Whenever someone asks me “Are you a member of the church of Christ?” I almost always hesitate before I answer. This has nothing to do with me being ashamed of Christ or His church. Quite the opposite! I hesitate because I love the church, and I want to communicate clearly and biblically. I’ve found that the phrase “church of Christ” has come to mean different things to different people. I hesitate because a simple “yes” or “no” answer often leads to confusion or even encourages unbiblical ideas about the church.
As an illustration, consider three different ways the phrase “Church of Christ” is understood.
The Denominational Understanding
For many, the phrase “Church of Christ” is understood to refer to those churches which wear the name “Church of Christ” and associate with one another as a branch of the American Restoration Movement. Together, these “Churches of Christ” represent one branch, or one denomination of the universal body of Christ.
This is perhaps the most common understanding of the phrase in our culture. Whether we like it or not, we live in a denominational world. We have Catholics, Baptists, Methodist, Presbyterians and so on. According to this understanding, the “Church of Christ” fits right in this list of denominations. Among those who think of themselves as belonging to one denomination or another, it is natural for them to assume that when we use the phrase “Church of Christ” we are talking about our denomination.
Even many who attend Churches of Christ (i.e. those congregations with the name “Church of Christ”) use the phrase in this way. “Church of Christ” is viewed as the name of our group. We have “Church of Christ” schools, “Church of Christ” preachers, and “Church of Christ” traditions. If you ever hear someone say “I grew up Church of Christ, but then I switched to _______” , they are using the phrase as a denominational title.
Sometimes you will hear Christian scholars or preachers speak of “our heritage”, “our tribe” or “our little corner of the kingdom”. These are ways of describing the “Church of Christ” as one group among many. This is especially common among those who have been highly exposed to the “sectarian” view of the church (see below). This usage confronts the arrogance and closed mindedness of the sectarian view and challenges it with a much needed dose of humility to recognize that we are not uniquely smarter or more capable of discerning truth than anyone else.
In a religious environment where denominationalism is the default position for almost everyone, many have given up on using the phrase to describe anything other than another denomination.
The Sectarian Understanding
In my opinion, the best definition of sectarianism was given by David Lipscomb in his 1907 article “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker”. (It would be worth your time to read this excellent article here).
A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party does not hold or that will injure the strength and popularity of his party. The partisan takes for granted everything his party holds is right, and everything the other part holds is wrong and to be opposed. Hence the party lines define his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party, unless someone in his party should love truth and oppose an error of his party or defend a truth of the other party.
Sectarians understand that biblically speaking, there is only one church, the church of Christ (Eph. 1.22-23; Eph. 4.4). They know and use all the same scriptures about the “church of Christ” as those who use the phrase biblically (see below). Yet despite sounding like those who use the phrase “church of Christ” biblically, their understanding of the church is actually much more closely aligned with the denominational understanding of the church.
Similar to the denominational understanding, sectarians understand the phrase “Church of Christ” to refer to those churches which wear the name “Church of Christ” and associate with one another as a branch of the American Restoration Movement. But rather than thinking of themselves as one denomination of the universal church, they think that their party, the “Church of Christ”, constitutes the entirety of the body of Christ. In their minds, people in other parties cannot possibly be members of the one true church.
This view is not to be confused with the scriptural view. They do share the scriptural concept of “only one church” which was built by and belongs to Christ. But rather than understanding the boundaries of Christ’s church as “those who have been baptized and are faithful to Christ” (Gal. 3.26-27), they identify the church as “those who are faithful to my party”. In other words, they identify the body of Christ as synonymous with the modern day association of churches which wear the name “Church of Christ.”
This view is common among those who have been fed a steady diet of proof texts about the “one church”, but have not studied enough to grasp a distinction between how the phrase “churches of Christ” is used in scripture (Rom. 16.16) and how denominational titles are used in our culture.
