At times the charge is levied by those critical of the church of Christ that it was founded by Alexander Campbell in America in the 1800’s. Perhaps this is due to a failure to investigate. Perhaps it traces to a denominationalist’s attempt to salve his conscience. After all, a man steeped in the doctrine of a church that owes its origin to another man, such as Wesley, Luther, Calvin, et cetera, will be much more comfortable staying in his human-founded church if he can convince himself that the church of Christ is just another one of the bunch. Many have been prejudiced against the church of Christ’s claim to be the same church described in the Bible, and have never done the question justice by checking into it with thorough honesty.
It is the hardest thing to get people to take off their denominationally tinted glasses and view the New Testament in undenominational terms. How many churches did Jesus promise to build (Matt. 16:18)? Only one. How many churches were purchased with the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28)? Only one. How many churches were established on the day of Pentecost following the Lord’s resurrection (Acts 2)? Only one. There is only one body of Christ (Eph. 4:4), and that body is the church of Christ (Col. 1:18). Jesus is the Savior of his one body, which is his church (Eph. 5:23). How many churches does Jesus own? Only one. How many will Jesus save? Only one.
Was the church of Christ in the first century a denomination? No. Are there any denominations, as we have them today, even mentioned in the New Testament? No. Most people who consider themselves Christians cannot open their New Testaments and find the church to which they belong anywhere on its pages. That ought to scare people to death. But it doesn’t. An all-pervasive denominational concept of the church clouds their spiritual sight and they do not perceive the simplicity that is the gospel. Jesus wrote the Laodicean church a prescription for salve to put in their eyes so they could see their true, unhealthy condition—a condition to which they had been oblivious (Rev. 3:18). Our denominational friends need a dose of that eye salve. But the devil does diligence to keep God’s pharmacy under lock and key.
There is no getting around the clear Bible teaching that Jesus has one church. The question is, with hundreds of churches out there, how in the world can you tell which one belongs to the Lord? The answer is so obvious and so simple—yet so revolutionary. The real church of Christ is the one that is following the doctrine of Christ as revealed in the New Testament of Christ in name, in teaching, in organization, in worship, and in life. Find a church practicing the pattern of the New Testament, to the letter, and you have found the right church. You cannot pattern yourself after the New Testament and be wrong. Conversely, you cannot stray from the New Testament pattern and be right.
And those are some of the truths that began to sink into the minds of Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone, “Raccoon” John Smith, and other nineteenth century pioneers who began to shed denominational creeds, beliefs and practices and sound a clarion call for men to go all the way back to the Bible, and take it alone as their rule of faith and practice. That concept was so simple, and yet so revolutionary for its day, and for ours. The church of Christ is built on the foundation of Christ and no other (1 Cor. 3:11). Campbell merely helped lead men back to the simple truths of the New Testament—back to the church that was founded on Christ himself. Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6). Campbell and others helped to plant and water, but God gave the increase then and today. Campbell was neither the church’s foundation nor the author of its beliefs. Those honors go to the One who bought the church with his own blood on a Roman cross (Acts 20:28).
In his book, The Church Everybody Is Asking About, Wendell Winkler relates,
The Rock Springs church near Celina, Tennessee, was started in 1804—five years before Alexander Campbell came to America—and remains until this day. A brother Lowery found a document near Celina dated November 17, 1736…which tells of the organization of a church of Christ in that early day—fifty-two years before Alexander was born (pp. 44-45, quoting from the “Gospel Advocate,” July 27, 1939).
Winkler also quotes Leonard Channing from pp. 191-192 of the 1950 Abilene Christian College Lectures,
It has been found that there were churches of Christ founded on New Testament lines as far back in Britain as the year 1669 in the reign of King Charles II in the days that this great nation, this great America, was still being colonized…it has been found that those churches…called themselves churches of Christ, that they practiced baptism by immersion, that they celebrated the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s day and that they had a clear view of congregational independency appointing to each of those churches—and there were eight existing in the Ulverston district of Lancashire in North West England—appointing to each one of those elders and deacons (ibid.).
Isn’t that amazing? There were churches of Christ in England and America long before Alexander Campbell was born. Then again, maybe it is not so remarkable. Since the word of God is the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11), wherever that seed is planted in honest hearts who obey it, Christians are produced. And where Christians are produced, you have a church of Christ—just like the church of Christ that came into being in Jerusalem about the year A.D. 30.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Campbell. After all, without his work, many would never have become New Testament Christians—possibly including myself. But I owe no allegiance to Campbell. He was a mere man who made mistakes. My allegiance is to Christ, into whom I have been baptized (Gal. 3:27), and to whose church I belong (Rom. 16:16). I am not a Campbellite. I am a Christian. The quest of the church of Christ is to do Bible things in Bible ways. It is to call Bible things by Bible names. It is unity in doctrine, liberty in opinion, and charity in all things. The nobility of this cause is verified on virtually every page of Scripture. Believe the facts, obey the commands, trust the promises.