What Makes the Churches of Christ Unique?
This book is concerned with answering Bible questions that I've been asked about topics that many have not been able to answer or where students wanted more detailed answers to their queries.
I've divided the questions into several categories and answer one often repeated question or several specialized questions in each chapter. So far we've tackled the most asked questions first. In addition to this, we've also set up ground rules to guide our discussions with other people when we talked to them about Bible or faith issues:
- Respect others' sincerity
- Keep the discussion based on the Bible
- Be patient
One of the questions that came up in many different forms was, "What is the difference between the church of Christ and ____?" You fill in the blank between any number of groups or denominations - Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. I've put all of these questions together because the essential difference between the Church of Christ and other churches (whether they be Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant, evangelical, or sectarian groups like the Mormons) is always the same. In the simplest of terms the difference is this: we are consciously striving to be a New Testament church and they are not.
Oh, some (especially among the evangelical churches) may claim to be New Testament churches but they neither understand nor practice true New Testament style Christianity and church organization.
And so, the question that naturally follows this statement is: "What, then, is a New Testament church?" The answer to this question has two parts: theological and historical.
New Testament churches (like the Church of Christ) are different theologically than others because our approach to the Bible, the source for Christian theology (the study of God and all that relates to Him) is different than other groups in two basic ways.
1. We believe that the Bible is completely inspired by God and is the only and final authority in spiritual matters.
All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.
- II Timothy 3:16
This difference is readily seen when considering the Roman Catholic Church for example. They believe that the Pope and church tradition has equal authority to the Bible. On the other hand, some Protestants don't accept all the Bible as inspired and include the teachings of their founders (Calvin, Luther, etc.) as authoritative. Evangelicals, for the most part, agree with us on this. Various sects give equal authority to their prophets and founding leaders, as they do to the Bible.
When you have one church that considers the Bible as the only and complete inspired, authoritative document from God; and then other groups who only accept parts of the Bible or they include information from other sources as authoritative, you're bound to have different outcomes. For example:
- We believe that homosexuality is a sin and it is an unacceptable lifestyle, because this is clearly taught in both the Old Testament and the New Testament (Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27).
- Many Roman Catholics believe that homosexuals can remain this way without change because the Pope has made a special provision for them in the church. The most recent Pope has accepted the idea that there is a genetic source for homosexuality. A claim that has yet to be proven scientifically.
- In some Methodist and Presbyterian churches, homosexuals can become ordained ministers, because many of their leaders do not consider the epistles of Paul as being inspired. Many in the denominational world see Paul's epistles as simply the work of a human being, and a prejudiced human being at that!
I choose this example because it is so glaring. However, there are a thousand other differences because we, as a New Testament church, see the Bible as fully inspired and consider that it is the single authority for religious practice, and others take away some parts of the Bible, change it, add to it or dismiss it altogether.
When you do this, you end up with a different result and conclusion on issues of faith and practice. For example, if I don't believe that the writings of Paul are part of the inspired record, then I can use instruments in worship, have women preachers, organize the church like a business or the government as many churches do, because most of the information on these matters come from Paul's epistles and if they're not inspired or authoritative then I can do what seems best to me.
Of course, the Bible does say something about this as well,
Do not add to His words
Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar
- Proverbs 30:6
6Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.
- I Corinthians 4:6
18I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.
- Revelation 22:18-19
Notice that Solomon, Paul and John restated the same idea, that God forbids any tinkering with His Word - no adding, no subtracting and no changing. Churches of Christ, as New Testament churches, take this command literally and we accept the entire Bible as inspired by God and are careful not to add, change or eliminate any part of it. This approach to the scriptures makes us different than other groups claiming to have faith in Christ.
I'm not saying that we understand everything in the Bible or that our teachings are all without fault. I'm saying that we accept the fact that the Bible itself is perfect and fully inspired and we are doing our very best to understand and obey all of it as it is written.
2. Another practice that creates differences between us and others from a theological perspective is our approach to interpreting and applying God's Word in our lives in practical ways. For example, Roman Catholics see the Bible as a basis from which to begin their religious ideas, which are then developed by papal teaching in addition to church practice and tradition (in some instances even if it contradicts the Bible). Catholics add festivals, doctrines, laws and church hierarchy not found in the New Testament. Modern Protestantism is largely driven by its academics, who have long ago abandoned the Bible as their final authority. This has led to their synods, associations or conventions becoming the place where church matters are decided, many times by majority voting rather than by strict adherence to the teachings of the Bible, especially the New Testament.
Evangelicals have subjectified the Bible. They've personalized it to fit each group. For example, Jesus is one's person savior (not in the Bible) and Evangelicals have made Christianity a personal religion (Americanization). You have Bibles for singles, African Americans, teens, men or moms etc. For Evangelicals, the Bible is a resource book (a good one, an inspired one) for a happy and satisfying life here and a book that gives them a glimpse into the future, heaven.
