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A conversation with Steve Patton

Steve Patton ministers for a growing, multiethnic church — the University Church of Christ in Tampa, Fla. Since 1999, the congregation has nearly doubled in size, and it now has about 350 members. For 16 years, he has served as the church’s minister and now is an elder as well.  
He is a member of what commonly is called the “non-institutional church” or “non-cooperation church,” a part of the fellowship that opposes the sponsoring church approach for missions and benevolence. Instead, they see biblical pattern for sending funds directly to the missionary or of sending benevolent funds directly to the elders of a church.
Patton, 60, told The Christian Chronicle that churches of this persuasion believe that funds from a congregation must go directly to an evangelist or a missionary, rather than to another congregation that oversees the work.
In the U.S., about 1,975 congregations identify themselves as non-institutional, with a combined membership of about 119,000, according to the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States.
After graduating with an associate’s degree from Florida College — a non-institutional Church of Christ college near Tampa — Patton earned a bachelor’s degree in 1976 from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. In addition to local work, he speaks for churches across the U.S. and regularly makes missionary trips to Africa and the Seychelles islands, off the east coast of Africa.
He loves his family, enjoys his computers and is a passionate fan of the Crimson Tide, the University of Alabama’s football team.
Patton and his wife, Pam, have been married for 36 years and have two married daughters, Emily and Laura, whose families also worship at the University church. His father, Herschel Patton, 91, preached for 45 years and served as an elder in the Jordan Park Church of Christ in Huntsville, Ala.

How did you become a Christian, and when did you begin preaching?

I obeyed the Gospel at the age of 12 in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where I later graduated from high school. My father was a preacher, and we lived in Alabama, Texas and Tennessee in my early years.
Having grown up in an era of conflict in Churches of Christ over institutional and Social Gospel issues, I had no intention of preaching. I went to college with plans to teach at the college level and preach by appointment, but by the time I was 22 I had decided that I must give my life fully to preaching the Gospel.
What beliefs distinguish non-institutional churches from other Churches of Christ?
The differences are in flux, it appears to me, with the chasm widening as the years pass. Because of a strong belief in congregational independence, I can only speak for the local group of which I am a part.
But the fundamental differences among those who share my beliefs about the local church are rooted in attitudes toward biblical authority. We believe the New Testament writings are meant not only to inspire but to authorize. That includes revealing what a local congregation is about and how it functions.
The first difference one might observe in non-institutional churches is rooted in the belief that the amount of church cooperation is limited by Scripture to specific matters. The absence of a pattern for nationwide or worldwide cooperative efforts of churches in the New Testament causes us to practice congregational independence in evangelism and benevolence.  
I believe the world can be evangelized just as it was in the first century without churches working together in unauthorized ways that weaken congregational independence.
A second difference involves supporting human institutions out of the church treasury. I believe there is no authority for a local church to take from its common collection and donate to other organizations such as schools, medical clinics, child-care institutions, missionary organizations, etc. I believe the money given is to be used for evangelism, edification and benevolence in the ways outlined in the New Testament.
A third difference involves what is often referred to as the Social Gospel. I believe the local church is a spiritual group with a spiritual role outlined clearly in the New Testament. That work does not include building schools, athletic facilities and social activity centers. Nor does it include staffing a church with professional counselors, social and recreational directors, etc.
A local church should be about saving the lost, edifying the saved and teaching them to be compassionate and morally upright influences for good in their daily life. We believe that Christianity centers in the individual rather than in the organization.
To what extent has the “anti” label caused hard feelings and resentment. Is that an offensive term to you?
I hardly ever hear the term anymore. This generation is mostly unfamiliar with the battle that went on among brethren over the issues of church support of human institutions and the rise of the Social Gospel.
I also think that most who are familiar with that battle do not use the term anymore because they see it as pejorative. The terms “liberal” and “anti” have given way to “institutional” and “non-institutional.” This is good because it acknowledges the differences in a less offensive way.
In what ways, if any, can members of non-institutional and mainstream churches of Christ work together for the good of the kingdom despite their differences?
We believe that almost all that is done in the kingdom is done as individuals in our daily walk. We are thankful to be a part of the body of Christ. However, our mindset is not to build a worldwide organization of churches but to bring the lost to Christ one at a time. The first century church did this by emphasizing individual responsibility — not by trying to organize groups of churches into large-scale organizations.
If we work with our brethren in institutional churches, it would be in our daily walk as we do things together as individuals in the community for the good of our society. But we would not try to unite with other congregations to pursue inter-congregational activities. Maintaining the independence of the local church is critical to following the New Testament.
What needs to happen to draw us all closer together in God’s kingdom?
I believe there needs to be a renewed respect for the Word of our Lord as the final authority.  Our growth at the University church in Tampa has been because we reach people who — as one visitor recently put it — are tired of “teaching that is not Bible-based and touchy-feely preaching.”
People are looking for a solid rock on which to build their lives and provide them clear guidance and direction. All New Testament Christians need to see that distinctive approach as still relevant in a world that is without a moral compass.  
Turning New Testament Christianity into the same message as is found in the rest of Christendom only diminishes the power of a distinctive Gospel that can truly transform lives.
One of the great joys of my life has been to see so many turning to the Lord because his message is distinctive and meaningful. We are about saving souls with the simple gospel message about our Lord, and we all need to make sure that is at the center of the work of every church of the Lord.

  • Feedback
    In addition to my comment, I also agree with Bro. Kris Emerson. Local Church autonomy is to be followed (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; Acts 15).
    Denn Reed B. Tuvera Jr
    Metro Manila Church of Christ
    Bacoor, Cavite
    January, 27 2011

    I agree with Elder Steve concerning non-institutionalism. It is not scriptural. I think, some of the congregations that are into this concept are lost in their faith because of their supporters.
    Denn Reed B. Tuvera Jr
    Metro Manila church of Christ
    Bacoor, Cavite
    January, 27 2011

    Tremendous article! I just preached on this Sunday night, and brother Patton’s explanations are very well worded. I appreciate The Christian Chronicle publishing this article. Local church autonomy is critical to a N.T based future among God’s people.
    Kris Emerson
    Eastside Church of Christ
    Baytown, TX
    November, 11 2010

Filed under: Dialogue

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