The group that calls itself the Churches of Christ is a little bit of an enigma.
Will Rogers once said, "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." I am not afraid of being called a Republican because I so often vote for Republican candidates and I agree a lot with Republican positions. I would as easily call myself a conservative or moderate libertarian but I have no loyalty to the Conservative party or the Libertarian party. My concern in voting has been foremost, the positions the candidate holds. If the day came where I agreed with a Democrat candidate more than the Republican candidate, I would vote without hesitation for the Democrat. Like that quote, "I belong to no organized party. I am a Republican."
In that same spirit, I could say, "I belong to no organized religious group. I am a member of the Churches of Christ." Although Churches of Christ are similar in many ways to various Protestant denominations, there are important differences. Churches of Christ exist and function as an informal fellowship of independent congregations with no formal written creed.
I have heard people argue until they are blue in the face whether the Church of Christ is a denomination or not. The answer is ultimately of definitions. You ask, "Is the Church of Christ a denomination," and I answer, "Define Church of Christ and define denomination."
● The True Church
The Church of Christ found in God's word is the community of saved people, the collective body of believers. In Acts 2, people heard the Gospel message of Jesus' death and resurrection and were saved. In being saved they were added to a group which is called the church (Acts 2:47). This is the church Jesus built upon himself (Mat. 16:18, Eph 2:19-21). This community goes by many names in God's word: church (Mat. 16:18), the household of God (Eph 2:19), the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), the church of the firstborn (Heb. 12:23), the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22), the church of God (Acts 20:28), and church of Christ (Rom. 16:16).
A denomination is a sect, a subgroup, a piece of a whole. The Church of Christ in reference to the church Jesus built is by no means a denomination in any sense of the word. God's community is one. There is one Body (Eph. 4:4) which means there is one church (Col. 1:24). Every person whose citizenship is in heaven (Phl 3:20) or whose name is in the book of life (Phl 4:3) or who has eternal life (1 John 5:13) is part of this one church.
The distinct difference between the scriptural ideal and the flawed reality of the church has existed since the infancy of the church, shortly after its establishment. Scriptural examples abound of the flawed reality of the church, like the racial conflict of Acts 6, the church in Pergumum's tolerance of false doctrine (Rev 2:14-15), or the myriad of issues in the Corinthian church (all of 1 Cor). Even in the apostolic age, or shortly thereafter, there were "false mountains." Jesus' iconic description of wolves in sheep's clothing (Mat 7:15) not only applies to individuals who teach false doctrine, but also applies to the groups they lead. Since its conception there have been true members of God's true church who seek to remain unblemished from these wolves in sheep's clothing.
The ultimate goal of an earnest believer is to be part of the church Jesus built, not a church that a human built. If Jesus built one church then why are there so many different kinds of churches? Because we humans mess things up.
When Jesus built his church, he did not build a building or establish a hierarchy that would remain beyond his ascension. Beyond the Apostles, the church was given freedom to be as obedient or corrupt as she feels. Jesus left behind his word which is the seed for the church; he left behind a "pattern of sound words" to follow (2 Ti. 1:13) and a "standard of teaching" to obey and be committed to (Rom. 6:17).
The destination is the one true church Jesus built and the path is God's New Covenant teachings. When people alter the path, they arrive at a different destination; alterations to God's word (heresies) lead to different organizations who claim to be part of the church (denominations).
● Denominationalism and Denominations
The concept of denominationalism is the belief that all these different denominations are different parts of God's church. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and all denominations are parts of the larger church and all of them are saved. This is not true. Because 1) the body of Christ is one and there should be no division in the body (1 Cor 12:25); 2) some of their doctrines are false doctrines that lead, not to life but, to destruction (2Pet 2:1).
Not all people who are part of a denomination believe all denominations are equal. There are many people in denominations that are trying to be part of the one true church and aren't aware of better options for churches or who are working within their denomination to improve it.