The multiplication of groups under the evangelical banner is increasing each year because as a subjective process there is no way to decide which group is legitimate or not.
The sects (i.e. Jehovah Witness, Mormon, Seventh-Day Adventists) focus exclusively on one doctrine or key idea in the Bible to separate themselves from other groups and justify their existence. For example:
- The Jehovah Witnesses – God's name.
- The Seventh-Day Adventists – the Sabbath.
From this base they develop an entirely new religious experience and group.
Note that the one thing that causes the differences between all of these religious groups all claiming Christ as Lord, is the way they approach and apply the Bible to their lives as believers, as well as their organizations and the way that they function as churches. In the Churches of Christ the Bible is our only authority and inspired guide. Because of this, we have a special way to study and apply its teachings to both our personal and church life.
This approach or method gives us the results that we have and makes us unique among every other church and religious group out there, because we, in the Churches of Christ, are the only ones using it.
This approach, this way to practice or apply our theology is called pattern theology, based on the instruction of several scriptures.
Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
- II Timothy 1:13
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
- Jude 3
This is one of the new series of quarters minted with a special design of the State of Oklahoma on the back. At the mint they have the original dye or pattern for this particular coin. So long as they have the raw materials, they can produce an unlimited number of coins which are exactly like the original in every way. This idea exists in every industry - you create an original pattern and you produce any number of copies from that original pattern from dresses to steering wheels.
If we apply this idea to religion, the pattern theology approach says the following: the Bible contains all the patterns necessary to produce all facets of spiritual life. These include, but are not limited to:
- The pattern for how one becomes a disciple of Jesus
- The pattern for how to organize Jesus' church
- This is where the term New Testament church comes from
- A New Testament church is the church that is organized according to the pattern for church organization found in the New Testament. In pattern theology we recognize that there are patterns for certain practices because through direct communication or examples or basic logic the Bible gives us a pattern of teaching to follow.
- The pattern for proper service
- The pattern for personal spiritual growth
- The pattern for resolving issues
The examples are found throughout the New Testament. Just as Moses was given a "pattern" by God in building the tabernacle in the desert along with a similar pattern for the sacrificial service and the function of the priesthood, the Lord has also given us a pattern in the New Testament concerning the establishment, function and organization of His church.
We are different from others because everything we attempt to do is done with this approach in mind. A classic example is the issue of the use of instruments in public worship. We are different than others because we are among the only ones who use a cappella singing in worship. The Greek Orthodox Church does not use instruments either because it understands the Greek language and clearly understands that the New Testament (original language - Greek) teaches that we are not to use these in public worship.
We, in the Churches of Christ, do not use instruments because when we ask ourselves, "What is the New Testament pattern for public worship?" the pattern of teaching we discover concerning this issue leads us to the conclusion that instruments are not to be used.
For example, in every passage that gives information about music and worship, the command or instruction or example is to sing without the use of musical instruments. (I Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, James 5:13).
It is interesting to note also that the specific word used in the Greek for the english term "to sing" was the word psallo, which specifically meant to sing without the use of instruments. It was the Greek way of saying a cappella-type singing.
There are 181,253 words in the New Testament (King James Version) and not a single one makes any reference to the use of musical instruments in Christian worship. Therefore the pattern of teaching in the New Testament on this subject (music and worship) shows us in clear terms that in public worship we are to sing without the use of instruments.
So, here's the point, if we want to be a popular church and reach younger people, youth groups or Millennials, it is better to have a well-produced musical worship service with a professional group of musicians. If we want to create impact, bring in visitors, get people involved, start a band, get going with a choir.
If, on the other hand, we want to be exactly like the church described in the Bible we will follow the pattern for New Testament worship, and have the entire church sing praises to God without any accompanying instruments. This will make us different, but not because we don't use instruments, most others do. No, we will be different because we have deliberately and consciously chosen to follow carefully and as exactly as possible the teaching in the New Testament about this particular thing.
This practice and approach doesn't make us legalists. We want to believe that this effort makes us lovers of God because we want to do what God wants us to do, more than anything else. We don't care about being popular, we only care about pleasing the Lord.
This is what makes us different, we are trying to follow the pattern while others are not dedicated to this objective. I'm not saying that other people are not sincere, I'm simply saying that they are not dedicated to what we are specifically dedicated to.
This is what creates the similarity between us and other people at times, we are both following the pattern about a certain issue. The Baptists believe Jesus is the Son of God and so do we. We are the same in this because they follow the pattern of teaching about the identity of Christ and so do we. What usually creates the differences and makes us unique is that the Churches of Christ are dedicated to trying to follow the New Testament pattern for everything pertaining to our spiritual lives and faith and other groups are not.
Sometimes they do it and sometimes they don't. We, on the other hand, try to do it every time.