The congregations associated with the Church of Christ have always identified themselves as nondenominational. For centuries this was a peculiar identification, but in recent years it has become very popular for congregations to claim that they are nondenominational, especially among the community church movement. According to a June 12, 2015 Christianity Today article, “over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants (1) who identify as nondenominational” (2). With the growing popularity of nondenominational congregations it is important for us to consider what that means, and why the churches of Christ have maintained that identity.
Generally speaking, the term “nondenominational” is a reference to how a church is governed. In particular, it is an indication that a congregation ascribes to an autonomous form of church government. Autonomy refers to self-governance, independence, or freedom from external control. Thus, to be nondenominational is to be independent of a denomination’s control or influence.
When it comes to church government, Scripture only identifies two levels of leadership. First, Scripture indicates that each congregation of the Lord’s church is under the headship of Christ. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:22 that God “put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” A few chapters later in Ephesians 5:23-24, Paul used the relationship between Christ and the church as a metaphor for the relationship between husbands and wives saying, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Then, in Colossians 1:18 Paul simply said that Christ “is the head of the body, the church.” All of these verses indicate that the church is ultimately under the authority of Christ. That means that He has the final say. This is especially important when it comes to the doctrinal beliefs and congregational practices of Christ’s church, and, to determine His will on such matters, we must consult His inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Revelation 22:18-19).
Second, Scripture indicates that each congregation of the Lord’s church should be shepherded by elders. In Acts 14:23 we learn that during the second leg of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders…in every church” that they had established during the first leg of that trip. Later, Paul instructed both Titus and Timothy to appoint elders at the congregations in their respective missionary fields (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). These elderships were responsible for providing spiritual leadership for the congregation in which they were appointed. This is evident from Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 5:2 to his fellow elders in which he said, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (emphasis added). In this instruction, Peter limited the scope of an eldership’s responsibility and authority to the congregation in which they were appointed. This limitation is also evident in Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12, and indicates that while all Christians are subject to Christ’s leadership not all Christians are subject to a particular eldership’s leadership.
If Christ governs the church’s beliefs and practices, then what do the elders govern? An eldership’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the flock under their oversight is spiritually healthy, but an eldership also possesses the authority to make decisions in areas that entail matters of opinion, expediency, and human judgment. In other words, the local eldership is responsible for making decisions in areas where the Bible has imposed an obligation, but where the method for implementing the obligation has not been regulated. For example, Scripture indicates that Christians are to assemble every Lord’s day for the purpose of worshiping God (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Hebrews 10:25). However, Scripture does not specify at what time of the day the assembly should occur or where the assembly should occur. These are matters for the leadership of the local congregation to decide, and no other congregation or group has the right to dictate policy in these areas.
The headship of Christ and the eldership of the local church are the only forms of church government found in Scripture. Why then are there other governing entities present in so many denominations?
Some contend that there are other church leadership roles identified in Scripture that supersede the role of an elder since the title “bishop” or “overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7) appears in Scripture in conjunction with that of “elder” (1 Timothy 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14). The truth is that these titles, along with the titles of “pastor,” “presbyter,” and “shepherd,” are all referring to the same office because they are used interchangeably in Scripture in passages such as Acts 20:17-28, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 5:1-2 (3). Since Scripture uses the terms ”bishop” and “elder” interchangeably we must conclude that they are different terms for the same office.
Additionally, some contend that there should be governing bodies such as church councils that supersede the local eldership. Those who hold such a position contend that the meeting in Acts 15 of Christians from the Antioch congregation and the Jerusalem congregation created the first church council. However, the Jerusalem council, as it is routinely called, was not a meeting of a church council but a meeting of representatives from two congregations, Paul and Barnabas representing the church in Antioch and the elders of the church in Jerusalem representing their congregation, with the divinely inspired Apostles to determine God’s will on the issue of Gentile inclusion into the church. The reason these two congregations met with the elders is because some false teachers came to the Antioch congregation from the Jerusalem congregation claiming that Gentile converts had to be circumcised. Consequently, Acts 15 is not an example of a church council for two reasons: 1) because it only involved representatives from two congregations rather than all congregations, and 2) because it was a doctrinal consultation with the Apostles, who were the authoritative teachers of the early church prior to the compilation of the New Testament.
In conclusion, a nondenominational church is a congregation that is autonomous, meaning that it is independently governed by a local leadership under the headship of Christ and not under the auspices of a centralized governing body or individual. Thus, to be nondenominational is to be independent of a denomination’s control or influence, and the congregations associated with the churches of Christ maintain an identity consistent with this form of church governance.
(1) “Protestant” means any religious body under the generic umbrella of Christianity that would not have ties to the Roman Catholic church or the Eastern Orthodox church.
(2) Ed Setzer, “The Rapid Rise of Nondenominational Christianity” Christianity Today, June 12, 2015; accessed on November 6, 2017 at http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/june/rapid-rise-of-non-denominational-christianity-my-most-recen.html
(3) For an explanation of the different terms associated with the role of elders, read my article published in the Buford Church of Christ’s bulletin on April 9, 2017 entitled “Why Does the Church of Christ Possess Elders?”