The definition of a denomination is difficult to pinpoint. It ultimately depends on the context and personal definitions. Generally, a denomination is a Christian group that shares 1) a name, 2) a creed/set of beliefs, and 3) a structure/hierarchy.
● The Churches of Christ
In scripture and in spiritual reality, Jesus built one church. Since then there have been divisions, heresies, and different people trying to establish their own version of the one true church. There is a distinction between the one, spiritual church and the attempt to manifest that one true church which we know as the Churches of Christ. That distinction is important to make because it allows us to then compare and contrast; if we don't distinguish between the Churches of Christ and the church in the NT we can never critique and improve the Churches of Christ to make it more pure and closer to the church in the NT.
The Churches of Christ historically were a product of the Restoration Movement created in the name of following God's word alone, particularly New Covenant teaching, without creeds or any structure not found in it.The core identity of the Churches of Christ has been to be part of the church built by Christ and none other. They are not the first movement to attempt this, but I think they are the most accurate version I have read of.
This movement had many forerunners but the two most notable were Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, who shared the approach of going back to the Bible. They had decided to abandon all things that were not in the Bible as far as possible and to bind only that which is in the New Testament upon New Covenant Christians. They looked at the New Covenant teachings as a blueprint to replicate today. If this blueprint is followed, then the end product is a manifestation of the one true church. They saw the New Testament as a path and the destination is the one true church.
This approach differed in that it is rational and not experiential--it focuses more on reason than emotion. For centuries and even today still, people abandon their thinking when it comes to the Bible. Alexander approached the Bible like an engineer to analyze the parts, how they connected, which ones were absolutely necessary and which ones were convenient, and then he sought to replicate this structure in real life. To this day, I have never seen a denomination filled with so many people who fact-checking everything said in a sermon with the Bible compared to the Churches of Christ--and that is a good thing. I have not seen a denomination who approaches the Bible so systematically and analytically compared to the Churches of Christ--and that is a good thing. Could these things be bad if taken to an extreme? Absolutely and we must be mindful not to worship the Bible but to worship the author of the Bible.
So, this group that calls themselves the Churches of Christ, are they a denomination? Again, what is the definition of a denomination?
First, the CoC does not call itself a denomination and rejects denominationalism.
Second, do the CoC share a name? Yes.
Third, do the CoC share a creed? No.
A creed is usually a created manifest of beliefs, like the Catholic Church has a catechism. The Church of Christ shares slogans like "Where the Bible speaks, we speak," or "hear, believe, repent, and be baptized" but we do not share a set list of beliefs. Some people might argue that we share a list of beliefs but it just isn't written down. That is not a creed though.
So, do the CoC share a set of beliefs? Yes to kind of.
Fourth, do the CoC share a structure? Yes to kind of.
The CoC operates like nondenominational churches. They do not have a hierarchy. Many of these denominations have boards over churches. A pastor is taken from one church and sent to another. If one church gets out of line, the board will cut them off and they are no longer allowed to associate with that denomination.
In this way, when it comes to hierarchy, the CoC are truly nondenominational. Each congregation is independently run. If one church starts to get out of line and entertains false doctrine, there is no board to discipline them. The only thing the CoC can do is to try to convince them and then to not fellowship them. Why don't we have a board? Because it's not in the Bible. That is something humans added.
This approach is the core identity to the Churches of Christ, to follow the Bible and be part of the spiritual church of Christ, the one Jesus built, the one seen in Acts, the one saved by God, the one in the Bible. We reason, if we believe what they believe, do what they do, we will be what they were, and get what they get.
If the Apostle Peter told the Christians that the crucified Jesus was resurrected and is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:32,36), we should believe it too. If the Apostle Paul told the Christians that it is at baptism where a person is united into Jesus' death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-4), then we should believe it too. If God's word says we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), we should believe it too.
If we read that the Christians in the Apostles' days got together once a week to eat the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:20), so should we. If we read that the Christians in the Apostles' days sang songs (Eph. 5:19), so should we. If we read that the Christians in the Apostles' days took up a collection on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:2), so should we.
