During the past several decades many have asked this question. Some sincere brethren who have been caught up in one stream or the other never fully understood, and many who were too young before have now grown to adulthood wondering why. It is therefore a good question worthy of repeated investigation. Labels of “liberal” and “institutional” versus “anti” and “conservative” have been used by some as a prejudicial tool to halt further investigation. Labels used as prejudicial clubs are to be condemned; yet the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are proper when used as adjectives to describe a difference in attitude toward Bible authority, and consequently, a difference in practices. As the years go by the attitude underlying the division becomes more apparent. We are not separated because one group believes in benevolence and the other group does not, nor because of jealousy and envy. We have divided over a basic attitude toward the Bible. First, a “liberal” attitude justifies any activity that seems to be a “good work” under the concept, “We do a lot of things for which we have no Bible authority.” Second, a “conservative” attitude makes a plea to have Bible authority (either generic or specific) for all we do — therefore we refrain from involving the church in activities alien to that of the church in the New Testament.
The walls of innovations which have divided us are built in three areas:
WHO? Who is to do the work of the church? The church or a human institution? The church has a God-given work to do, and the Lord made the church sufficient to do its own work. Within the framework of elders and deacons, a local church is the only organization necessary to fulfill its mission of evangelism, edification and benevolence (Ephesians 3:10-11; 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:15). However, a wedge was driven when some brethren began to reason that the church may build and maintain a separate institution — a different WHO — to do the work of the church. This separate institution is human in origin and control. It is not a church nor governed by the church; yet it receives financial maintenance from the church. Human institutions so arranged (such as benevolent homes, hospitals, colleges, or missionary societies like the World Bible School) may be doing a good work; but when they become leeches on the church, they deny its all-sufficiency and make a “fund raising house” of this God-planned institution.
HOW? How is the work of the church to be overseen? On a local basis with separate, autonomous congregations? Or may several local churches work as a unit through a “sponsoring eldership”? The organization of the New Testament church is local in nature, with elders limited to oversight of the work of the flock among them (Acts 14:23; 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). We are divided by those who promote “brotherhood” works through a plan of inter-congregational effort with centralized oversight.
WHAT? What is the mission of the church? Scriptural or also social? It is in this area that the loose attitude towards the scriptures is becoming more apparent. Though wholesome activities are needed for all, the Lord died for a higher and holier mission than fun, food, and frolic. Let the church be kept free to spend its energy and resources in spiritual purposes (Romans 14:17; 1 Peter 2:5), and let the home be busy in providing social needs (1 Corinthians 11:22, 34).
Adapted from Robert Harkrider