Churches of Christ
In Part One of this article, we provided background information on various Churches of Christ. We traced the historical roots of the mainline churches to the present, noting that many of their doctrinal beliefs may be considered orthodox from an Evangelical perspective, such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the virgin birth. However, other doctrines and practices in the mainline Churches of Christ and in the Denver Church of Christ, which is affiliated with the Boston Church of Christ, are outside the boundaries of historic Christianity.
It should be made clear that mainline Churches of Christ are in no way aligned with the Boston and Denver Churches of Christ. They do not fellowship with each other, are at times at odds with each other, and practice different methodologies.
The information for this article was obtained by personal visitation of churches, interviews with ministers, members, ex-members, and those who had considered membership, and on original source material from some of the churches. It should be noted that several attempts to interview the treasurer, Jake Jensen, and the "evangelical leader," Jeff Wadstrom, of the Denver Church of Christ, were declined.
Beliefs Common to Churches of Christ
The most prominent and distinctive doctrine that Churches of Christ in general have is their belief that one must be baptized as a believer by immersion to be saved. They contend that the Holy Spirit enters the persons heart at the moment of baptism, which is often known as baptismal regeneration. Their fortress verse for this doctrine is Acts 2:38. Quoting from the New International Version (the Denver Church of Christs preferred translation); "Peter replied, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Mark 16:16 and 1 Peter 3:21 are also used to cite the necessity of baptism for salvation.
We agree that baptism is important because Jesus commanded it (Matthew 28:19). However, if we are to understand the totality of Scripture correctly, we should consider many other Scripture references that do not mention baptism as an indispensable condition for salvation (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 5:1, John 6:29, and Acts 10:44-48).1
It is problematic to cite various verses in the Book of Acts (as Churches of Christ often do) as doctrine, because Acts is a historical narrative, describing what the early church was doing. There are certain theological ideas that Luke includes, but his primary intention was not to spell out doctrine. Part of sound Scriptural interpretation (hermeneutics) is examining all of the Scriptural evidence and understanding the authors intentions when they were inspired to write Scripture. You should not build a doctrine out of a few historical verses. As the late Dr. Walter Martin often stated, "A text without context is a pretext."
The belief that salvation is a process was proclaimed by Church of Christ members and ministers alike.2 Their process of salvation includes: (1) repentance, (2) belief in Jesus Christ, (3) confession that Jesus is Lord of ones life, (4) belief that Christ was resurrected, (5) being baptized for the washing away of sins and receiving the Holy Spirit, and (6) standing firm in ones belief until the end.3
Baptism is viewed as a sacrament, an indispensable mechanism of the salvation process when Gods grace infuses the person. Also, the Church of Christ member has no assurance of salvation unless he or she is "standing firm to the end," which is conditional and depends on the believer. In this sense, salvation is works-based because it depends on what the believer must do to keep saved. This idea was especially noticeable in the Denver Church of Christ.
From an Evangelical perspective, we would take issue with the notion that salvation is a process. Regeneration occurs when the Holy Spirit enters the persons heart (Titus 3:5) and he or she is "sealed" as Gods own (Ephesians 1:13-14), being made "alive" to Christ (Ephesians 2:5) and thus being "born again" (1 Peter 1:23). Personal salvation is understood as being secured at the moment of regeneration, not as an uncertain process that is conditional upon any works of the believer.
The Churches of Christ deny original sin. They believe that a person is born pure and then sins. The person is not born a sinner or in a sinful state. Scriptures used to support this viewpoint include Romans 5:12; Matthew 18:1-3, 19:13-14; and Romans 14:17. The person only becomes a sinner after he or she willfully sins.4
In a Denver Church of Christ Bible study, we were told to read Romans 5:1-14, which would include verse twelve that had been previously cited to us by a mainline minister. By citing only verse twelve or stopping at verse fourteen, we miss the evidence in verses fifteen through twenty-one where Paul contrasts Adam and Christ respectively. In verse nineteen, Paul states: "For as through the one mans disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous."
Because of Adams sin, we are all made (i.e., constituted) sinners. It is true we are sinners in our own right, but this does not negate the fact that we are born with a sinful nature inherited because of Adams transgression. The effects of sin (death) have been passed on to all humanity. It is because we are naturally born spiritually dead to God that Jesus stated, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." (John 3:3). The doctrine of original sin has been considered orthodox and has been passed down through the ages as such, not the Pelagian notion that the Churches of Christ hold to.
Another curious practice was the Churches of Christ preference not to use musical instruments in their worship services. In a Church of Christ pamphlet, Churches of Christ: Who Are These People?, Joe R. Barnett states: " we are seeking to worship according to the instructions of the New Testament. The New Testament leaves instrumental music out, therefore, we believe it right and safe to leave it out, too."5
Actually, the New Testament does not leave instrumental music out; it simply does not explicitly mention it. One of the favorite Church of Christ expressions is, "If the Scriptures are silent, then we should be silent." Shouldnt they be silent therefore, regarding the use of musical instruments in worship services? They not only argue from silence, but they are inconsistent with their own policy of being silent where Scripture is silent.