Following the teachings they received and obeying the commands they were given, we become what they were: Christians (Acts 11:26), saved (Acts 2:47), members of Christ's body (1Cor. 12:12); and we will get what they get: eternal life (1 John 5:13), adoption (Eph 1:4), God's grace (Eph. 1:5), redemption (Eph. 1:7), forgiveness (Eph. 1:7).
The purest form of Christianity is the form found in the New Testament under the Apostles guided by the Holy Spirit sent from Christ. The closer we observe their commands and examples, the closer we will be to pure Christian faith, untainted by human error. That is the pursuit of the group Churches of Christ. The Churches of Christ seek to be in the spiritual, universal church of Christ.
I believe the Churches of Christ are the best place to be for any Christian. But, the Churches of Christ are an amazing group but like any group of people they have flaws. We must continue in our persistent desire for truth and we must continue in our pursuit to be part of the church that Jesus built. We must also refuse to lift up traditions on the level of scripture and we must abandon prejudice for people just because they don't attend a church with "Church of Christ" in the name.
The Churches of Christ historically were a product of the Restoration Movement created in the name of following God's word alone, particularly New Covenant teaching, without creeds or any structure not found in it. The core identity of the Churches of Christ has been to be part of the church built by Christ and none other, but in so doing they have, by necessity, established their own manifestation with their own practices and creeds (or required doctrine for mainstream fellowship). It is debatable whether any Christian group can be established that does not develop its own creeds or traditions. But the Churches of Christ has begun to focus on, instead of God's word, 1) "isms" and traditions and 2) their separation from denominations.
Many people of the Churches of Christ have made the mistake that all groups make at some point: they conflated their traditions and/or interpretations with doctrine. The Jews established all manner of additions to the Law of Moses out of expedience and these additions later in time became as authoritative as the Law (Mat. 15:1-9).
● Jesus and his disciples did not practice the tradition of the elders with a type of hand-washing, v.2
[Mat 15:1-2 ESV] 1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat."
● Jesus accused them of breaking the word of God for the sake of their tradition, v.3
[Mat 15:3 ESV] 3 He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
● Jesus accused them of having hearts far from God and worshiping God in vain, v.8-9.
[Mat 15:8-9 ESV] 8 "'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me…
● Jesus accused them of teaching commandments of men as God's doctrine, v.9
[Mat 15:9 ESV] 9 … teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"
More than the Jews fell into this trap like the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, the Lutherans, and many more, where tradition became authoritative. Their man-made additions ascended to the level of inspiration.
God has made it clear not to add to his word (Rev 22:18-19; Deut. 4:2, 12:32; Pro 30:5-6), so why is this such a common event? Because these additions to God's word did not start out as additions—they began as convenient aids to obey or understand God's word born out of honest intentions. Every single convenient aid created is a double-edged sword that may become conflated for inspired doctrine.
I would say it is impossible to fully avoid these aids. Whether it is practices like meeting in a church building, hosting a second Sunday Assembly in the evening, and offering an invitation in the Assembly, or traditional beliefs like the five steps of salvation, the five acts of worship, and the manner of interpretation (command, example, necessary inference). All of these are born of convenience or assistance to obey or understand God's word, but they must never be assigned the status of inspiration. Is it wrong to not have an invitation in the Assembly? Is it wrong to shorten the five steps of salvation to three, "believe, repent, and be baptized," if Scripture permits? No.
It is, therefore, the everlasting responsibility of the Church to analyze scripture, to distinguish that of human origin from that of inspired origin, to be completely unafraid to alter or remove the traditions and creeds of human origin, to be utterly petrified to alter, to add to, or to subtract from the word of God.
Thomas Campbell wrote on this principle,
"Lastly. That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of Divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose should be adopted under the title of human expedients, without any pretense to a more sacred origin, so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the Church."
