By Dan Waiters
In Matt. 16:18, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” We know that He kept this promise because the church is spoken of as being in existence after the day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2. We know that those who obeyed the Gospel in the apostolic age were added to this church by the Lord (Acts 2:47). The epistles were written in order that members might know how to “behave themselves” in “the church of the living God” (I Tim. 3:15). Christ, who built the church, continues as the head of the church, “which is His body” (Eph. 1:22, 23). This church has not ceased to exist, because we are assured in Old Testament prophecy that the church, or kingdom, “shall stand for ever” (Dan. 2:44). In the New Testament, it is described as “a kingdom which cannot be moved” (Heb. 12:28).
The only question, then, for modern men is how that church can be identified in the world today. It is true that there are hundreds of churches in existence today, but they do not all claim to be the church that Jesus built. Most of them are denominations which freely admit to being such, and admit that no one denomination is the church of our Lord. All the “orthodox” denominations teach that men can be saved outside their churches and can go to heaven without ever joining one of them. They teach that there are saved persons in all denominations, at least in the “orthodox” ones, that membership is optional, and that one is as good as another, as far as salvation is concerned. What, then, do they say about the one body of Christ? The denominational theory teaches that all these modern churches are parts of the one great invisible, universal church. The word “denomination” means a part of the whole. But is this claim in harmony with the teachings of Christ and His Apostles? The New Testament speaks of “one body,” “one spirit,” “one Lord,” “one faith,” “one baptism,” and “one God.” As we observe the denominational churches, we see that there is not one faith among them, and that there is not one baptism. The “one faith” is the faith mentioned in Jude 3 where we are told to “earnestly contend for the faith.” This faith is a body of truth; a system of religion which is contained in the New Testament. It is more than simply a belief that Jesus Christ is God’s Son. When inspired preachers “preached Christ,” they included “the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:5, 12). Today men will ask, “What is your faith?”, inquiring as to which denominational creed you accept. Indeed there are many faiths, all claiming to be of Christ. These faiths are determined by creed books, disciplines, and manuals written by uninspired men, and by the decisions of councils, committees, congresses, and other legislative bodies. These faiths are even changed from year to year according to the whims of fallible men.
In the place of “one baptism,” we find sprinkling, pouring, immersion, Holy Spirit baptism, and no baptism at all. We find some who baptize babies, and some who do not; we find some who baptize for one purpose, and some who baptize for another. But all still claim the Lord as their head. Yet, by the very act of setting up earthly heads for their churches, of exercising legislative power which belongs only to Christ, and of changing or ignoring the clearest teachings of the New Testament, these churches have denied Christ His position as head. If He were ever head of any one of them or of all of them, they have certainly forced Him to abdicate by their own rebellion.
The church that we read about in the New Testament does not have parts or branches, except for the individuals who compose it. Division and sectarianism are condemned (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Christ prayed that His disciples might be one, or united (John 17:21). It is true that undenominational Christians are often divided because of sin, ignorance and improper attitudes; that is to be deplored. But denominationalism is a system of which division is the essence; it glorifies division; it depends for its very existence upon the continuation of division; it claims that such division can be justified in God’s sight; it claims that division is inevitable, thus condemning the prayer of Christ as foolishness.
If any of these churches, or all of them combined, claim to be the church that Jesus built, then the clearest test is to determine how men became a part of Christ’s church in the New Testament, and to compare that with the entrance requirements of modern denominations. We find that men and women obeyed the gospel by believing (John 6:47), repenting (Acts 2:38), confessing (Acts 8:37), and being baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16). When they did this, the Lord added them to the church (Acts 2:47). The conditions of pardon have not changed, so it is foolish to assume that anyone will be added to Christ’s church today without full obedience to the gospel according to the apostolic pattern. Most denominations teach that water baptism (immersion) for the remission of sins is unnecessary. Most of them, if they baptize at all, baptize for some other purpose. Thus, the greater part of the membership of modern denominations is composed of persons who have never been pardoned from their sins. They are still alien sinners. It is redundant to state that they have not been added to the Lord’s church. The individual denominations have their own terms of admission. Some vote on candidates for membership; some demand an experience of grace. None assume that because a man or woman has obeyed the gospel, he is already a member of their church. In this way, they distinguish between their church and the church that Jesus built. They may claim to be members of two churches: a human denomination and the one body.. But the fact that most have never obeyed the gospel leaves them out of the one body. And if one has obeyed the gospel, he is already a member of the Lord’s church. For him to forsake the fellowship of his own brethren who have also been added to the church, in order to work with alien sinners in a church disloyal to Christ’s teaching would be treason.
