By Keith Pruitt
Christ declared His intention to establish the church (Matt. 16:18). Built upon the premise of Christ’s deity, the church was to stand as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy regarding an eternal kingdom (Isa. 2; Dan. 2; 2 Sam. 7). On the first Pentecost after Christ’s death, the prophecy and promise became a reality as three thousand souls obeyed the gospel and were “added unto them” (Acts 2:41). A few verses later finds saved ones being added together (v. 47). The King James Version renders this concept from Greek as being added by God to the “church.”
Modern theologians have redefined “the church.” Some define the word in relation to some structure. “They have a nice church,” they will say when speaking of a building. Yet, the word says that God does not make His abode in temples made with hands (Acts 17:24). Paul states, however, that the church is the temple of God and that His Spirit en-dwells the saint (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:19, respectively). Paul addressed letters to the “church of God at Corinth,” and sent greetings to Rome from the “churches of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 16:16).
Still others redefine “the church” in a denominational sense. They mean by “the church” the same thing Catholics mean by the term. Their understanding is of a super structure with earthly headquarters, leader and human creed. We refer to this as the institutionalized church. The institution in denominationalism serves as judge, legislator, and accomplisher of all of God’s will as such is viewed by the leaders. The “institution” builds and maintains hospitals (most operated for profit), schools (that train men and women for ordination as clerics), and various other branches to perform specific duties. They own printing houses that pipe the official line and radio networks that are used to promote their pet doctrines (as well as raise funds to cushion the pockets of their clerics).
A master’s degree is not required in order to comprehend the message. Even some who claim affiliation with the Lord’s people have come to think of “the church” in the above manner. One should not think it strange to hear of church of Christ schools, hospitals, missionaries, radio stations, orphan homes, etc., ad nausea. These things are merely a result of denominational thinking. They do not represent “better” ways of doing the tasks assigned, but they are “new” ways to think about the Lord’s kingdom.
It is this institutionalized concept of God’s people that has brought about the “talks” between “representatives” of the church of Christ and the Christian Church. Only institutional thinking could allow such a perversion of truth.
The desirability of union with the Christian Church is only possible if the church of Christ is “just another denomination” as some have suggested.
But the true Bible believer is interested in union with God. Perversions of His word are condemned as is also division of His people (Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:10). There is a great need in our day to understand the proper application of biblical truth in regards to the nature of that which was established on Pentecost, A.D. 33. Our efforts, though they be feeble, shall be in that direction.
There is one manner in which the church is an institution. Webster defines an “institution” as something instituted. The Lord’s Supper was instituted. By this we merely suggest an origin. It has a beginning. Yet, the Lord’s supper is not an institution in the structural concept of the term. The same point is to be understood as touching the church. It had an origin, but the universal church, spoken of in many of the aforementioned verses, lacks the structural foundation required of institutions.
A man asks, “what is the church of Christ?” What shall’ we answer? The truth is the church of Christ is the body of believers or disciples or saints who are in a reconciled relationship to the God of heaven. The church describes this relationship as it has to do with our former lives in sin. The church consists of those called by the gospel out of sin into service to King Jesus (Col. 1:13; Eph. 2). This relationship is based solely upon one’s obedience and reception of God’s grace. It is a spiritual relationship with spiritual, qualities (Rom. 14:17; Gal. 5:22-24). This relationship is that connected with the great commission of Matthew 28:19.
As Christians, and in accord with this new relationship, there are responsibilities that God has given to be carried out by local assemblies of believers. These may properly be referred to as local churches. They are not branches or members of the church universal. The church of Christ is made of Christians not congregations. The phrase “congregations of the church of Christ” suggests again the institutionalized concept of Christianity. The local church and the universal church are made up of the same elements: Christians.
While there is no structure to the universal church, there is in local congregations. In Philippians 1:1, Paul speaks of “the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi with the bishops and deacons. ” The bishops, elders, pastors, presbyters, or overseers are men appointed to oversee a local congregation (Acts 20:28). The scriptural oversight of these men (a plurality in each congregation – Tit. 1:5) never exceeded the flock. The elders at Ephesus never had oversight of any other work. Nor were they answerable to any but their own and God. The work of the local congregation was never performed through separate organizations. They did their own work. The deacons attended to the physical needs of the local church while the elders were guarding the souls of the flock (Acts 6:1-6; Heb. 13:17). These men were not responsible for the work or problems of others as they were “leaders” of an autonomous work. There was no organization or society or association that tied New Testament congregations in any manner.
These congregations had evangelists that worked among them preaching the word of truth such as Timothy, Titus, Paul, Peter, etc. (Eph. 4:11). There was no special qualifications for this work other than being a man (1 Tim. 2:12), being faithful and able (2 Tim. 2:2). Preachers of the New Testament were not required to attend the University of Jerusalem or some “Preaching School,” nor were they required to be married or have obtained a certain age in order to preach. Preachers were supported for their labor (Phil. 4:15-18). There were no societies or alliances for preachers to join.
When one obeyed the gospel call for repentance and baptism, he was added to the universal church (Acts 2:37-41). After this, Christians labored together, under the instruction of the apostles in local congregations doing the work God had given (Acts 2:42-ff; Acts 20:17-ff; Rom. 1:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; Rev. 1:4). They joined no denomination, for there were none to join. I would such were true today. This is the simple plan of God.
As to the universal church, there is but one (Eph. 4:4; Eph. 1:22-23). The words church, body, and kingdom are but descriptions of the saved as it pertains to certain aspects of the relationship with God. The simple phrase “church of Christ” is merely showing possession. It is Christ’s Church or the church of Christ. Human names were never exalted above Jesus (Acts 4:12). Thus, today faithful Christians profess merely to belong to Christ. As a body, they are subject to the head, Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18). As a kingdom, they are willing slaves of King Jesus (Heb. 12:28; Rom. 6:18; Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:9). As the church, they are “called out” (ekklesla) of sin into Christ. As the bride, they are wed unto Christ and are subject to His leadership and care (Eph. 5:22-33; Rom. 7:4).
These that have been bought with His blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20), have hope. They await the resurrection at His coming so that they may be delivered to the Father in the haven of rest (1 Cor. 15:24).
As the gospel of Jesus is shared with those in sin, we plead for people to consider New Testament Christianity. If being just a Christian, a part of the blood-bought body, and worshiping with other New Testament Christians as God’s word dictates is alluring to you, then why not hear in order that faith might be produced (Rom. 10:17) and act upon that faith to repent of sin (Acts 2:38; Luke 13:3,5), and upon a confession of Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 10:32; Acts 8:37), be buried with your Lord in baptism to cleanse you of sin (Acts 22:16)? Heaven bids you come.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 24, pp. 752-753
December 19, 1985