The church is a spiritual body of baptized believers who unite under the authority of Jesus Christ and his New Testament. This glorious body was in the mind of God the Father from eternity to contain the redeemed through the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:8-11). The church is the house of God that was prophesied by Isaiah 700 years before its establishment upon the earth (Isa. 2:2-3) and was promised by Jesus (Matt. 16:13-19). Jesus built his church as promised and on Pentecost of 33 A.D. the terms of entrance were proclaimed to Jews gathered from every nation under heaven (Acts 2:1-5, 36-38). The gospel was preached to Jews first, then to the Gentiles and everybody were united in one body of Christ (Acts 13:42-48; I Cor. 12:12-14; Eph. 4:3-6; Gal. 3:26-28).
The church has gone through several apostasies and divisions over the centuries. Men in positions of leadership would introduce ideas and proposals that are of human origin and that conflict with the New Testament of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28-32). One division that occurred in the 1800s was over the Missionary Society, mechanical Instruments of music and men fighting in the Civil War.
The first of these controversies was the Missionary Society. “Cooperation Meetings” were advocated for in the Millenial Harbinger by Alexander Campbell in 1831-32. The intent was to cooperate in supporting local evangelist where financial support was lacking. Walter Scott, Jacob Creath, Jr., Tolbert Fanning and others opposed these meetings as unscriptural and that the New Testament had ordained elders to oversee the work of evangelism, not a separate society. The Missionary Society was never fully accepted by the church but was tolerated as brethren differed on the subject.
The Civil War (1861-1865) pitted the Northern brethren against the Southern brethren as it required taking up arms against one another. The South seceded from the Union when Abraham Lincoln became president over fear of abolishing slavery, taxes and state’s rights. Many popular preachers taught that it was sin to fight in the military and others leaned on patriotism as justification for taking up arms. This farther divided the brethren as many from the North also supported the Missionary Society.
During the same time mechanical instruments of music were introduced at Midway, Kentucky by L.L. Pinkerton using a small melodeon in 1860. The instrument was being defended on the grounds of “expediency” to improve the singing. J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, David Lipscomb and others opposed their use in the worship of the church. Most of the churches that used the instruments were in the North and the combination of these forces brought a division what would later be recognized as two separate bodies, the Christian Church and the Churches of Christ.
In the 1900’s these bodies have grown even farther apart. Most Christian churches still support the various societies, use mechanical instruments of music, and have preachers who serve as “pastors” and wear the title “Reverend.” Women are ordained as preachers and serve in other positions of leadership in various organizations. In the latter part of the 1900’s unity summits were held in various places seeking to unite the Christian Church with the Churches of Christ. Most of these meeting brethren were invited who were willing to compromise on matters of faith for union. They treated matters of faith as if they were matters of opinion. The instrument was accepted as an opinion and those who opposed it were called legalist. Faithful brethren were willing to use the New Testament as our faith and pattern to determine fellowship based on truth (Rom. 10:17; Jno. 8:31-32). In matters of expediency, freedom is allowed as long as it is supported by a generic command. Those who have departed from the doctrine of Christ are encouraged to return for unity sake (II Jno. 9-11).
How has a desire for unity negatively affected the Churches of Christ in the area of evangelism?
Those who sought unity were willing to compromise on the fundamental teachings of the New Testament. Compromise seeks growth by union or by absorption. Union would bring congregations into our number without having to evangelize the “unchurched.” If union was accepted between the Christian Church and the Churches of Christ, compromises will have to be made on societies, instrumental music, women preachers, fellowshipping with denominations and organizations that are set up to do the work of the church. The Churches of Christ would look more like the Christian Church than vice versa. If we can fellowship the Christian Church with all of its innovations and perversions, why can’t we seek unity among denominations that have as many innovations? The Christian Church looks more like many of the mainstream denominations than it looks like mainstream Churches of Christ.
Another effect of the desire for unity with the Christian Church is the failure of many to recognize the saved from the lost. Jesus said that it is not enough to be religious, but one must be right (Mat. 7:21-23). Many who are religious are not doing the Father’s will, but what they want to do. Yet, Jesus will refuse to claim at the judgment those who have twisted, altered, perverted or changed the will of the Father. Paul exhorts us to prove all things before accepting them as doctrine and practice (I Thess. 5:21). The apostle John charges us to test, examine, scrutinize and try everyone who teaches the word of God (I Jno. 4:1). If we fail to see those outside the Lord’s church as lost, there will be no motivation or interest in doing evangelism. If God is going to tolerate the religious errors of the Christian Church, why would he not overlook the errors of the denominations?
We don’t have to be self-righteous or insulting to those who are lost, but we are commissioned to go to them and preach the gospel unto them (Mk. 16:15-16). Paul felt the urgent need to preach the gospel to the Jews who were religious, but ignorant of God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:1-3). He was just as eager to preach the gospel to the Gentiles as well (Rom. 1:14-16). Let us not allow compromise or apathy to hinder us from carrying out the “Great Commission” (Mat. 28:18-20)!
Melvin Sapp is the minister and an elder for the Kingsbury Road Church of Christ in Sumter, SC. He is also Director of the Central Carolina School of Preaching.