Pretend, for a moment, “Christian” denominations don't exist. In fact, divorce them entirely from your mind.
Now, having done that, let your mind come to this realization: you can be neither Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, nor a “Witness,” and yet still be a Christian. After all, what Christian in the New Testament ever became a member of a denomination? Such institutions were utterly foreign to Christian thinking then, and anyone seeking to become a Christian today need not bother with them.
Conversely, millions of people in this nation, and in nations around the world, have become Christians only, belonging exclusively to the church which was built by our Lord (Mt. 16.18), and are neither Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, nor Witnesses.
According to the Scriptures, the church of God is a distinct organization, and every individual who belongs to that divine institution is likewise called, “saint” — i.e., set apart, distinct (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.2; Phil. 1.1).
Thus, in an age in which religious pluralism pervades our thinking, in which there appears to be as many denominations professing to follow our Lord as there are opinions and preferences to be embraced, it is all the more important for that church to demonstrate its distinctiveness.
In that light, consider the following areas in which the church of Christ, as established in the first-century, was distinct from modern denominational institutions.
A Distinct Description
Churches of Christ in the New Testament consisted of congregations of Christians meeting in various places to worship and serve the Lord according to "the apostles' doctrine" (Acts 2.42). The expression, “churches of Christ,” was descriptive of the fact that they belonged to Christ and were members of his church, and his alone (Romans 16.16; Matthew 16.18).
Too, the New Testament teaches that all saved-individuals are added to that church — never to any other — (Acts 2.47), and that Christ is its “head” and “savior” (Ephesians 5.23).
Individual members of that church were known as “Christians” (Acts 11.26), “children of God” (Galatians 3.26), and “saints” (1 Corinthians 1.1-2). Never did a human name (e.g., Wesley, Calvin, Luther, etc.,) prefix this God-given description and, in fact, abiding by humanly-derived designations in religion is explicitly condemned by the Scriptures (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.10-17).
Rather, that church always and only wore the name of her maker (cf. Psalm 127.1). Thus, she was variously called, “church of God” (1 Corinthians 1.2; Acts 20.28), “churches of Christ” (Romans 16.16), “body of Christ” (Ephesians 1.22, 23), “house of God” (1 Timothy 3.15), and “kingdom of God's dear Son” (Colossians 1.13).
A Distinct Creed
In the New Testament, no Catholic Catechism yet existed; nor Presbyterian Confession of Faith. The church of Christ had no humanly-contrived, centralized creed, manual, discipline, or articles of faith. The words of the inspired prophets and apostles were sufficiently capable of directing the Christian in matters pertaining to “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1.3), and all other uninspired teachers who went beyond the teachings of the prophets and apostles were rejected as specious and heretical (2 John 9-11; 2 Peter 2.1-22). It is no different today.
The Bible is the printed record of the word of God revealed to inspired men (2 Peter 1.21; 1 Corinthians 2.13; 1 Thessalonians 2.13; Matthew 4.4). As such, it makes men completely “furnished unto all good works” (2 Thessalonians 3.16-17). Nothing else, in the form of a binding creed, is necessary or permissible.
In fact, the creeds and catechisms of Protestantism and Catholicism are often barriers to unity rather than bastions for it. If the creed contains anything less than what the Bible teaches, it requires too little. If it contains anything more than what the Bible teaches, it requires too much.
Hence, let the Bible alone be our rule-book (cf. Galatians 6.16), and let us reject denominational creeds and catechisms functioning in that capacity, for no Christian in the New Testament ever needed them to worship and serve our God faithfully. Nor, indeed, were they even permitted (Gal. 1.6-9).
A Distinct Organization
In the New Testament, churches of Christ were self-ruling – that is, there were no earthly headquarters to which each congregation was made amenable. They were neither responsible to the papacy in Rome, nor to the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City.
Rather, each individual congregation, consisting of elders, deacons, and saints (Philippians 1.1), made their pragmatic decisions in matters of faith and practice internally, in accordance with “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2.42) and by the authority of, or “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3.17; Matthew 28.18-20). The jurisdiction of elders did not extend beyond their home congregation, nor were they permitted to enact practices or teach doctrines which the Lord had not already sanctioned (Acts 20.28; Galatians 1.6-9; 1 Corinthians 4.6).
Today, similarly, churches of Christ do not wait upon a central headquarters, uninspired councils, conferences, or synods to dictate their activities or determine their beliefs. Modern ecclesiastical machinery finds no support in the New Testament and rests upon the doctrines and precepts of men, which Christ described as “vain” religion (Matthew 15.1-9; see also Col. 2.20-23).
Instead, the word of the Lord alone guides each congregation in matters of faith and practice. And those activities and methods which expedite or implement the Lord's commands, which he has placed in our purview and wisdom to determine, are decided either by the elders of the flock (cf. 1 Timothy 3.1ff), or by the men of the congregation, when no eldership can be established (cf. 1 Timothy 2.12; 1 Corinthians 14.34; 1 Corinthians 11.3).
A Distinct Worship
In marked contrast to current denominational worship, the worship of the church of Christ in the New Testament was simple and sublime. It consisted of the following activities: a-capella singing (Colossians 3.16-17) [no mechanical instruments were used in Christian worship for nearly a millennium after the inception of Christianity], praying (Acts 2.42; 16.13, 16), teaching (Acts 2.42; 20.7), the Lord's Supper (Acts 20.7) [consisting of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine, taken every first day of the week], and contributions (1 Corinthians 16.1-2) [only members of the congregation were required to give; non-Christians were exempt].
No other worship practices were sanctioned in the New Testament, and those who deviated from God's pattern of worship often bore the brunt of his displeasure (cf. Leviticus 10.1-2; 1 Corinthians 11.27-29; 14.23ff).
A Final Distinctive Plea
In a divided religious world, our distinctive plea is based upon the religious unity for which Christ prayed prior to his betrayal (Jn. 17.20-26), achievable only by submitting to God’s word. We thus entreat all people to abandon all of the “dark ages” of corruption, discarding humanly-instituted names, creeds, and practices, and to forsake all obstacles that divide men, and rather to be Christians-only, and members of the church of our Lord collectively.
Since “it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10.23), and since those who “pervert the gospel of Christ” are, by him, “accursed” (Galatians 1.6), let us choose the restoration of his “old paths” (Jeremiah 6.16), abandoning our own.
The God of the Bible has spoken in a manner comprehensible by everyone who possesses a “good and honest heart” (Lk. 8.15), and anyone who elects to heed the ancient faith shall be blessed in this endeavor (James 1.25).
We request that you, with us, reflect solemnly upon this noble plea.