"Is The Church of Christ A Denomination?" - 4
Again we emphasize that you need to read the previous articles in this series if you wish to make sense of this one. Briefly summarized, we defined a “religious denomination” and then showed that the church which Jesus predicted in Matthew 16:18 does not meet that definition. We further showed that the denominational concept of the church originated in a corruption of local church organization which culminated in what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church.
In the last article we demonstrated that this flawed concept was carried over into the Protestant Reformation as well as into the American Restoration Movement of the 19th Century. We pointed out that many of the popular “Restoration” preachers continued to promote the view (learned from their Protestant roots) that “the church” consisted of a group of congregations that needed be tied together somehow. But such “tying together” needed something in addition to the congregations themselves. This view was implemented by the formation of organizations like the American Christian Missionary Society. This was merely a perpetuation of the Catholic/Protestant concept of the church as an organization of congregations; i.e., a denominational body.
Many of the leaders of 20th Century congregations, even to this present hour, have been influenced by the writings of these “Restoration” leaders. While much of that influence may be good, their erroneous denominational concept of the church, traced back to Catholicism, has been readily absorbed. Statements and practices continue to be witnessed that indicate the old denominational concept of “the church” is “alive and well.”
Just a casual reading of a wide variety of books and papers by brethren reveals the commonly-held concept that congregations calling themselves “Churches of Christ” constitute a “religious body.” For example, in 1965 William Banowsky wrote in the preface of his book, The Mirror of a Movement (p. ix): “It deals in depth with the genius of the religious body known as churches of Christ. What are the churches of Christ? Where did they come from? What do they believe? In answering these questions, this book provides a theological and historical interpretation of what is now the largest communion claiming a Restoration heritage and, hence, the largest church body indigenous to America.”
In 1983 there was published a written discussion on the subject of church cooperation and church support of institutions, by brethren Gaston Cogdell and Robert F. Turner. Throughout the book, bro. Cogdell repeatedly used the expression, “congregations of the church.” Notice this typical statement: “The word of Christ creates one church, comprised of many congregations.” – Cogdell-Turner Discussion, p. 38. Such language is endemic in church bulletins and other publications by brethren.
Colleges, benevolent institutions, and inter-congregational combines called Sponsoring Churches have been defended on the basis that “the church” (meaning a group of congregations) must somehow be tied together in these works. I affirm that this has not only provoked division and strife among brethren, but is the end result of thinking of the church in “denominational” terms. It is not our purpose here to discuss the issue of whether a congregation can scripturally support a human institution of any kind. But we do wish to challenge brethren on both sides of that issue to abandon this ancient and erroneous denominational view of the church.
Some brethren have accepted the consequences of their views and are openly declaring that the “Church of Christ” is simply a loosely-organized, indigenous American denomination. While other brethren attack such “liberalism,” even some among the “conservatives” are heard speaking and acting in terms which indicate that they, too, retain this denominational concept. We hear some referring to “the Pro-Institutional Brotherhood” or “the Non-Institutional Brotherhood.” What do they mean by these terms? I do not believe they are talking so much about a Brother-hood as they are a Church-hood. It sounds like they are identifying a group of congregations which are “tied together” by their sympathy or antipathy for support of institutions. You see – this is denominational thinking! Self-appointed groups of preachers (usually utilizing the influence of a religious paper) seem to think of themselves as “watchdogs” for “the church” and pressure supposedly independent congregations to “line-up” under their particular doctrinal umbrella, or be marked “unsound” and unworthy of “fellowship.” I suggest to you again, this could never happen without this pervasive denominational concept of the church.
The point of this series of articles is simply this: The message of non-denominational Christianity – inviting folks to become simply Christians, and thus members of the one true church you read about in the Bible – is a powerful one. But if we wish to convince the world that we are really serious about this, then we must ourselves quit speaking and acting denominationally. I am happy that this congregation is trying to be truly undenominational, autonomous, and independent, making our own decisions without looking over our shoulder for approval from college, paper, larger churches, or simply an informal committee of influential preachers. May it ever be so.