In my words, Additions made to aid the Church are to remain as of human origin, impermanent and unable to cause division.
The Churches of Christ have accidentally established this identity of a "nondenominational denomination" because of its high priority on separating itself from denominations. Somewhere along the line the focus was deflected from being nondenominational Christians to being anti-denominational Christians.
Many people in the Churches of Christ have become prejudiced. They have already made up their mind on people they have never met. When they hear a person is from a Baptist church they make twenty assumptions about that person. They have judged them beforehand, prejudiced.
Not all Baptists hold the Baptist doctrine 100%. Not all Presbyterians believe everything the Presbyterian church tells them to. There are Christians in the denominations that are saying what we say, "We should just follow the Bible." The distinct possibility is that some within their congregations are unspotted from their doctrines and practices.
In the church in Thyatira was a woman which Jesus calls "Jezebel" who claimed to be a prophetess and encouraged sexual immorality and idolatry (Rev 2:18-24).
[Rev 2:20 ESV] 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
But within that congregation were some who had not defiled themselves with this false doctrine and sinful action,
... 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden.
In the church in Sardis Jesus calls them dead and in need of repentance (Rev 3:1-6),
[Rev 3:1 ESV] 1 "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: 'The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. "'I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. …
But within that congregation were some who were still spiritually alive,
… 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
It is important to note: Jesus did not tell these innocent people within the corrupt congregations to leave it and begin their own congregation.
NOTE: I am not saying we should fellowship denominational churches. Because an overwhelming majority of denominations come with false doctrinal baggage. I am not trying to change our practice; I am trying to change our perception: we must judge people (and congregations) on their own merits and not on the merits of others. We must forget the names and focus on their doctrine and practices. Usually the name of a church can hint at what their doctrines and practices are, but not always, especially on the individual level.
Our insistence to be purely Christian free from manmade corruption is good. The judgmentalism upon any who do not bear the name of "Church of Christ" is bad. We must welcome any and all who truly bear the "name of Christ" and our loyalty must be to him.
We must recognize that the Churches of Christ do not have a copyright on following the Bible alone and striving to be part of the church which Jesus built. We should recognize there are disciples out there who preach the Gospel fervently but need some assistance in understanding (Acts 18:24-28) or need some guidance in getting close to the Lord (Acts 19:1-7).
In Acts 18:24-28, Apollos preached what he knew and was competent in the scriptures but he didn't know the Gospel. Priscilla and Aquila did not just condemn him or scoff at him with judgmentalism--they took him aside and taught him the Gospel. He needed assistance in understanding.
In Acts 19:1-7, Paul found some people dedicated to God. They were called disciples but did not know about the Holy Spirit or about Jesus. Paul did not just walk away--he taught them the Gospel because they needed some guidance in getting close to the Lord.
But to maintain this separation from any non-Church of Christ individual, especially when paired with judgmentalism, prevents our fruitful evangelism and any potential unity.
When we find ourselves being anti-denominational, then we truly become a denomination because it is then that our identity is no longer defined by God, instead it is defined by being the opposite of manmade organizations which is still a definition of human origin. A true nondenominational Christian doesn't care about labels, even the label "Church of Christ."
When we are anti-denominational, we are like the disciple John who told Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us" (Mark 9:38). John could not imagine someone who followed Jesus outside of his group, as if to have a copyright on doing the Lord's work.
A nondenominational Christian and church seeks to obey God's word and doesn't care about the labels. "Are the Churches of Christ a denomination"—they shouldn't care! Let people label us however they want! Call us a denomination, or conservative, or liberal, or evangelical, or whatever. All I know is that we should seek God's word alone and seek to be part of the church Jesus built. Beyond this, it is out of our hands.
Like Priscilla and Aquila, if you find someone who loves the Lord but doesn't understand it fully, teach them. Like Paul, if you find some people who are disciples of God but need help getting closer to the Lord, teach them. Just follow the truth and help others follow the truth as well. Lift up God's word. Follow it. The Bible, especially the New Testament for New Covenant Christians is your path to being part of the church saved by God.
