Hugh’s News & Views (Denominational Status)



Some 40 years ago, a prominent preacher in the church of Christ proclaimed that “the Church of Christ is a big, sick, denomination,” and went on to say, “and I meant all three of those words—big and sick and denomination.”

This preacher is a long-time friend of mine, going all the way back to our student days at Freed-Hardeman College in the 1950s. I hold no animosity toward him as a person, and love him as a brother in Christ, but I do strongly disagree with his assessment of the church on all three scores.

First, compared to the churches that have originated with men, the church of our Lord is not “big” (see Matthew 7:13-14), though I question the ability of anyone to accurately quantify all who have obeyed the gospel and been added to the spiritual body (church) of Christ.

Second, while some members and some congregations no doubt “are weak and sick . . . and many sleep” (I Corinthians 11:30), I deny that the church as a whole is “sick.”

Third, unless what Jesus built (Matthew 16:18) was a denomination or unless one today cannot be a member of what Jesus built without being a member of a denomination, I deny that the church is a “denomination.” (Note: The Judaizers of the first century alleged that a Gentile could not become a Christian without first becoming a Jew, and some among us today seem to think that one cannot become a Christian, a member of the church (body) of Christ, without first becoming a member of a denomination!)

In a book published in 2011 under the title, What Must the Church of Christ Do to be Saved?, the author (who sees himself as a modern-day reformer), in response to the question that serves as the book’s title, included a chapter titled “Come To Terms With Our Status As A Denomination.” In this chapter he forthrightly asserts that this is what churches of Christ should do—admit that they are a denomination! (In another chapter he declares that we should “Have Our Own Vatican II.”)

This is the same person, now in his mid-90s, who recently delivered what he called his “Valedictory Address” at the 2013 Abilene Christian University Summit (formerly known for many decades as the Bible Lectures) in Abilene, TX. He is a man who, over the course of his life, has swung from one end of the theological spectrum to the other, all the way from extreme radicalism to the advocating of liberal views not substantiated by the New Testament and long rejected by loyal churches of Christ. (I am reminded of how one extreme often swings to the opposite extreme, but then we must remember that when one travels west far enough he eventually winds up in the east!)

And though this man may have given his “Valedictory,” the fact remains that he has his younger (and not so young) admirers who owlishly and indiscriminately accept everything he asserts and who will continue down the path of attempting to impose denominational status on the church. (Note: In fairness to both my long-time friend and this elderly “reformer,” neither of them believes that the church of Christ of which we read in the New Testament was a denomination, but they believe that the church of Christ today is a denomination and seem to think that undenominational Christianity is impossible in the present age.)

Some professors in various colleges and universities supported by members of the church of Christ and in other institutions of higher learning are moving more and more in the direction of characterizing the church as a denomination that originated in the Barton W. Stone-Alexander Campbell Movement. This, in my view, is a most unfortunate re-writing of restoration movement history (historical revisionism at its worst), displaying, as it does, an air of insufferable superiority on the part of those engaged in the effort. But by characterizing the church as a denomination, the progressives among us can move comfortably among the people of all denominations, freely switch denominations when they perceive it in their best interest to do so (and several have done so), and feel no remorse of conscience when their children or grandchildren leave the church for a denomination. They do not feel the need to refute the erroneous doctrines and practices of denominational churches, never feel any necessity to try to teach their members “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26), and no longer see the need to try to convert them to the truth.

At the same time, such a characterization of the church gives the progressives a sense of freedom from what they have viewed as the sectarian narrowness and exclusiveness of the church and a feeling of euphoria that at long last they have discovered the real meaning of grace!

But, again, unless Jesus built a denomination or unless it is impossible today to be a member of what Jesus established without joining a denomination, then the church of Christ is not a denomination and no effort of man can ever make it such. The move by the progressives among us to do so will continue to be met with strong resistance.

Hugh Fulford

October 15, 2013

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