THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH:

       UNDENOMINATIONAL AND NON-SECTARIAN

      JIM LAWS

 

To say that there is a great deal of confusion about the nature of the church is certainly an understatement. By reading the material which comes from "religious" pens today, one can see that many have never come to grips with just what the church of the Lord is. It should come as no surprise that denominational people have problems understanding what the true nature of the church is. They have not been accustomed to seeking biblical authority for what they believe, say, and do. So many times they simply involve themselves in religious activity thinking that they are serving the Lord yet never stopping to ask the all important question, "Can such be found as being authorized by God in His word?" This problem seems to be compounded by what is happening in churches of Christ today. It was but a few years ago that gospel preachers were calling for the end of modern day denominationalism; they were preaching sermons about the distinctive nature of the Lord's New Testament church; they were challenging denominational preachers with the facts found in the pages of the Bible with what they as denominational people were doing. When the two were compared, it was obvious that they were far apart from each other. The climate has changed, though. Now, there are certain congregations among us who deliberately fashion themselves after denominationalism. They are no longer concerned about biblical authority. It is common today to hear people advocate new ideas for the work of the church which are not authorized in the New Testament, causing the church to look like some new type of denomination--something not found in the New Testament. It is a common experience to hear a segment of the church refer to itself as a denomination, and if you do not accept this fact, they say, then you are simply uninformed.

It is certainly not the purpose of this article to add to the present confusion. The purpose of this article will be to focus attention on certain misconceptions about the church. By analyzing them carefully, one will be able to draw the proper conclusions, that being that the church you read about in the New Testament is undenominational and non-sectarian in its nature. One will, also, be able to see that this is indeed what God would have all men to be religiously in order to be pleasing in his sight.

It is important to remember that the only way to settle any matter religiously speaking is to go to the standard of authority which God has given, the Bible, the Word of God. It is clear that one can come to know and understand the revelation which God has given to man, and by reasoning about it properly, one can come to know what the will of God is in the matter.

The word "church" is used in the New Testament in two different ways. There are times when it refers to the entire body of believers (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:23-26; Col. 1:18,24; 3:15). Many times the word is used to refer to the local congregation of people (Rom. 6:16). The church you read about in the New Testament is a distinct body of people. When Jesus was traveling in the region of Caesarea Philippi, He taught his disciples an invaluable lesson regarding both his divine nature as well as that of the church. "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matt. 16:18). The builder and founder of any organization is a most important factor. Jesus, as builder and founder of the church, sets the church in order functionally and gives it a code of operation. His divine nature along with his teaching and the sacrifice of himself on the cross with his shed blood gives the church its life. (Acts 20:28). To be true to its founder and builder, the church must reflect the spirit and ideals of its founder (Phil.2: 5). Notice, also, in this very paragraph (Matt. 16:13-20) Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys to the "Kingdom of heaven" (vs. 19) indicating for us that the church referred to in verse 18 is the kingdom of verse 19 and the kingdom of verse 19 is the church of verse 18. To be true to the king of the kingdom one must be loyal to the kingdom over which he reigns. This figure of the church being a kingdom is presented to teach of the unique relationship which God's people, those make up the church, sustain to the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Notice a few others mentioned in the Bible. For instance, the church is described as the body of Christ with Christ as the head (Eph. 1:22); it is his bride with Christ as the bridegroom (Eph. 5:22,23); it is his kingdom with Christ as the king (Matt.16:18); along with it being described as his army (He. 2:10); and his family (Matt. 12:50). The church you read about in the Bible is great because of the relationship which it sustains to Christ. Therefore, one can conclude that the church, being described in specific ways to convey the unique relationship that it sustains to Christ, being mentioned over 100 times in the New Testament, having Christ as its founder, builder, with God as its divine architect, is divine in its origin and nature. In fact, the church of Christ, that which belongs to Christ, is as plainly revealed in the New Testament as any denomination is in its own man-made creed. To understand the church as Christ meant it to be understood all one has to do is study carefully what is presented in the New Testament. However, even with this, misconceptions still abound. Notice how that is the case.

Some Think Of The Church As A Human Denomination

The word "denomination" simply refers to the idea of naming a segment or a designated division. In a religious context it has to do with the idea that a particular group has so clustered themselves together. By the usage of the term "denominationalism" one sees that such is not a New Testament concept but a man-made one. In Ephesians 4:3-6 Paul states:

"Giving all diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

There is one body, and one spirit, even as also ye are called in

One hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and

Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all."

