What Makes a Church Not a Church of Christ?

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Hank asked the question in the comments on my last post “what makes a church not a church of Christ”. This post won’t answer that completely but will begin a conversation in that direction.

First, a clarification…when I am talking about Church of Christ I am talking about it in a biblical sense and not exclusively of the group that I am a part of known as “Churches of Christ” in the Restoration Movement. Church of Christ is a fancy way of saying Christ’s church just as the wife of Matt would be Matt’s wife. So the universal, biblical church of Christ is the church that belongs to Christ and includes all of who God/Christ include in their church. God knows who his people are. We have tried to make it our business to figure that out for ourselves. We won’t always get that right. When we put ourselves in the seat of making judgment calls on who is in and who is out we put ourselves in a position man is not nearly wise enough, powerful enough, holy enough or mature enough to fully understand. Put simply, we are not God.That doesn’t mean we cannot discern what is right and what is wrong. It does mean that our perception of things, the reality of things and understanding of God’s will and the scriptures will never be as accurate as God’s.

The tension…
But there is a tension here. There is a tension because there is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as following Jesus and the Bible actually does teach us a thing or two about what God wants us to do to be his children and how we then are to live as individuals and worship as a church body. Here is the key question – how do we uphold what scripture calls God’s people to do and to be just as Paul did (many of his letters were correctives to the churches that had major problems, as seen in the last post) without overstepping our bounds in making wrong or unmerciful judgments?

First, it starts with humility
and the confession that we don’t have it together ourselves. As right as we may think all of our worship practices are we still sin and are in need of forgiveness. It is important to start with the understanding that we aren’t saved because we are perfect or because we figured out the perfect pattern or hands down best interpretive framework (that people in the 1800 years prior didn’t have and so were just out of luck).

We are saved because God loves imperfect us. Too many people promote a system that gets you in and keeps you in with perfect interpretation (which is you having to line up with their take on everything that is said in scripture and even things scripture never talks about – matters of silence) and perfect practice (which even they don’t do if you compare what they do to the early church in all manners, as they claim we should do). If those who say they only do what scripture teaches really did that they would meet in homes, not take up weekly offerings but instead meet needs by selling of their own possessions and giving freely and taking up offerings for special needs, fire all the staff, select leadership positions by casting lots, take the Lord’s supper as a meal as was clearly the example in the early church, greet with kisses, authorize women to pray in the assembly with covered heads, meet together daily, boldly proclaim the message publicly, be growing exponentially, and so on. But I don’t see anyone doing that who is saying how strictly we must abide by everything the New Testament instructs and by all its examples. Why the inconsistency? You can’t call audibles and make excuses (saying things you don’t do were cultural or that you do thinks scripture is silent on because it is necessary) for yourself and then chastise others when they do the same thing.

Second, it goes back to the Bible
with an eye for three things…what the Bible clearly teaches as necessary (not all examples necessarily insist that we imitate the practice and not all commands are commands for all times – holy kisses and head coverings included), where there is room for grace and freedom and third what the Bible teaches about what to do when other Christians cross over those boundary markers. People have obsessed over the first…making the Bible speak on every conceivable matter through twisting the scriptures. The Bible doesn’t speak on everything, let’s get over it and move on to what it does speak about!

Clear teachings & making excuses – The problem we have faced is that people take the first, what the Bible clearly teaches, and twist scripture to say the Bible clearly teaches on everything even when it doesn’t…that even silence itself is a teaching on the matter that it is silent on…always to the restrictive (except where they have personally made exception that fits their tradition). The Bible is also silent on many things that these same people practice but they have no problem with that because those adjustments/audibles are “necessary”. For instance, they will say the church building is necessary because a house can’t hold 500 people. Well, yes…but if you took your view all the way you would be meeting in homes because it would be a sin not to do what the early church did (by their standard). Guess what, if you met in homes you wouldn’t need a building. Then that would also fix the whole necessary thing that the Lord’s supper has been scaled down from a meal to a tiny representation of its former self because we have to serve 500 people and we can’t do that with a whole meal! Well, yes you can if you took your view the whole way and met in homes. The whole “we do things the Bible is silent on” because it is necessary is a silly argument. They say we can have song books even though scripture is silent on that because song books are necessary to carry out worship together. Song books are not necessary for worship. There isn’t some existential/ontological black hole that is filled in our world by adding a song books that then makes singing possible. In other words, if you didn’t have song books it is still possible for people to sing. But that is the argument people will make. The Bible doesn’t clearly teach on everything. Let’s accept that and move on.

Where there is room for grace and freedom – We are not saved by our own righteousness. We are saved by grace. That means there is room to get things wrong and not be sent to hell because we had the wrong view on things, especially things that aren’t discussed in scripture. God hasn’t chosen to share his view on every single issue, instead he gives us the principles we need in scripture to make some audibles. So let us have the same grace toward others who are calling audibles on the silent and negotiable matters just as God has given us.

What to do when other Christians cross the boundary markers – Sin does not make us un-Christian. It makes us human. Sin does not instantly disqualify us from being God’s child or God’s people and yet for some, the moment anyone or any church has crossed certain lines they are out. Unrepentant, rebellion and wanton sinfulness in the face of Christ-like correction (Matt 18) can certainly warrant the church disfellowshipping people as Paul and Jesus both recommended. But not every mistake in doctrine is on that level and not every sin is to be treated with the last step in Matthew 18 first rather than doing what Jesus said and going to that person and talking with them about it. I can say that with confidence because that is how Paul treated the churches…he didn’t give them all the boot the moment they messed up (see the last post) and neither should we.

