There are good people in every denomination — and we cherish and respect every one of them. How lovely would it be if all of them were willing to unite as friends in the cause of Christ?
To that end, let’s conduct a brief thought experiment: what was Christianity like during the New Testament era when the Lord first established his church?
Strikingly, as we read the New Testament, we encounter only one church. While there were numerous congregations around the world (Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, etc.), they all professed to belong to the same body of believers. Denominational organizations are conspicuously absent from the New Testament.
So let’s pretend for a moment that denominations don't exist. 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.
If Christians in the New Testament like Paul, Peter, James, John, Aquila, Priscilla, Phoebe, etc. could become disciples of Christ without belonging to any of these sectarian bodies, can’t we do the same?
To put it another way, if denominational membership is necessary to be right with God, then were pre-denominational Christians like Paul, Peter, and James not able to be right with God? And if they could be right with God without denominationalism, why can’t we?
Indeed, millions of people in this nation — and in nations around the world — have become Christians only, belonging exclusively to the church that was built by our Lord (Mt. 16.18), and are neither Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, nor Witnesses.
According to the Scriptures, the church that God built is a distinct organization, and every individual who belongs to that divine institution is likewise called a “saint” — i.e., set apart, distinct (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.2; Phil. 1.1). In an age in which religious pluralism pervades our thinking — in which there appear 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.
So let’s 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 the “head of the church” and “the savior of the body” (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 abiding by humanly-derived designations in religion is explicitly condemned by the Scriptures (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.10-17).
Instead, 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), “kingdom of God's dear Son” (Colossians 1.13), and “church of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12.2).
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 creed, manual, discipline, or articles of faith. The words of the inspired prophets and apostles were sufficiently capable of directing the Christian in matters of “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).
Conversely, 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, therefore, in the form of a binding creed, is necessary or permissible.
Unfortunately, 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 — i.e., there were no earthly headquarters to which each congregation was amenable. They were responsible neither to the papacy in Rome nor to the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City.
Rather, each congregation — ideally consisting of elders, deacons, and saints (Philippians 1.1) — made their pragmatic decisions in matters of faith and practice internally following “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).
Furthermore, the jurisdiction of elders did not extend beyond their home congregation, nor were they permitted to enact practices or teach doctrines the Lord had not already sanctioned (cf. 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 a “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 that 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
Also distinct from denominational services, the worship of the church of Christ in the New Testament consisted of the following activities:
(1) A-capella singing (Colossians 3.16-17) — no mechanical instruments were employed in Christian worship for nearly a millennium after the inception of Christianity; actually, the term a-cappella (i.e., singing without instrumental accompaniment) means, “after the manner of the church” or “in the style of the chapel” (Holmes).
(2) The Communion (Acts 20.7) — which consists of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine, taken every first day of the week.
(3) Praying (Acts 2.42; 16.13, 16).
(4) Teaching (Acts 2.42; 20.7).
(5) Contributions (1 Cor. 16.1-2).
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 before 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 way” (cf. Isa. 53.6).
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.
Holmes, William C. (2007). “A cappella” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 21 September 2008. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/00091