Identifying Churches of Christ

Some among us nowadays seemingly have become ashamed of one of the expressions used by the Holy Spirit to designate the Lord’s people in various areas of the world. The apostle Paul was not so inclined. Besides, the Holy Spirit was guiding him as he wrote: “Salute one another with a holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you” (Romans 16:16). In debating, terms (names) by which the Lord’s people collectively should be designated or called years ago, brethren would point out that certainly if it was proper for Paul to say “..churches of Christ salute you,” it would also be proper to call one local church “a church of ( belonging to) Christ.”

Christians Accept Every Designation Used In The New Testament

Since in God’s scheme of redemption in Christ, there is but “one body” or church, planned by God and purchased by the blood of God (Christ ket) (Ephesians 3:8-11; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 2:13-16; 3:1-6; 4:1-6; 5:22-27; 1 Corinthians 12:20), it needed and needs no specific name to separate it from others which men have brought into being. It alone is identified and identifiable by comparing existing bodies with the one described in the New Testament. Keep in mind that the word “church” is sometimes used in a universal sense, referring to all the saved in all the world (Matthew 16:18; Colossians 1:18; Acts 2:47). It is also used to designate a particular group in a given locality, a local congregation such as “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Should Christians “name the church” and never refer to it by any other name, they would have to this extent denominationalized the body of Christ, the household of faith. Still, it is always proper to call this relationship what the Holy Spirit called it. We may use one of, any of, or all of these designations found in the New Testament when speaking or writing about the Lord’s church which is also called His kingdom (Hebrews 12:22-28; Matthew 16:18,19; Colossians 1:13-14). We may not call it by some designation not found in the New Testament however. Some do this and they are wrong for so doing. Individuals or groups of individuals who call themselves by names not authorized by Christ in His New Testament cannot hope to please Him while so doing (1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 1 Peter 4:11; Acts 4:11-12; 2 John 9-10).

When The Bible Speaks of Churches

Some folks misunderstand that when the New Testament speaks of “churches” plural, it is speaking of various groups of saints in given localities who have been “called out” of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love by “obeying the gospel” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; (Colossians 1:13-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). It isn’t speaking of Protestant or Catholic denominations. Neither of these existed when the New Testament was completed. It was hundreds of years later before such came into being. There were local churches in Ephesus, Galatia, Corinth, Antioch etc. It was to local congregations that John wrote “ the seven churches which are in Asia” (Revelation 1:4). They were not differing denominations. Below is a partial quote from the pen of Mr. Edward T. Hiscox who wrote the “Standard Manual For Southern Baptist Churches.” To me this simply shows that our religious neighbors know the facts by which my brethren and I order our lives, individually and collectively, but simply disregard such and set up their own systems.

“It is most likely that in the Apostolic age when there was but “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism,” and no differing denominations existed,....Now, it is different..”(Standard Manual For Baptist churches Chapter IV Church Membership, Page 22" ).

Before It Became “Different”

Christians of all geographical locations, were united in one large “fellowship,” the one church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). Their relationship to Christ by virtue of submission to His authority over their lives as set forth in the New Testament was the glue that held them together (Acts 2:42; Acts 15:24). It was not some humanly devised and created ecclesiastical administration that bound them in this one vast body, known as the church of Christ.

Changes Would Soon Come

As Mr. Hiscox stated “now it is different.” It was not to be very long before men, seemingly dissatisfied with God’s arrangement as regards the organization, worship, names, and mission set forth in the New Testament for Christ church, or perhaps mistakenly believing they could improve on God’s arrangement, began to make changes. These changes were ever so slight at first. They changed the way local congregations were governed. Soon they began to make various doctrinal changes as well, until there came into being what we know today as Catholic and Protestant denominationalism. Each of these being markedly different from the arrangement found in the New Testament in many ways.

I am well aware that a group may refer to themselves by one of the Biblical designations and still not be identified with or identifiable as truly belonging to Christ. It takes more than that. They cannot claim to belong to Him, however, if they wear names and teach doctrines unauthorized by Christ Himself in His New Testament (Galatians 1:6-11; 2 John 9-11; Acts 4:11-12) A church must have the same terms of entrance, organization, worship, and mission to be identified as belonging to Jesus Christ today, just as in the first century AD. If not, then please explain why not? “

Teach Different Serve Not Our Lord Jesus Christ”

These many warring religious bodies men have brought into being differ from one another markedly. None of them have Christ as their founder, head, or Savior. They are different in all of the areas listed above, and therefore cannot be identified as belonging to Christ. Paul wrote to brethren in the first century AD, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good works and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple (unlearned ket)” (Romans 16:17-18).

