Denominationalizing the Work of the Lord

by Jerry F. Bassett
Sentry Magazine, March 2003

To denominate is "to give a name to: designate," according to Miriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. This same source defines a religious denomination as "a religious organization uniting local congregations in a single legal and administrative body -- denominational" being the adjectival form of this term. A local denominational congregation is therefore designated, not by its fellowship with Christ, but by its fellowship with (participation as a part of) a larger organization comprising like groups. Thus, a local Methodist church is identified, not by fellowship with Christ, but by its association with the Methodist Church, a denominational fellowship.

When Christians use the expression Church of Christ could they give the impression they are talking about a denominational church in the way they use this designation? Might they, unwittingly, be revealing their own denominational mindset, their verbal repudiation of denominationalism notwithstanding?

It is vitally important for us to understand that God's people are named for his preeminent Son, Jesus Christ. His name alone is the one in which salvation is found (Acts 4:12). It is his name God has exalted above every other name (Philippians 3:9). It is to this name "every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:10-11).

Regardless, then, of the concept under consideration with reference to our relationship to Christ, its proper identification should be by virtue of fellowship with him. Referring to the individual, "Christian" identifies a disciple, a follower, of Christ (Acts 11:25-26). The church Jesus built (Matthew 16:18) was not an umbrella-like institution comprising smaller groups or congregations, but a "general assembly," "the heavenly Jerusalem" consisting of the "spirits of just men made perfect" in the covenant mediated by Jesus Christ and made possible by His blood (Hebrews 12:22-24). Christians living in any given locale who assemble to fulfill God's work for such a divinely ordained collective are identified, not by membership in the "general assembly and church of the firstborn" (the universal church), but by their sanctification to God in Christ (I Corinthians 1:2). Therefore, these assemblies were simply referred to as churches of Christ (Romans 16:16).

What, then, do Christians mean when they use the expression Church of Christ as an adjectival phrase? What might be indicated concerning their conception of the church of the gospel when this phrase is used for descriptive identification?

When one refers to a man who serves God in preaching the gospel as a Church of Christ preacher, is he not describing this man by his affiliation with a church rather than his commitment to Jesus Christ? A debate opponent, a Christian, kept referring to the two of us as Church of Christ preachers. Finally, I objected. He replied, "Well, I am a member of the Church of Christ and I am a preacher. Therefore, I am a Church of Christ preacher." It was pointed out that he could just as logically say, "I am a member of a Church of Christ and a Christian. Therefore, I am a Church of Christ Christian!" Denominational thinking? Yes!

When one refers to the doctrine affirmed and supported by members of a local church as Church of Christ doctrine, is he not implying that the source and authority for this teaching are rooted in a church organization rather than in God s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ?

When one refers to a local congregation of Christians as a Church of Christ congregation, is he not identifying this group as inhering in a larger church arrangement rather than by the commitment of its members to the Christ? Since a local congregation is referred to in the scriptures as a church ( I Corinthians 1:2), one using the forgoing terminology could just as correctly identify a local congregation as a Church of Christ Church, or a Church of Christ of the Church of Christ, if correct this concept be when measured by the teaching of the Bible.

One may ask, "What is the harm in a little liberty with the Bible's terminology?"

For starters, this little liberty violates I Peter 4: 11, "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God." This alone should get our attention.

To elaborate, words are conveyers of thoughts. Or put differently, the use of faulty terms tends to mirror faulty thinking, and faulty thinking invariably moves one earthward rather than heavenward. For example ...

Have you noticed that a preacher who is identified by affiliation with a church tends to preach what that church expects of him in lieu of what is revealed in the Scriptures? Witness the denominational world, including that consisting of some who preach, not Christ, but for Churches of Christ.

Notice, too, how many who have assumed The Church of Christ (the universal church) consists of a confederation of local churches, however loosely the arrangement is conceived to be, busy themselves with projects to activate it organizationally? Witness the denominational world featuring centralized oversight of local churches. Witness the missionary society/sponsoring church arrangements promoted by brethren from Alexander Campbell to the present time.

And ever evident, always working, is the tendency of those who think of the doctrine they preach as church doctrine to tailor their teaching to meet the expectations, not of Jesus Christ, but of their church, particularly, and society, generally. Witness the denominational world, including that populated by groups calling themselves Churches of Christ being served by Church of Christ preachers.

Surely, through study and meditation in the Scriptures, we can do a better job of speaking "as the oracles of God" (I Peter 4: 11).


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