What Makes the Churches of Christ Unique?
In this study I am answering various questions about the Bible and religion that have been asked by others. When answering these I've told you to observe the ground rules:
- Respect the other's sincerity
- Keep it biblical
- Be patient
Of course these rules can't always be practiced. For example:
- You're being aggressively ridiculed and dismissed. Jesus said not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6) meaning that not all are ready or willing to hear God's word. We have to know when to speak and sometimes when to remain silent.
- The other person completely rejects the Bible or does not even want it as part of the discussion. We have no other basis to discuss Jesus and the gospel. Without the Bible in the equation there can be no fruitful discussion of religion for Christians. Paul refers to the revelation of Christ and His resurrection to the philosophers in Greece (Acts 17:22) but when they no longer wanted to hear, he left them.
Our rules of engagement are not absolutes, they are guidelines to help us have a productive and loving communication with someone else about the Bible. In this chapter we will finish the second part of the previous question on the difference between the Church of Christ and other religious groups.
Review - What's the Difference?
In the last chapter the question was - what's the difference between the Church of Christ and ____? My first reply was the short version: the difference between the Churches of Christ and all others is that we strive to be a New Testament church and they do not. My second reply was the long version and took up the rest of the previous chapter and most of the one we're going to study now.
I tried to explain what a New Testament church was and how it was different. First of all, I said that as a New Testament church we are different theologically. This meant that we believe that the entire Bible is inspired by God and it is the final authority in religion, as well as the only authority in religion. This separates us from most other church groups, because many no longer accept this idea. When your sole authority for religion, faith and morals is the Bible, then you will reach different conclusions and practices than those who only use part of the Bible or those who give equal authority to human religious leaders or traditions.
We are also different theologically than others because of the way that we apply the Bible to our every day lives as Christians. While others use the Bible as a resource book or a jumping-off point for their religious practices, we see the Bible as containing "patterns" for spiritual and moral living. This is called "pattern theology" and this is what we practice. In other words, the Bible contains patterns or blueprints that enable us to reproduce Bible things in any culture or age, whether that be for public worship or private life choices and practice.
For example, through various commands and examples the Bible is able to give us a pattern to follow when we wish to take the Lord's Supper: who takes it, when is it celebrated, which elements to use, how to proceed and why do it.
All of these questions about how to do communion are contained in the Bible. Pattern theology, therefore, says that the Bible contains a pattern or a blueprint for every aspect of a Christian's life (II Peter 1:3). The information contained for the Christian is complete, from how to be a good husband to how to organize the church, everything needed for spiritual life in Christ is contained in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament where the teachings of Jesus are found.
Churches of Christ are different because we try (with various degrees of success) to follow the New Testament pattern for every aspect of our personal and congregational life; and other groups do not. For example,
- We take communion by taking both the bread and the fruit of the vine every Lord's Day until Jesus returns. We do it this way because this is the way the New Testament teaches the church to do it.
- The Roman Catholic church have changed this pattern where only the priest takes both of the elements (the congregation takes only the bread) and you can take communion any day of the week.
- Most evangelical churches take communion once a month or once per year in accordance with their leaders' instruction and their tradition. But this is not how the New Testament says it should be practiced.
If you examine every difference between Churches of Christ and other groups or churches, it will invariably come down to this: we seek to speak and to do things specifically according to the pattern and teaching of the New Testament; nothing more, nothing less. Others, for various reasons, have chosen to change, delete or add laws, traditions and doctrines that cannot be supported by the New Testament. In many cases they support their practices with human thinking not divine thinking.
This Chapter's Questions
This covers some of the material we talked about in our last chapter. In going forward, I will try to answer questions that may arise when you attempt to explain the ideas of New Testament Christianity and pattern theology to others.
1. Why Pattern Theology?
Did we in the Churches of Christ arbitrarily choose this approach to Bible study and application? The answer is no. We use pattern theology for several reasons.
First, it is the approach that we see the Old Testament patriarchs and leaders use in their relationship with God and His Word. For example:
- Cain and Abel's offerings were rejected or accepted because of the way they offered their sacrifices in accordance to God's will, including the attitude of the heart and the manner in which they were offered (Genesis 4:4-6).
- Noah built the ark according to the plan or pattern given to him by God, no deviations (Genesis 6:22).
- Moses built the tabernacle exactly as God gave him instructions (Exodus 39-43).
- Solomon built the temple and instituted worship exactly according to the plans given to him by God through his father David (I Kings 5:5).
And so, in these and many other examples we see the people of God performing their worship and living out their faith and their service in accordance to the instructions given to them by God. We also see that when they did not follow the instructions, they were punished. For example, King Saul lost the kingdom because he did not follow exactly God's instructions given him by God through Samuel the prophet.
This approach of obeying and following God's given instructions is summarized in I Kings as God speaks to Solomon at the dedication of the temple.
4As for you, if you will walk before Me as your father David walked, in integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you and will keep My statutes and My ordinances, 5then I will establish the throne of your kingdom over Israel forever, just as I promised to your father David, saying, 'You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.'
6"But if you or your sons indeed turn away from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 7then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them, and the house which I have consecrated for My name, I will cast out of My sight. So Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples.
- I Kings 9:4-7
Commands, statutes and ordinances encompass all of the instructions and judgments given by God.
Another reason for our use of pattern theology is that the New Testament also teaches that this is to be the approach we take in regards to applying the Bible to our lives.
