From time to time, we are asked for clarification concerning the identity of the church of Christ. “What do churches of Christ stand for?” “What do they believe?” “Who are these people—the churches of Christ?”
One must take Bible in hand to answer these questions. In Matthew 3:2, John the baptizer declared that the kingdom of heaven was near. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus Himself announced to His disciples that He would build His church and give to them the keys of the kingdom. In Mark 9:1, Jesus further stated that some were standing in His presence who would not taste of death before they would see the kingdom of God come with power. In John 3:5, Jesus explained to Nicodemus that in order for him to enter into the kingdom of God, he would have to be “born again”—which consisted of being “born of water and the Spirit.” After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, He instructed the apostles to go into all of the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who would believe and be baptized would be saved (Mark 16:16).
These passages set the stage for the momentous events of Acts chapter 2. In that key passage, Jesus followed through with His promises. The Gospel was preached, some 3,000 hearers believed and were baptized, and the church of Christ was brought into existence. The year was A.D. 30. The place was the city of Jerusalem. In direct fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies—including Isaiah 2, Daniel 2, Joel 2, and Micah 4—Jesus established His church.
Churches of Christ today are reproductions of the church of Christ that is described in the New Testament, beginning in Acts 2. Several characteristics are discernible from the Bible that aid in seeing what it takes to be a church of Christ.
In the first place, consider what people in the first century did to become a member of the church of Christ. In Acts 2, after listening to the preaching of the Gospel, the people asked the apostles what they needed to do. Peter responded: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:38). This was in fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
The same procedure is depicted over and over again in Acts. Acts 8:12-13 records that “when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized.” In the same chapter, Philip preached Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch. When the eunuch saw water, he insisted upon being baptized. Philip said he could if he believed.
In Acts 10, Cornelius heard the message, believed, and was baptized. In Acts 16, Lydia listened to the message, believed, and was baptized. In the same chapter, the Philippian jailer heard the word of the Lord and was immediately baptized the same hour of the night. In Acts 18:8, many of the Corinthians heard the word, believed, and were baptized. In Acts 19:4-5, some of the citizens of Ephesus listened to Paul’s preaching, believed, and were baptized. Paul, himself, in Acts chapters 9 and 22, heard the word and was baptized to have his sins washed away.
The rest of the New Testament confirms this procedure for becoming a Christian. Paul reminded Roman Christians that on the day they were baptized, they were baptized into Christ, into His death, and were made free from sin to live a new life (Romans 6:1-7). He told the Corinthians that on the day they were baptized, they were baptized into the one body, which is the church of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). He told the Galatians that when they were baptized, they were baptized into Christ, and thus put on Christ, i.e., were clothed with Him (Galatians 3:27). Peter added his support to this same understanding by declaring that one is saved at the moment of baptism, for it is at that point that the benefits of the resurrection of Christ are applied to the believer (1 Peter 3:21).
Notice from these Scriptures that in the first century, a person became a Christian in the same way and at the same moment that he became a member of the church of Christ. First-century people heard the message of salvation and God’s will for their life. They then believed (had faith in) God and Christ (and the teaching about Them), repented of their sins, confessed the name of Christ with their mouths, and then were baptized (or immersed) in water for the remission of sins (cf. Romans 10:9-10; Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 10:22). Who are the churches of Christ? They are those churches that practice that same New Testament plan of salvation.
Second, consider how churches of Christ were organized or structured in the New Testament. Each local congregation was independent and autonomous. There was no hierarchy or denominational headquarters. Each local church was directly under the headship of Christ (Colossians 1:18). Churches of Christ had no synods, councils, or conventions that established policy or provided governing guidelines. Every single local congregation was self-governing and completely autonomous.
Within each of these churches, the New Testament teaches that men who meet the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are to be appointed by the church members to be elders. Other names for this function in the New Testament are bishops, pastors, shepherds, and overseers (Titus 1:5,7; Acts 20:17,28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). The New Testament teaches that when a church has qualified men, two or more are to be appointed to serve. Churches in the New Testament always had a plurality of elders over a single congregation (Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). These men are to function as the overseeing authorities in the local church. They shepherd and watch over the members under their charge (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The name “pastor” did not refer to a preacher in the New Testament, but to an elder.
New Testament churches also had deacons appointed who were to meet specific God-given qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Deacons were assigned responsibilities and tasks that involved serving the needs of the congregation (Acts 6:1-6; Philippians 1:1).
In addition to elders and deacons, churches of Christ in the first century had teachers, preachers, and evangelists (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5; James 3:1). These men taught and preached Christian doctrine to non-Christian and Christian alike. Female Bible teachers taught women and children (Titus 2:4). All of the members participated together in the work and worship of the church in an effort to glorify God in their lives.
