A Bible Q-n-A viewer sent me these questions that, to him, presented some consistency issues with his view of the church of Christ. As always, with questions like these, I cannot speak for every preacher or congregation claiming to be the church of Christ. There is no such thing as “church of Christ doctrine.” There is only Bible doctrine. One is or is not a faithful member of the church of Christ based on their adherence to Bible doctrine, not some “Church of Christ Manual” or “Church of Christ Creed Book.” The answers I will give to these questions are the Bible’s answers.
I want to thank Kyle for the questions and for giving the opportunity to study what the Bible says about these things and to share them with you.
Question #1: Where Was The True New Testament Church Prior To The Early American Restoration Movement?
According to the history of the “Church of Christ,” God used certain men to “restore” the New Testament Church in the early 1800’s. Where was the true New Testament church before then? Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). What happened to the church and where was the truth it was responsible for preaching before God restored it?
It is true that in the early years of American religious freedom men began calling people back to the true New Testament church of Christ. Men like Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone, and many others, preached a return to true biblical Christianity and refuted denominational error with great success. From that time up to the mid 1960’s, the church of Christ was the fastest growing religious body in the world. However, none of these ever claimed to have “established” anything. They never claimed to be the “founder” of a new church or denomination. Rather, they opposed the very idea of anything “new” in religion and called for a return to “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16).
I cannot say for certain that these men never claimed to be restoring something that had completely vanished from existence. I have read a great deal of their writing and I don’t recall ever seeing such a claim. If they did claim such then, according to Scripture, I would have to disagree. Many of these men had their resolve for restoration kindled by their exposure to earlier calls for restoration. While not getting into a detailed discussion of church history here, I can say that even a casual study of their backgrounds and influences shows that the restoration spirit most certainly did not start with these men.
The Bible says that the church has been in existence from the time of its establishment on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30 (Acts 2). While Kyle’s quotation of Matthew 16:18 is used out of context to make this point, the Bible does indeed teach it. When Jesus told his disciples that “the gates of [hades] would not prevail against it” he is referring to his death (cf. Matt. 16:21-23). It means that even though he would die, his soul would be in hades (Acts 2:27), that would not prevent the establishment of his kingdom, the church.
For the biblical teaching on the longevity and indestructibility of the church we must to turn to other passages. For example, in Daniel 2:44, we are told by prophecy that once the kingdom would be established it would “never be destroyed.” Again, in Daniel 7:14, the prophet says that the kingdom of Christ is that which “shall not be destroyed.”
I have heard some say that during the dark ages the church was not on earth in “actuality” but that it was still present in “seed form,” and therefore not destroyed. However, I do not believe this can be accurately stated. When the Bible says the kingdom would never be destroyed it is not talking about the indestructibility of the word, the seed (Lk. 8:11), (1 Pet. 1:23). It is talking about the indestructibility of the church! The only way one could make such a statement as a matter of factual truth would be to know factually that there were no true New Testament Christians worshipping God in spirit and in truth anywhere in the world at any given time throughout history. I do not believe that anyone could make such a claim as factual knowledge.
The Bible says the kingdom of Christ would never be destroyed and I believe what it says! Just because there is no historical reference to a religious body worshipping and working as the church described in the New Testament, does not mean that there were none. If there was anywhere in this world those who, rejecting man-made doctrine, worshiped and worked purely according to the word of God then there was the church of Christ.
So, in answer to the question, prior to the early American Restoration movement the church was right where it has been since Christ established it nearly 2,000 years ago. It is the body of faithful disciples following Christ according to his pure doctrine (2 Jn. 9-11). Regardless of how small or how obscured from the pages of history it may have been.