Conversations About Churches of Christ
Quite often when I meet someone, they ask what I do. When I inform them that I’m the preaching minister at Glendale Road, I follow up that statement by asking where they attend. However, long before I was in ministry, I might have an occasional religious conversation with someone, and they would follow it up by asking, “What denomination are you?” My answer was always, “I’m a Christian.” I was unclear on what even “denomination” meant, but I came to learn more about the term once I entered preaching school. Obviously, they would ask, “What church do you go to?” Then I knew what they meant.
Sadly, it has become all-too-common that when people talk about church, they inevitably identify themselves, not by the name of Jesus, but by the name of the congregation they attend which is more descriptive of their system of beliefs and teachings than by the name of Christ. Our own people do it too, often answering the question, “I’m a church-of-Christer.” Many decades ago, our people were referred to as Campbellites because the doctrines that were held to were largely advocated by Alexander Campbell in the nineteenth century. The truth is, we ought only to ever go by the precious name by which we were saved, and nothing else. We aren’t church-of-Christers, we are Christians. We are members of the body of Christ.
Even in early America, the Anglican preacher, George Whitefield once quipped,
Father Abraham, whom have you in Heaven? Any Episcopalians? ‘No.’ Any Presbyterians? ‘No.’ Have you any Independents or Seceders? ‘No.’ Have you any Methodists? “No, no, no!’ Whom have you there? ‘We don’t know those names here. All who are here are Christians— believers in Christ—men who have overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony.’ Oh, is this the case? Then God help us, God help us all, to forget party names, and to become Christians in deed and truth.
When he preached those words in the eighteenth century, many shared the sentiments because denominationalism was division. It was a division of God’s people on sectarian grounds.
One question I’ve been asked time and again is how there came to be so many “churches.” Luckily, because my primary area of research interest is church history, this is a rather easy question for me to answer. There are so many churches, put simply, because of Protestantism, which was spurred by Martin Luther—a Catholic, Augustinian monk from the first half of the sixteenth century.
In the East, the predominant form of Christianity is Orthodox, which actually predates Catholicism. The term “orthodox” appears in the fourth century while “catholic” appeared as early as the second century, but they were not “churches” per se then so much as adjectives. A catholic, then, was a “universal Christian,” and someone who was “orthodox” was someone who believed “right doctrine.” Catholicism came to dominate the West (Rome and beyond) after the eleventh century, but the early councils of Christianity (e.g., Nicaea in AD 325) demonstrate a church polity akin to Orthodoxy. Therefore, at least as far back as the fourth century, to be orthodox and catholic was really one in the same thing.
With the split of the two in 1054—an episode known as the East-West Schism or the Schism of 1054—Orthodoxy remained as one might see it today while Catholicism has evolved. Because of this evolution and primary authority resting in the bishop of Rome, the Pope, practices came to be adopted that weren’t altogether Christian. The one that led to the Reformation (Protestantism) was the selling of indulgences by Johann Tetzel—a practice where one could purchase favor for a loved one in the afterlife. Both Luther and Tetzel were German, and Luther found the selling of indulgences corrupt and, therefore, a violation of Christian dogma.
When Luther raised his objections by nailing a list of 95 theses to the doors of the University of Wittenberg in 1517, he had no intention of breaking fellowship with the Pope or the Catholic Church. Instead, he wanted these areas fixed while remaining Catholic. Since his complaints were not well received by higher clergymen, Luther was forced into exile and excommunicated from the church. Hereafter, the type of Christianity he practiced mirrored Catholicism but rectified the grievances he had, and this led to the formation of the Lutheran Church despite Luther himself not wanting a church named after him.
As the Reformation waned, a French theologian named John Calvin took up Luther’s mantle and breathed new life into the movement. His form of Protestantism influenced the West hereafter, eventually birthing the Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and many other branches from whom would flow the multitude of denominations that exist. Among the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were men who grew weary of the division. They pleaded for Christian unity by calling for an abandonment of sectarian names and using the Bible alone rather than the many creeds that existed. Thus began what’s known as the Restoration Movement, of which we are inheritors.