“Is the church of Christ a denomination?” Usually, those who ask this question are themselves denominational, if it is only in thought. The answer to the question is really not a simple one however, for it depends upon which church of Christ one may be looking at in order to answer this question. Even some preachers among the churches of Christ have claimed that the Lord’s church is a denomination! Lynn Anderson, while preaching at the Highland church of Christ in Abilene stated in 1973, “The church of Christ is one big sick denomination!”
There certainly are some churches which profess to be of Christ (1 John 2:19) which are denominational in nature and organizational structure. There are many so called “churches of Christ” who fraternize with denominations, and some who now teach the denominational plan of salvation. These things are criticized by even typical mainline churches of Christ in their periodicals and lectures. But, I wish to suggest here that the very institutional machinery and concept itself is denominational in nature. While most articles raising the question which we have in this article wish to state a negative response to the question, I wish to suggest that YES indeed, some “Churches of Christ” are in fact denominations. Mister Webster defines denominationalism in part as:”a religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body a number of local congregations.” The Southern Baptist churches have no headquarters, yet unite around the yearly convention, for example. Thus, there are churches of Christ who unite themselves together under various “brotherhood wide projects” such as the Herald of Truth, or some “brotherhood college” or benevolent society. In fact, the Herald of Truth concept was started as the “Church of Christ answer” to the denominational “Lutheran Hour.” To visit the exhibit halls of ACU during their yearly lectures, one would certainly think the Lord’s church to be a denomination. The booths in the exhibit halls advertising various “Church of Christ” homes for children, unwed mothers, the elderly, Churches of Christ For Scouting, etc. will state “This is a work of THE church of Christ.” “Really?” I ask them, “Which one?” They cannot answer, as they believe it is the work of THE churches of Christ as a “whole” rather than of any local congregation. The very wording shows they believe the denominational concept that the church of Christ is made up of all local congregations uniting around this project (like the Southern Baptists around the Southern Baptist Convention), thus seeking to enact the church universal. In this, we see the daughter churches (supporting churches) uniting around the mother church (sponsoring church).
When we look at the NT church, however, we find that each congregation was self ruling (Acts 6:3), self governing (Acts 20:28), or autonomous (1 Peter 5:1). She provided for the needy of her own number (Acts 6:1-7). Each congregation was complete as though she were the only church (Philippians 1:1). With this in mind, each local church was complete, fully able to do the work God intended each congregation to perform. Each was whole therefore, and not just a part of the whole. Each congregation was the local body of Christ, as if she were the only one on earth, and could do all of the work God required the church to do if she were. We never see the church universal enacted or functioning in any capacity in the New Testament. Some of the early writers who lead the New Testament church into apostacy, saw the term “church” being used three ways rather than two in the New Testament. They spoke of the “local church” and the “visible church universal” and the “invisible church universal.” By invisible, they meant the sum of the saved living and dead. But, by “visible” they meant all of the local churches combined. In fact, the very term Catholic means universal. Thus, this position lead to the current papal system. That is why, when one goes back and reads articles from the 40’s and 50’s dealing with these issues, you will see the term “Romanish” used in regards to these institutionals plans.
In 1931, F.B. Srygley, preacher and editor of the Gospel Advocate, said These churches were independent of each other and of all other congregations. They were not bound together by any organization under the control of the eldership of any of these churches, neither were they banded together under one board created by any state or national law....there was no discussion among them about how to build and control institutions such as orphanages, homes for the aged, or hospitals for the sick. There is no more authority in the New Testament for the control of such things than there is for control of a farm or health resort. Sometime after the apostles died...men became dissatisfied with this simple organization, which eventually led to the Roman Catholic heirarchy. The catholic church then undertook to organize in a way to control schools, hospitals...we now have brethren that should know better trying to find authority for owning and operating such things under the overworked rule of expediancy.” Gospel Advocate, May 14, 1931
So, next time someone asks you if the church of Christ is a denomination, simply ask them “which one?” I know we haven’t liked to “air our laundry in public” on these divisions among us, but brethren, the world sees the churches of Christ changing. Many newpaper articles have been written saying the “churches of Christ are no longer a sect, but are now a mainstream denomination.” We have lost our distinctiveness. Let the inquirer know that the local church of which you are a member is not like that, but are seeking to be the undenominational church they can read about in their Bibles.