This fellowship is estimated at about 120,000 members, accounting for around 9% of the members of Churches of Christ in the United States and for about 15% of congregations. The degree to which members of a congregation associate and interact with members of other Churches of Christ varies greatly by area, from none at all to a considerable degree. Its preachers are trained in a variety of ways; while some study at Florida College — whose faculty and student body are largely non-institutional, though it has no formal ties to any church — most are mentored by a more experienced preacher or even self-trained, since there are no formal degree requirements in order to preach.
These churches generally accept the description "non-institutional", although it will not be officially designated as such on signs, letterhead, or other distinctive "official" documents; they reject the epithet "anti" with which they were labeled by some in Churches of Christ in the 1950s and 1960s, and likewise the similar term, "non-cooperation movement". They consider themselves to be the legitimate heirs to the 19th century Restoration Movement and all other groups descended from it to be apostate.
Many outside of these churches sometimes conflate them with other Churches of Christ which serve the Lord's Supper using a single cup and/or which refrain from having divided, age-distinct Bible classes ("Sunday School"). While the one-cup/non-class churches are almost always non-institutional, they separated from the rest long before the division over institutions; likewise, there is little association between members of the two groups, perhaps less than between the institutional and non-institutional branches.
Most within non-institutional churches refer to themselves as "conservative" Churches of Christ and the mainline churches as "liberal," which leads to some confusion as the mainline churches use these terms to refer to two separate strands within their churches. Many in the non-institutional groups are unaware of any differences in the institutional groups, considering them all to be "liberal." Meanwhile, many in the institutional groups are unaware of the reason for, or even the existence of, the non-institutional groups.
Prior to World War II, the practice of local church support for outside institutions (mostly colleges) was uncommon in Churches of Christ, but not unheard of. Such arrangements tended to be kept quiet, and the Bible colleges loosely associated with Churches of Christ always denied they lobbied churches for money. These denials were not always true, but they helped to defuse dissension over the issue, as most objectors were loath to interfere with church autonomy.
Finally, Brewer's unscripted remarks in support of church funding for colleges at the 1938 Abilene Christian College lectures provoked great controversy. Several writers, such as Foy E. Wallace, Jr., and W. W. Otey, wrote and spoke in opposition to Brewer; Otey's 1938 article in Firm Foundation included statements from leaders of colleges that they "regretted" Brewer's statements. Publicly, Brewer's position received little support; privately, however, prominent men such as B. C. Goodpasture, N. B. Hardeman, and Robert M. Alexander agreed with the proposition, though most were noncommital when asked specifically about their position. World War II largely suspended the debate, as the question of pacifism took center stage in "brotherhood papers." However, division had not been prevented, only postponed.
First, many of the previous generation of perceived leaders (such as Daniel Sommer, J. D. Tant, Joe Warlick, and F. B. Srygley) had died, leaving others with different beliefs and dispositions to take their place. The most notable of these was Goodpasture, who had ascended to be editor of the Gospel Advocate in 1939; he is generally regarded as the most influential figure among Churches of Christ at this time.
Also, the Depression and war had led to lower enrollment at many Bible colleges; this in turn caused many of the colleges to postpone expansion and even maintenance. However, the G.I. Bill brought with it an influx of enrollment at these colleges. Bible colleges thus found themselves in need of immediate funds to renovate and expand to meet a swelling demand.
Finally, evangelism in Europe became possible after the war. However, the expense involved was considerable. As a result, some congregations and individuals began experimenting with various methods of congregational cooperation. The most notable of these was the "sponsoring church" arrangement, where one congregation oversees a project using resources pooled from other congregations. The best-known of these efforts was the Herald of Truth, a nationwide radio program begun by the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX, in 1952.
The pro-institutional camp learned from the experience of the 1930s and the tepid support for sending money to colleges from the church treasury. They tried a different tactic, tying church support of colleges with church support of other institutions, namely orphans' homes. As Hardeman wrote in 1947, "I have always believed that a church has the right to contribute to a school or an orphanage if it so desired... The same principle that permits one must also permit the other. They must stand or fall together.
The addition of the emotional element of "starving orphans" proved successful at persuading many who had been on the fence to the institutional side during the 1950s. However, it also led to rancor; what had previously been a largely civil debate erupted into name-calling and bitter dissension. Those who objected to churches funding private institutions were often referred to as "orphan haters", "Pharisees," and the like; for their part, non-institutionals such as Wallace returned (and at times initiated) the rhetorical fire. Well-known preachers with ties to the colleges became increasingly assertive in condemning anyone who disagreed. Accusations of coercion and intimidation swirled around the colleges. Those with outside businesses, particularly on the non-institutional side, often found themselves facing boycotts organized by those opposing their position.
The leading voices of the institutional movement were men such as Brewer, Hardeman, Alexander, and Goodpasture. The non-institutional side of the debate was led by men such as Wallace, Roy Cogdill, and Fanning Yater Tant. From the beginning, the non-institutional side found itself outmaneuvered by the institutionals, who held the reins of power at all the large Bible colleges and the most popular of publications. It was not aided by infighting between the various proponents, climaxing in the 1951 split of the Fourth and Groesbeck Church of Christ in Lufkin, TX, leading to two congregations, one with Cogdill as preacher, the other with Wallace's brother Cled preaching. Foy Wallace, the most polarizing figure in the debate, thereafter ceased arguing for a non-institutional position; indeed, by the mid-1960s, he associated himself exclusively with institutional churches.
