Distinctive Marks of the church of Christ

The church of Christ as the term is being used here is a Restoration-era church. It is not a Reformation-era church, a church that tries to reform the church that went into apostasy beginning late in the first century. Rather our approach to becoming Christians and trying to serve Christ is to bypass the writings of men and go all the way back to the scriptures, Old Testament and New, that shaped and made the church for whom Jesus died. That is why the writings of members of the church of Christ have so many references to scripture and so few references to things that men have written. No other writings are on the same plane with the Bible. No other book tells us where we came from, where we are, and where we are going.

The church of Christ in the continental United States today has about 1,900,000 people who claim membership and about 1.5 million who are "adherents"--who stick to regular worship attendance and communion. There are about 11,500 congregations of churches of Christ in the U. S., more of them in the South than in the North. The average church size has 98 members in regular attendance. Each congregation is administratively an entity unto itself--there is no central earthly headquarters and no person who makes administrative decisions for all churches of Christ. Rather, the individual congregations have a group of elders (more than one) who lead each church, or, lacking that, a group of men who informally lead the congregation.

Jesus did not say in Matthew 16: 18 "and upon this rock I will build many churches." Nor did He say that others were empowered to build churches; rather he claimed in Matthew 28: 18 that "all power in heaven and Earth has been given unto Me." He never told any individual or group that "Whatever you decide about starting your own church will be fine with me; I'll sign off on it later." Rather in His hour of trial in the garden of Gethsemane, He prayed that "they might all be one" (John 17: 11, 21, 23), not that they were already one, or that no matter what they believed and practiced, they would somehow still be one. I Corinthians 1: 10-16 further points out that division of belief and name is wrong. Ephesians 4: 4-6 declares "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were 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. " If that was an inclusive statement--a statement that all denominations were covered under some kind of ecumenical umbrella--why did Paul preface that statement (v. 3) with "giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?" There would have been no need for diligence if any and every good-faith attempt to have a church was going to be approved in the Judgement.

The prophecy of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20: 28-30 was already coming to pass before the end of the first century: "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops, to feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.  I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." The church of Christ of the first century was already past the point of being "one big happy family" (see Galatians 1: 6-10;   Philippians 1: 17; 3: 2; 3: 18; 2 Thessalonians 3: 14, 15; 1 Timonthy 1: 3, 4; 4: 1-3; 6: 3-5; 2 Timothy 1: 13; 4: 3, 4; Titus 2: 1; 2 Peter, entire second chapter about false teachers; I John 2: 18-27; 1 John 4: 1-6; 2 Johnn 1: 8-11; Jude 1: 4; Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The church was dear enough to Christ to be described as "the bride of Christ" Ephesians 5: 22-33, having saved her by the sacrifice of his own body. To say that church membership doesn't matter is to blatantly ignore the Ephesians passage that declares how dear the church was to Christ. Think, husbands; would you want your wife to wear some other man's name? Then why should Jesus want His bride, the church, to wear another name?

Names that the first century believers wore include (1) church of Christ (Romans 16: 16 ; (2) church of God (1 Corinthians 1: 2, 1 Thessalonians 2: 14) ;(3) the Way (Acts 9: 2); (4) Christians (Acts 11: 26); elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession (I Peter 2: 9). One test of a "new" idea is "Can we find that idea by name in the Bible?"

Our modern-day task, then, is to identify that church, if it still exists, and once having found it, to continually look after it to make the church more and more like the church of the New Testament. The church does not have its own power to save. Rather, that power comes from the Christ who made the sin payment to redeem her (1 John 2: 2). The claim to being the church of Christ comes out of humiliating ourselves to wear His name--it is not an arrogant claim based upon earthly pride.

Many of the teachings of denominations are the same with the church of Christ, as the term is still being used here. People are saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2: 8-10), a grace not to be trifled with (Romans 6: 1-2; 15). We are also saved by faith (Hebrews 11: 6, but not by faith alone (James 2: 24). We are saved by obeying Jesus' commandments (Luke 6: 46-49), although no one obeys all the commandments perfectly (Romans 3: 23; I John 1: 6-10). We are saved by baptism (I Peter 3: 21), but not by baptism alone. We are saved by repentance (Acts 2: 38; Luke 13: 3; Romans 10: 9, 10) but not repentance alone. We are saved by confessing Jesus' name (Acts 8: 37; Matthew 10: 32, 33; Romans 10: 9, 10), but not by confession only (Matthew 7: 21-23). We are saved by the love of God for mankind (John 3: 16), but our impartial God will love the sinner who is condemned as much as the sinner who is converted and is saved (God is impartial, Acts 10: 34; Romans 2: 11; Ephesians 6: 9). God's plan of salvation and there are no one-variable solutions for getting to Heaven.

Distinctive Plea #1: Back to the Bible. 2 Timothy 3: 16, 17--"Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness:  that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work. " Only the Word of God can furnish this completeness. We are to study that Word so we can function as expert workmen (2 Timothy 2: 15). The Word of God, the Bible, was inspired by the Holy Spirit and should not be interpreted by man in his own little way (2 Peter 1: 20, 21. The Bible was "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) in the first century and cannot be added on to or taken away from (Galatians 1: 8, 9; Revelation 22: 18, 19). Any teaching of man that comes into direct confrontation with the Bible must be struck down. Anything taught by the Bible and omitted by man must be added if we hope to be acceptable to the God who will one day judge us.

