The Church Of Christ
It has always been a real church of Christ in this world since Pentecost, and this means: a church believing in faith, repentance, confession and immersion for the remission of sins—a church which worshipped at least the first day of the week, with hymns, prayers, the Lord’s Supper, Bible study and contributions for the saints—a church which worked under the oversight of bishops, deacons, and evangelists—a church—not some isolated seekers, but an organized church, which trusted in the Lord’s promise that "the powers of death will never prevail against it."
Any study of the nature of the successors of our Lord and of their true walk in the light of the understanding of the New Testament is always at the same time a question concerning the nature of the church, the church of Christ itself. The fact that this question is again coming into the forefront of today’s thinking merely shows that all the institutions for salvation which call themselves Christian churches and all the institutions of world philosophy have been shaken by social and ideological revolutions which bring into question their survival or have even fundamentally changed them. The church of the Lord has been spared, it is true, by these revolutions because it has known how to keep itself free from institutional and sectarian defilements, but it is also exposed to the constant attacks from both organized great churches and smaller sects. It shall be the purpose of this modest brochure to answer these attacks.
Let it be emphasized that this brochure is not the "official dogma" of churches of Christ but represents purely and only the personal and individual interpretation of the writer who in the seventeenth year of his life was added in baptism to the Lord’s church by God’s grace. The churches of Christ have no official system of doctrine, for the Bible alone is their standard of faith and practice. Therefore, they have neither central offices nor seminaries for preachers; neither an official catechism nor official songbooks; neither their official journal nor their own authorized literature. And so, this brochure is approved by members of churches of Christ only insofar as it conforms with the teachings of the Holy Spirit.
This brochure is to discuss the concepts of the terms "church" and "sect," so let us come to a clear understanding of the term "church." Here we must realize that interestingly, the word Kirche (organized church) never appears in the original German translation of the New Testament by Martin Luther. The German reformer regularly translates the Greek word ekklesia (the sense of which is the people’s assembly which the herald called together) by the German word Gemeinde (church, congregation). "The word Kirche (organized church) is to us especially un-German, and does not give the sense nor thought which one must take from the term," Luther writes in his treatise On Councils and Churches of the year 1539. At this point we are glad to stay with him and accept his thought, and we proceed accordingly.
Jesus Christ speaks of the church in only two passages (Matt. 16:18 and 18:16-18). The passage in the sixteenth chapter is the more familiar one, this passage upon which the Roman pope bases his claims to be head of the church and Peter’s successor. Why could not this interpretation be true? Peter is to be the rock, rock not in the sense that he, like Christ, is the foundation of the church or its cornerstone (Matt. 21:42) but on the contrary that he is to be the herald at whose call the church is assembled for the first time. Peter, the man of the rock, signifies the historic establishment of the church, and in fact through his Pentecostal sermon this commission which had been enjoined upon him by Christ was carried out. Through Peter’s words the Lord added to his church on that day about three thousand souls who had repented and been baptized into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:14-41). But we can clearly see from John 20:21-23 that Peter was not given any special privilege above the other apostles for they all had the same power to bind or loose sins. According to Galatians 2:9 Paul and Barnabas received the commission in Jerusalem to preach to the Gentiles, not from Peter alone, but also from James and John, who along with Peter were considered as "pillars."
The second passage in which Christ himself speaks of the church is Matthew 18:16-18, where certain guide lines are established for certain matters of church life. These guiding principles alone disprove the assertions of liberal theologians that Jesus never had had the intention of founding his own group of believers in contrast with the Jewish state. For this reason, they aver, the Lord never spoke of a church but only the approaching kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God. Contrary to this, as Ernest Kalb quite correctly explains, it is to be noted that Jesus did in fact form the nucleus of the church when he gathered around himself the Twelve as a closer knit group of intimate followers. The disciples were chosen by him and were in constant association with him; they were to continue his work, to carry the good news to the world; they were to continue his work through prophecy, the teaching, and the exposition of the Scriptures (Matt. 23:34). Everything they did was to be a service of love at all times. They were not to be superior officers of the church; they were not even to allow themselves to be called master or doctor (Luke 22:25, 26); Matt. 23:8, 9). These men are the beginnings of the formation of a church of Christ, as they stand out clearly already in the life and work of Christ. To be sure, the Lord gave no statutory rules concerning the kind of the constitution of the church, concerning the exterior regulations of discipline of church life except the one in Matthew 18:16-18, the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-20), and baptism (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:16). He knew that the Comforter who was to come, the Holy Spirit, would lead them into all truths in all these details.
A closer study of all the Bible passages concerned with the church of Christ as distinguished from the kingdom of God or heaven will show us that no such distinction is to be found in the New Testament. Also in the thought of Jesus there is no distinction between the exterior (the church) and the inner (kingdom of God). To be sure, the kingdom of God is the highest possession, the treasure in the field, the pearl of greatest price, something that man must inwardly appropriate unto himself, and the church is the union of all those called together, of those who have transformed themselves entirely under the power of the Word, of those devoting themselves to Christ as God’s Son and acknowledging him as the only authority, and who have been baptized in his name for the forgiveness of their sins—as such the kingdom of God is something which has become outwardly visible. The church, nevertheless, is the church of Christ only insofar as the church is in Christ and Christ is in the church (Matthew 18: 20; 28:20), and the kingdom of God stands outwardly in appearance through the fruits of faith and love. The "fellow-citizens with the saints, and the household of God" (Eph. 2:29), when considered in their close relationship as a congregation, are precisely the church of Christ and the manifestation of the kingdom of God in the midst of this present world. Julius Koestlin puts it emphatically:
Only those can be called true members of his church who are really united as his disciples and are assembled in his name in accordance with Matthew 18 and also share in the kingdom in this very thing. And, on the other hand, we must not think that anyone who has received the seed of the Word and has part in the kingdom could remain a stranger of the fellowship of the church.
