What is a missionary society? Why did such societies play such a vital role in the "restoration" movement? What is the purpose of studying such societies now?
In the early 19th century, several religious leaders began to distance themselves from the denominations. Where Luther and his followers had sought to reform the Catholic Church (hence the term, reformation), these men, recognizing the distaste God had for division, sought to restore the New Testament church, to go back to the old ways as detailed in scripture. Their purpose was to return the church to those practices found and supported by the New Testament and to eliminate anything which could not be found there.
By the Civil War, there were serious problems among these brethren, including instrumental music in worship, the missionary society and others. These brethren split three ways before the turn of the century, with the most conservative group making up what is now known as the churches of Christ.
The missionary society was not new to these brethren when it began to cause problems. There had been many missionary societies in the denominations in times past, and their purpose was to pool funds from individual churches (used here in its denominational sense) into the treasury of an organization separate from the church. This treasury would be used to support men in preaching in foreign countries or rural areas of the United States.
Shortly after those involved in the restoration movement had severed ties with denominations, some, including Alexander Campbell, began to propose and promote missionary societies. Campbell formed the American Missionary Society, and he solicited support for this project from the churches of the restoration movement. Almost from the beginning, opposition arose to this "human institution."
Unfortunately, while many would say that the digression which ultimately led to a split among these brethren (with the more liberal element becoming the Disciples of Christ) began with the missionary society, that is not so. The digression, as with every digression, began with the attitude which refused to adhere strictly to the scriptures. We have often referred to liberals and conservatives in discussing the issues which divide us, and it should be noted that these are not the political terms with which so many are familiar. Instead, we call them liberal when their ideas cannot be restrained by the scriptures. Anytime brethren are willing to go beyond scripture in even the smallest matter, it is only a matter of time before they are willing to go there in larger matters. Thus, the Disciples of Christ and the conservative element of the churches of Christ are virtually opposite today.
However, the missionary society did not end with the split at the turn of the century. Rather, it came back up, and continues to come back up, in various guises and for various programs throughout the history of this century. What then, is wrong with the missionary society?
First, there is no authorization for it in scripture. God has commanded that we teach the gospel, and that we spread that teaching throughout the world (Matt. 28:19-20). He set up an organization to accomplish this work: the church, and the New Testament, from Acts through Revelation, is a record of this work happening. One problem among liberals is their tendency to view the Great Commission as a direct command to each individual church. Since no local church is financially equipped to bring the gospel to the entire world, they conclude it necessary to establish a "brotherhood" (read church-hood, for really it is a cooperative of churches, rather than a cooperative of brethren) program, soliciting contributions from several churches, rather than the New Testament plan of individual churches supporting individual preachers (see 2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:10-17). The fact is, if we follow God's plan for establishing churches in every city, with individual churches doing what they are able to do, we accomplish the goals of the Great Commission little by little.
If some of our more liberal brethren are willing to show us scripture supporting their practice (instead of parroting, "it's a good work!"), we are waiting. We are committed to the pleas of the restoration movement. We seek to do Bible things in Bible ways (1 Pet. 4:11). We are confident that what we are doing in the work of evangelism is in accordance with the word of God, and we challenge others to examine their practices and abandon those which are not supportable in scripture.
Finally, the main reason we should study this issue is for its instructional value. That is, the seeds of digression on any subject are planted in the lackadaisical attitude toward scripture that is found in the formation of the missionary society (see the orphan homes and colleges question in the 1950's and 1960's). This attitude, if unchecked, will destroy the church, because if we find no common ground (fellowship) with God (through His word), we have no common ground (fellowship) with one another.