CHRISTIANS IN DENOMINATIONS?
T. PIERCE BROWN
In recent years we have hearing or reading an increasing number of statements to the effect that “we” think “we” are the only Christians, yet Alexander Campbell and most of the great leaders of the Restoration Movement expressly denied that, and taught rather that we should think of ourselves as “Christians only.”
I am not sure who “we” is supposed to represent, but in some cases those writing have seemed to imply that there is a group in the “ChurchofChrist” denomination (whatever that is) that think they are the only Christians, but there are certainly Christians in the “other denominations” too! We have heard that kind of charge most of our live from sectarians, and have come to expect it from those who have no concept of New Testament Christianity, but it always disturbing when those who claim membership in the Lord’s church think and speak of it in denominational terms.
We are saddened, but very sure, that there are those who think of themselves as having joined the “Church of Christ” church, because their opinion is that it is one of the best denominations in many respects — although very narrow minded and arrogant. It was expressed this way to me by a woman who said she had heard the idea from her pastor, the “ChurchofChristpreacher”: “If it is true that sprinkling is satisfactory, then immersion is certainly just as good — and maybe a little safer. Everyone admits that singing is satisfactory (if it sounds pretty), so if instrumental music is pleasing to God, we are still on the safe side by just singing.” So our denomination (the reasoning goes) is just as good as any, and probably safer in some respects, but we certainly should not be so narrow minded as to suggest that we are “the only Christians.” With that kind of viewpoint, I would certainly agree that such a group should not consider themselves “the only Christians.” In fact, to consider themselves Christians at all is very presumptive!
Perhaps an illustration or two may make some Biblical truths shine more brightly. Suppose four or five persons came together and decided: “We should get into the religion business, for there is money and power in it if it is handled just right.” So they sit down to decide on the name and procedures of the organization they plan to form. They think of several names, and come up with one that has a good solid “ring” to it. “Let us call it the `ChurchofChrist’,” they decide. Then they debate about the various practices and methods of organization, and decide that to have a board of older men making the major spiritual decisions, and some younger men make decisions about minor material ones would be appropriate. They decide that since a $60,000 pipe organ would be a little too expensive to start with, they will simply try to secure some good singers, if they can lure them from the Baptist Choir, and get along with that. To determine how to initiate a person into membership, they take a vote and decide that a good, dignified, and beautifully meaningful ceremony would be to immerse the person, properly clad in a white robe, while the officiating dignitary solemnly intones, “I now baptize you into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for the remission of your sins,” as he holds his right hand high in the air in an intercessory or invoking manner. We could go on with various points, but when we get through with all of it, we should be aware that the organization formed is NOT thechurchofChristabout which we read in the Bible, NO MATTER WHAT NAME IT WEARS, WHAT ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE IT HAS, NOR WHAT IT PRACTICES IN ITS RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES. And those who join such an organization are NEITHER thereby “the only Christians” or “Christians only.”
But it is altogether possible, though perhaps highly improbable, that a person might hear the gospel, believe and obey it in connection with something that was being done by that group or some member of it. Such a person would be a Christian, a member of thechurchofChrist(which are not two things, but one). And he might for a while linger in fellowship with that group before he discovered that it did not exist, nor did it operate, by the authority of God.
Again, let us imagine ourselves dropping in on some lonely African village where some passing missionary or soldier had left a copy of the Bible. We find some half-naked natives sitting around a Bongo drum, beating out the message of the gospel to another tribe, and thus worshiping God. We inquire into their beliefs and practices. We discover that they had read or heard the Word, and as a result of the things written had come to a belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31). They had accepted him as Lord and Christ (Acts2:36), and by His authority, or in His name, had been immersed into the name of the Godhead for the remission of their sins (Mt. 28:18-20, Acts2:38). They thus became a part of the body of Christ (1 Cor.12:13) and were added to the church of the Lord (Acts2:47). We ask them, “What do you call yourselves, in a religious sense?” They reply, “We are `Baptists,’ for we have all been baptized into Christ, and are trying to show our love and respect for His commandments. But we are disturbed that our brothers across the valley whom we have taught about the same Lord have decided to call themselves `Methodists,’ for they say they are firmly committed to using ONLY the methods which Christ and His Apostles authorized in religious matters.”
