By Sewell Hall
“Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” This was the question Nicodemus asked the Chief Priests and Pharisees when they were condemning Jesus on nothing more than hearsay evidence. Nicodemus had actually been to Jesus and heard from His mouth what He taught. He knew that quite a different impression was to be had by giving Him an objective hearing.
The report has been widely circulated that members of the church of Christ think they are the only ones who are right, the only ones going to heaven, and that all others are bound for hell. The first impression in the mind of the average person is that this is a claim by one little denomination to superiority over all others, and to some kind of special connection with God. It is understandable that such a claim would be considered the ultimate in bigotry and narrow-mindedness. It is regrettable that such impressions have so often gone without correction.
Sometimes these impressions have remained because members of the church of Christ have been unwilling or unable to clarify their position. In other instances, persons hearing the charges have turned away in disgust, refusing to hear any explanation from those accused. If you, however, have taken this brief tract to read it through, you may justly claim that spirit of fairness possessed by Nicodemus. And we believe, too, that whether or not you agree with all that is said, your impression of the church of Christ will at least be altered.
The Problem Of Definitions
First, we need to understand that the same words may have different meanings for different people. A truck driver who reports driving his tractor sixty miles per hour may not be believed by a farmer who is unfamiliar with the language of trucking. The word “tractor” means one thing to a truck driver and quite a different thing to a farmer.
In John 2:19 we read that Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Verse 21 tells us that “He spake of the temple of his body.” But His enemies did not take it this way. They assumed that he was speaking of the temple in which they worshiped, and they considered it a threat against that holy place. They used this as one of the charges against Him when He was on trial for His life (Matt. 26:61).
When we use the term “church of Christ,” most people assume that we refer to a denomination by the name “Church of Christ.” Let it be stated as emphatically as possible that if a denomination exists today named “the Church of Christ,” membership in it is in no way essential to salvation. In fact, membership in such a denomination would constitute factionalism such as was practiced by the Christians in Corinth who claimed to be “of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12), and would actually jeopardize the soul of the individual. By “church of Christ,” we mean something entirely different.
The Church of Christ In The Bible
The meaning of the term “church of Christ” is not to be found in a modern encyclopedia, nor in a list of modern churches. Rather it is to be found in the Scriptures.
Jesus promised, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). This promise He fulfilled, and from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles through the remainder of the Bible we read of the church which He established.
The first local assembly was in Jerusalem. It had its beginning when the first gospel sermon was preached, and when the first persons heeded its call to leave the world, to obey Jesus, to be saved by His death, and to follow Him through life. The word translated “church” originally meant “called out,” so these people who were “called out” of the world were termed “the church.”
Soon this same gospel was preached in the city of Samaria. The results were the same: souls heard the call, left the world and were saved by Jesus. There was then a new body of called out people, a new assembly of saved ones -another church, the church in Samaria. This was repeated hundreds of times in city after city, always with the same results another church. In a few years there were churches in all major cities of the world. Wherever there were saved people, they were called the church in that place.
How were these churches designated? Among other things, they were called “churches of Christ.” For example, we read in Romans 16:16, “The churches of Christ salute you.” The same term is found in Galatians 1:22 in many of the more modem translations. Why were they called this? Because the saved people who composed these local assemblies had all been called out of the world by Christ; they belonged to Him; they were following Him. They were, therefore, “the congregations of Christ” or “churches of Christ.”
But these local assemblies, or churches of Christ, were all alike. Each assembly, being composed of saved ones, was like every other assembly in composition and loyalty. And as the saved in any given community were the church in that community, so all the saved in all the world were the church in the world-wide sense. In that sense, there was but one church. It was the body of Christ (Col. 1:18), and Ephesians 4:4 assures us there was but one body. Jesus called it “my church” (Matt. 16:18).
Was Membership In That Church Essential?
Leaving for the time being the question: Does one have to be in the church of Christ to be saved? let us ask it another way: Did one have to be member of that church to be saved?
Church membership and salvation were synonymous. Reporting the beginning days of the church are these words in Acts 2:47: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Addition to the church was not the result of a decision by the saved man to “join the church,” or a decision by an official to “receive them into the church.” When one was saved, he was, at the same time, by an act of providence made a member of the church. If all who were saved were added to Christ’s church, that is exactly the same as saying that only those who were in the church were saved. They were not saved because they were in the church; they were in the church because they were saved.
The church was the object of God’s purpose. Those people whom God saved, His church, were the demonstration of God’s manifold wisdom – the real reason for the creation of all things. Ephesians 3:9-11 tells us that God “created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that now unto principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Acts 20:28 tells of “the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” And in Ephesians 5:25-26, we read that “Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water by the word.” No other body of people could claim these distinctions; nor could any individual claim them who was not a member of that body.
The church was the body of Christ. “And he is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). Christ reconciles men “unto God in one body by the cross” (Eph. 2:16), and “he is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23). These blessings were promised to none outside that body or church.
