I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.Matthew 16:18
There is a sign in my town (pictured in the article) which says, “Christ built His church. Who built yours? Better be right or HELL ETERNITY.” Below is a number to call if you want to respond to the sign, so I did. When I asked the person which church Jesus built, he said the Church of Christ, and he cited Romans 16:16. This brother was kind throughout the conversation, and he is obviosuly extremely dedicated to God. Not many people would be willing to pay for a billboard which shares their deeply held beliefs, so for that I commend my dear brother, regardless of what I see to be poor theology. After all, at the end of the day I am just as fallible as him.
Now, If he is anything like I was, what he meant by “Church of Christ” is a congregation who meets in a building with “Church of Christ” on the sign out front.
Of course, I wonder which Church of Christ he means. The one cup Church of Christ, the non-institutional Church of Christ, the fellowship building Church of Christ, or the instrumental Church of Christ. These are just a few examples of the many issues that have divided our specific branch of the restoration movement, but they are some of the more prevalent in my neck of the woods.
When someone says (or sings) “the Lord only built one church” what they mean is, “The church which I happen to attend is the one true church. The ones who are more ‘conservative’ than I bind where God has not bound while the ones more ‘liberal’ allow more than what God allows.”
Or as Leroy Garrett wrote, “When someone opposes what we practice, we say he is making an opinion a test of fellowship; but when he practices something that we oppose, we say he is violating a matter of faith” (Restoration Review: The Word Abused – Vol. 17: No. 2 – “Our Heritage from Scotland”. p.72).
But what did Jesus mean when He said He would build his church (singular not plural)? Because it is true that the Lord only built one church and that there is only one body of Christ with one head (Ephesians 3:4-6).
The issue here may just be the word “church.” When we think of church we may think of the building (the Lord’s house), a denomination (which church do you belong to?), a congregation (where do you go to church?), or the “called out ones” – an expression sometimes taken to mean that the church is called to be separate (and apart) from the world or other believers of differing opinions. The problem with the last one is that Jesus wanted His disciples to be in the world while not being of the world (John 17:14-16). When a group builds a house, purchases a ranch, or buys an island to live on as a distinct religious group separate from the world, we tend to call the authorities and attempt to save the women and children.
The word ‘church’, however, comes from the Greek word ekklēsia which means “community, assembly, or gathering” (BDAG).When Jesus said He was building His church, He meant He was creating a new community centered around faith in Him as the Son of God. So, to say that “the Lord only built one church” is to say that there is only one universal community of believers which belong to Christ.
In Romans 16:16, when Paul mentioned “the churches of Christ,” we get confused when we read into the word “church” all of the ideas mentioned a few paragraphs above. We look around and say, “Well the Baptist Church isn’t in the Bible, but the Church of Christ is!” This mindset views the church through a denominational lens. To “denominate” means “to call or name.” When we fix a name to the universal body of Christ, such as Church of Christ, we are creating divisions regardless of our motives.
The fact is that the Bible does not give a name for the Church. In Leroy Brownlow’s book Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ (2002 edition), he gave his sixth reason “because it is scriptural in name” (p.28). He asks compelling questions like “is there anything in a name?”And he rightly says, “Party names are carnal” (p.34). But he did great damage in this chapter. What he did not realize is by taking the expression “Churches of Christ,” writing it on our signs, and only fellowshipping those who have a similar sign, we are committing the very sin of sectarianism and denominationalism which we speak out against! It becomes a party name. The body of Christ has no name. There were no church signs in the first century. There were no religious publications like we have today. The entire debate about what to put on a sign is totally foreign to the Bible and is rooted in denominational thinking.
The expression “Churches of Christ” is a description, not a name. Of course, so is Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian. None of these are really names but descriptions. A Baptist church immerses believers instead of sprinkling babies, Methodist churches emphasize method, and Presbyterian churches operate under a Presbytery. None of these groups claim to have a founder other than Jesus.
What we must learn is to distinguish between capital “H” heritage and lowercase “h” heritage. In the Churches of Christ, our lowercase “h” heritage began with men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone. Our uppercase “H” heritage is traced back to the first century as is every person’s Heritage who beleives in Jesus. The gospel of Christ has no other Heritage, and our dear friends among the varying fellowships believe the same gospel we do. The men mentioned before understood this when beginning what we call the Restoration Movement, and I’d like to cite a few examples.
In tract entitled “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” Barton W. Stone and several others wrote, “We will, that the church of Christ…” Now one who is accustomed to the way we talk today might read this and assume Stone was talking about those who, like today, identify themselves as the Churches of Christ (and only as the Churches of Christ) on their signage and literature. The only problem with this is Stone was still in the Presbyterian church when he wrote this phamplet. The coalition of churches known as the Churches of Christ today wouldn’t really exist until 1889!
Thomas Campbell, in his Declaration and Address (Mission Messenger. 1972), likewise used the terms “Church of Christ,” “Christian Church,” and “Church of God” several times. For example, Campbell wrote:
“Our desire, therefore, for ourselves and our brethren would be, that, rejecting human opinions and the inventions of men as any authority, or as having any place in the Church of God, we might forever cease from further contentions about such things…” (p.24).
“…without attempting to inculcate (to instill—DR) anything of human authority, of private opinion, or inventions of men, as having any place in the constitution, faith, or worship, of the Christian Church…” (p.26).
“Dearly beloved brethren, why should we deem it a thing incredible that the Church of Christ, in this highly favored country, should resume that original unity, peace, and purity which belong to its constitution, and constitutes its glory?” (p.34).
When Stone and Campbell used these various titles, they were speaking of the catholic, that is, the universal body of believers. They were not referring to a coalition of churches who had Christian Church, Church of God, or Church of Christ on their sign and business cards.
This good brother who I spoke to on the phone is correct in saying that the church of Christ is the only church that Christ built, but he is wrong in applying the expression “Churches of Christ” to only those who bear that name on their sign. This phrase used by Paul simply referred to all who believe and obey Jesus in every place just as the expression “churches of the Gentiles” (Romans 16:4) described Gentile congregations, not an offical name. To slap the name “Church of Christ” outside our church buildings, beat our chests, and say that we are the one true church is to do the very thing Campbell and Stone preached against. Instead of achieving unity sought by those great men and prayed for by Jesus, we have created well over twenty unique divisions; we have added to the problems they addressed.
By this, I do not mean that the Churches of Christ do not belong to the universal church of Christ; I simply wish that the brethren from my heritage would be willing to open their doors to other believers by leaving behind their opinions, inferences, and judgements and accepting others on the basis of common faith in Jesus, the bedrock upon which the indivisible church is built. I simply wish that they would return to the roots of both their heritage and their Heritage through accepting one another, just as Christ has accepted them (Romans 15:7).
In the next article, we will answer the question “Why are there so many churches?” After that, we’ll talk about the so-called “salvation issues.”