In the course of seeking my Master's Degree in Biblical Studies I took a course on Restoration History with an emphasis on Stone and Campbell. The Restoration Movement is the historical origin of the Christian group that calls themselves "Churches of Christ" and the two most prominent actors in this movement were Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. This course has opened my eyes to several things that is necessary for us to hear:
1. These men were terribly flawed.
I grew up hearing about the heroes of these men, particularly Alexander Campbell, without hearing about any of the negatives. I was shocked to hear the false doctrines they entertained, from my analysis that is.
Barton Stone was a charismatic (believing in modern day Spirit empowerment like tongue-speaking) and a unitarian (rejecting the Trinity). Alexander Campbell was a legalist (for his youth, he was over-emphatically against saved by faith alone), was a judgmental critic (who employed an vicious critique of every denomination—an attitude which survives in the Churches of Christ today), a unitarian (see above), a post-millennialist (believing Christ's return would come after the world established God's vision of Christian truth and unity), an over-confident sectarian (believing his movement alone was the first ever for Christians to use the Bible as their sole guid), and, at the end of his life, a denominationalist (believing all Protestant denominations were acceptable in God's sight).
I grew up hearing about how Campbell and others rejected denominations and false doctrine to establish a group that followed the Bible alone. This is partly true (they rejected false doctrines but not fellowship with all denominations), but they themselves would not be welcomed into the modern-day version of their movement. Were the great Alexander Campbell resurrected today and asked to preach on a Sunday morning, I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it—plus his sermons usually lasted two hours.
In reading their words and seeing the historical records of their actions, they would plead for us to remember them as they were, flawed human beings simply seeking the Truth. If they were here today they would love to sit down and hear our perspectives on these issues. I would gladly sit down and teach them how I think the Bible establishes the Trinity and they would without a doubt "examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11). That was their greatest strength.
2. The greatest contribution these men gave us was a principle and an approach.
Thomas Campbell, his son Alexander, Barton Stone, and other restorationists all disagreed on many things but their greatest unifying factor, their biggest strength, and the greatest reason to praise them was their desire to seek God's word alone, pure and undefiled from man-made doctrines and traditions.
They have passed down to us the greatest doctrine of all, the sufficiency of God's word. All that is needed for salvation, for Christian unity, for glory to God, is God's word. Any addition to God's word is truly a subtraction that will lead to a division.
Thomas Campbell established a group of Christians dedicated to working inside churches to encourage this Bible-alone mindset, saying "that nothing be inculcated, as such, for which there can not be expressly produced a 'Thus saith the Lord'" and "Where the Bible speaks; we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent."
Alexander Campbell sought to recreate what he saw in the New Testament a blueprint for the original form of Christianity free from error. He brought to a, typically, topic of emotion and experience, rationality and reason. He sought to restore "the gospel and its ordinances … in all their primitive simplicity, excellency, and power." He believed he had developed something on the principles "which together constitute the original gospel and order of things established by the Apostles."
Barton Stone dissolved his congregation seeing as its constitution was mixed with error in order to establish a new one on its ashes that was built by the pure word of God. He said of his new congregation, "that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell."
These men changed their heartfelt convictions, were pushed out of their fellowships, lost their jobs, and lost friends in the name of searching for the Truth. They believed God's word is all that is needed to establish a congregation of the true Church which Jesus built. That is their greatest contribution to their movement.
Bobby Price was born and raised by Christian parents in Perrin, Texas. Bobby decided early in life to become a preacher of God's word. He attended the Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas where he graduated in 2015 with his Bachelors of Biblical Studies with a focus in Congregational Ministry. Afterwards, he interned for a year at the valley view Church of Christ in Jonesboro, AR. He is currently working on his Masters of Biblical Studies, through the Sunset International Bible Institute Graduate School.