Why Are Churches of Christ So Different?

The author of this article is not offered, but it is similar to an article Sewell Hall wrote several years ago. That article appeared in Christianity Magazine and may have been the outline from which this article was written. The question about why churches differ is as timely today as it has always been.

Why are Churches of Christ so different?

A sign reading Church of Christ in front of a building tells you very little these days. Most any doctrine or practice may be found inside. This is frustrating to many people.

Outsiders mock the situation, saying, “You preach unity, but you are the most divided people we know.” They may even add, “This just proves you are not the true church.” This last statement shows a total misunderstanding of what the true church is, but it is a misunderstanding shared by far too many members of the churches of Christ.

How can we explain it? First, many churches that claim to be churches of Christ are not of Christ at all. Any church can claim that designation, but only one that truly recognizes Christ as its head is justified in using it. There is no denominational accrediting board that can certify a church as a true church of Christ; the Lord himself is the judge of that.

In addition, there are churches, claiming to be churches of Christ, that intend to follow Jesus but have widely differing ideas of what following Jesus involves. Some, like the Sadducees who doubted resurrection, might hear Jesus say, “You do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Others may indeed know the scriptures but construe them loosely, rejecting only those things that are forbidden. Still others believe that only those things clearly authorized are to be practiced; but even among these there may be differences in what they believe is authorized. When such congregations are truly autonomous, it is inevitable that there will be noticeable differences.

Such differences are not new! Differences existed among the churches established by the apostles even while the New Testament was still being written. The “seven churches that are in Asia” mentioned in Revelation chapters two and three provide good examples of those differences.

A visitor in Ephesus would have found an old established church that was doing everything right but of whom Christ said, “you did leave your first love” (Rev. 2:4). Moving on to Smyrna, he would find a church in poverty facing tribulation and “blasphemy from them who say they are Jews” (Rev. 2:9). Visiting the church in Pergamum, he might well hear a teacher defending idolatry and approving of the eating of “things sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:14). And if that was not shocking enough, going on to Thyatira he might meet a woman in the church there who taught and seduced the Lord’s servants into committing fornication (Rev. 2:20).

If such a traveler expressed concern about what he had found thus far, he might well be told that he would find things better in Sardis where there was a church with a reputation for being alive. But on arrival, he would be disappointed to find a dead church (Rev. 3:1). Moving on to Philadelphia, he would find a church made up of good people but one that was relatively small and with only a little power or ability (Rev. 3:8). Finally, in Laodicea, he might be impressed by the church there who had confidence in their riches and self-sufficiency, but on closer inspection he would find that spiritually, they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev. 3:17). At least, that’s what the Lord found.

Were all these churches right because they would claim to be “of Christ”? No! Two of them were threatened with total rejection by the Lord (Rev. 2:5; 3:16) and three were warned of dire consequences if they did not repent. Then, were the remaining congregations the one true church? No! The one true church is not composed of congregations but of faithful individuals saved by the Lord (Acts 2:47). Despite the false teaching and immorality in some of the churches, there were still some, as in Sardis, of whom the Lord said, “you have a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments” (Rev. 3:4). The faithful remnant in these and other churches then, constituted then as they do still today, the one true church.

What all churches must do: In John’s epistles, written about the same time as Revelation, we see echoes of the same problems. He speaks of those who questioned both the divinity and humanity of Jesus (possibly the teaching of the Nicolaitans), of those claiming they could sin without guilt, and of some who hated their brethren. There had even been divisions which John explains by saying, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19).

John stated the solution. Ten times in 1 John and 2 John he speaks of “the beginning.” Most often that expression seems to refer to the beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost under the direction of the apostles of Jesus as in 1 John 2:24. After warning of false prophets (1 John 4:1) he provides the standard by which they are to be tested. As an apostle he writes: “We are of God: he that knows God hears us; he who is not of God hears us not. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).

We cannot be responsible for every church in the world that calls itself a church of Christ. Our responsibility as congregations is to go back to be the church as it was in “the beginning” and to “the apostles’ teaching” in which that church “continued steadfastly” (Acts 2:42). As individuals we must make sure that we are a part of the faithful remnant that makes up the one true church.