Dan Chambers says that we live in a “three dimensional Christian world” – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.[i] He says, “For those who profess to be Christians, the world asks, ‘Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox?’ And if the answer is ‘Protestant,’ the next question is ‘Which denomination?’” The church of Jesus Christ in the New Testament was none of these. It predated each of these dimensions. Then brother Chambers make this signal admission: “Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not easy to be undenominational in a denominational world. Even plenty of folk in churches of Christ just can’t seem to break out of a denominational mindset; they still believe they’re members of a denomination called ‘The Church of Christ.’”[ii]
I wish I could say that a denominational mindset is never reflected in our terminology, but it often is. This article will attempt to address a concern that has been present among brethren for generations. What I say here will by no means put it to rest. This article will reflect the views I espoused in preaching and in writing on this subject over 30 years ago. I hold the same views today. Also, I have collected many articles on the subject over the last three decades, and will quote from some of them here.
The reality is that the church of the New Testament, the one which Jesus Christ established and purchased with his own blood (Matt. 16:18; Acts 20:28), does not have a patented, exclusive or official name. If it did, we would gladly claim it and make no apologies for it. It is not difficult to spot when the Lord’s church is being addressed in a denominational sense. Some will talk about being brought up “Church of Christ,” or speak of being a member of the “Church of Christ” church! They will speak of “Church of Christ preachers,” “Church of Christ colleges, or universities,” or a “congregation of the Church of Christ.”
I am a follower of Christ; a Christian. As such, I belong to the universal body of Christ (Acts 2:41, 47). I hold membership in no religious organization larger than a local autonomous congregation. If others feel I belong to a sect, I can probably do very little to alter their thinking (Acts 24:14).
What do I mean by the nameless church? I mean that the called out body of Christ has not been given a proper name by the inspired writers of the New Testament. For example, when you were born, your parents gave you a proper name. The church is different. Those who think otherwise will usually cite, “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16). How does one find a patented, exclusive or official name in that statement from Paul? He was simply conveying to the church at Rome greetings from sister congregations. Also, I mean that denominational nomenclatures have no basis in the New Testament. The church, however, was known by various designations.
Designations of Function:
The word, “church” refers to the function of assembly (Matt. 16:18). The Greek word, ekklesia designates an assembly, or a group meeting of any kind. In the New Testament it denotes a civic town hall meeting (Acts 19:32), or a congregation (1 Cor. 1:2), as in “the church of the Thessalonians” (2 Thes. 1:1). Religiously it denotes an assembly of people who have been called out of the world by the gospel (2 Thes. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9). The word “church” denotes the religious, or spiritual function of an assembly (Matt. 16:18). It identifies a church in a local sense (1 Cor. 1:2), in a regional sense (1 Cor. 16:1), or in a universal sense (Eph. 5:23). W. L. Totty wrote, “Church is the name, and the phrase of Christ modifies the noun by telling to whom it belongs. It is not a part of the name, but is in the possessive case, stating to whom the church belongs.”[iii]
The expression, “body of Christ” stresses the unity of the church (Rom. 12:5). The church is the spiritual body of Christ on earth. Christ is the very essence of the Christian’s life (Gal. 2:20).
The word, “kingdom” speaks of the government of God on earth (Matt. 16:19). Christ is King and is now reigning over his Kingdom – the church (Col. 1:13; 1 Tim. 6:15; Heb. 12:2). The church is that body of believers who have submitted to the rule of God on earth.
Designations of Ownership:
Congregations were called “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). The church is Christ’s because he purchased it with his blood, and consequently, he owns it (Acts 20:28). The name “Church of Christ” appears on the sign, or on the church building, and for purposes of identification that is the preferred procedure, but the name does not tell the whole story of a congregation. If you visit a congregation with “Church of Christ” on their sign, or their website, you could possibly be in for a shock. You could possibly find yourself in a fellowship of people who have all but totally abandoned any effort to restore New Testament Christianity, and it is reflected in their worship practices. Hugh Fulford wrote, “As a legal, corporate entity, it is appropriate for a church of Christ to designate itself with a formal name (The Westside Church of Christ, etc.). But from a biblical perspective, the church has no formal, exclusive name.”[iv]
In the earlier days of the Restoration Movement in America congregations were identified as Christian churches or churches of Christ. Hugh Fulford tells of the time that M. C. Kurfees preached for the Haldeman Avenue congregation near Louisville, Kentucky, and the sign on the street in front of the church building simply read: “Haldeman Avenue Church.”[v] And it was that way until brother Fulford began his first full-time ministry there in 1958.
In this same vein, brother Fulford issues some much needed correction that, properly understood, will help us be far less Ashdodic in our language. He writes, “When one comes to have the Biblical concept of the body (church) of Christ and its structure, he will understand the following:”[vi]
- There are no “Church of Christ” missionaries. There are only independent, autonomous congregations sending out ministers of the gospel to establish and build up congregations after the New Testament order.
- There are no “Church of Christ” schools. There are individual Christians who create boards to coordinate the work of schools, colleges or universities in which the Bible is taught, as part of a liberal arts education, or, congregations which operate preacher training schools, which are overseen by their respective elderships.
- There are no “Church of Christ” publishing companies. There are Christian business people who form a business which may be engaged in publishing books, journals and study materials, or selling other such materials for individual or congregational use.
- There are no “Church of Christ” entities or institutions of any kind, such as benevolent institutions, children’s homes, or, retirement homes. Brother Fulford says, “rather, there are individual Christians or congregations creating a means by which the physical needs of others may be supplied.”[vii]
The church is called “the church of God” (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thes. 2:14). We should not be surprised to find both designations being applied to congregations, since the Father and the Son are one (Jn. 10:30). God the Father planned the church (Matt. 25:34), while God the Son purchased it (Acts 20:28).
Designations of Relationship:
In terms of love the church is a family (Col. 1:3-4; 1 Thes. 4:9-10; 1 Pet. 1:22). As Christians we are family in God’s household (Eph. 3:14-15). We are children of God (Gal. 3:26) & brethren in Christ (Heb. 2:12).
In terms of following Jesus Christ we are disciples (Acts 9:1, 26; 11:26). The word “disciple” suggests a continual relationship between the Lord and us. We are always learning from Christ in his word.
In terms of worship the church is called “the temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16).
Why should it make any difference what the church is called? Scripturally, there are any number of proper designations, such as, “the church” (Acts 2:47), “the church of God” (1 Tim. 3:5), “church of the first born” (Heb. 12:23), “the house of God” (1 Tim. 3:15), or, “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). No one should think the Lord’s church deprived because the Lord chose to leave it nameless. As Christians we wear the name of our owner.
[i] Dan Chambers, Churches in the Shape of Scripture (Franklin, TN: FaithWorks Press, 2012), 198-199.
[ii] Ibid, 200.
[iii] The Informer, Vol. 63, No. 46. September 19, 2010.
[iv] The Christian Chronicle, January 2007, pg. 31.
[v] Hugh Fulford, The Kind of Preaching Needed Today (Henderson, TN: Hester Publications, 2006), 53.
[vi] Ibid, 58.
[vii] Ibid, 59.
by Dennis Gulledge