History Of The Church Of Christ
July 31, 2005
This is a revision of my 2002 article titled, "History Of The Church Of Christ". I noticed that most people never make it to the end of that article. I have decided to reverse the chronology, working backwards through the history, rather than forward. I hope that this encourages more people to examine the true history of the Church of Christ, as well as to see where we need to go from here. Bernie Parsons
History Of The Church Of Christ
By Bernie Parsons - May 30, 2002 Revised July 21, 2006
How The Church Of Christ Got Its Name
I differentiate between the history of the church of Christ, spelled with a lowercase "c" in church, and the Church of Christ, spelled with an uppercase "C" in the word "Church". This will offend some, but it should not. The truth will make us free.
Many of our teachers, preachers, and members proclaim that we can solidly trace our origins to the apostolic church in the first century AD. They say that there is an unbroken chain of "Church of Christ" preachers in every generation who baptized people into the religious body now referred to as the Church of Christ. Some Baptists hold to a similar doctrine--it is referred to as the "Trail of Blood". Some members of the Church of Christ go so far as to say that you can walk into a Church of Christ assembly today and things are exactly as they were in the apostles time. (Does that include aluminum communion trays, plastic shot glasses, and air conditioning?) Others maintain that the name Church of Christ is the only church name that you will find in the Bible. (What about the church of God, and other references, many of which are simply "the church"?)
I have heard two untrue and dangerous declarations in recent years:
(1) The Church of Christ was formed in A.D. 33, was persecuted by the Catholic church, went into hiding for over a millennium, then re-emerged with the help of Alexander Campbell and his contemporaries. (Or, as some prefer, David Lipscomb and his contemporaries.); or,
(2) The Church of Christ has been in existence since A.D. 33, with all of its present practices and doctrines in place for the past 2,000 years.
Both of these depictions deny our true history, and are used to legitimize the Church of Christ as a denominational organization, head off questions among our membership about our true history, and prevent having to deal with the accusations of our detractors. This is dangerous because it allows us to keep in place not only 20th century Church of Christ doctrines, but also Catholic and Protestant doctrines, under the pretense that this is what the church has believed, taught, and practiced from the time of the Apostles. It is also dangerous because these are outright lies, and the Bible declares that all liars go into eternal damnation.
A Non-Denominational Denomination
We of the Church of Christ often refer to ourselves as non-denominational. The roots of this claim lie in the American Restoration Movement, commonly called the Stone-Campbell Movement. Campbell urged that all churches drop their names, creeds, and confessions, and unite to be mere disciples of Christ. However, I think it wise to understand terminology before we employ it. Take, for instance, the word denominate, which means quite literally "of a name", or, "give a name to".
When I was a boy, in the early 1950s, most preachers insisted that the Lord's church could be called by any descriptive term found in the Bible. The pioneers of the American Restoration Movement, such as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, among others, desired that the denominating should cease, and that church names be relinquished in favor of the terms Christians, or disciples. A few others used names like friends and brethren. The point was simply to forgo denominational church names, creeds, and doctrines. It was their aim to lead Christians into a search of the scriptures in order to discover a pattern for church doctrine and membership.
In 1906, David L. Lipscomb, of Nashville, Tennessee, gave a name to the churches that had fallen out with their brethren--who later came to be known as the Disciples of Christ--over missionary societies and instrumental music in the assemblies. In giving a name to this group of churches, Lipscomb literally denominated it. That, in the truest sense, makes it a denomination. The fact that its preachers and members insist these days that it must be called the Church of Christ, and that nothing else will suffice, and will be rejected, seals with a certainty that it has been denominated. That is, they have given it a designated name, which is not done in the scriptures.
This denominating of the Church of Christ is unfortunate. Its proponents argue that it is necessary. They say that, first of all, it belongs to the Lord, and should therefore be named in His honor. Second, they argue, if you choose a name like Church of God, you will be mistaken for those who have denominated themselves thusly. Furthermore, they argue, it is the only way of informing the public as to the doctrines taught within the walls of that building that bears the name, Church of Christ. Unfortunately, the divisiveness of the last century has assured that there is no unity among the many factions within the Church of Christ, and that there is no conformity of doctrine. Fellowship with another church--often referred to as a congregation--is determined by whether or not your local church believes exactly as they do on certain disputed, key points of doctrine.
Some will argue--and isn't arguing what we do best in the Church of Christ?--that David L. Lipscomb did not intend for the church to bear a formal title, instead referring to it as the "churches of Christ". If that be true, let us return to the use of the phrase in a general sense. Certainly, it was the intention of Stone, Campbell, and others of the time that no formal name be attached to the body of the followers of Jesus. If we claim to be non-denominational, then let us practice what we preach. Let us stop denominating the church--the ekklesia, the called-out assembly--of Jesus Christ. Let us be Christians only.
The preachers of my youth, some of them older men who had lived through the 1906 designation, still carried this zeal for simplicity and Biblical authority. They realized, although some had become partisan after the 1906 denominating of the Church of Christ, that the intention was to be Christians only, and nothing more or less. To this end, any description found in the scriptures was acceptable when describing the Lord's church.
Often, the description given in the scriptures is "the church of God". More often, it is simply, "the church"--or "the churches", if the assemblies in several cities and towns were involved. In one place it is referred to as "the church of the firstborn". In other instances, it is clearly descriptive of the church in a particular location, such as "the church of the Laodiceans", "the church of the Thessalonians", or "the church of Ephesus". Sadly, most of our preachers these days will not even relent to use any descriptive term other than Church of Christ, mostly spelled with an uppercase "C" in Church.
Understanding Church History Is Critical
Understanding our church roots is crucial to continuing the "restoration spirit" of our forebears in bringing the masses to Christ. This can not be done through factions, sects, and cults that result from the splintering of religious bodies. Quite the opposite, it is accomplished through unity in spirit and truth. The warring between denominations is often because of a commonly shared history. Harsh and bitter feelings from centuries ago often drive current disputes and attacks. Sadly, most of the people involved in these religious battles don't even understand why they are fighting. It has been reduced to "I defend my side, because we are always right, and you are therefore wrong".
The Church of Christ is splintered because of its history. I have no intention here of invoking all the names of either side of the many battles that have been fought among preachers, authors, editors, and orators in the 20th century Church of Christ. Almost non-stop battles have raged since the mid-1800s, during the very birth of the American Restoration Movement, when an uproar ensued over the creation of "missionary societies" and the use of mechanical musical instruments in the assemblies.
The religious body denominated the Church of Christ is in disarray. It has a "liberal" faction, and a "conservative" faction. I haven't dealt with the liberal side, so I don't know how consistent that they are, but I know quite well that the conservative branch is splintered.
There are the instrumentalists versus the a capella singers. There are the one-cuppers versus the multi-cuppers. There are the home-bakers of bread, versus the store-bought bread groups. There are the progressives versus the traditionalists. There are the artificial covering adherents versus the hair-as-covering believers. There are the institutionalists vs. non-institutionalists; long hairs vs. the short hairs; the pants vs. the dresses; holiday keepers vs. the non-keepers; children's classes vs. non-classes; women teachers vs. silent women; Bible classes vs. worship only; lovers vs. legalists; grace/believers vs. salvation planners; and many, many more! Do you get the drift?
As I said, the movement is in disarray. Why do I call it a movement, instead of "The Church", as many members would prefer? That is the importance of learning the history of the Church of Christ. Many sermons have been preached, articles written, and discussions held about the origins of the Church of Christ. Most of them paint a picture of our history as the preachers, authors, and speakers would like it to have been, or as they imagine that it was. I prefer truth.
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," our Lord said. I believe Him.