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The Social Gospel

Why Churches of Christ Do Not Build or Support “Fellowship Centers” or Sponsored Recreation

“But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). So wrote Paul the apostle to the Corinthian Christians two millennia ago. Problems in the church of Christ are nothing new, and have existed since the First Century. There have always been problems, issues, disagreements, heresies, and apostasy stemming from within the church, and often this internal turmoil can be more harmful and hurtful than external persecution. The particular manifestations of the root issues have varied throughout history, but the seed has remained the same; that seed is the desire to change the worship of God to the worship of self.

We young preachers have read many accounts of the issues that affected the church in the 19th Century and earlier, especially in this country as the issue of institutionalism played itself out in the debates over the church’s support of manmade institutions. Yet the people representing the two sides of these issues have, for the most part, stood their ground, so that today there are faithful brethren who refrain from such practices, and others who insist on them – a vast rift between those who once were brethren, and now are very different.

Yet one particular issue that is still playing itself out within our lifetime is the issue of fellowship centers (recreational buildings and programs funded by the church’s collection) and church-sponsored recreation (the general use of the church collection for recreational things). That is, many professing churches of Christ today are using the money from their collection to support recreational, non-spiritual activities, including the building of banquet halls, basketball courts, gyms, and other recreational facilities on the church’s property. The issue is not whether it is good for Christians to spend their free time with one another, for it is; nor is the issue whether it is good for Christians to join in fun and harmless recreational activities together, for it is; nor is the issue whether the church property and building are sacred, holy ground, for they are not, though anything purchased with God’s money is holy in the sense of having been set apart for the service of God. The issue is this: it is right or wrong to use money from the church collection to fund recreational activity? It is this author’s contention that it is wrong for three basic reasons. First, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the scriptural use of the word fellowship. Secondly, the biblical work of the church is spiritual, and not recreational. Thirdly, the scriptures teach that it is sinful to go beyond the written pattern for the work of the church.

Many professing Christians misuse the term fellowship. This English term is translated from the Greek koinonia, defined as unity, commonness, oneness, fellowship, similarity, partnership. It is related to the term koine, which is the type of Greek used the write the New Testament: the language of the common man. A lexical study of every use of koinonia or a form of it in the New Testament reveals 36 uses, in the following verses: Matthew 23:30; Mark 7:15,18; Luke 5:10; Acts 2:42; Romans 12:13; 15:26; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 10:16,18,20; 2 Corinthians 1:7; 6:14; 8:4,23; 9:13; 13:13; Galatians 2:9; 6:6; Philippians 1:5; 2:1; 3:10; 4:15; 1 Timothy 5:22; 6:18; Philemon 1:6,17; Hebrews 10:33; 13:16; 1 Peter 4:13; 5:1; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 1:3,6,7,11. In every single one of these verses, koinonia is used to describe a relationship between people, and most often a spiritual relationship. In the entire New Testament, the word never describes recreational activity. Thus, when brethren use the word in phrases like, “We are fellowshipping by eating together,” or, “we are going to eat in the fellowship hall,” or, “eating and playing basketball together is fellowship,” they are using the word in a sense completely unknown to the New Testament. The eating is not the fellowship: rather, the fellowship is the spiritual relationship in Christ shared by Christians. A Christian might eat a common meal in a restaurant next to a devil worshipper, but he does not have fellowship with him. Likewise, a Christian might be 5,000 miles away from another Christian yet still have fellowship with him. The fellowship is the spiritual relationship between the Father, the Son, and Christians, and is not banqueting and playing basketball. Thus, the term fellowship hall is a misnomer at best, and at worst displays an ignorant and completely erroneous view of a biblical term, and a flagrant disregard for the scriptures.

