“Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him,…‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’” (Matthew 16:16-18).
God’s eternal purpose in Christ is to create a new humanity. In relationship to God humankind is fallen, alienated from God. In its fallenness humankind is divided, experiencing alienation within itself. Hatred, misunderstanding, prejudice, selfishness, racism, nationalism, religion, unbelief, materialism, power, and more stir the fires of hostility within humankind.
By his death on the cross Christ has created a new humanity. Christ tore down the walls of hostility. Scripture describes God’s new humanity created in Christ as the body of Christ, the people of God, the temple of God, God’s holy nation, the church. Within this new humanity people are brought to peace with God as they are brought to peace with one another as one body, one people, a new united and loving humanity, the kingdom of God. Within the darkness of the hostility within the world, the church is to shine the light of Christ as the body of Christ, the people of God, where God’s purpose in Christ is being accomplished. (Cf. Ephesians 1-4, especially chapter 2)
The above is what I understand Scripture to teach. This is the reality in the heart and purpose of God and his Christ. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do accomplish their purpose. History, past and present, however, presents the picture of Christians failing “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Over the centuries people wearing the name of Christ have divided over doctrine, nationalism, racism, and a countless number of misguided reasons to build walls of division. Sadly, often the walls of division and hostility have been forcefully built in the name of Christ.
There have been those movements throughout the history of Christianity the purpose of which, at least the founding purpose, has been to restore unity to the church, to the body of Christ. The modern ecumenical movement has been one such movement. The purpose of this movement has been to seek unity and cooperation between the various denominations and branches of Christianity while maintaining the diversity and distinctiveness of those groups.
The American Restoration Movement, as it is identified by those whose roots go back to this movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, had as its original purpose the uniting of all Christians into one body, one church. The call was made for all Christians to come out from the denominations of Christianity and their diverse creeds, uniting together as one body, one church, with the Scriptures, the New Testament in particular, as the only creed. The early motivation of the Restoration Movement was evangelistic and eschatological. Fueled by the settlement of the “new world” and the American Revolution optimism and hope filled the hearts of men. This optimism and hope gave leaders of the restoration movement a vision of the spread of Christianity over the entire world. The golden age of the millennium seemed on the horizon. To conquer the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, it was believed, was not possible by disciples militantly divided. The unity of all disciples of Christ in one church, one body, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ as the chief corner stone, was believed vital to this purpose. This unity was not to be a unity within the diversity of the many denominations, of the many bodies. Rather the unity called for within Scripture, one body. This movement is the historical heritage of churches of Christ, Independent Christian churches, and the Disciples of Christ.
Here we are, the year of our Lord, two thousand and twelve, and Christianity is still divided into various sects, denominations, and various other groups however identified. Within this reality, I ask, is the church of our Lord, that which Jesus created in his death, by his Spirit, and by his reign as Lord of lords, is the church the sum of all the denominations? As one who is a member and minister within the churches of Christ, I ask, is the church of our Lord solely and completely the churches of Christ? My understanding is that the church is not the sum of all the denominations. Nor is it solely and completely the churches of Christ. I will do my best to briefly explain.
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).
The church, the body of Christ, the people of God, is all who have positively responded to the calling of God through the gospel of Christ. The church is all who responded to the gospel of Christ with faith in Jesus Christ and were baptized, immersed, into Christ. (For my understanding of the teaching of Scripture concerning baptism see these two earlier posts: Just How Important Is Baptism Anyway? and The Unimmersed and Others.)
The question typically asked within churches of Christ of ourselves and of others is this, how do you identify the church, the true church? I believe the basic biblical answer is the church is the saved, Christians, disciples of Christ, all who have come to Christ in faith and were united with Christ in baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26-28). Other vital identifying marks of the true church, of true disciples of Christ, are love like the love of Christ (John 13:34-35) and transformed lives (Ephesians 4:1-6, 20-24).
The generally stated goal of churches of Christ is to be simply Christians, Christians only. This is our goal as a people who have come to Christ in faith and have yielded our lives to Christ as in faith we died with him and were raised with him as we were baptized into Christ. The desire of our forefathers, with which I agree, is not to be another denomination among denominations. Though from one perspective we are.
The churches of Christ is a distinct group with a distinct name (though a name found in Scripture, one name out of many was chosen to distinguish this body of believers). There are distinct practices which distinguish the churches of Christ from other groups. However biblical those distinctive practices may be, they still serve to denominate us. These practices define our identity in comparison to other groups in the Christian world. There is always the danger of being sectarian by drawing a circle around ourselves, around all our distinctive beliefs and practices, claiming to be the only Christians. If you are not in our circle, at worst you are not a Christian, at least you are not a faithful Christian and spiritually at risk. That circle can become smaller and smaller. There are subgroups within churches of Christ who have drawn an increasingly smaller circle.
If you were to ask me if the local church of Christ of which I am a member is the church of Christ, the church as it is depicted in Scripture, my answer is yes. Why? Because we do a whole list of church things (style of worship, organization, name, etc.) correctly, biblically? No. Rather I answer yes because of our identity in Jesus Christ. We are a church, a body of God’s people, who have come to Christ in faith and have yielded our lives to Christ as in faith we died with him and were raised with him to life as we were baptized into Christ. As a local body of Christians, yes, we are the church of Christ, the church of God, the body of Christ, the temple of God, for that is what Christ has made us. As a local body of God’s people our determination and effort is to be Christians only. We want to be identified, known, as God’s people because of our faith in Jesus Christ, our love for one another, and the godly and holy lives we live collectively and individually. As God’s people we want in all things to be obedient to God in Jesus Christ. Note 1 John 3:23-24. “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”