What is the Church of Christ?

Grant Swart

Ever since I can remember, I have overheard people of varied Christian persuasions, discussing the merits and shortcomings of the myriad of , and some dubiously so, Christian denominations. For years before I had any real knowledge of, or interest in the subject, I listened with fascination to the enthusiastic and opinionated discussions of certain overly contentious religious people. More often than not they insisted on serving the Lord from within the confines of a specific church or denomination which, according to their perceptions, was the “right” or “correct” church.

I think back to the time when I was effectually called by the Lord to serve His Word and to His glorious purpose. The first year or two of my walk with the Lord was marked by a growing frustration in that I simply could not come to fully identify or encounter the Truth in all aspects of the Word. What I encountered in the local churches was fragmented truth at best, and total lies at worst. Neither was I able find meaningful, unaffected and honest fellowship or Biblical teaching in any of the churches, books, TV programs and websites I bounced into and out of with such alarming speed. The moment I thought I had found a “spiritual home” and a biblical source, my false belief and comfortable state was pierced with immaculate precision, right between it’s blind eyes.

I had an extreme urgency growing within me to hear the Gospel in it’s true form and to gain an understanding of the true message in the Word of God. It became an overwhelming quest, day in and day out. Almost every waking moment was filled with my pleading prayers for an understanding of His will and Truth. Those prayers were answered in no small way by His overwhelming Grace, all at the right times. They are still being answered as His Word is revealed to me daily, as He teaches me the Truth. Furthermore, He had taught me valuable lessons in patience, trust and an understanding of how helpless I was under my own steam. I also began to acquire a tolerance and acceptance toward my own shortcomings and an intolerance for that which was false in the church.

Often and repeatedly, I found myself entering a state of despair, as my faith and my mind was tossed about by the violent waves of uncertainty brought about by the massive web of deceptive false teachings in the social gospel of the Pentecostal and Charismatic world which I had entered. That confusion and frustration was magnified by that which I encountered in so-called Christian publications and, worst of all, on the internet. I was searching for the Truth on the internet and in the understanding of men whom I perceived to be spiritually mature Christians, and coming up with a right fine conglomeration of absolute rubbish and damning false doctrine.

Needless to say, I think that my “baby” Christian faith was tested very effectively and, had I relied on the sources I was employing and my own understanding thereof, I would certainly never have come to know the simplicity, glorious beauty and wonder of the Word of God.

To this day, I have never been a devoted “member” of any local church for more than a few weeks at a time, and I could certainly give an account of the biblical reasons for each instance of my leaving in disappointment and dismay. In all honesty and with humility, therefore, I note that I have not been able to find a single local church which has beckoned my conscience or my heart to which I have been able to respond with an open trust. What I have not been able to find in the local church has been mercifully provided to me many times over in my encounters with true Christians in my everyday life. Almost everywhere I go, the great love and accomplishment of His work which is evident in the Universal Church, such as which I cannot find in a local church where professing Christians are possibly more prevalent than true Christians, in the biblical sense.

It is a sad reality that the local church, in so many instances, has suffered severely devastating blows at the hands of the false teachers and the social works based gospel. But we know that this has to be so. Additionally, so much of what the local church was meant to be, has been ripped apart by doctrine which is not biblical, but which has been carefully formulated to tickle the ears of the sin-loving socialite church-goer, or to impress the seeker with a mystical and false spiritual experience.

But, nevertheless, what I have said here bears relevance to my personal relationship with our Lord Jesus, and is certainly not necessarily relevant or instructive to all believers. That should not be read as to indicate that I believe that there are different truths or various interpretations of the Word to suite different believers preferences, as the post-modern Pentecostal message seems to portray. I do not wish to pick on Pentecostal churches or Pentecostal believers here, but that movement along with Roman Catholicism must be regarded as a potent sources of the current collapse of the local church. No, and on the contrary, there is but One Truth and those believers who have found a local church where they are comfortable and safe, are certainly blessed. I trust that the Lord will bring me to such a place, but only according to His perfect Will.

I certainly do not fret about the matter by any means and I will know when it is His doing. Notwithstanding all the harm being done to the Body of true believers from within the church, there are many wonderful ministries which I do not hesitate to assist, appreciate and fellowship with. There are many pastors, Bible teachers and elders, past and present to whom I will be eternally grateful for their wonderful and devoted work which I can reference at any time. As devastating to the Church as the internet has become, it has also provided access for the discerning Christian to solid and valuable biblical teaching. Praise the Lord for the assistance He has provided to us there. But that all is a subject for a different article.

