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Will the True Church of Christ Please Stand Up?

‘The church of Christ is neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish. We are unique and different for we are endeavoring to go all the way back to the original New Testament church. Using the New Testament as our blueprint we have re-established in the twentieth century Christ’s church. It fits no modern label. It is not just another denomination. We believe in the restoration of New Testament Christianity, speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent. We believe in calling Bible things by Bible names and insist on having a ‘Thus saith the Lord’ for all we do. Being neither Catholics, Protestants, nor Jews, we aspire to be Christians only.”

These are the concluding words from a tract titled Neither Protestant, Catholic, nor Jew composed by Batsell Barrett Baxter and Carroll Ellis. It is probably the most widely circulated tract of all time for a denomination that calls itself “the church of Christ.” It is a good representation of my personal beliefs as a Church of Christ preacher prior to being received into the Catholic Church 17 years ago.

Historical background

The Church of Christ is a denomination that sprang out of what some historians refer to as the American Restoration Movement or the Stone-Campbell Movement (named for its two most prominent historical figures, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell). Launched in the early nineteenth century, the movement was conceived as a means of transcending denominational divisions and uniting all believers in Christ on what they referred to as “universally accepted essentials of the faith.”

Because of the difficulty in establishing the precise content of the “universally accepted essentials,” the movement soon became a divisive one, eventually splitting into three separate denominations: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the independent Christian Churches and the Church of Christ. The Disciples of Christ emphasize the movement’s early theme of Christian unity (downplaying doctrinal issues), whereas the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ tend to emphasize the theme of “restoration.”

The primary difference between the Christian Churches and the Church of Christ is their respective positions on the use of musical instruments in worship, the Church of Christ generally being non-instrumental. Today, with a combined membership of over 4 million, the spiritual heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement make up one the largest Christian bodies native to the United States. This article will focus on my former denomination, the Church of Christ.

Distinctive beliefs

The Church of Christ is known for its insistence that it is not a denomination. Its members claim to be simply the church that one reads about in the Bible. Furthermore, in order to add credence to its claim, many of its congregations use a lowercase “c” on the word church to emphasize their belief that it is a biblically based description rather than a denominational name. Such semantics have resulted in the creation of an institutional identity based upon the denial of institutional identity.

Like most non-Catholics in America, Church of Christ members claim the Bible as their only authority. But they go a step further than most and view the Bible as a detailed blueprint for all matters pertaining to the faith. This posture is given expression in statements that frequently appear in their literature. As noted above, they claim to “call Bible things by Bible names” and to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.”

For this reason, Church of Christ members are particular regarding terminology. In fact, in the early days of the Stone-Campbell Movement the word Trinity was avoided because it was not found in the Bible. In his search for Christian unity, Campbell latched on to the idea that it was attainable through what he called the “restoration of the ancient order.” He thought that the solution to sectarian strife could be found in leaping backward to the first-century church. He believed that was possible through meticulous Bible study aimed at uncovering the “New Testament Pattern.” True to its roots, the Church of Christ today retains the primitivist emphasis on “restoration” and the “New Testament Pattern.”

The Church of Christ is characterized by strict congregational autonomy and simplicity of worship. Two of the trademarks of the Church of Christ are its weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and its rejection of instrumental music in worship—only a cappella singing is used.

Doctrinally, Church of Christ members have more in common with Catholics than with most Protestants. They believe Jesus established a visible, identifiable, institutional church. They believe that justification is not by “faith alone,” that baptism is necessary for salvation, and that salvation can be forfeited through personal apostasy. But their restrictive view of baptism has resulted in a good bit of animosity between the Church of Christ and the mainstream Protestant denominations.

Church of Christ members believe that baptism is accomplished only through the total immersion of a penitent believer expressly for the forgiveness of sins. Since many Protestants don’t baptize by immersion, and those who do almost never link it to the forgiveness of sins, Church of Christ members do not recognize the validity of most Protestant baptisms.

Catholic baptism does not fare any better in the eyes of Church of Christ members, because the mode is usually not total submersion and it is conferred on infants. For this reason, Church of Christ members today are reluctant to refer to those outside their circle as “Christians.” Ironically, in the early days of their movement one of their many slogans was “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

Restoring the ancient order

As noted, the Church of Christ has its origins in the nineteenth-century Stone-Campbell Movement. That movement—with its emphasis on unity through “restoration”—is a primitivist movement. It was an attempt to restore primitive Christianity (or, rather, a particular perception of primitive Christianity).

While Church of Christ members emphasize the theme of “restoration,” they are not the only restorationists that have ever appeared on the religious landscape. The Puritans were an expression of restorationism, as were many Baptist denominations in their early days. Our modern day has seen a proliferation of sects espousing variations on restorationism.

