CHRISTIANS ONLY OR THE ONLY CHRISTIANS

T. PIERCE BROWN

In recent years we have been 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 that “we” is supposed to represent, but in some cases those writing seemed to imply that there is a group in the “Church of Christ” denomination that thinks they are the only Christians, but there are certainly Christians in “other denominations” too! We have heard that kind of charge most of our life from sectarians, and have come to expect it from those who have no concept of New Testament Christianity, but it is 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, theChurchofChristpreacher: “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 is pretty), so if instrumental music is pleasing to God, we are still on the safe side by just singing. So our denomination (her reasoning went) 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 conclude that such a group should not consider themselves the “only Christians.” In fact, one could leave off the “only” and still have a true statement.

Perhaps an illustration or two may make some Biblical truths shine more brightly. Suppose six persons came together and decided, “We should get into the religion business, for there is money and power in it if we handle it properly.” 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. They decide that since a $60,000 pipe organ would be too expensive to start with, they will simply secure some good singers and get along with that. To determine how to initiate a person into membership of the organization, 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 (normally the preacher) 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.” We can go on with various points, but when we get through with all of it, we should be aware that the organization they have thus formed is not thechurchofChristof which we read in the Bible, and those who join such an organization are neither thereby “the only Christians” or “Christians only.”

It is altogether possible, though 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 and was not, therefore, achurchofChrist.

Again, let us imagine ourselves dropping in on some lonely African village where some passing missionary, world traveler 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, been immersed into the name of the Godhead for the remission of their sins (Matthew 28:19, 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 some of 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 most of us “unChristianize” them? I do not know of any knowledgeable preacher in the Lord’s church who claims that it does. If some says, “We think we are the only Christians,” and that means that “we” think some “Church of Christ” preacher had to teach those men “Church of Christ doctrine” (whatever that is) and they had to be baptized by that preacher into the “Church of Christ” church, I never heard of a gospel preacher that so teaches. Would we be justified in meeting and worshiping God with them? I do not know of any gospel preacher who denies that we would. But that does not mean that we would also be justified in leaving them untaught in the areas where they needed to be edified and strengthened.

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, and 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, having 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.

Of course a person does not have to know all of God’s will in order to be 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 (Acts 11:26). But if a person arrogantly resists the authority of Jesus at any one point, we do not need to debate the point as to whether they had ever been Christians. It would not matter, for we could no longer properly have fellowship with them, if they persisted in doing what they did in deliberate disregard of the authority of the Lord. Surely there can be no doubt of the point that there are those whom we recognize and fellowship as brothers in Christ who are really not, and there are those whom we do not know as brothers in Christ who are.

But when the question is raised, “Are there Christians in denominations?” four things are often implied. First, it may be implied that if there are, we should fellowship the denomination. 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 must necessarily have fellowship with him. Third, it may be implied that if there are Christians in a denomination, they somehow got there by the authority of Christ. Fourth, it may be implied that if one could find a straying Christian in some denomination, that makes the denomination acceptable to God. None of these implications are true.

A man I knew was inFrancein World War II, reading his Bible in a foxhole. He saw the beauty of Jesus, and found His commands in Matthew 28:18-20. He read what Peter said in Acts 2:38 and what Paul was told in Acts 22:16. He called his chaplain and asked him 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. If he at that time heard the question, “Do you believe that God for Christ sake has forgiven your sins?” he said, “Yes,” for he felt sure he was forgiven when he obeyed the gospel, and he had done that. Was he a Christian? We think so. Was he a member of a denomination? Yes, but there was no necessary connection between the two. He became the first by surrendering to the authority of Christ. He became the second by disregarding the authority of Christ (though not deliberately). When he began to listen and discovered that what he was hearing was not what he had obeyed, he repented of his ignorant, unauthorized action and ceased having fellowship with them.

By loquacious verbosity or semantic juggling, 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 denominational groups or individuals who are teaching and practicing false doctrines regarding fundamental issues that relate to the salvation of souls. It is not so! Paul 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 far more interested in “marking and avoiding” than in healing wounds and curing division does not change the reality or importance of what Paul says.

A person becomes a Christian by surrendering to the authority of Christ as revealed in the Bible–not surrendering to some hypothetical Christ of modernism. 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. He may not know at that moment how often to take the Lord’s Supper, or even in what religious name he should glorify God. He may make mistakes in moral actions, in ethical relationships, and doctrinal matters and still have our fellowship. But if he persists in those, then the kind of admonition of Titus3:10and Romans16:17applies.

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