For me, therefor, there exists no possibility of doubting the reality of the saving Grace of our Lord and the effectual, supernatural indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the regenerated, chosen believer. None of the understanding of His Word I have been granted was due to a single ability of my own which I was ever aware of, or one which I could have cultivated. Neither was it due to any effort which I made of my own accord, other than prayer, if that can be regarded as an effort.

Prayer never seemed to me to be an effort, rather it was something which was so good, I still catch myself at it sometimes. Often in the strangest of situations, some of which are better left without description, and often after hours and long distances behind the steering wheel. Driving is something which I do much of in my business and I have had a particular affection for it since childhood. I think I might have become quite good at it having personally driven for over 4 500 000 km (2 800 000 miles) during less than three decades. The driver’s seat has become my Matthew 6:6 closet and room, where I can close the door and pray in secret as instructed, undisturbed. The presence of our living Lord and Saviour is as real in the life of the saved believer as it is in His Universal church.

I am aware of the fact that the subject which I am addressing very briefly here, and from a more personal point of view, is certainly contentious and one that many brothers and sisters have vastly differing opinions on. It is my hope that the following will be of some value to those who are wrestling with the difficult and, at times, unnecessarily divisive issue.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

1. Occasionally I am asked questions like these...
   a. "Are you Church of Christ?"
   b. "Are you a Church of Christ preacher?"
   c. "Are you a member of the Church of Christ?"

2. Rarely do I reply without some hesitation...
   a. Not that I wish to be evasive
   b. But the inquiry comes from a mindset that precludes an easy answer
   c. If I offer a simple response, the inquirer will likely be left
      with the wrong impression

3. The difficulty revolves around this question, "What is the Church of
   Christ?"...
   a. The phrase "Church of Christ" means different things to different
      people
   b. The term "Church of Christ" must be understood alike to avoid
      misunderstanding

[To illustrate the challenge we face in talking to others about the
"Church of Christ", let's review three different "views"...]

I. THE DENOMINATIONAL VIEW

   A. EXPLANATION OF THIS VIEW...
      1. The Church of Christ is made up of those churches with the name
         "Church of Christ"
      2. The "Church of Christ" (as such) is but one denomination among
         many
      3. Together with other denominations, they constitute the
         universal church, the Body of Christ

   B. THOSE WHO MAY HOLD THIS VIEW...
      1. Those in other denominations
         a. E.g., Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc.
         b. Understandably so, because of their denominational mindset
            in which they view   their own
            "church" (denomination) as but a part of the Body of Christ
      2. Many in the "mainstream" churches of Christ
         a. I.e., the majority of congregations with the name "Church of
            Christ"
         b. Especially members who came from denominations
            1) Bringing their denominational mindset with them
            2) Perhaps thinking they simply left one denomination for a
               "better" one
         c. Including liberal preachers and elders in such congregations
            1) Perhaps reacting against a "sectarian" view (see below)
               held in the past
            2) Perhaps weary of trying to maintain an nondenominational
               view of the church

[In a religious environment where denominationalism is presumed to be
the only option, most people have a denominational view of the Church of
Christ which is reflected in their questions.  There is another view
that some may have...]

II. THE SECTARIAN VIEW

   A. EXPLANATION OF THIS VIEW...
      1. The Church of Christ is made up only of those churches with the
         name "Church of Christ"
      2. Those churches constitute the one, true church, the Body of
         Christ
      3. People in any other congregations cannot possibly be members of
         the Body of Christ

   B. THOSE WHO MAY HOLD THIS VIEW...
      1. Many in "mainstream" churches of Christ
         a. Especially those viewing  "Church of Christ" as the official
            name for the Lord's church
         b. Evidenced by their exclusive use of the expression "Church
            of Christ"
      2. Many in "non-mainstream" churches of Christ
         a. Including some who often identify themselves on the basis of
            one issue
            1) Who tend to judge a congregation's faithfulness on the
               basis of a particular issue
            2) E.g., if it is "non-institutional" (opposing church
               support of human institutions), then it must be a
               faithful congregation
            3) E.g., if it is "mutual edification" (opposing located
               preachers), then it must be faithful
         b. In particular those who identify themselves "International
            Church of Christ"
            1) Who demand allegiance to one head church, formerly
               located in Boston
            2) Who view any church that refuses allegiance to be
               "apostate"

[This view is often held by those trying to maintain a nondenominational
view of the Church of Christ, yet react to one extreme by going to the
opposite.  Then there is what I will term...]