Secondly, the work of the church of Christ is spiritual in nature, and not recreational, social, political, or physical. 1 Timothy 3:15 reads: “But if I am delayed, I write to you so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” This and many other passages describe the work of the church: the promotion of the truth of the gospel of God. The New Testament church spent its time preaching and teaching the word (Acts 8:1-4). There is absolutely not even one shred of evidence in the entire New Testament that the church collectively spent its time concentrating on recreational fun and frolic, but rather the Christians gave themselves to spiritual matters. While individual Christians have as much right as anyone to wholesome recreation and fun, the collective work of the church is not such. To spend so much time, effort, and money in the church on recreational frolicking is to pervert the spiritual purpose of the church, and the make an obscene mockery of the reason for which Christ died on the cross. When Christ returns, and if He may ask, “What have you done with your charge?” will our recreational brethren answer, “Lord, we have built a basketball court and gym, we have eaten much food, and we won the regional basketball league championship against the Baptists?” Will such an answer stand in the judgment? If not, then why devote the church to basketball instead of to the saving of souls?

It is in fact a sinful misuse of God’s money to spend it on things which God has not authorized. In Acts 5:1-5, Ananias was struck dead by God for lying about the price of his land which he sold to give to the church. In verse 4, an important principle is established. Peter clearly states that, before Ananias had devoted a certain portion of his money to God, it was his to do with as he pleased. But the very instant that Ananias devoted a portion of money to God, it was no longer Ananias’ money, but God’s. Likewise, when we devote a certain portion of money to give in the collection on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1,2), it is no longer ours to do with as we please. Just as it is an illegal misappropriation of funds to use a corporation’s allotted money for private parties for the employees, so is it an sinful misappropriation of funds to use God’s allotted money for private parties for the brethren. If we would not like someone to take our money and use it for something other than how we have allotted it, why should we think that God will overlook it? It is difficult to see how our unfaithful brethren can justify spending a single penny on a basketball or a volleyball when millions of people are dying and going to hell. Such is callous and cruel, placing one’s personal recreation above the souls of others. Who really are the “mean-spirited” ones here: the ones who insist on spending God’s money to save hell-bound souls, or the ones who allow people to die and go to hell while playing basketball?

Finally, there are very clear scriptural principles which forbid Christians from acting beyond the authority of the scriptures, and especially in the collective work of the church. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul exhorts us to “not go beyond what is written.” Thus, if God has “written” for the church to preach the word (1 Timothy 3:15), to edify the brethren (Ephesians 4:7-16), and to help Christians in need (1 Corinthians 16:1,2), it is to “go beyond what is written” to add basketball and banqueting. Thus, it is actually a sinful act of rebellion to go beyond what is written for the whimsical pleasure and frolicking of brethren. Also, Paul in Philippians 3:17 states: “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” Thus, whatever the apostles and New Testament Christians did in the First Century is what Christians should be doing today. Did the Christians in the First Century spend their time, and God’s money, in preaching the gospel, edifying the brethren, and helping Christians in need, or in building and supporting banquet halls and basketball courts? Let the reader judge for himself!

It is a relatively simple thing to demonstrate that the scriptural work of the church is spiritual and not recreational, and that the word fellowship in the New Testament is a spiritual relationship and not banqueting or basketball. Moreover, it is also relatively simple to demonstrate from the scriptures that it is wrong to use God’s money for personal frolic and recreation. What is becoming more of a problem in the church today is a vast change in attitude towards the Bible. Many brethren today would read an article such as this, and instead of rationally and methodically setting forth their case from the scriptures, would reply either by accusing the author of being “mean-spirited” or “legalistic,” or by saying something like, “I just do not think that God will condemn me for having fun with my brethren.” All of the issues today are but symptoms of a root change in people’s view of the Bible and its role in salvation. The more that brethren cast off the imagined fetters of authority and rational, intense Bible study, and appeal to emotions, whims, and careless Bible study, the more such issues will arise.

It is the duty of all faithful brethren today, not only to point out the truth in the individual issues, but also to convince others of proper Bible study and God’s authority. How the current issues will develop, or what new issues will arise in the future, remains to be seen. But the common thread in all of them – two fundamentally different ways of approaching God and the Bible – will not go away. Let the faithful stand firm for the truth!