If they are so zealous about not practicing something that is not explicitly mentioned, why then are they not equally zealous about practicing other things that are mentioned? For example, Acts 2:44-45 states that those constituting the early church were sharing all things in common and were selling their properties and possessions to accomplish this. Why do Church of Christ members not feel the need to practice this method of sharing, which is certainly more explicit in Scripture than their previous contention about not using musical instruments?
In The Truth about the "Church of Christ," Hugh F. Pyle adds, "The heavenly host shall use instruments to praise God. In Revelation 5:8, 14:2, and 15:2, we discover this to be so. If the use of musical instruments is fitting in Heaven, then surely it is proper on earth."6
The Churches of Christ believe they are the only true remnant church and that one must be a member of their church in order to be saved. This concept is developed in the next section on the Denver Church of Christ.
The Denver Church of Christ
The Denver Church of Christ (DCOC) is one of seven or eight "pillar churches" planted by the Boston Church of Christ. It includes several zones or members placed together geographically. The DCOCs exclusivistic position is that a person must be saved as member of their church or a sister church that holds the same belief. The Boston Church of Christ is considered the mother church and the standard for all affiliated churches.
To be a member of the DCOC, a person must be (1) discipled in and (2) baptized in a local (zone) DCOC church. A person in the Denver area who is not a member of their church is considered as one who is not saved and not going to Heaven. Evangelicals understand that while a person may be a member of a local church, if a person is a saved believer he belongs to the universal church, the world-wide Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:13). What really matters is that the relationship of a person with Christ the Savior, which is not contingent on membership in any local church.
The DCOC apparently makes no distinction between the local/institutional church and the universal/invisible church. One must be a member of the DCOC in order to be considered a member of Gods Kingdom, and therefore saved. So that a person will be saved and baptized "correctly," a large amount of individual and group time is spent in discipling.
The DCOC uses Matthew 28:19 as the basis for their discipling techniques: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Discipling is necessary before a person can be converted. The discipler (spiritual leader) counsels a prospective new member on how to live a Christ-like life. A person becomes a disciple by a change of heart and must be considered a disciple before he or she may be baptized (therefore becoming regenerate) by the DCOC.
It is questionable that a person is considered a "disciple" before he or she has been born again, which would occur at baptism, according to the DCOC. How can the unregenerate person who is still dead in his or her sins (Ephesians 2:1) and who does not "belong to God" because the Spirit of Christ does not dwell in him or her (Romans 8:9) and who is "by nature" a child of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) be considered a disciple? In addition, Gods salvific grace is appropriated through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), not baptism. Yet the DCOC considers a person a disciple while still unregenerate and not baptized.
The goal of discipling a person is to bring him or her to believe DCOC doctrine concerning salvation and to want to be baptized in the DCOC to become a member of that church, thus finding salvation. The techniques and the position the DCOC takes on discipling are not Biblical and appear to be a method of controlling the individuals lives.
Based on interviews and observations, newcomers are given a friendly, cordial treatment. However, as the person comes closer to becoming a member, and especially after membership is attained, the pressure to conform becomes greater.
A new single member will be encouraged to become part of a household of three or so members with the household head being the spiritual leader for the small group. The new member is constantly discipled by his or her spiritual leader and the household leader. Spiritual growth is attained through household Bible studies, church meetings, interaction with ones discipler, and weekly contact with other members at meetings, services, special recreational times, or in quiet time with the Lord. Biblically, these are worthwhile activities, but the DCOC seems to want to control every minute of the members lives.
Members are kept extremely busy. In one service we attended, over twenty minutes were used for announcing activities that week and even two months in advance. Members are sent to contact people in malls, knock-on-doors evangelizing, and spending most of the rest of their time in meetings, studies, or recreational activities. The Bible studies are used to present DCOC doctrine to disciples. If a question is asked that is outside the realm of that particular study, a new study is scheduled to deal with that question.
There is tremendous pressure on members and disciples to submit to their disciplers and to the church leadership. There appears to be a hierarchical structure of leadership that keeps everyone in line and is accomplished primarily through the use of guilt. Members must confess their sins to their discipler, each other, and even publicly when outsiders may be present. If a person does not confess all their sins, then his or her salvation is in jeopardy. Members are continually made to feel that they are not measuring up to Gods standard of a Christ-like life.