A sectarian understanding is often present when:
- The phrase “Church of Christ” is used as the official name for the church, and as the exclusive phrase used to describe the church
- Party lines and traditions are more important than scripture (or worse, when adherence to written “statements of faith” are made the test of fellowship rather than adherence to Scripture)
- Someone who has obeyed the gospel is forced to submit to “rebaptism” if they did not learn the gospel directly from a Church of Christ member
- Someone refuses to question any traditions, practices, or beliefs of the Church of Christ, even when Scriptural objections are raised
This view is often held by those who recognize the problem of denominationalism, but instead of seeking to destroy denominationalism with unity in Christ, they seek to build up and strengthen their distinct sect.
The Biblical Understanding
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
Jesus built His church. There is one church (cf .Eph. 1.22-23; Eph. 4.4) which belongs to Christ. This one church is the universal body of Christ which is made up of all those who are saved (Heb. 12.22-24).
Congregations of these believers can rightly be described as “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16.16). However, it should be noted that we could just as rightly refer to the church as the church of God, the body, the kingdom, etc. (1 Cor. 10.32; Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.13).
When we use the phrase “church of Christ” in this biblical sense, we are not referring to any sect or denomination you could choose to join. Biblically speaking, only the Lord can add you to His church, and He does this when you are saved (Acts 2.41, 47). There are no saved people outside His one church (Heb. 12.22-24). Regardless of how many sects or denominations that may come and go throughout the years, there is and always will be only “one body” of Christ (Eph. 4.4).
Ultimately, it is the Lord who knows who is “in” and who is “out” of His church (Heb. 12.23; 2 Tim. 2.19). If we have clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism and give our faithful allegiance to Jesus, we can know that we are numbered among His children (Gal. 3.26-27).
There are still many who strive to use the phrase in the same way it was used in Romans 16.16, to simply refer to a congregation of Christians. There are still those who desire use the phrase to call for nondenominational and nonsectarian Christianity.
The Importance of Speaking Clearly
- Please remember that not everyone who uses the phrase “church of Christ” to refer to Christ’s one church is a sectarian.
When you hear things like “Christ only established one church, and if you aren’t a part of that church you can’t go to heaven” this is not necessarily sectarianism. It could be, but it depends on what body they have in mind when they speak of the one church. They might simply be upholding a sect, but they could simply be trying to encourage someone to become a Christian. If you aren’t sure what they mean, ask them. Give them a chance to explain themselves more clearly before drawing your conclusion.
- If you are going to use the phrase “church of Christ” in the biblical sense, make sure you are using the phrase properly.
“Church of Christ” is not the official name of the church. It is not the exclusive (or even the primary) description of the church. When we use it as such, we are encouraging an unbiblical understanding of the church. I am not “Church of Christ”. And I am certainly not a “CofC’er”. I am a Christian.
- If you are committed to using the phrase “Church of Christ” as a sectarian or denominational title, please don’t give that sect or denomination your loyalty.
It drives me crazy whenever I hear someone refer to the “Church of Christ” as simply “our heritage” or “our tribe” or “our little corner of the kingdom”, and then proceed to express how much they love the Churches of Christ and want to see them succeed. If what we have in mind is a sect or a denomination, why would we give it one ounce of our loyalty? Let the Church of Christ denomination die! Let the Church of Christ sect die! But let Christ’s church live eternally! Let’s give our loyalty to Christ, not to any denomination or sect.
- If you are going to use the phrase “church of Christ”, please take extra care to make sure your listeners know what you are talking about.
When terms are understood differently by different people it only breeds confusion. If you are going to use the phrase in a denominational or sectarian sense, please make sure others know that you are not using it to refer to the one body of Christ. If you are going to use the phrase to refer to the one universal body of Christ, please make sure others understand that you are not referring to a sect or a denomination.
Our aim is to simply be Christians. We want to be faithful, loyal, disciples of Christ. We want to give our allegiance to Him as part of His one church, without encouraging denominationalism or sectarianism. Let’s not use the name of Christ in vain by misusing His name.
Let’s be careful how we talk about the “church of Christ.”