Distinctive Plea #2: Be saved God's way.From Acts 2: "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? 38Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 39For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. 40And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. 41Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls."2And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. 46And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved."

The Acts account sets the pattern for conversion. The Bible teaches that there are five steps to becoming a Christian. Those steps are:

Distinctive Plea #3: Have the mission that the first century church had.

We see the three-fold mission of the church in the Acts 2 account. The ultimate mission of the church is evangelism, or the leading of unsaved souls to Christ (verses 37-41), But we also see the three-fold mission of the church. Those missions were evangelism, edification, and benevolence. What is also significant is that all of the church's resources were expended in these three areas. They did not take the Lord's money to entertain themselves. They had fellowship, but that fellowship was a by-product of their evangelism, edification, and benevolence. They had worship, met in the temple (since they didn't own a building) or in peoples' homes (Romans 16: 5).

  • Evangelism. The first day 3000 were saved. Within a short period of time that number rose to about five thousand (Acts 4: 4). The commands for evangelism were not given only to those standing around in that day, anymore than the promises of Heaven were (Matthew 28: 19, 20 and Mark 16: 15.)
  • Edification. Certainly we are to teach each other and build up each other in the faith (Romans 14: 19) and to "equip the saints for every good work" (Ephesians 4: 12).
  • Benevolence. Benevolence was an emphasis in the church of A. D. 33; verses 44 and 45 speak of giving and sharing that was done unselfishly. There does not have to be any immediate prospect of a recipient of our benevolence becoming a member in order for the benevolence to be given. Sharing with neighbors is its own reward.
  • Distinctive Plea #4: Organize the church like the first century church was organized.

    Church leadership and governance. In Acts 2, we see the leadership of the church in the hands of the apostles. In Acts 6, we read of helpers who probably were the first deacons, though they are not called expressly by that title (see also I Timothy 3: 8-13 for a description of the office and its responsibilities). In time, elders would be appointed in congregations to be shepherds of flocks (see also Acts 20: 28; I Timothy 3: 1-7; Titus 1: 5-10; I Peter 5: 1-7). Those elders did not have the authority to amend the word of God (Revelation 22: 18, 19) but were to lead particularly by example and teaching. The deacons of the New Testament served under either apostles (Acts 6) or elders (I Timothy 3; Philippians 1: 2). There was never a board of deacons serving without elders, or one elder serving alone. Elders were elders of only one congregation. There was no source of authority above the elders of the individual church, except for Christ Himself, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). In the Lord's church, there were elders, deacons, evangelists (Ephesians 4: 11), teachers (Ephesians 4: 11), and members (I Corinthians 12: 12, 18). Elder, shepherd, overseer, bishop, and pastor all are translated from the same Greek words episkopos, presbuteros, and poimen. The position of evangelist or preacher is a separate Greek word, evangeloos, and does not refer to a position of oversight (see Ephesians 4: 11). The only instance of "one man rule" in the church is spoken of in 3 John 1: 8-10, negatively. Elders (pastors, shepherds, overseers, bishops) are to share the leadership of the local congregation.

    Distinctive Plea #5: Worship like the first century church worshipped. It is impossible to read the accounts of the institution of the Lord's Supper in Matthew 26: 26-29, Mark 14: 22-25, Luke 22: 14-23, and 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34 without noting the meaning and gravity that Jesus attached to it. The question sometimes arises "How often should we take it?" The most definitive passage about the frequency of taking the Lord's supper is in Acts 20:7. From there we obtain the understanding that the first century church took the Lord's Supper sometime on the first day of the week, Sunday. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate any other interval except each and every Sunday. The congregational giving of the church was set on the first day of the week (I Corinthians 16: 1,2) presumably because Christians would be meeting on that day anyway to partake of the Lord's supper. Singing was the mode of musical worship (1 Corinthians 14: 15; Ephesians 5: 18-20; Colossians 3: 16, 17) and instruments did not become part of church worship for many hundreds of years later, giving rise to the term a cappella (at the chapel, or with voices). Praying was done in these worship services (I Corinthians 14: 15) and so was teaching (Acts 20:7).

    The purpose for worship is to please the Person being worshipped, not to entertain ourselves. The story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 is instructive about how God feels about worship. When He says to worship a certain way, He means it (Exodus 20: 3-6).

    Distinctive Plea #6: Love like Christ loved. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal, " said Paul in the great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13. The love spoken of there is agape love, the highest form of love. This is love that speaks the truth in love (Ephesians 4: 15). It is a love that takes the story of Jesus to people who have not heard that story.

    Orientation towards the future. The church consisted of people who were in the world but not of the world. They looked forward to the Christ who was coming again soon. They tried not to get too involved in the affairs of this world since the world consisted of things that would ultimately be burned up in the day of the return of the Christ anyway (II Peter 3: 8-14). The church of Christ today has a simple, restoration plea--Let's get back to the church of the first century. Ignore the errors and apostasy that came into the church beginning shortly after the last apostle died--those errors cannot be reformed. Rather let's set aside all of the teachings of men and get our answers and our authority from the inspired scriptures.


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