Church of Christism

Bruce Terry

Two bulletins have crossed my desk recently that cause me quite a bit of concern. The doctrine they are teaching is not new; at least it has been around ever since I can remember, but then I am only 34. For convenience we can call this doctrine "Church of Christism." Some have wondered what Church of Christism is; for their sake it may be defined thus: "Church of Christism is that tendency to view the Churches of Christ that do not use instrumental music in a denominational way, often referring to them collectively as the Church of Christ." It is held in varying degrees by many people, quite often even by those who loudly insist, "The Church of Christ is not a denomination." Notice that I did not define Church of Christism as the belief that the Churches of Christ comprise a denomination called the Church of Christ. This belief is a part of Church of Christism in our world today, but only a small part. The only reason why people believe this is that they see those who claim that Churches of Christ do not make up a denomination speak of them and apparently even think of them as if they were. This is Church of Christism.

Before proceeding further we need to define the word "denomination." Webster 's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines it thus: "a religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body a number of local congregations." Notice that a denomination is a group of local churches. Contrast this with the Biblical use of the word "church." In the New Testament, except for the five passages in I Corinthians (11:18; 14:19, 18, 34, 35) where the word means the public assembly, the word always means a group of people who assemble together. A local church is a group of people who assemble usually at least once a week (some don't make it that often). In the same way, the universal church is a group of people who will assemble together at Christ's second coming (I Thess. 4:16-17). We can define the universal church as "all the people who are saved throughout the whole world throughout the whole Christian age (i.e., from the day of Pentecost to Christ's second coming)." This is what one should mean when he speaks of "the church of Christ."

Christ's church is made up of everyone who has been or will be saved in this age. When a person is saved, God adds them to His church (Acts 2:47; Col. 1:13). A person cannot be saved without being a part of this church; neither can one be a part of it without being saved. Once a person has been saved there is nothing further that he needs to do to become a part of God's church, because God Himself adds him to it. It is not an organization that a person can join. Not only does God provide the entrance into His church, He provides the salvation. While we were helpless sinners, He sent Christ to die on the cross to provide forgiveness of sins. There is nothing that we have done or could do to merit or earn such salvation. It is all due to the grace of God (Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:8-10). But even so, this salvation must be accepted to be of any worth. A man plays a part in his own salvation, but it is a part of acceptance, not of merit. Four items on man's part are associated with salvation in the Bible: faith (Mark 16:16), repentance (II Cor. 7:10), confession (Rom. 10:9-10), and baptism (I Peter 3:21). Therefore if a man believes in Christ Jesus, repents of his sins, confesses Christ, and is baptized into Him, God saves him and adds him to the church.

Church of Christism, on the other hand, holds that the Church of Christ is made up of all the local Churches of Christ that do not use instrumental music. This is a denominational view. This may be seen by noting a parallel with an obviously denominational situation. If one inquires what the Free Will Baptist Church teaches, he is asking about the Free Will Baptist denomination. He is talking about a group of local churches, each of which calls itself a Free Will Baptist Church. The word "church" in the first instance means denomination, a meaning which is good English but not Biblical. In the same way, those infested with Church of Christism speak of what the Church of Christ teaches. They are not speaking of the universal church; it does not teach anything; it is the Bible that teaches. They are referring to the commonly accepted doctrine among Churches of Christ. And it may even be about a non-Biblical point, such as the necessity of song leaders or of "placing membership." In doing so, they are speaking in denominational terms (referring to a group of churches) just as much as when someone speaks of the Free Will Baptist Church.

Again, those who hold to this "-ism" do not commonly refer to themselves as Christians, but as members of the Church of Christ. But when they use the term "Church of Christ" like this they are not talking about the universal church; rather they are referring to the group of churches, each of which calls itself a Church of Christ and does not use instrumental music. You ask for proof? Easy! Ask them if they are members of the church of God. If they mean the universal church when they call themselves members of the Church of Christ, they will answer "Yes." But they will not answer "Yes"; they will answer "No." Or ask them if someone who belongs to a Church of Christ that uses instrumental music is a member of the church of Christ. "Oh, no," they will answer, "he is a member of the Christian Church." But however wrong he is on the question of instrumental music, he is still a member of the church of Christ, if we are referring to the universal church. But those who hold to Church of Christism do not usually use the term "Church of Christ" to refer to the universal church (all who have been saved, whether following the apostles' teaching completely or not); rather they usually are referring to a group of churches (a denominational concept). One cannot belong to a group of churches without belonging to a denomination. It is proper to say that one is a member of the such-and-such Church of Christ (referring to a local church), but it is denominational to the core to say that one is a member of a group of churches, whether they are called "the Churches of Christ" or "the Church of Christ."

Brothers, we need to watch our language. More than that we need to watch our thinking. When we say something like, "I am a member of the Church of Christ because it teaches such-and-such," we are using denominational language. Is it any wonder that our Baptist friends think we are either lying or crazy when we say, "The Church of Christ is not a denomination"? They understand us to be talking about a group of churches, each of which calls itself a Church of Christ. They would not argue with the statement if they understood us to be talking about the universal church, although they would no doubt argue about who is in the universal church. But even more seriously, is it any wonder if many Christians within Churches of Christ think the preacher is a fool when he says, "The Church of Christ is not a denomination"? As the undenominational concept fades away, a new denomination—"The Church of Christ"— will arise. Don't think it can't happen; it did among those churches now in the Disciples of Christ denomination. How long, brothers, how long will it be before that happens? Now is the time, more than ever, when we need to explain exactly what we mean when we say, "the church of Christ" (or even, "the Lord's church"). By the way, what do you mean? Are you infested with Church of Christism?

--Bruce Terry
June 1981

This article orginally was published as:

Terry, Bruce. 1981. Church of Christism. Firm Foundation 98 (Aug. 18).

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