Is the Church of Christ a Sect?

By Eugene Britnell

The great apostle Paul had appealed his case unto Caesar (Acts 25:11). After all the charges had been made, Agrippa said, “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar” (Acts 26:32). At his trial in Rome, due to insufficient evidence, he was about to be released when the chief of the Jews said, “But we desire to hear thee, what thou thinkest; for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22).

The word sect was used by Paul, but in denial. Paul said to Felix, “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers” (Acts 24:14, NKJV). In Acts 26:5, Paul said, “that according to the strictest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” In Acts 24:5, Paul was described as “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” In Acts 5:17 the word is applied to the Sadducees, and in Acts 15:5 it was applied to the Pharisees. It is ironic that the word would be used in reference to Paul, for the Holy Spirit used his pen to say more in opposition to sectarianism than all other writers of the New Testament combined.

What Is A Sect?

“A group holding similar views; a party. In religion: a party dissenting from an established or parent church; a body of sectarins. One of the organized bodies of Christians; a denomination” (Webster).

Hairesis, a choosing, is translated “sect” throughout the Acts except in 24:14, A.V., “heresy” (R.V., “sect”); it properly denotes a predilection either for a particular truth, or for a perversion of one, generally with the expectation of personal advantage; hence a division and the formation of a party or sect in contrast to the uniting power of “the truth” held in toto; a sect is a division developed and brought to an issue; the order “division, heresies” in “the works of the flesh” in Gal. 5:19-21 is suggestive of this (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words 1007).

Cruden’s Concordance comments: “This word is generally used to mean a party in religion, differing in belief from the main body. In our old version it is usually translated heresy, which the revisions changed to sect. The religion preached by Christ and his disciples was frequently called a sect, for it was quite a number of years before it was extended to the Gentiles, and the Jews who embraced it were faithful to the major part of their ancestral faith.”

According to these definitions, the term “sect” is synonymous with heresy, division, and denomination, all of which are condemned in the New Testament. Therefore, this cannot describe the church of Christ.

What Is The Church?

Having defined a sect or denomination, we now define the church according to the Bible. Please understand that we are not necessarily discussing any particular congregation you may know or think about. We are concerned about the church we read about in the New Testament.

When the apostle Peter confessed the deity of Jesus Christ, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). That’s the one we are speaking of in this study. When Jesus promised to build the church, he meant that it would be of himself and belong to him. That is why a plurality of congregations were called “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). It is noticeable to the student of the New Testament that we never read of denominations as branches of the church. They all came into existence after the close of the New Testament and without the authority of God. This thought may be impressed upon our minds by simply asking the question: Which denomination did Jesus have in mind when he said he would build his church? The answer is that he had no denomination in mind. From this thought we gather three important lessons: (1) All denominations exist without the authority of Christ; (2) No denomination that exists today is the church of Christ; (3) The church of Christ, or the church that Jesus built, is not a denomination!

Seven Reasons Why The Church Is Not A Denomination

1. Christ was the builder. He said “church” not “churches.” He spoke of “it” not “them.” Read again Matthew 16:18.

2. Christ is the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11). It was built upon Peter’s confession of Christ. In his early years he was familiar with building and grew up in a carpenter’s shop (Matt. 13:55). Did he lay a foundation large enough for his building (church) and hundreds of others? No, the foundation was designed and adequate for the building he erected.

3. The church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23). He is the head of the body. Is he the head of many bodies or a divided and mutilated body? No. “And he is the head of the body, the church” . . . “for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:18, 24).

4. Christ is the creed of the church (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2). His word is our guide and the basis for unity. Denominations are created and function by their own human creeds.

5. The church must honor the name of Christ, not some man or doctrine. “He is the head of the body, the church . . . that in all things he may have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18). His name is the basis for unity. The three rhetorical questions in 1 Corinthians 1:13 show that we are to wear only the name of him who is not divided, was crucified for us, and in whose name we were baptized. That produces unity, not denominationalism!

6. The church of Christ has no earthly or denominational headquarters. Contrast that with Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other denominations.

7. The church of Christ has no denominational organization. Christ is the head, and each congregation is to have a plurality of elders and deacons (Phil. 1:1). Man-made denominations have formed hierarchies and systems of government not found in the Bible. For example: Catholicism, with the pope, cardinals, arch-bishops, priests, etc.

Present Conditions In The Church

Until recently, nearly everyone in the church understood what it was and that denominations were sinful. But we see change in the teaching of some brethren. Rubel Shelly is a good example of this change. In 1972 he wrote:

Liberal elements within the churches of Christ have made great strides toward turning the church into a denomination. Although not many brethren seem to realize it, we are being influenced to abandon our distinctiveness. I have recently encountered several individuals who are frankly urging that we admit to being a denomination.

