Maybe you’ve heard something like, “He’s Baptist, she’s Methodist, I’m Church of Christ.” This gives the impression that the church of Christ is just a denominational sect among many others. Or, “John is a Church of Christ preacher, Freed-Hardeman is a Church of Christ university, and weekly communion is a Church of Christ doctrine.” But the expression “Church of Christ” is not an adjective. It would be more proper to speak of gospel preachers, Christian schools, and biblical doctrines. I’m a member of the church of Christ, but I’m not “Church of Christ.” The word “church” applies to a collectivity of believers, not to an individual. The designation “Church of Christ” is not a denominational label. It is not an adjective. It is a descriptive phrase for the church belonging to Christ.
Sometimes the question is asked, “Will only the church of Christ be saved?” This is a valid question and deserves a biblical answer. When people derogatorily say, “The Church of Christ think they’re the only ones going to heaven,” they usually have in mind a denominational sect wearing the name “Church of Christ” who believe their denomination is better than all others. This misguided perspective has led to considerable misunderstanding and prejudice. Here’s a good response: “You know, I’ve heard that rumor too. Would you like to see what the Bible says?”
A Biblical Response to Common Misconceptions
The Bible teaches that salvation is in Christ (2 Tim. 2:10). In fact, salvation is only in Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). How, then, does one get into Christ where salvation is available? There are only two verses in the Bible that specifically state at what point in our response to God we enter Christ, namely Rom. 6:3 and Gal. 3:27. Both of these passages say the same thing: as penitent believers we are “baptized into Christ.”1 Yet elsewhere Paul says, “we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). Which is it? Are we baptized into Christ or into Christ’s body? If I swallow a coin, is the coin in me or in my body? Yes it is. To be in Christ is to be in the body of Christ.
Does this mean that one must be in Christ’s body to be saved? Again Paul writes, “… Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23). Those outside the body of Christ are not and cannot be saved. And what is the emblematic body of Christ? “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:22-23). The body of Christ is the church of Christ.
The church of Christ is not a physical building or denominational sect. All penitent believers who have obeyed the gospel, having been baptized into Christ for the remission of sins, are added by the Lord to the church/the community of the saved (Acts 2:38-47; 1 Cor. 12:13), and by remaining faithful to Christ’s teachings, comprise the church of Christ. It’s not a matter of joining the church of your choice; it’s a matter of obeying the word of God and being the church of Christ’s choice.
Will only the church of Christ be saved? The only biblical answer is affirmative. To give any other answer is to misunderstand what the church of Christ is. Someone might ask, “Do you think your church is the only right one?” This is an easy question to answer, because I don’t have a church. If I did, it wouldn’t be any better or worse than any other man-made religious group. But Jesus Christ does have a church. His church is the only right one. This is the only church I want to be part of.
Attempts to Justify Denominationalism
In an attempt to justify the current state of the religious world, many try to define the church as a universal brotherhood of various (all, some, most?) denominational bodies, all wearing different names and adhering to different doctrines. But this concept is foreign to the Bible. When Jesus employed the imagery of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-18), there was no such thing as a denominational sect. In fact, the Lord’s own church had not been established yet. Jesus is the vine and individual disciples are the branches.
Christ promised to build only one church (Matt. 16:18). By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, there was just “one body” (Eph. 4:4a), just as there is one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God the Father (vv. 4b-6). As much as I’d like to rationalize the current condition of the religious world and affirm that everybody and everything is okay, this can’t be done if the Bible is to be taken seriously (cf. Matt. 7:13-14).
Whose church? Whose name?
To be the church of Christ, the teachings of Christ must be respected and followed. If a group meets in a building with a sign that reads “Church of Christ” but are not abiding by Christ’s teachings, they are not the church of Christ. If a group meets in a building with no sign, or in a schoolroom, or in a living room, or in a cardboard shack, and the teachings of Christ are faithfully obeyed, they are the church of Christ.
The church of the New Testament does not have a single, proper name – just descriptive designations (e.g. Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 11:16; 14:33; etc.). Nevertheless, there was only one church in the New Testament era, so irrespective of which biblical expression was used, there would be no confusion. In modern times, however, the religious environment is very different. There are hundreds of churches claiming allegiance to Christ, wearing different names, worshiping in different ways, and teaching conflicting doctrines. It can be very confusing. Therefore, it is surely expedient to have a designation that helps identify and unify those of like-precious-faith, while distinguishing from those on a different path.
If Christ is the builder of his church (Matt. 16:18), the foundation of his church (1 Cor. 3:11), the purchaser of his church (Acts 20:28), and the head of his church (Col. 1:18), why shouldn’t we wear his name? When we speak of the church of Christ, it ought to be for the purpose of honoring Christ and identifying ourselves with him. Any other usage is unbiblical.
Putting it in Perspective
If the Lord says there is only one true church (Matt. 16:18), am I narrow-minded if I say the same thing? If Jesus promises, “you shall know the truth” (John 8:32), is it arrogant to say that I know the truth? If the name of Christ has been exalted above all other names (Phil. 2:9), am I sectarian if I only want to wear the name of Christ? If God condemns religious division (1 Cor. 1:10), how can I justify denominationalism? If Jesus is the savior of all who obey him (Heb. 5:9), am I legalistic if I emphasize the importance of obedience? If God specifies the kind of worship that is acceptable to him (John 4:24), who am I to prescribe something different? If human innovations in worship are unacceptable to God (Matt. 15:8-9), am I judgmental when I object to human innovations in worship? If we speak where the Bible speaks (1 Pet. 4:11), why are we ridiculed for trying to follow the revealed will of God?
I only want to be a member of the church I read about in the New Testament: nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else. If, for whatever reason, I’m not a member of that church, the greatest service anyone could do for me is to open the Bible and point me in the right direction. At the same time, I sincerely want others to be in heaven. If that means I have to step out of my comfort zone and lovingly confront those who are in error, am I not doing what the Lord expects? “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
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Image credit: Photo taken by Lynne Moore of the sign on the building where the church of Christ in Nazareth meets.