non-institutional churches of Christ (NI).  I told him there would be no parameters, no restrictions and no pay…well, ok, a meal at Wendell’s in West Nashville, but no lucre, filthy or otherwise, is at stake here.  Chris obliged and put together twelve annotated suggestions for first-reads on NI churches and issues.  Enjoy…


First Reads: non-institutional churches of Christ

This list is my own.  The interpretations are my own, as well (although we can talk about the scholarship behind them in the comment box if you’d like).  There may be works that you would include that I haven’t; that’s ok, tell me about them in the comment box.

1. ‘The churches of Christ (non-institutional)’ via Wikipedia.  Don’t laugh, it’s actually a decent summary of the controversy of the 1950s and some of the later controversies within NI circles.  The article is aided considerably by the input of Jeff Barnes and others. 

2.  “Please Don’t Call Us ‘Anti’” by Ferrell Jenkins.  The text of an address delivered at the 55th Annual Pepperdine Lectureship in May, 1998.  It attempts, as much as possible, to give a snapshot of the NI fellowship as it stood at that time.  Much of what he says is still valid a decade later.

 3.  David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith.  Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2000.  Included in this biography of Homer Hailey is probably the most complete history of the NI churches following the split of the 1950s.

 4.  ________, “The Emergence of the ‘Church of Christ’ Denomination.”  Athens, AL: C.E.I. Publishing Company, 1972.  If you think the institutional debate was about kitchens, you don’t get it.  The young scholar turns the rigor of his sociological analysis of the 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement to an examination of the institutional controversy in this delightfully written, and frankly polemical, pamphlet.

5.  Irven Lee, “A Friendly Letter on Benevolence.”  Athens, AL: C.E.I., 1958.  Included in this tract is the memorable, and very telling (I think) line, that Christianity “is a do-it-yourself religion.”  I think this gives significant insight into the NI mindset: Lee is not saying that you don’t need the church and that you can go it alone, rather that teaching, preaching, missionary activity, care for the poor¸ widows and orphans, are always the responsibility of each Christian and can never be “outsourced” to agencies that do those things for us without us ever having to lift a finger.  To me, this is a kind of proto-“missional” stance.  It has, incidentally, recently been dressed up and re-presented in Russell D. Moore’s book on adoption.

6.  Cogdill-Woods Debate: A Discussion on What Constitutes Scriptural Cooperation Between Churches of Christ.  Lufkin, TX: Gospel Guardian, 1957.  This debate between Roy Cogdill (representing the NI position) and Guy N. Woods (representing the institutional position) took place in Birmingham, Alabama, in November 1957.  (Interestingly, this major debate took place almost three full years after B.C. Goodpasture had printed calls for a ‘quarantine of the antis’ in the pages of the Gospel Advocate in December 1954.)  Although not a very edifying read, yet lauded as the textbook on the subject by many on the NI side, this is the standard presentation of the hermeneutical side of the institutional controversy.  The text of Cogdill’s first affirmative speech can be found here.

7.  The Cogdell-Turner Discussion.  Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth, 1983.  A written debate between Gaston D. Cogdell (not to be confused with Cogdill above), representing the ‘mainline’ and Robert F. Turner, representing the NI position.  In general, I have found that written debates are far more effective than oral ones when attempting to understand a question.  Thus, I consistently recommend this debate over Cogdill-Woods if you want to examine a debate about institutionalism. 

8.  Cecil Willis, ed.  The Arlington Meeting.  Marion, IN: Cogdill Foundation, 1976.  In 1968, a group of well-known preachers and authors representing both the institutional and non-institutional positions gathered in Arlington, Texas, to talk things over.  Nothing came out of the meeting itself, but the speeches given were collected into a single volume by Cecil Willis and make a nice resource on the whole question, mostly because of the general absence of rancor on the part of the speakers. 

 9.  Steve Wolfgang, “History and Background of the Institutional Controversy.”  This is Wolfgang’s opening address at the 1988 Nashville Meeting.  Originally published in Guardian of Truth 33 (1989), it was reprinted in pamphlet form from Truth Bookstore.  The entire address is now available online in four parts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

10.  John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding.  Siloam Springs, Arkansas: Leafwood, 2006.  Much of what is described in this book – although not all of it – is passed from Lipscomb and Harding through John T. Lewis (a 1906 Nashville Bible School graduate) to a group of preachers (Benjamin Lee Fudge, Irven Lee, Hiram Hutto, Sewell Hall, Howard See, Carrol Sutton, etc.) and churches in North Alabama and Middle Tennessee during the first half of the twentieth century.  As it manifests itself in NI circles, it retains the Lipscomb/Harding position on war and government, the female head covering, prayer (and prayer posture), grace, etc., as well as Lipscomb and Harding’s ecclesiology (which this particular ‘school’ points to in defense of its adoption of the NI position in the 1950s).  When examining the history of the NI fellowship over the past twenty years, it is possible to see the tensions between “liberals” (the group described above) and “conservatives” (represented by Truth Magazine, Faith and Facts, Watchman Magazine, etc.) as another example of the strife between “Tennessee” (in Hicks and Valentine’s paradigm) and “Texas.”

