Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 7, 1967
NUMBER 18, PAGE 2b-3

When Does A Church Cease To Be "Of Christ"?

Jerry F. Bassett

Many churches of Christ are becoming increasingly denominational in character. They are less interested in gospel preaching, and more interested in theological speculation, philosophy, and current events. They are less concerned about worshipping God in spirit and in truth, and more concerned about the impression the service has on visiting non-members. They are less involved in the work of preaching the gospel, and more and more in social work. They are no longer independent in local organization, but instead are increasingly tied together through schemes that constitute centralized control. In short, the love and interest of these churches is less and less in Christ, and more and more in things with worldly appeal; elegant buildings, "doctored" preachers, accredited colleges, socially prominent members, and a big, powerful organization.

In times like these there is also much talk among those trying to stand against this tide of digression about the subject of apostasy, and the fact that many are again travelling its downward path to spiritual degeneracy. Inevitably the question arises as to how far a church can go and still be considered a church of Christ. Unfortunately, some ask this question with the attitude that it is unanswerable. Others, however, are members in churches that are steadily digressing from the truth and wonder how long they can conscientiously remain in them. Others are concerned about the churches they worship with when away from home knowing it is not possible for them to worship the Lord in a church where He is no longer present. In any case, the question is an important one worthy of careful study.

What Makes A Church "Of Christ"?

Since we are trying to determine what causes a church's identity with Christ to cease we need to know what brings about that identity in the first place. A clear answer to this question lies in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In the salutation he addressed himself "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus..." (1:2. )

The expression, "sanctified in Christ Jesus" leaves no doubt that this church was of Christ. Further, the word "sanctified" also tells us how it came to bear this relationship. The word means "to separate" and refers to those who have been separated unto God by Jesus Christ. The separation is accomplished through the gospel. In verse 18 Paul said the gospel is the power of God, and verse 24 declares that through the preaching of it men are called to God. Consequently, the church in Corinth was of Christ because its members were obedient to Christ.

Equally important, especially to this study, is the fact that for the church in Corinth to continue to be identified as Christ's it had to continue in the gospel delivered by the apostles. Its members were to remember Paul's ways which were in Christ. (4: 16-17) They were to keep the ordinances, or divinely revealed traditions, which he had delivered to them. (11:1-2) And all were to acknowledge that the things he wrote to them were the commandments of the Lord. (14:37) Clearly, then, as men in Corinth had become a church of Christ through the gospel they also had to be faithful to it in order to maintain that cherished identity.

"But The Church In Corinth Was Corrupt!"

No doubt about it, the church in Corinth was corrupt. It was infested with sectarian factionalism. (1:11-12) One of its members was guilty of incestuous fornication, and the church itself was at fault for failing to exercise discipline. (5:1-13) Spiritual gifts which would have been used for conviction of unbelievers and edification of saints were being misused to satisfy personal vanity. (12-14) The supper which should have been a gracious commemoration of the Lord's death had been perverted into a drunken feast. (11:20-30) Yet, with all this, Paul called it the church of God in Corinth composed of those sanctified in Christ Jesus.

"Therefore," Say Some, "A Corrupt Church Is Still A Church Of Christ!"

To be sure, every church has its share of shortcomings, and Corinth was certainly no exception. Notice, however, that while Corinth was guilty of error it was also commanded to repent and rectify itself in the sight of the Lord. In fact, this is the very purpose of Paul's writing about those matters. Although some of Corinth's problems persisted and were to be handled when Paul came in person his second letter shows that Corinth was making some effort to straighten itself out. Consequently, to argue that circumstances in Corinth prove a church is still of Christ regardless of its corruption is to miss the point completely. The question ought to be, would Paul have continued to address the church in Corinth as he did if it had ignored his instruction?

Absolutely Not!

The Revelation represents the local churches as candlesticks, or lamp stands, with Christ walking in their midst. The picture, of course, suggests the idea of the churches holding forth the light which is given to them by Christ. However, some of these churches were having difficulty being faithful. One of them, Ephesus, was rebuked for falling from its first love, and for failing to do its first works. Rev. 1:1-5. Could Ephesus ignore this rebuke, continue in its error, and still be considered a church of Christ? Listen to Jesus. He said, "...I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent."

Thus, when a church refuses the truth and persists in error its identity as a church of Christ is gone. Yet, this is precisely the situation that exists in many churches all over the country. They engage in every kind of unauthorized work from sponsoring golf tournaments and tea parties to social rehabilitation, but they are not interested in discussing what the New Testament says about the work of the church. They fall all over themselves to be known as churches "cooperating" in programs in which they are surrendering their work to the oversight of "sponsoring elders," but they scowl and call ugly names upon those who suggest an examination of what the New Testament says about the organization of the church. They practically stand in line to turn the Lord's money over to human institutions to perform benevolent works, but they will hear nothing of what the New Testament says about the work of the church in benevolence nor of the sufficiency of the church to do that work.

Are these still churches of Christ? Not unless it is possible for a church to ignore its corruption, sneer at the Lord's truth, and refuse to repent! If that had happened at Ephesus, Jesus would have removed its candlestick. Therefore, at that point, the point where a church refuses to consider its error and repent, it ceases to be of Christ.