One cannot dispute the convincing power of the Scriptures in these words of this eminent Luther scholar in his commendable work, Religion and the Kingdom of God. To be sure, those who have believed and been baptized are now "delivered out of the power of darkness, and translated into the kingdom" of the beloved Son of God—now they are "raised up with him and made to sit with him in the heavenly places" (Col. 1:13; Eph. 2:6), and they assuredly are now participating even during this life in the spiritual possessions of the kingdom of God: "righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). But for the development of the kingdom in its fullness and for its revelation of all mankind this kingdom will not come until the future age of the world. When the apostles speak of the clearly outlined fellowship of obedient believers in Christ, then they are not speaking of the kingdom of God, but of the church.
This church of Christ is not merely challenged to be holy, but it is already called "holy" and its members are called the "saints", since they have offered themselves up to God, and therefore have sanctified themselves in the real significance of the word. Thus Paul speaks of the churches as "the sanctified in Christ" or "those called to be saints" (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 1;7 and other passages); and in 1 Peter 2:9 the designation of the people of the Old Covenant as a "holy people" is carried over to Christians while the individual members of the church are called by God, "separated" by God out of the kingdom of the world, hence, sanctified. He who belongs to this church stands in the most intimate fellowship of life with God and his Anointed; he has been "washed, sanctified, and justified through the name of the Lord Jesus and through the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11) and has "put on Christ" in baptism (Gal. 3:27). In spite of all the faults and mistakes that cling to them, in spite of the possibility of sin and of falling, they are the saints; that is, the men sanctified by God. "The Lord knoweth his own" (1 Tim. 2:19), and recognizes only his own as his saints. Those who have "fallen from grace" no longer belong to the church of Christ at all. Even Kalb, the Luther symbolist, quite rightly emphasizes this.
According to the conception of the New Testament, individual Christians do not come together to form the church, but those individual believers are chosen by God and God adds them to the church which already exists. Therefore the church is there first as a church. It has been formed from above by Christ, and God adds to this church whomsoever he will. Where Christ is, where his word is proclaimed by the preaching of the mouth or by the works of faith, there is the church of Christ, it matters not whether regular assemblies are held or not. For the "mother of the faithful", as the New Testament is called in Galatians 4:26, already exists before her children, the body of Christ, that is to say his church (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:22, 23; 4:15, 16; 5:23-30; Col. 1:18-24), exists there first, not the individual members, and a member that is separated from the body dies.
In this church of Christ there were and there are offices or callings. It is significant, however, that these callings are always designated as diakonia, that is, a rendering of service, since under the New Testament conception the office rests on a special gift, a charisma, that has been given to the individual by God and is to be placed at the disposition of the church.
The three designations that appear most frequently for such offices and for their holders are episkopoi, presbyteroi (bishop-overseer, elder) and diakonoi (servants). The terms bishops and elders appear interchangeably and are therefore identical. A number of these respected members of the church then stood and now stand at the head of each of the churches, which are completely independent of each other, and have the responsibility together to advise and counsel the affairs of the assembly and to care for them. Also the deacons, whose duty above all else is to be the "servants of need," have to concern themselves with the physical care of the members and of the needy, are subject to the same qualifications (save the ability to teach) and have to meet the same requirements. Only those men are called for the office in question who in the judgment of the church have the gifts necessary for the office. But nowhere in the New Testament is there any regulation as to how such a calling shall be made, for never in the New Testament is there imposed upon the spirit of legalism, but always the spirit of freedom prevails. All regulations about the church and divine worship are so constituted that they may be clearly read as indicated in the Word of God in the writings of the New Covenant. In the light of this evangelical freedom the weeds of clericalism can never thrive.
Yet the "mystery of iniquity was already working" (2 Thess. 2:7) as Paul wrote, and so it can be no surprise to learn that even the generation that followed the apostles saw approaching a growing centralization of the offices in the church at the hands of a single bishop, the establishment of associations of churches, councils of the elders and deacons in the various provinces of the Roman Empire, and finally the usurpation of the direction of the universal church by the imperial bishops of Rome and Constantinople. The nucleus of churches of Christ defended themselves desperately against this development, which, as could be expected, led under Emperor Constantine to the creation of a mighty world church that worked hand in hand with the state and little by little pushed aside the old forms of organization, and by absorption of Hellenistic-philosophic elements and Oriental-magic elements completely robbed the doctrine of its original sense. The small sects of the times of the apostles mentioned in the epistles of the Corinthians, to the Galatians, and to Titus (Jewish Christians who were sinking back into Pharisaical legalism, or Gnostics who were striving after an impure knowledge of Higher worlds) all these had already long before this divided themselves by hundreds into religious groups that feuded among themselves, and now found themselves among the others companions on the broad road that leads to destruction. Now the erection of a state church created new problems and with them new groups of sects who did not especially rise up in opposition to such a state church but on the contrary only wished to make their distinctive Christological or organizational views the prevailing view of the kingdom. Out of the discussions with these splinter groups and heresies there was formed the false structure of dogmatic teachings of the sects of the West and the East against whom the state church and with the means of the state carried out their campaigns of opposition and persecution which extended also to the small independent churches of Christ, who acknowledged only the New Testament as the basis of their faith and worship and who could but with great difficulty defend themselves against being absorbed by the sects of all shades of teachings.