There are some fundamental concepts about the churches of Christ and the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in this country. One of those is that we are undenominational. That means we have no written creed, no headquarters, no clergy or governing board that can decide exactly what everyone is supposed to teach or what our position should be on every topic. Another such fundamental is that each congregation of the churches of Christ is autonomous or self-governed. It is overseen by the elders or shepherds for that local church. No other congregation or body among us is over or above that local church to tell them what they can or can’t do. Both these concepts are vital for us as a fellowship if we are to remain true to Scripture and to our heritage as a people.
But, it seems to me that both these are rapidly slipping away from us. Take the undenominational aspect first. Fifty years ago when I was a new preacher, trying hard to get my bearings on who we were and what we wanted to be, I was blessed to have some great teachers to guide my thinking. I had the opportunity to spend lots of hours listening to and asking questions of Brother Gus Nichols. At that same time I had the privilege of sitting with Brother W.A. Black. They were very different from each other but each helped me tremendously in getting a clear view of what we were as a church. Both emphasized the undenominational nature of the church. Our head is Jesus Christ and we are striving to both hear his teaching and follow his life since the church is His body. Since Jesus is the head there isn’t room for another head or headquarters.
Tied closely to the undenominational nature of the church is the reality that each member of the church or body of Christ is a priest of God. Peter challenged us as a Royal priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices pleasing to the Lord. Since we are all priest, we all have access to Christ, the Father and the Holy Spirit for ourselves. We don’t need to go through someone else to get to the Father. We can study the Bible for ourselves and learn for ourselves what we ought to be as members of the body. Now, it will certainly be the case that in those studies sometimes people will get off track and need help to understand things better, as was the case with Apollos the preacher who was taken aside by good members of the congregation, named Aquila and his wife Priscilla to show him the way more clearly. So we can help and correct one another as fellow members of the body.
But, if we are undenominational, there isn’t a set creed to follow. Each person can study the Bible for themselves and teach what they understand it to say. There isn’t an official body or belief that one must follow to be part of the kingdom of Christ. We can’t even decide who is in and who is out of the church since the Lord adds people to it and removes their names from the Book of Life if they stray far enough. It is certainly true that if we see that someone has gotten off track and missed some vital truth in Scripture we have the right and in some cases the obligation to try to help them see where they are mistaken and to bring them back. Both Paul and John in the New Testament called some people out as ones that were teaching error and challenged them to get it right and encouraged others not to follow them. Today, we don’t have any apostles who sit in John’s or Paul’s seat to tell everyone what the standard is they are to follow. That being the case when we think someone in the body is off on some point, and we decide we are going to try to correct that error for them, we need to ask ourselves whether we are trying to correct the person in a way to win them back to God and make them useful in the kingdom as Aquila and Priscilla did with Apollos, even helping him on his way and writing letters for others to use him. Or is it our aim to ostracize the person, to somehow drive them out of the church or to humiliate them so that no one will use them any more. Sometimes we may find ourselves trying to act like either the Lord in charge or an apostle who knows their heart on the matter when neither is the case. Instead we are all fellow students trying to learn God’s way better and follow it.
The other vital concept is the autonomy of each church. The Lord is the head of the church and each local congregation is self governed. They go directly to the Lord to learn how to do things in their congregation. One congregation isn’t over another. One church may try to help another to get things right, or even try to correct them in some area they believe they are wrong. But one church doesn’t have the right to try to run another or tell another what to do. It isn’t one church’s place to determine whether another church is in fellowship. Our headquarters is with the Lord in heaven not down here. If we had lived in the first century I have little doubt that some congregations in your city or mine would have been wanting to withdraw fellowship from the church in Corinth at the very time the Lord referred to them as the church of God, called to be saints with all who in every place call upon him. We had better be careful not to draw our lines of fellowship so tight that churches Jesus accepts aren’t in the circle.
Think about this whole thing. If we are undenominational and autonomous, are the attacks on a congregation right, because we think they did something wrong? Much of what I’ve seen didn’t seem to be of the Aquila and Priscilla nature. Since you or I are not apostles, maybe we shouldn’t try to act like we are.