It is amazing to me that people will deal with sin of being “unscriptural” in the lives of others in unscriptural ways. Have we not learned anything from the Lord? If a Christian willfully and repeatedly is in sin and has been repeatedly approached and has decided they won’t live in line with the teaching of scripture, there is room to disfellowship people. That is not a quick and easy thing to be eager to do. It is sorrowful, painful and awful…not to be done with glee but there are times when that will be necessary and I am afraid people are trying to do this to others without following the Biblical protocol on this as we find in Matthew 18 and in Paul’s letters.

What Makes a church not a church of Christ?
Christ removes the candlestick, not us. In Revelation 2:5 Jesus warns the church in Ephesus saying, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” At the end of the day this is His call, not ours. We are called to repent when we realize we are wrong. Period. We take that seriously if we take Christ seriously. Churches should take that seriously if we believe we have been out of line in a particular area. We can warn those we feel are in danger of this and try to teach from the scriptures why we think that is…but always with a heart full of love and humility, without double standards and practiced in line with what we are clearly taught in the scriptures regarding how to approach those situations.

5 Responses

  1. Hey Matt,
    This is a little off the topic,but I had a question about what you thought about which Bible would best be used to teach others about the Word of God? Ex.NIV vs KJV? I’ve always believed the KJV was best since the NIV leaves out alot and changes alot of texts.

    1. Any translation can be used to teach the Word of God to people. You can certainly do it from the KJV my only hesitation would be that it can often present unnecessary barriers to communication since the language is out of date in some instances so you may find yourself having to translate the translation 🙂

      I typically use an NIV just because that is what most people will be using and I like to be reading the same words.

      If they already have a Bible I like to work with them out of the one they already have (unless it is something way out there). If they are having a hard time understanding it I would get them a Bible and pick between NASB, NIV or NRSV. Those are all for the most part very good translations. I can help them with the trouble spots in any of those translations so that doesn’t concern me.

  2. Your words are wise, you speak the truth, but you have said how we ought to approach each other: with humility and charity. It is important, and bears repeating; but you have not answered how can we tell “When is a church not a church?”

    If we know the true church is simply a group of Christians, and not any specific man-devised organization or building, we must answer who is a Christian?

    Scripture says, “this is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” and “If God were your Father, ye would love me” and “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved”.

    That is a Christian. Anyone or any “church” who denies this is in serious error.

    What does it mean to believe on and love Jesus?

    Scripture says , “If ye love me, keep my commandments” and “Be ye holy; for I am holy” and “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these”

    That is essence of a Christian. Anyone or any “church” who argues that is in serious error.

    But what does that look like?

    Scripture says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” and “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit”.

    A Christian says “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me”

    That’s what a Christian looks like. Anyone or any “church” who argues this is in serious error.

    What should we do? Who then can be saved? Jesus says “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible”. Remember we serve the King of kings. Even Paul was an enemy of the church, but our Lord and Savior says “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” And the man who was our enemy (or should I say, deceived by the enemy), the man in serious error, became one of the greatest Christians of all according to the Father’s perfect will and timing.

    We do not know the mind of God, or who he will choose, or when he will choose them. We are saved by Christ, not by ourselves. It is why this post is wise. We should be humble and charitable towards our fellow man. We must love all.

    God has painted us a picture of a Christian and the church and placed His Spirit in the elect. You can look at a man or a church and say ,”That picture don’t look right, Jack, I’m not sure about your salvation. The picture should look like this, you’d better be careful” but with our limited minds that is the best we can do.

    1. Wonderful thoughts Roy. The post was the beginning of a conversation more than a definitive answer. Jesus truly knows his sheep. I am going to do at least one more post on this, maybe more but I appreciate you sharing this.

      We get hung up on what it means to “abide in Christ” – what does that include or not include. What if someone isn’t baptized or what if they do this or that…where are the lines and which lines are lines of sin and which lines are the “you aren’t in” or the “now you are out lines”? We have to let scripture dictate that for us instead of us making up lines or misappropriating lines that are in scripture. In other words, there are some lines scripture draws, say in regard to sin, but that line is not the line that says you are no longer a Christian. I constantly find Christians who want to make all lines in scripture salvation issues and any violation of truth a path to hell. I don’t find that in scripture.

  3. I have read many posts and articles on the danger and even sin, of headhunting brethren who actively seek and desire to put other brethren/churches “on blast”, who mark others as unfaithful, as “in error”, and as in need of repentance. I believe that many children of God have struggled with the temptation of searching for and finding fault (real or imagined), in their religious counterparts, since the beginning of religion. When we find fault in others that we don’t see in ourselves, we oftentimes feel better. We take comfort. We have a sense if security. Jesus and his apostles warned against and opposed such temptations. We should do the same, just as you have done (and do) a good job of that, Matt.

    But, I believe I have read an equal amount of writings that take it too far. In their opposition to headhunting brethren (if you will), they often run all the way to the opposite extreme. In opposing those who excitedly look for and mark others, they themselves refuse to spefically charge any others (churches even) of ever believing or practing error to the extent that short of repentance, will be lost. Where some brethren aggressively call out others by name and by deed (or teaching), the other extremists recuse to ever do that. Instead, they speak in such ambiguities and generalities, that you never know whoever it is they have in mind. The only ones they specifically refer to, are the other extremists who actually name names (and churches).

    When pressed, they practically always take every precaution to avoid the judgement of others. For example, one might ask about traditional Catholics (even the Pope himself). Is he a member of the Lords church/body and saved? If not, is he lost? Is the Catholic church a “church of Christ”? And, where the one extremists will shout “no, they are not!” – the other extremists will refuse to answer.

    The same thing would play out with and for countless other religions, churches, topics and teachings.

    To me, the better position (as usual), is in the middle. The problem is, that that middle position seems to necessitate judgements that could be incorrect. Since we do not know everything and are not God. As Matt has pointed out.

    What do you think?

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