11.  Benjamin Lee Fudge, “Can A Christian Kill For His Government?” Athens, AL: C.E.I., 1943.  This tract, published the year that Fudge graduated from Abilene Christian College, was extremely controversial.  It was published at a time when the slow trickle away from pacifism in Churches of Christ had become full-scale retreat, due in large part to the shift of Foy E. Wallace, Jr. from a pacifist to a militarist position following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  In short, Fudge’s answer to the question posed in the title of the pamphlet was “No.”  As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Fudge’s unpopular position on participation in war, combined with his alignment with the emerging non-institutional movement (as demonstrated in his journal, The Gospel Digest), led to a nationwide boycott of the publishing enterprise he had founded during the 1940s – called C.E.I. (Christian Enterprises International) and at the time a major provider of Sunday school literature among Churches of Christ – that forced him into involuntary bankruptcy.  This tract has probably done the most to keep the pacifist option open in NI circles over the past fifty years.

 12.  Daniel Sommer, The Rough Draft: Can’t We Agree on Something?  Daniel Sommer (1850-1940) was something of a spiritual grandfather for the non-institutional movement.  Let me hasten to clarify that statement because if I leave it alone I will catch flack from all sides. 

 It is difficult to speak of Sommer at all in Church of Christ circles.  Outright misrepresentation of his positions (or incomplete understandings of them) are rampant in Church of Christ circles.  A few things should be noted first for an informed reading of the Rough Draft.  First, it was common in mainline CofC circles in the 1950s to refer to those who advocated the NI position as “Sommerites.”  Partly this was to score rhetorical points – to call someone a Sommerite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a shorthand way to refer to that person as an extremist or a fanatic. 

First published in the American Christian Review in June 1932, this is a fascinating document.  It comes from the “ecumenical” period late in Sommer’s life.  The positions elaborated in the document are, thus, moderate positions designed to appeal to a wide audience across the conservative end of the Disciples spectrum.  The compromise position on support of colleges enunciated in this document becomes, twenty years later, the NI position during the debates of the 1950s.  By that time, of course, the game had changed in Churches of Christ.  The push for denominational status (in the Troeltschian sense), respectability and institution-building in Churches of Christ in the 1950s made the compromises of the 1930s seem quaint at best, dangerous and radical at worst.

16 thoughts on “Understanding Non-Institutional Churches of Christ: Some Suggestions for First Reads

  1. Thanks for the link.

    Another resource I found useful in reworking the Wikipedia article above was Jim Jonas’ History of Churches of Christ From WWII to Present. It’s a series of lessons from 2001 on church history that actually stretches further back than WWII.

    The Guardian of Truth archives at truthmagazine.com are also invaluable in providing primary source documentation of many disputes. To my knowledge, none of the other publications of the time have their archives online.

    I’d also argue the two camps in the NI are more “Kentucky” and “Florida,” but that’s probably a discussion for another time. 🙂

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  3. I would add two other suggestions, both of which can be found on-line in the archive section of the Cedar Park Church of Christ: http://www.cedarparkchurchofchrist.org.

    They are:
    Toward a Better Understanding: I think the best way to describe this is as an “in-house” version of the Arlington Meeting. A group of non-institutional preachers discussed fellowship, false teachers and Romans 14.

    Plain Talk by Robert F. Turner: Plain Talk is a periodical that came out around the time of the controversy and continued afterward. In my opinion brother Turner served as an excellent example of someone who could contend without be contentious.

  4. Thanks Jeff and Owen for the comments. Preceptor and Gospel Guardian have online archives, perhaps Bible Banner is at the GG site as well. I do not URL’s handy, but they are out there. I believe I have somewhere seen Plain Talk archives online as well, but I may be mistaken.

  5. Plain Talk can be found in two places:



    Both of these sites include commentary on the origins of PT and some biographical information on Bro. Turner (which can also be found in his delightful autobiography, What It Is, Is Preaching). Turner’s contemporary comments on the Arlington Meeting can be found in the February and March 1968 issues of PT.

    The archives for the Bible Banner and the Gospel Guardian can be found at:



    Here’s a direct link to the Burnet Meeting, which begat the volume Toward a Better Understanding


    This is a fascinating read for what it says about the emerging factions in NI churches. Bob Owen, Paul Earnhart and Harry Pickup represent a more moderate take on the issues discussed; Ron Halbrook, Jesse Jenkins, and Tom Roberts represent the more radical interpretation.
    The whole discussion grew out of the conflict over MDR that erupted in NI churches in the late 80s/early 90s which morphed into a discussion of fellowship after the editors of Christianity Magazine came to the defense of Homer Hailey.

