|Christians Only, but Not the Only Christians?
Are Only Members of the Church of Christ Going to Heaven?
Are only members of the Church of Christ going to heaven? That's an ambiguous question. What do you mean by Church of Christ? If you mean a Church of Christ denomination, or you mean that only people who attend congregations with the name Church of Christ on their building, then the answer must be No. All over China are thousands of community house churches. Many of these house churches practice believer's baptism, observe the Lord's Supper every first day of the week, and use acappella music, but they do not call themselves by the name Church of Christ. They do not even have a name except that they are house churches (as in Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15). Should we think that we are going to heaven because we they do not wear the name Church of Christ? Certainly not! There are community churches in this country which believe the gospel, baptize believers, and observe the Lord's Supper every Sunday. Must they put the name Church of Christ on their building in order to be considered Christian? If we say that one must have the name Church of Christ on their building to be a faithful, heaven-bound church, then we have become sectarian and divisive with the name of Christ. We have turned the Church of Christ (congregations with the name on the building) into a denomination. We have divided the body of Christ and told others I am a Christian and You are not.
But that's not the whole story. Let's ask the question again, Are only members of the Church of Christ going to heaven? Absolutely, yes! If you mean Church of Christ in a biblical sense, if you mean Church of Christ as a body of Christ, as the New Testament church, then Yes! because no one can be saved outside of the body of Christ. The church is the redeemed people of God, and the people of God belong to him. The church of the New Testament is Christ's church, or the Church of Christ. We become members of this church, and we are added to the saved body when we believe the gospel and are baptized into the name of Christ. Only members of the Church of Christ, only members of Christ's body, will go to heaven.
This has been the historic position of Churches of Christ, especially in the early part of the 20th century. In 1928, N. B. Hardeman, co-founder of Freed Hardeman University, said: "I have never been so egotistic as to say that my brethren with whom I commune on the first day of the week are the only Christians on this earth. I never said that in my life. I do make the claim that we are Christians only. But there is a vast difference between that expression and the one formerly made" (Hardeman Tabernacle Sermons 3:125).
IN 1888, James A Harding, co-founder of David Lipscomb University and the namesake of Harding University, said We do not claim to be the only Christians on earth (Harding-Nichols Debate, p. 94). We need to learn again the truth that we (the Yellow Pages Churches of Christ) are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only. To say anything more would be arrogant and sectarian.
Let me illustrate. Suppose a small group begins to read the Bible for itself. They believe in Jesus Christ and immerse each other for the remission of their sins. They form a small group who meet together to eat the Lord's Supper every Sunday afternoon. I suppose no one would deny that this small group is a part of the body of Christ. They believe in Jesus and have been immersed into his name. They are members of the Church of Christ, that is, they belong to Christ and are members of his body. But they have no legal or public name. They have not called themselves anything but simple Christians.
Now suppose you, as a member of the Ross Road Church of Christ, met one of these people. What would you tell them to do? Would you consider them Christians? You might invite them to join the Ross Road Church of Christ, just as you might invite a person who has just moved to town to place their membership with the Ross Road church. They are Christians, and they would be welcome to become a part of the Christian community at Ross Road. But suppose they decided to continue meeting in their small group, and perhaps plant a new church, and call themselves the Perkins Church. What would you think of them now? Have they now derailed their journey to heaven because they decided not to associate themselves with our group, that is, they did not want to place their membership with the Ross Road congregation or use the name Church of Christ on their building's sign. They just want to be Christians, even though they see nothing wrong with using the name Church of Christ as a name nor disagreed with the basic beliefs and practices of the Ross Road church. Would the Perkins Church be a faithful church even if they did not use the name Church of Christ? That question test whether we use the term Church of Christ in a sectarian sense.
If we think they cannot go to heaven because they attend the Perkins Church instead of one which has the name Church of Christ on its sign, then we have turned the Church of Christ into a denominational sect, and we have said that you cannot get to heaven if you do not become one of us and use the name we have chosen. But if we understand that there is nothing wrong with using the name Perkins Church, and there is nothing wrong with these believers plating their own congregation instead of becoming part of ours, then we recognize that believers can be members of God's church without being members of a congregation that has the name Church of Christ on its sign. We recognize that others can be Christians even if they do not attend a Church of Christ listed in the Yellow Pages.
Interestingly, what I have just described in the origination of the Perkins Church is exactly how many Churches of Christ began in the nineteenth century. Believers joined together in reading the Bible for themselves, they were immersed and planted a church community. Over time these church communities were linked by a set of beliefs and practices which formed them into a single historical tradition. As a result, they came to consistently us the name the Church of Christ on their buildings and in their advertisements. However, originally, many diverse names or no names at all were used. Many were like the Perkins Church I have just described. They were just Christians who wanted to name the name of Christ alone.
It is exactly that tradition which Churches of Christ wish to continue. We do not claim to be the only Christians, but we do want to be Christians only.