The confusion of modern day denominationalism is a deplorable state of affairs, causing the sincere individual even greater difficulty in finding the way of the Lord for his life. Denominationalism sets itself in competition with the church of the Lord for the souls of men. Is God pleased with such? No! Just compare denominational teaching and practices with the Bible. To the denominational perspective there are to be many different churches; in fact, you may choose the church of your choice while the Bible teaches that there is one church which God has established for man (I Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:22). Each denomination has had its foundation and beginning with some human founder while the Bible teaches that the church of the New Testament is founded by Christ (Matt. 16:18). One common characteristic of denominational churches is that they have had some human head or governing body which functions as a decision maker as far as the doctrinal stance of the denomination, while the New Testament teaches that such is not the case with the Lord's church; the head of the church is Christ and not a governing body of men (Eph. 1:22; Matt. 28:18). Creed books are composed church manuals. Catechisms and such like are the rule of authority by denominationalism; in fact, fellowship is often determined by one's acceptance of such human productions. The scriptures, however, teach that the Bible and the Bible alone is the only rulebook of life (II Tim. 3:16, 17; I Cor. 4:6). Membership in denominations is not essential to salvation, yet, the Bible teaches that membership in Christ's church is necessary for salvation (Acts 2:57; Eph. 5:23). The denominations of our day preach many different gospels or faiths, yet, the Bible teaches that there is but one faith (Eph. 4:4) and only one gospel (Gal. 1:8).

One can easily see the difference between what the Bible teaches and what religious denominations are doing. The Lord does not want his disciples divided into denominations, sects, or parties (John 17:20-22; Eph. 4:4; 1:22, 23; I Cor. 12:20; John 10:16). Paul denied that the church of the Lord was a sect (Acts 24:5, 14). Congregations in New Testament times were simply "church of Christ" and were not part of a denomination, as denominationalism is completely unknown in New Testament scripture. Therefore, the church, which is pleasing to the Lord, is the one which wears the Lord's name; honors the Lord's will; believes his word, the Bible; worships him in spirit and according to truth; is identical to the pattern found for churches in the New Testament in organization, worship, and evangelism. Such a church is not a denomination; it is the church which belongs to Christ, that is, the church of Christ. It is Christ's church--nothing more and nothing less. Look back into history and you will see that man, not God, established denominational churches. Jesus promised, "…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). The Bible points out that the church of the Lord was established on the day of Pentecost (Luke 1:9; 24:44; Acts 1:8; 2:47). The church of Christ built was not a denomination, for all obeyed the same commands, and were added to the church by Christ himself (Acts 2:47).

Some Think That The Restoration of Undenominational Christianity in Modern Times Is Impossible

A further misconception, which is popular today, is the one that contends that undenominational Christianity in reality is an impossibility to attain, because the best one can do is to work toward it. This view, of course, says that the work of restoration is an ongoing process; one never really finishes the work of restoring. In effect, they are saying that it is impossible to reach a point where one can say, "we have restored the New Testament church in our day." If such is actually the case, then one could not reach the completed condition of having restored the New Testament church in our day or in any day. However, it is false to say that undenominational Christianity cannot be restored in our day. It is clear that a restoration took place in the days of Josiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as Hezekiah. These Old Testament men realized that the old Mosaic system with its laws and commandments could be restored, even though this old law was hundreds of years removed from their own time

Notice a distinction that needs to be made at this point. Restoration is an ongoing process, in the sense, that it will always be needed, so long as there are those who continue to add to or take away from God's word. Indeed, it would be dangerous to think that restoration was only needed in Campbell's day. We must measure ourselves by God's perfect standard, observing the composite picture of the church, which includes the good that God approves and the bad that God commanded them to change. It is in this sense that restoration is ongoing. It does not include personal Christian growth and maturity, that is the task of every child of God. Did the restoration of Josiah's day in ancient Israel include the personal growth of every one of the Old Testament Israelites? Hardly so. If such were the case, Israel would never have been restored to faithfulness toward God. The fact is, however, that Israel was restored, as the Bible describes the result of Josiah's restoration by saying that there had not been such a Passover unto the Lord (II Kgs. 23:21-23). He did so that he might "perform" the words of the law (vs. 24), and there was no king like him either before or after who turned to the Lord by following the law of Moses (vs. 25). Restoration includes structural organization and doctrinal details. The matter of personal Christian growth upon the part of each member is another matter.