There are a few modern denominations, or religions, or cults which do claim to be the one true church. There are the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others. But it is immediately evident that these churches claim the wrong standards of authority, are ruled by men instead of Christ, and do not teach men how to obey the gospel. Most of those in such churches are alien sinners.
That leaves only the undenominational churches of Christ. There are some who argue that these churches also constitute a sect or denomination which is different from the church that Jesus built. How can we determine the truth or falsity of this charge? First, we must ask what those in the churches of Christ have done in order to acquire membership. Have they obeyed any man-made standard? All undenominational churches of Christ teach that one must obey the gospel according to the scriptures in order to be saved, and that when one is saved the Lord adds him to the church. They do not recognize anyone as a member of a church of Christ who has not obeyed the gospel. Therefore, with the possible exception of a few imposters who may have lied about their obedience, no one is recognized as a member of a church of Christ except a regenerated, blood-bought child of God. That means that churches of Christ are composed of those who, according to the Scriptures, are members of the church that Jesus built. They have been added to that church by the Lord.
Now, the possibility still exists that, though these men and women are members of the church that Jesus built, they are also at the same time members of a human denomination. It is generally recognized that no one can be accused of being a member of any organization unless he has willfully joined the organization, having performed some act in order to become a member. The question now is, what have members of the churches of Christ done in order to join some religious group other than the body of Christ? I cannot speak for everyone, but my own experience is similar to that of most other members of churches of Christ whom I know. I obeyed the gospel when I was eleven years old, after having heard the gospel preached and having read about it in the New Testament. It was my understanding, based upon Acts 2:47, that when I did that, the Lord added me to His church. Being a member of His church, it never entered my mind to seek entrance to some human church also. Being a member of the church that Jesus built was, and is, sufficient.
Since that time I have met and worshiped with other Christians, those who had obeyed the same gospel as I had, and who have professed to follow the New Testament pattern in the work and worship of the church, without addition or subtraction. My brethren and I have met every first day of the week to take the Lord’s Supper, and we have engaged in the other acts of worship and service approved by the apostles. We have attempted to teach the gospel to others so that they also might be saved and become members of the church that Jesus built. We have never subjected ourselves to the oversight of any conference, headquarters, association, gospel paper, college, or other center of influence. We have never consciously subscribed to any human creed, written or unwritten, but have been content to accept the New Testament as our guide. The fact that some of us have had our differences about certain passages of scripture does not nullify the fact that we are still striving to follow the pattern laid out in the New Testament, and thus to be subject to Christ who is our head. Human imperfections in following a pattern do not reflect upon the validity of the pattern itself, nor do they prove the impossibility of following it.
This being true, what is it that we’ have done to give detractors the right to accuse us of constituting a denomination? We have offended them by refusing to fellowship certain children of God, members of Christ’s body, who have taken up the habitual practice of sin, either moral or religious, and have not repented. The detractors believe that we should fellowship them in spite of the sin. Because we do not, this makes us a sect in their estimation. They demand that we recognize these apostates as faithful Christians, not in need of repentance, and in a saved condition. Nothing less will satisfy them.
Some apostates, or digressives, have not only corrupted the worship and work of the churches by adding practices not authorized in the New Testament, but they have organized themselves into full-blown denominations with all the trimmings. Some have admitted denominational status. To consider these as faithful Christians, and their churches as faithful churches, would be to repudiate our own plea. We would have to give up the idea of following the first century apostolic pattern. We would have to say that the Lord will be pleased with less.
Does marking and avoiding false teachers make one a sectarian? Does refusing to fellowship heresies, or factions, make one a denominationalist? Paul said to the Corinthians, “I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:18, 19). Peter said, “There shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). Paul said to the Romans, “Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). The apostles recognized the inevitability of factions arising among the brethren and of false teachers bringing in new doctrines, contrary to the New Testament. This has been going on since the first century. The first major departure from the faith resulted in the Roman Catholic Church. Later departures have resulted in other distinct religious groups. This will continue until the end of time. Sometimes the group departing from the faith becomes larger and more powerful than the remnant of the faithful.
The number and the influence of false teachers and factions who may be apostate children of God does not detract from the righteousness of those Christians who remain true to the pattern. Regardless of what course others may take, faithful Christians will continue to say: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). As long as faithful children of God continue to follow the words of Christ and the Apostles, and refuse to join any human religious organization, and refuse to be bound by any human creed, they will collectively constitute the church that Jesus built. The local congregations they compose will be truly churches of Christ, meaning churches belonging to Christ and holding to him as “the Head” (Col. 2:19).
Truth Magazine XXIV: 48, pp. 769, 778-7799
December 4, 1980