III. THE BIBLICAL VIEW

   A. EXPLANATION OF THIS VIEW...
      1. There is the Church of Christ in the "universal" sense
         a. Composed of all Christians
            1) The church to which Jesus referred in Mt 16:18  
            2) Made up all the saved, both living and dead - cf. Heb 12:22-24 
 
         b. There is just one
            1) The universal church is called the "body" of Christ - Eph 1:22-23
            2) There is only one "body" Eph 4:4; therefore, only one
               church!

         c. Began on the Day of Pentecost
            1) In Jerusalem, following the death, resurrection and
               ascension of Christ - Act 2:1-47
            2) As Peter later referred to this day, it was the
               "beginning" - cf. Act 11:15

         d. Enter only by being added by the Lord
            1) One cannot "join" the church by their own volition
            2) Rather, they are "added" by the Lord Himself when saved
               Act 2:41,47

         e. The Lord keeps the books of membership
            1) There is no agency on earth that keeps the registry of
               true members
            2) Enrollment is in heaven; only the Lord knows those who
               are truly His - Heb 12:23; 2Tim 2:19

         f. Consists of all the saved
            1) The Lord is presenting to Himself a church holy and
               without blemish - cf. Eph 5:25-27
            2) Those in the church who are sinning and refuse to repent
               are "cut off", "cast out", "spewed out" - cf. Jn 15:2,6; Rom 11:19-22;
               Rev 3:16
               
         g. Must be in this to be saved
            1) For the Lord is the Savior of the "body" (which is His
               church) - Eph 5:23
            2) Since the Lord adds one to His church when they are
               saved, one cannot be saved and not be in the church
               universal!

         h. Has no earthly organization
            1) The church universal has organization - cf. Eph 2:19-22; 1Pe 2:5
               
               a) What organization exists is spiritual in nature
               b) E.g., Christ as the cornerstone, together with His
                  apostles and prophets as the foundation, and all
                  Christians as "living stones"
            2) There is no earthly headquarters for the church
               a) E.g., no telephone number to call to speak with the
                  "head" of the church
               b) For the Head and His headquarters are in heaven!

         i. Can't be divided
            1) For there is no earthly organization to divide!
            2) If division appears to exist...
               a) Some unscriptural organization of churches must have
                  been created
               b) Such organizations can have division, but not the
                  Lord's church universal!
            3) Those who would seek to divide the church through
               doctrine, conduct, etc., are simply cut off by the Lord
               Himself!
            4) There is and always will be, "one body"! - Eph 4:4 (we
               need to make sure we are remaining faithful to be in it!)

         j. Death doesn't affect membership
            1) The church universal is made up of the saved, both living
               and dead - Heb 12:22-23
            2) When one dies, they are still with Christ! - Php 1:21-23; 1Th 5:10

         k. Does not have one official name
            1) No one exclusive name or term is used to describe the
               universal church
            2) Various terms used include church of God, body, kingdom,
               etc.- 1Co 10:32; Eph 1:22-23; Col 1:13 

      2. There are churches of Christ in the "local" sense
         a. Composed of Christians in one location
            1) A local church is made up of Christians in one
               geographical area
            2) E.g., the church at Corinth, the church of the
               Thessalonians - 1Co 1:2; 1Th 1:1
            -- In contrast, the church universal is made up of
               Christians everywhere!
 
         b. There are many churches
            1) Paul had reference to local churches when he wrote Rom 16:16
            2) And again when he wrote Gal 1:2
            -- When it comes to the church universal, though, there is
               just one!
 
         c. Begins wherever people join together
            1) As the gospel spreads and people respond to it, those in
               a particular area start a local church when they agree to
               work together as one
            2) Just as the church in Antioch began later than the church
               in Jerusalem - Act 11:19-26
            -- Whereas the church universal began in Jerusalem on
               Pentecost, local churches have begun at different places
               and different times!
 
         d. Enter by joining ourselves
            1) When one wishes to become an accepted member of the local
               church, they must "join themselves" to that church
            2) Such as Paul sought to do when he came to the church in
               Jerusalem - Act 9:26-28
            -- Whereas one is "added" by the Lord Himself to the
               universal church, we can seek to "join" a local
               congregation (if its members are willing to accept us)
 
         e. Enrolled by human judgment
            1) Whether we are accepted into a local church is a decision
               made by the leaders or members of that church
            2) Sometimes people are rejected when they should be
               received - 3Jn 5-9
            -- Evil men may succeed in kicking one out of a local
               church, but only the Lord determines who stays in the
               universal church!
 
         f. Consists of both saved and lost
            1) Since enrollment occurs through human judgment, fallible
               decisions can be made
            2) A local church may therefore have some who are nominal
               Christians - cf. Rev 3:1-4
            -- Hypocrites may become members of a local church; but they
               don't sneak by the Lord to become members of the
               universal church!
 