As one reads Acts chapter 2, one will see that the Lord added to the church those who had received the word (vs. 41, 47). It is clear that he did not add them to a denomination, something which did not come upon scene until many hundreds of years after the church was established on Pentecost. It is as easy to become a member of that church today as it was then--by believing the same gospel and obeying it, apart from all the additions that men have created through the centuries (Mark 16:15,16; Acts 8:5, 12; 18:8; Heb. 5:8-9). By studying these references carefully, one will see that the same process that makes one a Christian also makes one a member of the New Testament church.

Some Think The Church Was Established During The Restoration Movement

Another common misconception is the idea that the restoration movement as such was responsible for the church. We are what we are as a people, they say, because of the writing, which came out of the restoration movement, or the emphasis that was being made at the time. However, a restoration is not the beginning of something new, but, rather, the restoring of something, which has fallen away. This is an important distinction to keep in mind. Take, for instance, the institution of marriage. It is clear that there are those whose marriages need restoring, though, marriage as an institution remains the same as it did when God first gave it to man. In a similar fashion, the church which one reads about in the Bible, as a soul saving institution, remains just the same as God gave it in the New Testament; however, people need to be taught to be content with the church revealed in God's word. When one genuinely follows God's instruction, he becomes a saint who makes up the church of his day. This is all that Campbell and the restorers of the early part of the last century did. He, along with others, brought the religious focus and intention of the people back to where it belonged, the New Testament as the sole source of religious authority. Through the years of digression and apostasy, men had forgotten the important plea which preachers of righteousness had made for centuries, "let us do things as God has taught." The Bible writers warned that there would be a falling away and that children of God should be prepared for such (II Thess. 2:12; I Tim. 4:1-3; Acts 20:28-30; II Tim. 4:2,3). There were certain men who saw the devastating effect of the religious world. They saw that the only way to restore order to such confusion was a return to the Bible as the authority in matters religiously. As they went to the word of God, the Bible, they saw that the Bible itself teaches that God expects his people to follow His word rather than their own. In fact, this is such a serious matter that God has told man that he is not to accept one article as an element of his faith unless there is divine authority for doing so; to do otherwise is sin (Col. 3:17; Gal. 1:6-8; Rev. 22:18,19). The Campbells and others simply sought to reproduce congregations like the "churches of Christ" in the New Testament, which had since fallen away. This was done by properly studying and applying the New Testament to their lives.

Jesus, to help us understand the important role and function of the Bible told us that the seed is the word of God (Lk. 8:11). The ground upon which this "incorruptible seed" (I Pet. 1:23) falls upon is the heart of the hearer. Jesus warns all hearers (all types of ground) that the results that the seed will have depend upon the hearer. In keeping with the metaphor, if the soil (heart) is rich, being full of the right minerals (spiritual desire) and cleared of all junk and brush, plowed and turned over, then it is ready to receive the seed, and the seed will produce. Campbells and many others like him were seed sowers. This gospel seed fell upon many hearts, which were sick of denominational folly, and rich with spiritual desire for truth, and, the truth grew. Should the gospel seed go into some distant shore and be planted again into the hearts of men and women, the soil of whose hearts are good, then the same results will obtain; the truth will grow. Should there come a time in subsequent generations that these same people forget God and His word, then a restoration would be needed. If that were to happen, the truth would not have been changed; the seed would, being incorruptible, contain the same concepts and ideals as before and, when implanted again in good soil, produce the same results, New Testament Christianity. Would this mean that the source, conceptually speaking, of New Testament Christianity goes back to the seed sower? Obviously not, but to the incorruptible word and the eternal God who gave it. For anyone to claim that the church was started by the Campbells, or somehow owes its divine origin and nature to the work of Campbell or any other unaided writer this side of the New Testament, is to fail to understand the true nature of the church as well as the biblical principle of restoration.

This brief article has addressed itself to the issue of the church of the New Testament and certain misconceptions, which are prevalent in our time about it. It presents the view that the church you read about in the Bible is non-denominational and non-sectarian. Each generation must carefully consider and defend this important issue of the church's true nature, that being, the non-denominational church of the Bible.

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