By S. Leonard Tyler
If one is to be positive about his religious safety without selfish bigotry or self-justification, he must be established in the truth of God as revealed in the Bible. When one hears God’s word, believes its message, and obeys its commands, he can safely trust in its promises-be saved from past sins (Rom. 6:17-18). But what about the church? Is there any sure, positive way by which one can be absolutely confident in his faith? I believe that one can be sure, confident and secure in his faith regarding the church just as he can be regarding the forgiveness of his sins. And it is with this positive approach that one can distinguish the Lord’s church from a denomination. Let us ask:
What is the Church of Christ?
The Bible being God’s Divine standard of measurement by which man is to be guided in all things, we must now go to it for our understanding of the church of Christ. What is the church of Christ? “Church of Christ” is a prepositional phrase of possession meaning “church belonging to Christ” or “Christ’s church.” The expression identifies Christ as the possessor of the church (1 Pet. 2:9). “Church” is a called-out people. The Greek word ekklesia is a compound word: “Ekklesia, from ek, out of, klesis, a calling” (Vine’s New Testament Words, p. 83).
The church is “the people belonging to Christ,” called out of the world by the gospel into a saved relationship and into fellowship with God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and all saints (2 Thess. 2:14; Eph. 1:13; Acts 19:1-5; 1 Cor. 1:9; 1 John 1:3-7). These are Christ’s redeemed ones, purchased by His own blood (Acts 20:28), and possessed to serve and glorify God world without end (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:21-24; Eph. 3:10-11, 21).
Therefore, true, obedient believers in Christ are the church of Christ in both the universal and local sense of the term. (1) The universal church circumscribes all true, obedient believers in the world. (2) The local church circumscribes all true obedient believers choosing to meet, worship, and work together under Christ’s directions in any given locality. This is the way the word “church” is used in the New Testament when referring to Christians in the collectivity, unless it refers to a group of local churches as in Romans 16:16 and Revelation 1:11.
The church is autonomous under Christ (Col. 1:18; 2:18-23). A plurality of elders in each local church superintend “the flock of God which is among you” (i Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-14i 1 Pet. 5:2-4), deacons serve (1 Tim. 3:8-13; Phil l:l), and all the saints work together with God (2 Cor. 5.1) under Christ’s headship (Eph. 1:22-23: 4:15). This is God’s arrangement, organization, or entity in which Christians function in the aggregate (1 Tim. 3:15). Brother Guy N. Woods aptly expressed it: “The church, with its elders to oversee it, the deacons to serve, and the evangelist to proclaim the word is an independent entity and answerable only to Christ” (Teacher’s Annual Lesson Commentary on Bible School Lessons, 1946, p. 337). Thus the church of Christ is not a denomination nor any part of one. It is the Lords people or church, called by the Lord through the gospel, sustained, judged, and saved by Jesus Christ as His word teaches (1 Cor. 15:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Acts 17:30-31; John 12:48).
What Is A Denomination?
“A denomination is a group of persons adhering to a particular creed under a distinctive name. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians are separate Christian denominations” (Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedic College Dictionary, p. 1136).
“Denominate . . . made up of units of a designated kind . . . Denomination: (1) The act of denominating: specif., the process of embodying and fixing concepts and classes in language; naming . . . (2) A sect or school having united by a common faith and form of worship and discipline; as, the Baptist denomination” (Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language).
Thus a denomination is characterized by its: (1) Name, (2) Creed, (3) Organization, (4) Worship, and (5) Work. The organization consists of a number of congregations of the “same class or kind” with a centralized headquarters binding them together. The ecclesiastical headquarters is the representative authorizing agency, approving, or disapproving, planning and supervising the whole society (within the bounds of their accepted constitution). Each segment or congregation of the denomination submits willingly but must submit to be accepted as a part of the denomination. A sect, faction, or division exists with more or less oral understanding. The more highly the society is developed, the more definite and positive is the creed, discipline, articles of faith or dogma and organization holding them together. However, these terms are used indiscriminately at times to emphasize peculiarities.
Is The Church A Denomination?
