We will begin with a question that ponders the origin of our particular fellowship. Why do churches of Christ believe that they are the church that Jesus instituted?
To answer this question we first need to clarify when Christ’s church was instituted. In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asked His disciples, “who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and, upon hearing Peter’s confession of His identity, Jesus blessed Peter and said, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…[and] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19). The rock on which Jesus was going to build His church was the confession of His identity (Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9-10; 1 John 2:23; 4:2), and the keys that He gave Peter was the message of salvation contained within the Gospel (Acts 2:14-41; 10:34-48). As a result, Christ’s church was established in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 2:1-4) as prophesied in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-32; Micah 4:2-3, 15) and instructed by Jesus (Acts 1:4-5). Therefore, it must be asserted that any religious body founded on any occasion other than in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost is not Christ’s church.
So, when were the congregations who are referred to as “Church of Christ” founded? The historical heritage of the churches of Christ goes back to the Restoration Movement of the 19th century. In the early 1800s, men like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell abandoned their denominational ties and sought to restore the primitive church. Their objective was to be Christians only who adhered to the pattern demonstrated by the church of the New Testament. At first glance, such a historical heritage seems to exclude the churches of Christ from being recognized as Christ’s church since our fellowship cannot trace its historical lineage back to the first century church. But is a historical line of succession necessary for a church to be a descendant of New Testament Christianity?
Scripture repeatedly indicates that a historical lineage is not nearly as important as spiritual lineage. For example, prior to giving Moses the Ten Commandments, God said, "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine" (Exodus 19:5). Based on God’s very own words, the determining factor for being His people was obedience. And this expectation that was presented to Moses was reiterated throughout the prophetic writings as a reminder to the Israelites of the connection between obedience to God and relationship with God (Jeremiah 7:23; Ezekiel 11:19-20). Thus, God’s people are His people not because of their history but because of their obedience. This is why Paul would say, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). This is why John would say, “by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3) and “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 3:24). This is why Jesus would say, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father” (John 14:21).
So, a church’s spiritual lineage is much more important that its historical lineage, and a church can trace its spiritual lineage back to the Day of Pentecost if it emulates the first century church. And emulating the first century church is expected. The New Testament authors repeatedly speak of adhering to a pattern of teaching. Such a pattern is implied in Jesus’ instruction for His teachings to be passed down in perpetuity (Matthew 28:19-20). A pattern is implied in Paul’s instructions to “teach no other doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3) and to “note” as well as “avoid” anyone who “cause[s] divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned” (Romans 16:17). A pattern is implied in Paul’s instructions for Timothy to “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me” (2 Timothy 1:13) and to “entrust [what you have heard from me] to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). A pattern is also implied in John’s instructions to “test the spirits” (i.e. teachings) to determine whether or not they are “truth” or “error” (1 John 4:1, 6). As a result, it must be asserted that any religious body not adhering to the pattern both of doctrine and practice exemplified by the New Testament church is not Christ’s church because obedience has always been the determining factor for spiritual descent.
The point is that there is a definitive, divine plan “that God intended to be the pattern by which the church in the New Testament can be identified and reproduced throughout history” (1). The challenge for the church is to continually examine itself to ensure that it is adhering to the pattern that designates a spiritual heritage back to Pentecost. The church of Christ believes that it is the church that Christ instituted because it is constantly seeking to restore the first century pattern in a twenty-first century world.
(1) Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1997), 13.