Identifying Christ’s New Testament Church

Christ’s Church Must Worship As He Directs

For worship to be accepted by God and Christ, folks must have been “reconciled unto God in this one body by the cross” (Ephesians 2:13-16; 3:21). Then it must be by worshippers with a clean and pure heart (1 Peter 3:12). It also must be characterized by being offered by Christ’s authority (Colossians 3:17; 2 John 9). Too, it must be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). All too often folks simply do what they feel good about in “worship” and never consult the one who is to be the object of their worship for what pleases Him! This isn’t far short of self worship. There are several kinds of worship mentioned in the New Testament, only one among the list is acceptable to God.

Five Major Items of Worship Each Lord’s Day

The Mission Must Be Christ Ordained

As is so often true in their attempts to worship our Creator, it is also true of the function which folks involve themselves in their “church work.” They do whatever they feel is good and that which pleases them and what seemingly “works” or is successful in getting crowds to attend. No, No! This isn’t proper. There must be authority in this realm as well! I like to sum it up in the following language which none who respect the New Testament can possibly deny.

The sum total of what local churches of Christ did in the first century AD, when men inspired by the Holy Spirit were present among them, with Christ’s approval, forms the pattern for what local churches of Christ may do today with Christ’s approval. If not, then why not? Paul spoke of following him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). In addition to our activities being authorized by a direct command, there are also necessary inferences along with approved Apostolic examples which form a part of the pattern. Paul said, “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you” (Philippians 4:9). The only way we know when and how often to observe the Lord’s supper or communion is by an approved Apostolic example we find in (Acts 20:6-7).

There are also two kinds of authority; general and specific. General gives leeway to expedite when the method isn’t specified. Specific restricts us to that which is specified. This is why in our music we sing and do not play mechanical instruments of music. The command to “sing” is specific meaning vocal, leaving no room for instrumental music which is not an “aid” but an addition (Revelation 22:18-19; Galatians 1:6-10). By closely noticing the sum total of what local churches of Christ did in the first century AD, we know the pattern for “church work” today. What did they do? They preached the gospel as their main mission in the world. The church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). They sent out preachers and supported them as they carried the gospel (Acts 13:1-3; Acts 14:24-28; Philippians 4:13-19; 2 Corinthians 11:8).

The local church was to be a self edifying organism. They met frequently to worship as Christ’s word directed, and to be built up in the faith. Faithful saints were not to forsake those assemblies (Hebrews 10:23-39; 1 Thessalonians 5:11-16; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). In the Corinthian letter when they possessed spiritual gifts (given by the laying on of the Apostle’s hands), they were to use them properly so the local church may be edified (1 Corinthians 14:1-17).

The churches also took care of their own needy among them (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians chapters eight and nine. In the last two passages we learn that they likewise had fellowship with needy saints in other locations, sending their assistance to the elders who made distribution among them (Romans 15:25-28).

Individual Christians were taught to “provide for their own” and not to expect the local church to do it so it could provide for those with no one to provide for them. This is clearly seen in (1 Timothy 5:8,16). In these passages we learn a distinction is to be made between “church work” and that of the individual Christian. Some, not making this Biblical distinction, get local churches involved in whatever the individual Christian may do. A different set of rules governs the expenditure of my individual funds and those collected into the treasury of the local church for her work.

As we have seen, the church functions in 1. Gospel preaching. 2. Edification. 3. Relief of their needy brethren locally and when necessary in other locations. That's the “sum total” of church related work. We should also note that there was no organization larger, smaller, or other than the local church authorized to function in “church work.” Churches had no social or recreational agenda. Those areas of activity were limited to the home, the family. When churches tried such they were rebuked and told they had “houses in which to do those things” (1 Corinthians 11:22).

Churches did their work under the oversight of their elders with no human board or organization through which to function. They could buy services when necessary to carry out their mission but they could not build and maintain human institutions and make contributions to them for them to do what the churches were commanded to do. They likewise knew nothing of the “sponsoring eldership” concept where elders of one local church of Christ oversee funds sent them from sister congregations. Each was independent or autonomous (1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28; Acts 14:23; Philippians 3:1-2).

By Kenneth E. Thomas

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