Characteristic to all is an ecclesiology that depicts the Church as having departed from its pristine purity of doctrine and practice through centuries of mutations and corruption. All of them purport to bypass these corrupting influences by means of the “Bible alone” and thereby restore the Church to accord with God’s intent. They rely upon notions of “apostasy” and “restoration” to justify their existence as denominations apart from other denominations and, most assuredly, apart from the Catholic Church.

Starting with a supposedly “Bible only” approach to authority, the primitivist forms within his mind a picture of what he thinks the Church of Christ ought to look like in terms of teachings, sacraments, ordinances, and organization. Then, upon surveying his contemporary religious landscape and failing to find any religious body that conforms to his mental image of the Church, the primitivist concludes that mass apostasy has occurred and that the Church needs to be “restored.”

This primitivist impulse was so strong in the early years of the Stone-Campbell Movement that Alexander Campbell and his co-workers claimed that they had restored the “primitive gospel” that had not been proclaimed since apostolic times. This impulse resonates in many Church of Christ members today. The problem is that the Bible itself does not allow for such a view of the Church. While there are numerous warnings about the dangers of false teachers and the possibility of personal apostasy, nothing in Scripture even comes close to suggesting that the entire Church would fall away for more than a millennium.

In Scripture we see the Church held forth as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the instrument by which God has chosen to make known his wisdom and in which he will be glorified “to all generations” (Eph. 3:21). These divinely revealed truths exclude notions of the Church going into general apostasy.

Nonetheless, Church of Christ members—and other primitivists—continue to promote their particular ideas about “restoring” the Church according to their mental image of it. Does it ever occur to them that their own mental image of the Church is flawed and in need of reform? After all, it is undeniable that the Catholic Church has an unbroken history stretching back to Christ and the apostles. Also undeniable is the fact that the only place that a modern-day Stone-Campbell Church of Christ (or any Protestant church) can be found prior to the sixteenth century is in the imaginations of those who read their particular churches into Scripture.

The writings of the first-, second-, and third-century Christians reveal a Church that was distinctly Catholic in faith and practice. They believed in baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the communion of saints, and purgatory. These serve to underscore that the Church did not mutate over the centuries into what is now the Catholic Church. In fact, if the “great apostasy” notion were true, the Church, far from experiencing an imperceptible corruption, would have had to have undergone a cataclysmic revolution at a time when the ink on the last New Testament epistle had barely had time to dry.

No creed but the Bible

From the start, members of the Church of Christ claimed the “Bible alone” as their guide. They lambaste creeds as human constructs that shackle individuals to the opinions of men. In so doing they raise the question as to whether creeds per se contradict the teachings of Scripture. Historically, creeds have been designed to express and preserve the authentic teachings of Scripture. They identify and pass on what the Stone-Campbell Movement sought but could not agree upon: the universal essentials of the faith. Moreover, creedal formulations are not unique to the Catholic Church or, for that matter, even to Christianity. All religious communities and coherent cultures have them, written or unwritten.

While not having a statement of faith that they would call a creed, congregations of the Church of Christ that are “in fellowship” with each other do have a shared understanding of what they consider to be the true faith. That shared understanding is preserved and passed on in their Bible study materials, their institutions of higher learning, their periodicals, and their preaching. While claiming “no creed but the Bible,” they do more than simply distribute Bibles without comment in their evangelistic and teaching efforts.

Like all “Bible only” Christians, they claim that the meaning of Scripture is clear to the honest seeker of average intelligence. They deny the need for creeds, sacred Tradition, or a magisterium. Yet in practice they distribute study materials and send out trained preachers and missionaries to ensure that people receive the understanding of Scripture approved by them (i.e., the understanding that concurs with their traditions).

Their attempt to embrace “no creed but the Bible” has not resulted in unification around “universally recognized essentials” of the faith. There has been constant infighting and division because of their inability to agree regarding the proper interpretation of the Bible. Rather than being set free from human opinions as they assert, they are open to enslavement by any number of opinions. This can be seen in the perpetual fragmentation over a long list of issues that continue to plague the Church of Christ (which is why in the preceding paragraphs I referred to congregations that are “in fellowship” with each other).

The true Church of Christ

The Church of Christ attempts to make a case for Christian unity predicated upon the restoration of primitive Christianity. At first glance, it seems like a reasonable approach. But when starting assumptions are flawed, conclusions will be as well. As we have seen, the starting assumptions upon which the Church of Christ and all primitivist denominations are built are deeply flawed.

Instead of a Church loose and adrift on a sea of conflicting opinions, the Bible presents to us a Church that is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Instead of a Church doomed to become apostate, the Bible presents us with a Church destined by God for eternal glory.

That is the true Church of Christ, and she has been here all along.

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