Must One Be a Member of the Church of Christ?

Irvin Himmel
Temple Terrace, Florida

Our acquaintances in sectarian churches frequently ask, "Is it true that you people believe that one must be a member of the church of Christ to be saved?" That question was put to me last evening while I was discussing the Bible with a young couple who are Baptists. It is a good question.

One may speak of the Church of Christ in the sense that the Bible speaks of it, or he may use those words to designate a denomination. If by Church of Christ we mean the church belonging to Christ, the answer is "Yes." And with this most denominational folks readily agree, at least in theory.

When asked if a person could be a Christian and not be a member of Christs church, Billy Graham replied, "To be a real Christian is to be a member of Christ's church. The Bible says, 'Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify it and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word. Eph. 5:25, 26." Billy further remarked, "What did He mean? Did He mean the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian or Catholic? Christ's church is not a denomination - it is the body of real believers . . ." Here is a popular preacher, highly esteemed in denominational circles, acknowledging that Christ's church is not a denomination. He continued, "When a person receives Christ, he automatically becomes a member of that one, true, triumphant church, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. It is natural for every denomination to believe they are nearer right than others, but any man-made, humanly organized denomination, no matter how fine it may be, is not the true church of Christ."

According to the Bible, the church is the body of Christ. (Eph. 1:22, 23; Col. 1: 18, 24.) Must one be a member of the body of Christ to be saved? And the church is the house or household of God. (I Tim. 3:15.) Must one be a member of God's household (family) to be saved? The church is the kingdom (Matt. 16:18, 19; Heb. 12:23, 28.) Must one be in the kingdom to be saved?

The Greek word translated "church" means the called out. If one can be saved without being added to the church, he can be called out without being one of the called out. If he can be saved outside the body, Christ must have some disconnected members. If he can be saved outside the kingdom, there must be citizens who are aliens. If one can be saved and not be in the family, God must have children who are illegitimate!

The conclusion is inescapable that to be saved one must be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church of Christ. As Billy Graham expressed it, "To be a real Christian is to be a member of Christ's church."

Scriptural designations for the people of God can be used, and are used, as party labels. If one speaks of the CHURCH OF CHRIST or CHURCH OF GOD as the name of a denomination, membership therein cannot be considered necessary.

All of this brings us to another important question: Can one be a member of the church of Christ and not affiliate with denominationalism? Can there be churches of Christ that are unsectarian? It is generally agreed that one must be in Christ's church to be saved. Now, can one become a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, and discharge his duties before God without aligning himself with any sect or party?

The Bible mentions churches that existed in Jerusalem, Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, and other places. Such congregations Paul described as "churches of Christ" in Rom. 16:16. There is no hint that these were denominations. It cannot be proved that these churches of Christ had sectarian affiliations. Can we not have similar congregation today? If a group of baptized believers are working together as a congregation and they have no denominational ties, no sectarian organization, name, creed or doctrine, is it not an error to consider them just another denomination? This is the point which many of our neighbors fail to see. To them every religious group is one more denomination among many. They acknowledge that no denomination is the true church of Christ; most will admit that the first-century churches were without denominational ties; they agree that one must be in Christ's church to be saved; but somehow the possibility and practicability of undenominational religion in the twentieth century world either does not occur to their minds, or is visualized as only a dream.

If one agrees that membership in Christ's church is essential and that a person can be in a congregation that belongs to Christ and which is undenominational, he needs to consider yet another question: Is it right for Christians to form sectarian groups?

When the Corinthian saints began displaying a party spirit, Paul told them not to have divisions among them (I Cor. 1: 10), and the indictment of carnality was brought against them. (I Cor. 3: 1-3.) Denominationalism is a system of division. Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers (John 17: 20, 2 1.) It is wrong to have schism in the body. (I Cor. 12:25.) The Philippian saints were told to "walk by the same rule" and "mind the same thing." (Phil. 3:16.) The New Testament enjoins that men who "cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine" are to be avoided. (Rom. 16:17.)

To summarize, (1) the sacred scriptures teach that one must be in the church of Christ to be saved; (2) he can fulfill all his obligations as a Christian without joining a man-made religion; and, (3) he violates the will of God if he gives encouragement to schisms, divisions, and factions. These are three solid reasons for entering Christ's church and staying out of denominationalism.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 25, pp. 6-7
April 29, 1971