The church was the fullness of Christ. The New Testament contains a veritable catalog of blessings to be enjoyed in Christ. It speaks of the “salvation which is in Christ” (2 Tim. 2:10). It tells us that in Him “we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14). “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). “In Christ Jesus ye are all the children of God by faith” (Gal. 3:27 RSV). In Ephesians 1:3, the apostle Paul sums it all up by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” But in verses 22 and 23 he calls the church “the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Using a physical illustration: If an inner tube is inflated until it is the fullness of the tire, it is then true that all the air in the tire must be in the inner tube. If the church was the fullness of Christ, it follows that all blessings in Christ were in the church, and that all who enjoyed the blessings in Christ were in the church. I To say that salvation was only in the church is no mor e than to say that salvation was only in Christ.
Apostles and early Christians considered it essential. Dr. Adam Clarke, a noted Methodist commentator, wrote in his comments on Colossians 4:5:
. . . The church of Christ was considered an enclosure, afield, or vineyard, well hedged or walled. Those who were not members of it were considered without, i.e. not under that special protection and defense which the true followers of Christ had . . . As to be a Christian was essential to the salvation of the soul, so to be in the Church of Christ was essential to being a Christian; therefore it was concluded that “there was no salvation out of the pale of the church.”
Was this a narrow-minded attitude for them to take? It was neither narrower nor broader than Jesus. It included all who had come to Jesus in obedience. The church was not some earth-based organization or human fellowship. It was rather, as we have seen, the term used of all who had been called out by Jesus and saved. When early Christians said that “there was no salvation out of the pale of the church” they were not excluding a single person whom Jesus had saved, for they believed that Jesus had added every such person to His church.
Is Membership In That Church Still Essential?
Many people today are willing to accept the conclusions reached in the above paragraphs. But somehow they feel that things have changed. The Standard Manual for Baptist Churches, by Edward T. Hiscox, puts it this way:
It is most likely that in that Apostolic age when there was but “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism,” and no differing denominations existed, the baptism of a convert by that very act constituted him a member of the church, and at once endowed him with all the rights and privileges of full membership. In that sense, “baptism was the door into the church.” Now it is different. . . .
We are at loss to understand just why it should be different. Though we acknowledge that many counterfeits have appeared, are we to suppose that God now recognizes more than “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism”? And does the Lord no longer “add to the church daily such as should be saved”?
For our own part, we confidently affirm that He who is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8) still adds to His church daily all who are saved. Consequently, we believe that every individual on earth who has been saved has been added to that same church to which He added the saved in the first century A.D. That church the Lord called “my church,” and it is His church now. Those not in His church are not in it because they have not been saved. Therefore all who are not in the church of Christ are lost. Or, to put it another way, only those in the church of Christ are saved.
We equally affirm that only the members of the church of God are saved; that only members of the church of the first born are saved; that only members of the house of God are saved. These are all scriptural designations for the same body of people who are also called in the Scriptures the churches of Christ. By this we do not mean that one must be a member of some denomination called “the Church of God,” “the Church of the Firstborn,” or “the House of God.” Neither do we mean, as noted in our introduction, that one must be a member of a human association or denomination called “the Church of Christ.” We would oppose membership in such an organization. What we do mean is that one must be among that body of saved people whom the Scriptures designate by these terms.
Questions Many Ask
Whenever we have opportunity to explain these thoughts to our friends, we usually find them agreeable to our conclusions. But there are further questions which they wish to ask.
Are you referring to the Universal Church? The church we read of in the Scriptures is universal. In fact, it is the only church that can claim that designation, for it alone includes all who are saved. Yet, it does not exactly fit the picture of the universal church which is in the mind of most people. Note the following:
1. It is commonly supposed that the universal church is simply a composite of all the denominations, but Christ’s church is not that. Modern denominationalism with its multitude of bodies, ecclesiastical authorities, faiths, and forms of baptism cannot possibly be the church of Christ described in the Bible, for in those days the apostle Paul wrote, “There is one body . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4,5). Additional bodies, authorities, faiths, and baptisms are without the authority of Christ who is the head of His church and they win not be tolerated within it. The Spirit warns that those who practice “factions, divisions, parties … shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:20, 21, ASV).
2. Many suppose that faith in Christ is the only requirement for membership in the universal church. But, according to the Scriptures, men and women had to be saved to be members of the church, and salvation required more than faith alone. The people in Jerusalem who later composed the first of Christ’s churches were already believers when they asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) The apostle Peter, inspired by the Spirit, did not tell them that they were already saved just because they believed in Jesus – that they were already in the church. Indeed not! He told them of something more that they should do to be saved:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost…. Then they that gladly received his words were baptized, and the Lord added unto them that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:38,41).
It is clear from this that they were not added to the church until they were “baptized for the remission of sins.”
Are not all churches, Churches of Christ? The Lord did not provide us with a board of examiners to certify churches of Christ, nor would we attempt to set up ourselves in such a capacity. However, the Lord did supply us with a description of His church by which it should be possible to identify a church of Christ or to recognize a counterfeit. Observe the following characteristics of His church:
1. It must be composed of saved people. The passage studied in the last paragraph as well as many others (e.g. Mark 16:16, Acts 8:12; 16:30-33; 17:30; 22:16) demonstrate that to be saved one must believe in Jesus, repent of sins, and be baptized for remission of sins. Thus, the church is made up of those who have complied with these conditions.