Many improvisations have evolved since the first century as regards church government and organization. But, in summary, the simple structure of Christ’s church according to the New Testament consisted of elders who shepherded the flock, deacons who ministered to the congregation, preachers and evangelists who proclaimed the Gospel, and all other members of the local congregation who worked and worshipped under the oversight of the elders. Who are the churches of Christ? They are those churches that follow this simple New Testament format.
Third, how is the church of Christ to be designated? What are the scriptural names by which God’s people are to be known? The New Testament clearly states that the group of saved people was called the “church of Christ” (Romans 16:16). Remember, Jesus Himself stated that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18). The church, therefore, belongs to Christ, Who is the Head of the body (Ephesians 1:22-23). Sometimes His church was referred to merely as “the church” (e.g., Acts 8:1). “Church” simply means “called out,” and refers to the fact that Christians have been called out of the world and into Christ’s kingdom.
Sometimes, Christ’s church was referred to as “the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19), “the kingdom of God” (Mark 9:1; John 3:5), “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), or “the kingdom of His dear Son” (Colossians 1:13). We also find the “church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2) and the “church of the living God” (1 Timothy 3:15)—no doubt references to Jesus’ deity as owner. We also find the “body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). Several other names are found in the New Testament for Christ’s church. But observe that most of the names that men have given to their denominational organization are not found in the New Testament. Churches of Christ are those who seek to be scriptural in name.
The same applies to the designations for individual members. The number one name by which church members are to be known is the name “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16; Isaiah 62:1-2). This is the name which indicates that one belongs to Christ. Other names included “disciples” [which means “learners”] (Acts 20:7), “saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “brothers” (1 Corinthians 15:1), “sons of God” (Romans 8:14), “children of God” (1 John 3:1), “priests” (1 Peter 2:9)—and several other names. These are scriptural names.
But what about the many religious titles and designations used today? The denominational concept of a clergy is foreign to the New Testament. Preachers in the New Testament were merely Christians who prepared themselves to teach others. They were not set apart as a special class of religious people. They did not receive special titles like “reverend” or “pastor” or “father” (Matthew 23:9). Such designations are manmade and serve only to cultivate the praise of men, when, in fact, all praise belongs to God (Luke 4:8).
So who are the churches of Christ? They are those churches that wear the name of Christ—individually and collectively. As the apostle Peter stated, “neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “If any man suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name” (1 Peter 4:16).
A fourth identifying mark of the church of Christ in the New Testament is seen in the absence of denominational trappings. For example, churches of Christ had no official creeds, church manuals, or confessions of faith to which members had to subscribe. The only authoritative document for governing belief and practice was the Bible. The Bible presents itself as the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God—the only reliable guide to get humans from this life to heaven. Who are the churches of Christ? They are those churches that rely solely on the Bible for direction.
A fifth and final facet of the church of Christ in the New Testament is her worship practice. Churches of Christ have reproduced simple New Testament worship in their services—nothing more and nothing less. When one examines the New Testament, one finds that first-century churches engaged in five worship activities on Sunday. First, they met together for the important purpose of partaking of the Lord’s Supper, which consisted of bread and grape juice as symbols of the body and blood of Christ offered on the cross (Matthew 26:26-29; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 10:16-21; 11:20-34). Christians observed the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and only on Sunday. Second, the early church engaged in prayer together (Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 2:1-8). Third, Christians sang religious songs together (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). Their congregational singing was unaccompanied by musical instruments. Fourth, they participated in Bible study, either by public reading of the Scriptures or as taught by a preacher or teacher (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-4; Titus 2:15). Finally, Christians contributed their money on the first day of the week as a treasury from which the Lord’s work could be carried out (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
New Testament worship is extremely simple and unpretentious—free from the hype and glitter that bored humans frequently fabricate. Who are the churches of Christ? They are those churches that have restored simple New Testament worship in their congregations. They meet together every first day of the week and commune together around the Lord’s Table; they sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together; they contribute a percentage of their income to carry on the work of the church; they pray together; and they study the Word of God together.
Members of churches of Christ are certainly not perfect. Just as in the first century, churches of Christ are composed of imperfect people. But the superstructure of the New Testament church has been set in place. It therefore is possible for anyone to be simply a Christian—a member of the church we find described in the New Testament—the church of Christ.
That’s not to say that all groups who bear the name “church of Christ” are following the New Testament portrait of the church. A church may have a scriptural name without engaging in scriptural worship. Some churches of Christ are in the process of going off into apostasy as they restructure the church and make unscriptural changes. We cannot endorse such churches, merely because they continue to wear the name “church of Christ.”
You can be a member of the New Testament church. You do not have to settle for a manmade denomination. We urge you to study what the New Testament says about the church of Christ.