         g. Do not have to be in this to be saved
            1) One can be saved, and not belong to any local church
            2) Such was the case of the Eunuch immediately following his
               conversion, and of Paul when he was in transit between
               Antioch and Jerusalem - cf. Act 8:39; 9:26
            -- Of course, this should be temporary; in the universal
               church, it is impossible!
 
         h. Has earthly organization
            1) A local church when scripturally organized will have
               bishops and deacons - Php 1:1
            2) These bishops were also called "elders" and "pastors",
               whose role was to oversee and feed the local congregation
               - Act 14:23; 20:17,28
            -- The only role or position ever given men over the
               universal church on earth was the apostles and they were
               not replaced when they died - e.g., James in Act 12:2
 
         i. Can be divided
            1) Local churches can easily be divided over doctrine or
               personalities
            2) Such was the case with the church at Corinth - 1Cor 1:10-13; 3:3,4
            -- While we can't divide the universal church, we can be
               responsible for dividing local churches!
 
         j. Death does affect membership
            1) When we die, our membership in a local congregation ends
            2) When Stephen died, he was no longer a member of the
               Jerusalem church - Act 8:1-2
            -- But our membership in the church universal continues on
               after death!
 
         k. May use different scriptural names
            a. Showing relationship to God or Christ - 1Cor 1:2; Rom 16:16
            b. Identifying the location of the members - 1Th 1:1; 2Th 1:2
            -- There is no one official name, but we should use
               scriptural names!

   B. THOSE WHO MAY HOLD THIS VIEW...
      1. Many in "mainstream" churches of Christ
         a. Though there is a definite trend toward denominationalism
            (cf. Reviving The Ancient Faith, The Story of Churches of
            Christ in America, Richard T. Hughes, p. 4)
         b. There are those who still call for nondenominational
            Christianity
      2. Many in "non-mainstream" churches of Christ
         a. Especially those who often identify themselves as
            "non-institutional"
         b. Who oppose that which leads to denominationalism
            1) Such as church support of human institutions
            2) Such as sponsoring church arrangements where one church
               oversees the work of others
      3. Many in churches unknown by others in churches of Christ
         a. Who may wear other scriptural names (e.g., Church of God?)
         b. Yet hold true to the apostles' doctrine revealed in the New
            Testament
         c. But known and recognized by the Lord as belonging to Him
      4. Many in churches that may not be true in other respects
         a. Who may have a correct view of church origin and
            organization
         b. But who may remain ignorant or in error regarding church
            worship, work, etc.

CONCLUSION

1. What is the Church of Christ?  As I understand and use the phrase...
   a. It is not a denomination among other denominations
   b. It is not some sect identified by one exclusive name
   -- It is the Lord's church, as defined and revealed in the New
      Testament

2. The Lord's church is thus spoken of in the Bible primarily in two
   ways...

        The Church "Universal"              The Church "Local"
 
   Composed of all Christians          Composed of Christians in one
                                          location
   There is just one                   There are many
   Began on the Day of Pentecost       Begins when people join together
   Enter only by being added by the    Enter by joining ourselves
      Lord
   The Lord keeps the books of         Enrolled by human judgment
      membership
   Consists of all the saved           Consists of both saved and lost
   Must be in this to be saved         Do not have to be in this to be
                                          saved
   Has no earthly organization         Has earthly organization
   Can't be divided                    Can be divided
   Death doesn't affect membership     Death does affect membership
   Does not have one scriptural        May use different scriptural
      name                                 names

3. Properly understood, the Church of Christ is...
   a. The one Body of Christ, the church - Eph 4:4; 1:22-23
   b. Made up of disciples, called Christians - Act 11:26; 1Cor 12:27
   c. Who work and worship together in local churches - Rom 16:16
   d. Abiding in the apostles' doctrine - Act 2:42; cf. 1Cor 4:17
   e. Honoring Jesus' prayer for unity - Jn 7:20-21
   f. Deploring religious division in all its forms, including
      denominationalism - 1Cor 1:10-13

4. So in response to our original questions...
   a. "Are you Church of Christ?"
   b. "Are you a Church of Christ preacher?"
   c. "Are you a member of the Church of Christ?"

5. I would likely respond...
   a. "I am not 'Church of Christ', as that reflects a denominational
      concept."
   b. "I am a preacher of the gospel of Christ, an evangelist."
   c. "I am a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, and member of His
      body, the church you read about in the New Testament."
   d. "I work and worship with a nondenominational congregation of
      Christians, known as the Fortune Road Church of Christ in
      Kissimmee, Florida."

I strive to serve and follow Jesus without denominationalism.  In view
of His prayer for unity Jn 17:20-21, and Paul's condemnation of
religious division 1Cor 1:10-13, I pray that you will too...
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