If we do not intend to maintain our distinctiveness, we have no right to exist. If we are not going to preach the truth boldly, let us not preach it at all. If we are unwilling to oppose false teachings and false practices, let us quit claiming to be the people of the holy God! . . . The church of Christ is not a denomination. But it will soon be if some among us have their way! As soon as we cease preaching the distinctive message of the gospel, we cease being the true church of Christ and become something less (What Is Happening In The Church).

In view of the above statements, let us consider recent efforts by Shelly to “abandon our distinctiveness” and “turn the church into a denomination.” One of many will be sufficient. 

Billy Graham is the nation’s leading exponent of denominationalism. In his weekly newsletter, “Love Lines,” February 23, 2000, Rubel wrote:

God willing, Billy Graham will be preaching four nights in Adelphia Coliseum this spring. I hope you have marked June 14 on your calendar . . . I hope you are praying over your “Operation Andrew” list of people you plan to invite to the crusade. The likelihood that you know an unsaved person who would attend one or more nights of the Graham Crusade is very high. For one thing, curiosity alone might be enough to motivate that person. Hearing Dr. Graham speak in one of the final crusades his age and health will allow him to conduct could get someone there — and the Spirit of God can handle things from there. The preached Word of God can be his instrument to touch that person’s heart.

Brethren, can you believe what you just read? The “Spirit of God” can handle things, but Billy does not preach what the Spirit has revealed. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit guided Peter to tell believers to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Billy does not preach that for he doesn’t believe it!

Shelly, who preaches for the Woodmont Hills church in Nashville, is a General Committee Member for the Graham Crusade. He wrote that “Several of our shepherds wrote letters of invitation to Dr. Graham to encourage him to come to our city.”

There are more than fifty churches of Christ in Limestone County where I live. The vast majority of them are conservative, understand what the church is, and oppose denominationalism. Two churches (Valley Church and Seven Mile Post Road) joined with fourteen denominational groups in promoting and conducting a rock/gospel concert on a ball field at Athens State University. The newspaper reported that souls were saved on the field, and no one from those two churches denied it. The program had mechanical music with the gospel songs and sectarian speakers.

One of the errors the two churches teach is that we are not under law today. On their radio program June 4, the speaker said that each and every one of the churches of Christ in the county is a sect. I deny it! If they want to use labels, “faction” would be a good one for them for they were formed in rebellion to elders in the churches where they were raised.

Inconsistent and Confusing Teaching

F. LaGard Smith has written a book entitled Who Is My Brother? In it he says many good things, and seems to want to defend the church and the gospel plan of salvation. In other statements he seems to want to compromise what he has said and extend fellowship to those in denominations. Here is a sample of what I mean:

If indeed there is such a thing as “faith fellowship” apart from true “in Christ” fellowship, the next question is, How does that fellowship operate in practical terms?

It means, first of all, that we must be bold enough to acknowledge Christ-centered faith wherever we find it — even in those who may be outside the boundaries of Christian fellowship. We must come to accept that it is not wrong to fellowship as believers others who wear the name “Christian” but aren’t. Without giving anything away we can honor their faith, learn from their faith, be rebuked by their faith, be prompted by their faith, read the words of their faith, and sing the feelings of their faith (112).

How can he say that they have Christ-centered faith, and that we can emulate their faith in many ways if they are not in the faith and walking by faith that comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:17)? If, as he said, they are wearing the name Christian but are not, then they are in darkness. But true Christians are told to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). I don’t follow his thinking. To accept those who are not Christians and fellowship those who are in error is not being bold; that is cowardly!

We are in complete agreement with the following statements by brother James P. Needham:

When people say one church (denomination) is just as good as another, they are correct, and all denominations put together are not as good as the one God purposed in eternity, our Lord bought with His own precious blood (Acts 20:28), and brought to fruition on Pentecost (Acts 2), which was prophesied by the Old Testament prophets, and fulfills God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 3:10, 11). To say this divine organization is equal to or parallel with human denominations is to border on blasphemy and endanger the souls of those who so teach.

Those brethren who seem determined to make the church of Christ just another denomination have lost their faith in the Lord’s order of things, and have bought into the so-called ‘new hermeneutic.’ They should study to regain their faith, repent of their sins, and pray for God’s forgiveness, or failing that, join some human denomination where they will feel more at home. When it comes to the Lord’s church, one should love it or leave it (Gospel Truths, May 2000).

At the end of Pentecost (Acts 2), every saved person in Jerusalem was in the church of Christ, for the Lord had added the saved to it (v. 47). There was not a saved person who was not in the church, and every responsible person outside the church was lost. That divine process continues today. Therefore, the church of Christ is not a sect or a part of anything; it is the whole thing!

P.O. Box 505, Athens, Alabama 35612

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 19  p15  October 5, 2000