It is a sad commentary upon the Lord and His teaching when those claiming to be “men of faith” cannot distinguish the glorious church of our Blessed Lord from a denomination. In 1965, I was receiving the Winnetka Avenue Church of Christ bulletin, 7054 Winnetka Ave., Canoga Park, California 91306. Brother Roy E. Cogdill edited the bulletin at the time and wrote an excellent series of eleven articles under the title, “Denominationalizing The Church.” Brother Edward Fudge was working with the church that summer at 1212 West Six Avenue, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while I was away in meetings. In Volume 3, Number 20, Brother Fudge circled denominationalizing and penciled in the margin, “We are already a denomination according to Webster’s meaning of the word. Since the word is not found in the Bible, Webster’s definition should be sufficient.” Notice the “we,” clearly not a reference to some alien body, and the ‘already,” not just a trend or development pointing toward some possible danger in the future. But he said in A Journey Toward Jesus (1977) on page 33, “Until recently there was no such thing as a Christian Church denomination, though it was developing for a long time, but now there officially is, and those in it use the name `Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).’ ” Why then did he say in the bulletin notation that the church of Christ is already, according to Webster’s meaning of “denomination,” a denomination? We discussed this notation and several other subjects in a good way but with persistent differences. (A Journey Toward Jesus by Bruce Edwards and Edward Fudge is the best approach to preparing one for a full reception of denominational philosophy and concepts that I have ever read). In short, certain self-styled “men of faith” regard the church in our day as a denomination in fact-a denomination lacking the honesty, openness; and integrity to openly admit or officially declare the fact.
The church could be properly denominated with other religious groups as the same “class and kind,” if all religious groups are considered. The church is in the category of religion. But that is like identifying God with idols as was done at Athens (Acts 17). Paul hastened to distinguish between the true and living God in contrast to their dead, false, idol gods. The gospel is considered in like manner (Gal. 1:6-9). But Paul proclaims the gospel of Christ to be incomparable with a perverted or another gospel and denounced with an “accursed” any man or angel who taught the false doctrine. The gospel is God’s power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17).
Thus the church of our Lord being the true body of obedient believers, designed in God’s eternal mind, established by Jesus Christ and directed by His word, is to reflect the manifold wisdom of God and give Him glory upon the earth (Eph. 3:10-11, 21; Matt. 16:18; 1 Cor 3:11). The church is the fulness of Christ in whom “all fulness dwells” (Col. 1:19), and “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). Thus to share in the blessings of God, one must be in Christ (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 1:3), who is the fulness of God (John 5:23). Likewise, to enjoy the blessings of Christ one must be in the church-the church is the fulness of Christ (Eph. 1:23). Therefore, the Lord’s church stands as a Divine Establishment in contrast to human denominations. It was established by Divine appointment and is preserved by Divine Directions, laws.
Think of it from this standpoint. “A denomination is a religious organization larger than the local church and smaller than the universal church.” This is an old and limited definition, but expresses an identifying fact. No denomination with all her constituent societies claims to have all the saved in it. They maintain that there are saved people in all denominations. Thus, each denomination is smaller than the universal church -which includes all the saved in all the world. On the other hand, a denomination is composed of all the churches-congregations of the “same class and kind -and is not a single local church. This makes it larger than any local church. The New Testament use of the word “church” circumscribes all the saved in the world, the universal church, or else it is the saved choosing to meet, worship, and work together under Christ’s directions in a given location, the local church. So, according to their own contention, the denomination is not the church in any sense of the word as used in the New Testament. It is either too big or too small. It just does not fit God’s requirements for His church. (Observe Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Bulwarks of the Faith, Part One, “Roman Catholicism,” p. 207, 208.)
Signs of Changing
There are definite and characteristic attitudes and doctrines identifying the denominations. This is selfevident; if such did not exist, there could be no distinct, differing denominations. Thus any person leaning toward, in sympathy with, or fellowshipping those practicing such peculiar and characteristic doctrines is certainly turning in that direction. They become easy victims to the proselytizing influences and teachings. Their minds are unsettled, mixed-up, without firm convictions. When they reject the Bible as a true, understandable standard upon which to build, they are “tossed to and fro” with every wind and diverse doctrine.
Doctrines and Concepts Which Point Toward Denominationalism Reject the Bible as the Standard
(1) When man rejects the Bible as an unalterable, standard of measurement in matters of religion, regardless of the reasoning, he is left without a positive standard of measurement. This, to me, is the basic reason for denominationalism. Who can repudiate it and be saved eternally? Understanding, believing, and accepting the New Testament (facts and commands as well as the promises) is imperative to reconciliation with God in Christ (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:19-23; 2 Cor. 5:18-21).
