Why Were They Called “churches of Christ”?

Church of Christ

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you” (Romans 16:16).

Paul referred to the congregations with which he was associated as “churches of Christ.” Many brethren, in an effort to follow the New Testament pattern, have also used this to identify local churches. However, some brethren have quit using this designation, choosing instead to identify themselves as “The Church in ___” or merely placing a sign in front of their building that says, “Christians Meet Here.” Of course, many more in the denominational world use other names to identify their churches (Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, etc.).

Our desire must be to please Christ and serve Him faithfully. So let us consider this question: Why were those local churches in the first century called “churches of Christ” and what bearing does this have on us today?

The Universal Church Is “of Christ”

There is just one church in the universal sense. When Jesus spoke to His disciples, He told them of “My church” (Matthew 16:18). He used the singular rather than the plural form of that word. There is just one church that is Christ’s, not many. Notice the following verses:

  • I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18). The church was built by Christ. Therefore, it is “of Christ.
  • Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). The church was bought by Christ. Therefore, it is “of Christ.
  • And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). The church is the body of Christ. Therefore, it is “of Christ.
  • For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:23, 31-32). The church is the bride of Christ. Therefore, it is “of Christ.

The New Testament also uses the term church to refer to local congregations. These local churches were called “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). The universal church has no organizational structure on earth. It is simply the body of all the saved (Acts 2:47; Ephesians 5:23). But the fact that THE church is “of Christ” naturally means that local churches are also “of Christ.” In fact, when Paul told the Ephesian elders to “shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28), we know that he was referring to the church of Christ in Ephesus since the elders only oversee the flock that is among them (cf. 1 Peter 5:2).

The Members Are “of Christ”

When He gave the Great Commission, Jesus charged His apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). They were to “make disciples,” but disciples of whom? Not of the apostles. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). Notice what Paul wrote in his first epistle to Corinth:

Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).

Why are we to be “of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12)? Paul gave three reasons in the passage above:

  1. Christ wants us to be united in Him – Shortly before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father: “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21).
  2. Christ was crucified for us – Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He died for us so that we might live for Him (2 Corinthians 5:15).
  3. Christians are baptized into Christ – Paul also wrote, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

Since Christians are “of Christ,” it makes sense that congregations made up of Christians are also “of Christ.

The Churches Are Not Part “of” Anything Else

Most local congregations in the religious world are part of a larger denomination. Therefore, they are not “of Christ.” For example, the “___ Baptist Church” is part of one of the Baptist church denominations (Southern Baptists, Missionary Baptists, etc.). It is not the “___ Baptist church of Christ” (I actually had a Baptist preacher try to argue this when we were discussing this issue).

There were no denominations in the first century church. Paul condemned the divisions in Corinth in which Christians were lining up behind men like Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). They had not even reached the further steps of apostasy in which they would claim to be part of larger denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.). According to the pattern for the Lord’s church, elders were to oversee the flock among them (1 Peter 5:2). They were accountable only to Christ (1 Peter 5:4), not some larger hierarchy. The churches with which Paul associated were “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16) because they were not “of” anything else.

The Churches Uphold the Truth “of Christ”

Paul described the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The context indicates that this was the local church with its elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13).

Churches uphold the truth by teaching the truth. Paul commended the church in Thessalonica: “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything” (1 Thessalonians 1:8). In speaking of his preaching for the church in Ephesus, Paul said, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Local churches must be teaching the truth of God’s word.

Churches also uphold the truth by practicing the truth. Paul wrote, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Colossians 3:17). Jesus told the woman of Samaria, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Local churches must be working and worshipping in such a way that is in harmony with the truth of God’s word.

We should expect uniformity of doctrine and practice among faithful “churches of Christ.” Paul told the church in Corinth, “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17). How is it that such uniformity could exist among the churches with which Paul labored and can exist among churches today? It is not because a “conference” decided what doctrines and practices should exist among the “churches of Christ.” It is simply because we hold to the same pattern found in the New Testament (2 Timothy 1:13).

Nothing More Accurate Than “churches of Christ”

It is true that the New Testament contains other designations for local churches than “churches of Christ.” However, it is worth noting that these designations for local churches are found in correspondence to and conversations with Christians. In identifying a local congregation and distinguishing it from the churches of men in the religious world, there is no term more concisely accurate and expedient than “churches of Christ.” Notice a few different designations for a local church that some might use:

  • “Church in ___” – When the Lord addressed the first of the seven churches in Asia, he directed John to write to “the church in Ephesus” (Revelation 2:1). The other six churches were identified by their city as well (Revelation 2:8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). The Greek word translated “church” (ekklesia) is a generic term that simply means an assembly. In fact, the same word is also used to refer to a riotous crowd in Ephesus (Acts 19:41). The context determines what type of gathering/assembly is under consideration. Our English word church is a little more specific, but is still somewhat ambiguous. What kind of church is the “church in ___”? When Jesus told John to write to “the church in Smyrna” (Revelation 2:8), it was obvious that He was referring to the local church of Christ in Smyrna, not the First Baptist Church in Smyrna. But a local church today that simply identifies itself as “the church in ___” only tells the community that it is a religious group, nothing more.
  • “Christians Meet Here” – This phrase is not found in the Bible and is even more ambiguous than the generic phrase “church in ___.” What “kind” of Christians? After all, to the world, there are many different “kinds” of Christians. For what purpose do they meet? For worship? For socializing? For entertainment? A local church that identifies itself with nothing more than a “Christians Meet Here” sign suggests to the community that it is nothing more than a “Christian” club.
  • “Church of God” – Some have suggested that it would be Scriptural to identify a local church as a “church of God.” Paul used this term to address the church in Corinth when he wrote to them (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). But what is the most accurate, particularly as we seek to identify a local church in a community? To what person of the Godhead does the church belong? Paul spoke of “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Which person of God shed His blood on the cross to purchase the church? Obviously, that was Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). Although Paul addressed the congregation in Corinth as “the church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1), he quickly reminded them of the fact that they were “of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).
  • A “church of Christ” – There is no other concise designation for a local congregation that better describes – to Christians and to the world – what a local church ought to be.

For the reasons we have considered in this article – the universal church is “of Christ” (Matthew 16:18; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23, 32), local churches were called “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16), members of a local church are “of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13), local churches were not part “of” anything else (1 Corinthians 1:12-13; 1 Peter 5:2, 4), and local churches uphold the truth “of Christ” (1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Timothy 1:13) – there is no more concisely accurate and expedient description for sound local congregations than “churches of Christ.

Conclusion

It would be a mistake to say that the Lord gave a “proper name” to His church. As we have noticed, there are other descriptions used for local congregations in the New Testament than just “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). However, as we also noticed, there are several reasons why it is accurate, expedient, and also instructive to call local churches, “churches of Christ.” The reason why faithful brethren have used the term “churches of Christ” over the years is not because of human tradition, and is not limited to just Romans 16:16 in Scriptural support.

Before brethren join the fad of dropping the name “church of Christ” from their local congregation, consideration should be given to the points discussed here. Have they found a more expedient way to identify the local body, or are they trying to distance themselves from faithful brethren in sound “churches of Christ”? [It is not my place to judge anyone’s heart, but I do encourage brethren to examine themselves and their motives (2 Corinthians 13:5).]

If a local church cannot be accurately described as a “church of Christ,” it is not a sound church. If brethren are hesitant to call their local congregation a “church of Christ,” they need to seriously consider why.


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Comments

  1. Larry DeVore says

    Excellent article, Andy. Some of our more progressive brethren won’t like it.

  2. Thanks, Larry. You’re right. I’ve already received some predictable responses privately.

  3. Wayne D. Teel says

    Excellent article, Andy. You have made some very good points here and I appreciate what you have written.

  4. Thanks, Wayne. I appreciate your comment.

  5. Carrie Nygard says

    I agree with all of your points. I am, however, concerned with the opinion that the world looks at the “church of Christ” as just another denomination. Especially considering that the world believes that the church of Christ started in the 1800s (at least the designation of church of Christ). What do you suggest to a local church that wants to be seen as pre-denominational? Simply calling oneself so isn’t working.

  6. James Shewmaker says

    I guess then that I am a “progressive brother” because I do not believe that it is right to take one passage and inflate it to such a degree that it becomes bigger than all other passages.

    According to this article, the Apostle Paul was a “progressive brother” because he referred to “the churches of God which in _______ are in Christ Jesus”.

    I simply do not believe that Romans 16:16 was intended to be the Ace Trump Card of all passages which refer to the churches in the New Testament. I believe that making Romans 16:16 into the Ace Trump Card is binding where God has not bound. It is wresting that passage out of its rightful place within scripture.

    Yes the churches are to be of Christ, but that does not mean that this is the only way in which the New testament writers described the churches and if anyone were to claim that this is the MAIN way in which Paul described the churches that would be a false claim.

  7. James, did you read the article? I am not binding anything when I say: “If a local church cannot be accurately described as a “church of Christ,” it is not a sound church.” I even specifically said: “It would be a mistake to say that the Lord gave a “proper name” to His church.”

    Perhaps you are objecting to this statement: “there is no more concisely accurate and expedient description for sound local congregations than “churches of Christ.”” If so, can you suggest a term that IS a more concisely accurate and expedient description for sound local congregations?

  8. Carrie, that’s a good question. It’s true that “churches of Christ” are viewed negatively by some in the world (or seen as just another denomination). Then again, “Christians” are also viewed negatively by many in the world or are associated with denominational “Christians,” and we certainly shouldn’t stop calling ourselves by that name.

    The best answer I can give is from Acts 28. When Paul came to Rome, he met with the Jewish leaders there. They said, “But we desire to hear from you what your views are; for concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22). The church was called a sect and had a negative reputation. Paul’s response was simply to preach the gospel (Acts 18:23). People may have a negative view of “churches of Christ” or “Christians” or any other description that can be used for individuals and congregations of God’s people. The proper response is teaching the truth. Those who are honest will see past the attacks and hear the gospel.