Does their failure to understand some things that seem clear to us “un-Christianize” them? I do not know of any preacher in the Lord’s church who so claims. If someone says, “We think we are the only Christians,” and means that “we” think that some “Church of Christ” preacher had to teach those men, and they had to believe and obey some “church of Christ doctrine” (whatever that is), I do not know of any gospel preacher who so teaches. Would we be justified in meeting and worshiping God with them? I do not know of any preacher in the Lord’s church who denies that we would!
But let us presume that as we met and studied with them, they learned that Acts11:26says, “The disciples were called Christians first inAntioch.” We found in Colossians 3:17 that “Whatsoever we do in word or deed” is to be done by the authority of Christ. We found in 2 Peter 4:16, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in THIS NAME. We can rest assured that if these persons had REALLY accepted Jesus as their Lord and Master, and had ACTUALLY become partakers of the Divine nature, and had been made sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus by being baptized into him, they would begin to glorify God by wearing the name of Christ, and would practice what they DID practice by HIS authority, when they found His will in the matter. If they refused to do that, it would prove that either they had never obeyed the gospel in the first place, or were rebellious children of God, and in either case we could not continue in Christian fellowship with them!
Of course a person does not have to know ALL of God’s will in order to become a Christian! Those persons who obeyed the gospel on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ probably did not know how often they would be taking the Lord’s Supper, and they certainly were not called Christians at that time. But if a person arrogantly resists the authority of Jesus at any one point, we do not need to debate about whether they had EVER BEEN CHRISTIANS or not, in terms of having fellowship with them. Surely there can be no doubt that there are those whom we recognize and fellowship as brothers in Christ who are NOT, and there are those whom we do NOT know as brothers in Christ who ARE. But that does not mean we have the right to have Christian fellowship with ANY person who persists in rejecting the authority of Christ AT ANY POINT.
When the question is raised, “Are there Christians in denominations?” two or three things are often implied. First, it may be implied that if there are, we should fellowship the denomination, or at least the Christian. Second, it may be implied that just because a person may be classified as a “Christian” because he has been born into the family of God, we should have fellowship with him. Third, it may be implied that if there are Christians in a denomination, they somehow got there by the authority, or at least with the consent, of Christ. None of these implications are true.
I knew a man who told me that inFrancein World War II he was reading his Bible in a foxhole. He saw the beauty of Jesus, found His commands in Acts2:38and Acts22:16, and asked his chaplain to baptize him into Christ for the remission of his sins. The chaplain did. He had never attended a “churchofChrist,” but assumed the chaplain was a Christian, though he was a Baptist.
So, when he got discharged, he joined the Baptist church. Was he a Christian? We think so. Was he a member of a denomination? Yes, but there was no necessary connection between the two, and he sinned by being one. He became a Christian by SURRENDERING IN OBEDIENCE to the authority of Christ. He became a Baptist by DISREGARDING (though not necessarily deliberately) the authority of Christ. When he listened and discovered that what he was hearing was not what he had previously obeyed, he repented of his ignorant, unauthorized action and ceased having fellowship with them.
By loquacious verbosity or semantic juggling, or simply blind ignorance, we may make it appear that since there may be Christians in various circumstances in life who may be wearing unauthorized names, because of their ignorance, we are justified in extending fellowship with them or denominational groups which are teaching and practicing false doctrines regarding fundamental issues that relate to the salvation of souls. IT IS NOT SO! Paul plainly said, “Mark them that are causing divisions and occasions of stumbling contrary to the doctrine which we have learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17). The fact that some may be more eager to mark and avoid than in “restoring such a one in a spirit of meekness” (Gal. 6:1-2) still does not negate the importance of doing what Paul said.
So, a person becomes a Christian by surrendering to the authority of Christ as the Bible reveals it must be done — not some denominational way. He must repent as the Bible defines it, not just quit sinning as he sees fit. He must be baptized into Christ AS THE BIBLE DESCRIBES IT, not just as a “church ordinance.” He may not know at that moment how often to take the Lord’s Supper, or many other things. He may make mistakes in moral action, in ethical relationships, and in doctrinal matters, and still have our fellowship. But if he PERSISTS in those, then the kind of admonition of Titus3:10and Romans16:17applies.
The idea that “all of us are wrong about something,” so it is appropriate to fellowship everyone because we are all in the “same boat” is illogical, as well as unscriptural. If a person is wrong in what it takes to be a Christian, it should be evident that we can not fellowship him as a Christian, no matter what he is right in. And even if he is a Christian, but persists in rejecting the authority of Christ at ANY point, “after the first and second admonition” he is to be rejected (Titus3:10). And there is no reason to assume that it would take 10 years to give both admonitions!