This very fact – the acceptance of the Bible as an unalterable standard and infallible guide – gave reason for the restoration movement. It is here that “the Campbells” yielded such a wonderful and weighty influence during the 19th century. Their logical and positive approach to the Bible as God’s complete and understandable will touched the hearts of thousands. Their systematic study of the Bible aided many in understanding God’s word. According to most religious leaders, the Bible could be understood only by the “spiritually” endowed, not by the common man. The Roman Catholic Church expressed this view thusly:
But is the meaning of the Holy Scripture not clear in itself, and easy to be understood by every one?
“No; for the Holy Scripture is a Divine and mysterious book, `in which,’ as St. Peter says, speaking of the Epistles of St. Paul, `are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction’ (2 Pet. 111:16). . . .
“(27) Is it not, then, true that the Bible alone is the only Rule of Faith? Or, in other words: Is not every private individual to search the Bible, and nothing but the Bible, until he finds out what he has to believe?
“No; for not the Bible alone, but the Bible and Tradition, both infallibly interpreted by the Church, are the right Rule of Faith.” (A Full Cathechism of The Catholic Religion, Translated From The German of The Rev. Joseph DeHarbe, S.J., by the Rev. John Fander. . . Revised, Enlarged, and Edited by The Right Rev. P. N. Lynch, D.D., Bishop of Charleston, 1891, New York: and has the Imprimatur stamp, pp. 75, 76).
It also states plainly, “Application. In matters of faith never trust your own judgment, but always humbly submit to the decisions of Holy Church; for when you believe what the Church teaches, you believe the Word of God” (p. 77, ibid.). Thus the common man cannot read the Bible and understand it according to Catholic doctrine.
John Calvin propagated the same view in holding to the “Adamic sin” and the necessity of “enabling grace” to give one faith in order to be saved. Against this, Mr. Garrison tells of Sandeman who, back in the latter part of the 18th century, taught “that God had not only revealed his truth in terms intelligible to man and provided the means of salvation through Christ, but had also furnished in Scripture adequate evidence of the truth of his revelation, so that the natural man, just as he is, with all his sins, can weigh the evidence and accept the truth. That acceptance is faith. Saving faith, said Sandeman, is an act of man’s reason, and it differs from any other act of belief only in being belief of a saving fact.” (An American Religious Movement by Winfred Ernest Garrison, 1945, p. 23).
The Campbells’ concept of the Bible as a real revelation from God, verbally given to be intelligently understood, opened up the way for a systematic study of the Bible. They found that the teachings of the Holy Scriptures could be ascertained not only through “express word” or (A) “Express Precept,” as they put it, but also by (B) “Approved Precedent” and (C) Necessary Inference. Any doctrine to be of God must be proved by a Scriptural passage or tests. Thus the motto: “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.” This not only expresses a positive speaking but also a restricted speaking. It meant then and must mean now: to be of any value, their speaking (even knowledge) began where the Bible began, circumscribed everything within its pages and stopped where it stopped. Where the totality of Bible knowledge is learned on any specific subject, one has “the faith” on that subject.
John Locke in 1689 pleaded for the Bible but suggested only that which was “declared, in express words, to be necessary to salvation.” And, according to Mr. Garrison, Mr. Repertius Meldenius stated that same principle when he said, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity” (An American Religious Movement by Winfred Ernest Garrison, pp. 16, 17). This view left out too much the Bible taught-untaught. And in “non-essentials, liberty” filled the hearts of the people and “in all things, charity” allowed the opinions, reasonings, doctrines and commandments of men to become the standard. Such attitudes will lead to the same consequence today.
“The Campbells” plea was essentially different. It was for all the Bible; the totality of Scriptural teaching ascertained was the totality of faith, the binding pattern, by which all were to live (Jude 3). Will not the honest, sincere “man of faith” diligently seek, believe, practice and teach this! It is sad to recall that in later years when Alexander Campbell weakened in this positive and logical understanding of the Bible, and the simplicity of God’s Divine arrangement, disaster followed. The results speak for themselves-the Christian Church with all her constituent societies standard as a monument. This should leave a message with us. Let us seek and accept all the Bible teaches, believe it, practice it, and teach it. Then and only then-trust in God’s grace and mercy.
Truth Magazine XXII: 39, pp. 633-635
October 5, 1978