    • Thanks Chris for the additional links, and John Mark, for the comment. Anyone else have any other recommendations? Glad its helpful!

  6. Mac:

    You can find a few more NI periodicals at http://www.restorationmovement.org, under Churches of Christ==>Media and Publications. I try and keep the the website up-to-date, especially for periodicals and ministries.

    I’ve been reading through Harrell’s history over the last week or so, its been very helpful because I’ve always been interested in the history of the non-institutional churches, but Richard Hughes didn’t have nearly enough to satisfying my curiosity on the subject.

    I grew up in both mainline and non-institutional Churches of Christ…some of my best memories of church are from my years at a NI congregation.


  7. Dear brethren
    Greetings. There is no ni coc in our area.Please help us to start new work in our place.We are functioning as coc but now we would like to have ni pricipal which is scriptural.
    Hope to hear from you
    God bless you

  8. Dear brethren
    Greetings.We the congregation like to have fellowship with you all. Please visit us.In our congregation there are 74 members now.I started new work at 9 places.Totaly there are 300 members worshiping God in and arround sathy town.
    We seek your support scripturley.
    God bless you

  9. Dear sir, In the 70’s I went through a study of the issues that I found out in my laters years. my 20’s of which I knew nothing about growing up in the churches of Christ as a kid. I am now 65

    First enough with this name calling, very unchristian like. We are all anti something. think about that… I see the real problem is a lack of real bible faith. A saving faith that out Lord Jesus talked about in Matt, Mark, Luck and John.

    You would be surprised just reading and studying the bible an taking pretty much for what it says and not what it does not say will go along way in the unity of the saints.

    My studies and reading the bible led me to simple new testament church that Jesus built, I am now of the one cup brethren, NI and none Sunday classes of any knid. These brethren have been teaching this since the restoration movement and taught in the bible since Jesus and his apostles.

    I read a article from the NI brethren, I believe I got it here on this web page under articles? He was both unscriptualey wrong and his knowledge of grammar in the scriptures lead him in serious error, his logic was completely off base.

    I guess I have been rambling on long enough. May God bless us all. As Paul said in romans let us walk by faith.


  10. I was born and raised in the NI cofC. I haven’t attended a cofC of any kind in over 25yrs. I now have a relationship with Jesus Christ and no longer a relationship with a church or with “churchiantiy.”

  11. Mike and Saved!

    Thank you for the comments.

    If you would,please, detail briefly your thought-processes which led you from the church of your upbringing to where you are now. I assume you began your journey with much in common, yet now you appear to be at different places. I’m interested what you think accounts for the changes in your Christian walk.

    Mike, Chris Cotten, author this guest-post can chime in as he wishes, but knowing him as I do I feel safe in commenting that he intended nothing of the sort as far as name-calling goes. I understand him to use terms like ‘non-institutional’ as a descriptor to clarify one identifiable sub-set among Churches of Christ. Would you agree that there are identifiable sub-sets within Churches of Christ? I beleive you would seeing as how you identify yourself as one who has found a spiritual home among “the one cup brethren, NI and none Sunday classes of any knid.” Indeed we are all “anti-something” but Chris is not using ‘anti’ in his essay (or non-instituional) in a pejorative, name-calling manner, rather in a descriptive way.

    Thank you again for the comments.

  12. Good stuff here. Sorry I am so late to find it – looks like you posted it several years ago … well before I understood the NI church. I now am one of the men who preaches at a particular church which does follow a set of beliefs which are suggested to be Non Institutional.

    That said, I would like to add that there are varying degrees of NI – they do not all follow the same ideals. One may see no problem with a kitchen in the building, yet they may have a problem with life centers, gymnasiums, or fellowship halls being built with church funds.

    In addition, there are NI brethren who have no clue in the world WHY they are. They are just parroting what they have been told … and to be blunt, a lot of them have it fundamentally flawed right from the start. They can not scripturally defend their positions. For instance, they may say it is a sin to “eat in the building” … yet that was never the point. That’s a misapplication that is GENERALLY charged by the “mainline” churches who do not have an interest in understanding “those evil Antis!”

  13. Super late with this comment but appreciate the list, though our inadequacies in “labeling” come through whenever we try to sort some of this stuff out. For example, there is no way that some of those described as “liberals” among NI brethren were in fact “liberal.” (I think in particular of Hiram Hutto. He was one of the strictest and yet most godly men I’ve ever known!) However, though strict, they were of Lipscomb and Harding’s “Tennessee tradition” with its emphasis on grace as opposed to those of the “Texas tradition” who felt they emphasized grace too much. (See my own labeling challenges? I guess I’m using John Mark Hick’s and Bobby Valentines categories a bit.)

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