2. It must be “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20).
3. It must abide in the doctrine of Christ, for to go beyond means loss of fellowship with God (2 Jn. 9).
4. It must be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,” acknowledging that “there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God” (Eph. 4:4-6).
5. It “must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24), for Jesus said, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).
6. It must be careful to maintain its obedient relationship to Christ lest He “remove thy candlestick out of its place” (Rev. 2:5).
It cannot be reasonably said that a church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” when its organization is nowhere described in the Scriptures. A church can scarcely be said to abide in the doctrine of Christ if its doctrines can only be sustained by appeal to new revelations and books of recent origin. A church hardly acknowledges “one body, . . . one lord, one faith, one baptism” if it agrees that its own organization is not the body of Christ; if it has officers besides Jesus to serve as lords over the churches; if it must formulate its own creed (faith) to stand beside or in the place of the faith of the gospel; or if it offers, as some do, to “baptize you any way you want it.” Worship cannot be “in spirit and truth” if much of the activity involved is unknown to the truth of God. Yet, these things are characteristic of the overwhelming majority of the churches about us.
Perhaps more significant than all of this, however, is the fact that they are made up of individuals who have never complied with the conditions of salvation as they are set forth in the Scriptures. Many have never been “buried with Him by baptism” (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). Many who were immersed were not “baptized for remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). They believed they were saved the moment they believed, before baptism, and that their baptism was merely a sign and an initiation into the “visible church. ” God’s word offers no salvation on these terms. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that such individuals have been “added to the church” of Christ.
Must One Be A Member Of Your Church of Christ?
This question assumes existence of an association of churches of Christ, holding to some peculiar doctrine, practice, or organization which would separate them from other churches of Christ. For a third time, let us insist that if such an association exists, we are opposed to membership in it. Every individual who is saved anywhere on earth is added by Christ to His church (in no sense my church of Christ). If a group of such individuals worships and works together in such a way that He acknowledges them as His church, then surely nothing more than this is essential to salvation.
Must One Be Called A Church of Christ?
No individual should be called a church of Christ for the word church suggests an assembly or group of people, not an individual. Members of Christ’s church in Antioch of Syria were called Christians (Acts 11:26). This is the fitting name for any individual to wear who has been saved by the Lord.
Must One Call Himself A Member Of The Church Of Christ?
We have shown already that “church of Christ” is not the only scriptural designation for the Lord’s church. A saved individual may use any of the other scriptural terms to designate the church to which he has been added by the Lord. It would actually be unwise to use the name “church of Christ” exclusively. However, if one has been added to the Lord’s church, he should limit his membership to that church. He should not join some church which has been organized by men. Jesus said, “Every plant that my heavenly Father planted not shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13).
Must One Accept Your Doctrine And Practice?
We make no claims for the doctrine and practice of every organization wearing the designation “church of Christ.” Some such organizations give little attention to the teaching of the Scriptures. The doctrine or practice which must be accepted is that taught in the Scriptures. If a given church is following the doctrine and practice taught in the Scriptures, it is following the doctrine and practice which all must follow. If it is following some other doctrine and practice than that taught in the Scriptures, it is wrong regardless of the name it may be wearing.
As individuals who have believed in Jesus, repented of our sins, confessed publicly our faith in Him, and been baptized for remission of our sins, we believe that Jesus has saved us and added us to His church. We have never affiliated ourselves with any human organization, nor pledged ourselves to support any human creed or decision of any assembly of men. Hence, we call ourselves simply Christians, members of Christ’s church – or churches of Christ.
In urging others to do the same we are making no claim for any organization of our own but only for the body of Christ. We make no boast of salvation to be obtained through fellowship with us. “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17). We call upon no one to accept any doctrine or practice of our own, but only to accept the doctrine and practice of the Scriptures and to help us, if we have missed it, to find it. We propose no name of our own choosing, but urge that all who are content to follow Jesus wear only His name. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
We urge you to comply with the conditions of salvation stated by the Lord and His apostles. If there is a body of saved ones meeting near you home, following faithfully the Lord’s plan for His church, meet and worship with them. If you find no such assembly, recognize that you are, nevertheless, by virtue of your being saved, a member of Christ’s church. If you are saved the Lord has added you to it. Do not join some human church, but try to teach others the way of salvation. When they obey the Lord and are added to His church, you can worship and work together, taking Christ as your head and the Scriptures as your guide. You will then be the church of Christ in your community. It is possible that you might never have contact with any other assembly anywhere in the world, but if you are united to Christ you are united with all others everywhere who are united with Christ. If they are doing the work of Christ in their communities as you are doing the work of Christ in your community, then you are having fellowship with them in Christ.
This is the unity for which Christ prayed: “neither pray I for these alone, but for them also that shall believe on me through their word: that they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (Jn. 17:20,21). All who are one in Christ are in His church only those in His church are saved.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 23, pp. 710-711, 724-725
December 4, 1986