Late 1954 provided two factors key to the developing split. First, in October, G. H. P. Showalter, the editor of Firm Foundation, died and was replaced by Reuel Lemmons. The paper had in previous years stood opposed to the colleges on many matters and had positioned itself under Showalter as a place for balanced debate. Under Lemmons, however, the paper took an increasingly pro-institutional position.
The second, and more important, event occurred in the Gospel Advocate in December of that year. Goodpasture called for a "yellow tag of quarantine" to be imposed upon any who espoused the non-institutional position. Historian Ed Harrell contrasted Goodpasture with the "fighting style" of Foy Wallace thus: "Foy Wallace scorched heretics; Goodpasture warned them they would lose their position within the brotherhood. His political style led him "to cut his losses and to consolidate his assets," in the words of historian Richard Hughes. As part of this effort, non-institutionals were to be ejected from existing congregations, preachers who took this position were to be fired and any meetings they were to hold at institutional churches were to be cancelled, and congregations that resisted were blackballed. The thrust of the institutional movement turned from persuasion to isolation of its opponents.
Across the next decade, bitter division erupted in Churches of Christ throughout the nation. Debates were held over the issues, though usually positions had already hardened beyond persuasion. Preachers who were suspected of taking heretical positions were ordered to publicly refute said position as a condition of employment; indeed, the Gospel Advocate became a forum for some better-known preachers to recant publicly previous positions opposing institutionalism. Some churches found themselves pressured into making token donations to institutions in order to avoid being called "anti's." Fistfights were not unheard of. Members espousing a minority position in a congregation found themselves ousted, and lawsuits over building ownership followed from some of these divisions. These exiles then often banded together to form new congregations; many rural communities today are home to two small Churches of Christ as the legacy of this division.
By the end of the 1960s, the isolation of non-institutionals from the mainline churches was concluded. Contact between churches and individuals on both sides of the divide was mostly ended, and those in both branches continued on practicing the beliefs which they had come to see as the only correct ones.
While his belief was known to those close to him, Hailey claimed he had only publicly taught his view twice; he had received sporadic criticism from various preachers over the years, but no substantial dispute had arisen. In March of 1988, however, Hailey presented his views to a small church in Belen, New Mexico, at their request; Ron Halbrook, a preacher associated with the magazine Guardian of Truth and former student of Hailey, was invited to present an opposing viewpoint. The speeches were taped and circulated, and by the end of the year, Guardian of Truth printed Halbrook's account. Various "brotherhood papers" picked up on the debate and declared their position, usually opposed.
Hailey, after perceiving personal attacks, wrote and published a booklet titled "The Divorced and Remarried Who Would Come to God." It was agreed with by some and disputed by others in writing and preaching. One of the more balanced, and sometimes quite personal, replies to Hailey's booklet was written by Refugio, Texas preacher and former Hailey student, Royce P. Bell, and published in the June 1994 (Vol. XX, No. 10) issue of Gospel Anchor magazine.
A side debate over fellowship with those holding such a position also came to the forefront, triggered by David Edwin Harrell writing in Christianity Magazine (Churches of Christ) that such a doctrine was not grounds for disassociation. The original issue spawned debate over perhaps a dozen related, yet separate, issues, continuing beyond Hailey's death in 2000. The debate focused largely around two general camps, one associated with the Guardian of Truth (now renamed Truth Magazine) and the other loosely centered around Florida College and now-defunct Christianity Magazine.
In the most recent of these controversies, some associated with Truth Magazine itself have come under criticism for advocating so-called "mental divorce" (whether someone who was legally divorced for reasons other than adultery can later "put away" their now-remarried former mate). The controversy struggles with defining Biblical "putting away" in the context of American law and protocol. In the course of this debate, Truth's editor, Mike Willis, wrote an opinion piece expressing his view that divorce (though not remarriage) is permissible for a number of reasons other than infidelity; further controversy has ensued.
The issue was first raised in the mid-1970s in connection with an appeal the foundation made for contributions to enable it to supply tracts for mission work. Gene Frost, using his magazine the Gospel Anchor, was the primary critic of the foundation's efforts. The foundation made very few efforts to respond, choosing instead to ignore what it saw as a minority view.
More recently the issue has come back to center stage as a result of the foundation supporting an annual lectureship. This action increased the number of people and churches speaking out against the foundation's functioning in a missional role, with a business taking on the role of the church (1 Timothy 3:15).
In late 2005 and early 2006 the foundation published a defense of its right to operate as an individually-supported group in a book titled We Have a Right written by Mike Willis and Daniel H. King. Several magazines, including Preceptor (Danny Brown's magazine based in Beaumont, Texas) and Gospel Truths, J.T. Smith's magazine based then in Oklahoma, now Florida, have featured initial responses from Gene Frost to the book and appear to be opposing the foundation's position. The foundation responded by associating these magazines, their editors, and Gene Frost with Daniel Sommer and claiming those opposing them are being divisive. Additionally, the foundation is pointing to Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett as former disciples of Daniel Sommer who later shifted from an extreme view on the right to the extreme left (as the Churches of Christ use these terms) and warning that those opposing them are likely to do the same in the long run. They also claim those critiquing it are engaging in the same thing by working together to publish articles and maintaining subscription magazines.
By 2005 there were between 2,200 and 2,300 non-institutional Churches of Christ in all 50 states. Of these congregations approximately 13.5% were in Texas followed by Kentucky and Alabama with 9% and Florida with 7.5%. Although exact attendance figures for non-institutional Churches of Christ are impossible to determine, most reliable estimates would place the attendance of these churches at between 130,000 and 145,000.