|Volume 21 Number 1 January 2019||
Some people think the church of Christ is a sect. That does not surprise me. Paul was called “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The chief of the Jews in Rome said to Paul, “as concerning this sect, we know that it is everywhere spoken against” (Acts 28:22). It was not a complimentary term. The word “sect” in the King James Version is translated “heresy” in other versions. Those who called the church a sect thought the Christians had come together on a falsehood, but to their credit, they recognized that the members of that body believed a distinctive doctrine and that their faith gave them a distinctive identity. Some today say the church is sectarian because of its distinctive plea, but saying that does not make it so.
I have heard it said that the church is “undenominational.” I have said that myself, and I know what I meant. As a prefix, “un” can mean “not,” and that is what I was trying to say; the church is not denominational. Yet, “un” often has other meanings, like “reverse” or “opposite.” “Non-denominational” may be a better term. “Non” almost always means “not,” and the church of Christ is not denominational. Yea, verily, it is “anti-denominational”—against denominationalism. It is often hard for people to think of a “church” that is not denominational. For a long time, members of the Lord’s body were about the only ones ever saying that.
Now, I am seeing many different kinds of churches that call themselves “non-denominational.” Many say they are a “Community Church.” Some use creative names like, “The Spirit of Love Church” or “Rock Fellowship.” They say they are “non-denominational” because they are independent congregations that answer to no higher organizational structure. I understand that, but while these modern non-denominational churches value their independence, they do not so much value Bible authority. They pretty much worship any way they want to, teach their own plan of salvation and openly fellowship with those who do not share their distinctive faith. They still think that when it comes to salvation, “one is just as good as another.”
Locally, churches of Christ are independent congregations. Like the Christians in the New Testament, their spiritual brethren are those of “like precious faith” (2 Peter 1:1), but they limit their fellowship to those of that faith. That is why some call them a “sect.”
“Pre-denominational” is a relatively new term (as least it is to me.) “Pre” means “before.” A church that is “pre-denominational” is a church that existed before there were denominations. While some find it difficult to think of a church existing today that is not part of a denomination, they never seem to have a problem understanding that the church Jesus established in the New Testament was pre-denominational. In the New Testament, people were baptized into Christ and added to His church without joining any denomination. (There was no denomination to join; there was just the one church.) These pre-denominational Christians worked together and assembled to worship in independent congregations. Elders were appointed to shepherd the flock and to oversee their work, and some of the saints were asked to serve as deacons. Christ was their Head, and they recognized a common identity with those in other locations with the same faith. “Pre-denominational” is a good term; it points back to the early church. We can hear the same Gospel they heard, respond to it the same way, be added to the same church and gather in local congregations to worship just as they did, without joining any denomination.
We can be the pre-denominational church. Those who do not understand this may call us a “sect,” but that is nothing new.
A Pattern for the New Year
In Greek society, learning to write the letters of the alphabet was very important, seeing as everything was done by hand. The writing master would draw the letters in soft wax, and underneath these the student would make a copy. The line the master wrote was the “pattern” that the student had to follow. Sometimes, the schoolmaster would take the student’s hand and guide it along the letters to help emphasize the pattern in both feel and mind. This would emphasize the pattern and help the student not to make as many mistakes. Eventually, with practice and fixing it in the mind of the student, one would be able to imitate the form for writing until it became second nature. Pupils would be able to write correctly without thinking about it.
The same word used for the pattern used in the Greek schools is used in the New Testament of the pattern it gives us by which to live. God has always dealt with His people through a pattern. In the Old Testament, the Law was given as a pattern to be followed. Instructions for the construction of the tabernacle is an example of an Old Testament pattern (Hebrews 8:5). The New Testament gives us a pattern of how to worship (John 4:24). It gives us a pattern for how the church is to be organized and carry out its work (1 Timothy 3:15). The New Testament gives us a pattern of submission in our personal lives, conforming our wills to the will of God. Jesus said to His disciples, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you. Truly I tell you, a servant is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:15-17).
Peter reminds us, “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). It is amazing to consider the Son of God becoming flesh and blood, to offer Himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (“suffered for you”), but He also goes with each of us through life, helping every one of us to “follow in His steps.” Such promises are found in passages like Hebrews 13:5, which reads, “Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’” Paul assures us of this as well, referring to his own experience in Philippians 4:13, where it says, “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” He also stated, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
As we think of what the New Year may bring, we will find God’s blessings for us if we follow the pattern God offers us in His Word. These patterns are not random or arbitrary by nature. They are offered in the infinite wisdom of God for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). Patterns are not suggestions or opinions, but they are the inspired will of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God’s pattern for us is not mere rules or regulations but a way for life. Paul spoke of following God’s pattern (Philippians 3:17), and commended it to us, as it provides for us to experience the peace of God (Philippians 4:9). It is truly the way to God’s richest blessings for us.
May the Word of God dwell in us richly in this new year (Colossians 3:16), and may we find the best life possible by making it our own will to live (Romans 12:2). “I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).