19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
- Matthew 28:19-20
We are to follow the commands of Jesus. In other words, whatever the New Testament tells us to do, we must do. For example: love, abstain from sin, take communion, preach the Word, etc.
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
- I Corinthians 11:1
Not all issues or teachings are put forth as commands or instructions (do this, don't do that). Some things we learn by copying the examples given to us by Christ and His Apostles. For example,
- How to deal with temptation and adversity
- How to worship God properly
- How to organize the church
- How to do mission work
- How to resolve problems within the church
Many of these things we learn from the pattern of examples given to us by Jesus and the Apostles and other biblical characters.
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
Paul is telling Timothy (the younger preacher) to retain the standard (pattern = a sketch) of proper/solid teaching which Paul has entrusted to him. When doing his work, Timothy is to refer to the doctrines and the teachings which have been given to him. We have the exact same pattern of teaching from Christ through the gospels and epistles that have been handed down to us today, and we're to do the same thing, follow the pattern.
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
In this passage we note that all the teaching, sound words, doctrine, pattern, whatever you want to call it, all of it has been given to us and there is no more. And so, in the New Testament, through various commands, examples, and teachings, we have a pattern for Christian living and practice. The New Testament, through Christ and His Apostles tells us that we have the entire pattern and that we must follow it in order to reproduce the Christian life and Christian practice that God wants of us in every single age.
The New Testament even warns that there will be an apostasy (a falling away) from this approach and to guard against the impulse to change or add or delete any of the teaching of this pattern (Acts 20:27-32). And so, through Jesus and the Apostles we have a pattern, a blueprint, in the New Testament that guides every aspect of our Christian lives. The Church of Christ is different because it tries to obey the Bible's command to follow only the pattern in the New Testament for Christian life and practice.
2. When Did We Start Doing This?
Ever since the church was established and the New Testament given and circulated in the church and throughout the world there has been a constant struggle to stay true to the pattern. Even during their own lifetimes the Apostles were warning the church not to abandon this practice or to return to it if they had strayed.
- Acts 20:7 – Paul is warning the elders
- I Corinthians 4:6 – Paul is warning the Corinthians
- Jude 3 – Jude is warning the entire church
Throughout later history this falling away was experienced as Christianity fell further and further away from the original pattern contained in the New Testament, to a point where Christianity was barely recognizable anymore. Then, in the 1500s Martin Luther attempted a return to a more biblical form of Christianity which broke the Roman Catholic denomination over its practice. His lead resulted in the Protestant Reformation which in turn gave rise to a new variety of Christian churches and practices.
Unfortunately, these quickly fell into the same mistakes as their predecessors in not following closely the pattern in the New Testament and resulted in thousands of Protestant/Evangelical and Sectarian groups that we have today. All claim Christ, but none pursue their faith using the exclusive pattern contained in the New Testament. Each have added, changed or deleted from the pattern to form their own brand of Christianity. Even today they continue to add new groups who have improvised their own style of Christianity to suit their times and purposes.
In the 1700s scholars and preachers from various Protestant groups began to preach and teach that the true and only source for Christian life and practice was the Bible. These men left their denominational backgrounds and began to teach that all should return to the Bible and only the Bible as the pattern for Christianity. They attempted to restore New Testament Christianity as it was patterned in the New Testament. They were thrown out of their churches and disowned by their denominations but, first in Europe, and then to a great degree in the United States, the Restoration Movement, as it was called, began to catch fire.
Men like Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, and others, began a religious revolution that swept the nation for almost 200 years. Eventually those who believed and practiced their faith using only the Bible came to be known as the Churches of Christ (as the Bible referred to the church in Romans 16:16).
There are now tens of thousands of congregations known as Churches of Christ throughout the world and except for language and cultural differences, they are all the same. This is because each congregation follows only the pattern in the Bible for Christian life, and the organization and function of the church.
We here at the Choctaw Church of Christ are the 21st century version of this Restoration Movement and like those who came before us, we continue to pursue our Christian life by following the original pattern given to us by Christ and His Apostles in the Bible. We do it because the Bible says that this is the way we are supposed to practice our Christian faith.
3. Why are there Divisions even within the Churches of Christ?
There are several groups within mainline Churches of Christ that have different practices concerning mission work, how to do the communion and the use of the church building, however, all of these remain committed to the pattern theology approach. They simply come to a different conclusion on some, not all, issues. The different groups within restoration churches:
- Mainline Churches of Christ
- Disciples of Christ
- Christian Churches
- International Churches of Christ
The reason for this division is the same as for every other division in the history of the church, a refusal to follow carefully the pattern established in the New Testament. For example,
- Disciples of Christ and Christian Churches have forsaken the principle that the entire Bible is inspired. This has led them to having instruments in worship, women as elders and ministers and other non biblical practices.
- International Churches of Christ refused to accept the New Testament as the final authority and give their leaders more power than the Bible gives to church leaders. This has led to abuse and charges that this group is a sect.
In the end, however, the departure from principles that the Bible is inspired and contains the patterns for acceptable Christian life and practice are always what cause division and the creation of new and different churches. They're different because they are not like the pattern given in the New Testament.
Note, however, that among Baptist Churches, there are 62 different Baptist groups in the United States alone.1
Let's make sure that we remain faithful to the twin foundations of inspired text and pattern theology as the solid base for a church and a Christian life that pleases God.