A favorite catch-phrase we heard several times was, "God is opposing you." For example, a discipler and Bible study leader in the East Zone told his group that he had been admonished by his own discipler, the church leader, and was told that God was opposing him for his pride and arrogance. This same discipler told us in another Bible study session: "Let Gods wrath motivate you." After a moment, he quickly added, "Well, you should let Gods love motivate you, but if that doesnt work, let Gods wrath motivate you." He said he needed to get to a point in his life where he realized that "God is really mad at me." Later he exhorted the group "to radically change and admit that weve really blown it. We need to do this constantly."7
As part of the salvation process, members are called to stand firm, avoid fleshly temptations, and confess their sins to their disciplers so that their salvation is not in danger. The disciple dares not question his or her discipler because he or she will be told their pride is getting in the way of total submissiveness, and he or she needs to check his or her priorities. In interviewing ex-members and prospective members of the DCOC, we found more evidence of discipling.
Dave and Debbie were looking for a couples Bible study in their neighborhood and were invited to meet in the home of a DCOC member. Initially, they were pleased because the people were friendly, child care was provided, and they were learning from studying the Bible. They eventually became disenchanted when they were split up into mens and womens groups. Subsequently two ladies approached Debbie with a two-on-one discipling study with the purpose of converting her. They told her she was not saved because she had not been baptized correctly. She was encouraged to break from family traditions because her parents were wrong in the beliefs that they had taught her, even though her father was a Baptist minister. After four months, Dave and Debbie left the Bible study group and are now active Christians in a Baptist church.
The DCOC has a large campus ministry at Auraria and Colorado University in Boulder. Stacey is a college student at Metropolitan State College in Denver. She was approached by DCOC members who where friendly and enthusiastic. She started attending their Bible studies, where she was told that her baptism had not been correct and she had not really been saved. Pressure was put on her not to miss any discipling sessions and Bible studies. When Stacey could not meet a monthly or sometimes a double tithe, she was told to check her priorities and the DCOC members would not take any excuses. Often she had to confess her sins to her female discipler and write them down.
Staceys discipler had broken off relationships with her parents as encouraged by the DCOC, but she was not allowed to attend her mothers funeral in another state. She was told there were important church activities that needed her participation. The DCOC uses the break from family in order to keep better control of its members and to keep them away from outside influences that may negate the DCOC discipling.
When Stacey began to question the need to be baptized again, she talked with two former DCOC members and read material from the Christian Research Institute that her mother had obtained. She became convinced that DCOC beliefs and practices were unbiblical. Stacey has since broken off contact with the DCOC and is attending another church. She told us, "I think their whole religion is based on works. The Denver Church of Christ is just works."8
A former member, John, (not his real name) was the head of a household for over a year. He told us that four ministers from the Boston Church of Christ began "cleaning house" in his zone. They separated men and women into different meeting rooms and had them publicly confess their sins. They admonished individuals by saying, "Youre not living the life" and "Youre not a Christian." Subsequently, in Johns estimation, at least 75% of his zone was re-baptized by the Boston Church of Christs ministers, even though they had previously been baptized by the DCOC.
A member in Johns zone wanted to move to California and was told by the zone leaders he would go to hell by moving without their permission. He moved anyway.
A couple in this same zone, who were both members, wanted to be married, but they were counseled against marriage by the church leadership. After they were married, they were forced to apologize in front of the whole church.
A former member of the Boston Church of Christ had maintained a leadership position there for about three years. Ted (not his real name) eventually realized that the discipling techniques were Biblically unsound. He was under pressure to control peoples lives and was discipling as many as seven people at a time. There is an emphasis on personal guilt and obedience to whatever the discipler says. He believed that the Boston Church would lie and twist what a person said if they were opposed. He said, "They live in a fantasy world. Its not reality. By their own admission, theyre keeping only fifty percent faithful."
Ted believes that the authority the leaders maintain over their disciples is analogous to a "subtle form of mind control." He said, "If that is one concept of a cult, then it is one."
The basis for this authority is taken from Hebrews 13:17a, NIV: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority " Ted pointed out to the leaders that the word authority is not present in the Greek text and that only the NIV adds it; and that the leadership had overstepped its boundaries and exercised an unhealthy authority over its disciples.
Ted stated: "With the mindset that the Boston Church leaders now have, the Boston Church could easily become a cult if they continue to teach that to not submit to and obey your discipler is equivalent to not submitting to and obeying God." After a week and a half of consideration, the Boston Church of Christ fired Ted, and he was disfellowshipped from the church.9
The DCOC has problems with doctrine and methodology that we feel are not based on what the Bible really says and teaches. The practice of discipling is unlike what Peter said: "shepherd the flock among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain; but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock." (1 Peter 5:2-3).
The DCOC is basically using a salvation-plus theology by making salvation a process, emphasizing works to insure salvation, re-baptizing people as church members, advocating the exclusivity of their church, and using questionable discipling practices. Placing a guilt trip on disciples/members who have been set free in Christ (John 8:36) and informing other Christians that God is "opposing you" is unbiblical. The Christian, unlike the unregenerate, is not under Gods wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9) or judgment (John 3:18). The apostle Paul stated in no uncertain terms: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1).
Christians should be motivated by love, not by guilt. We would encourage the Denver Church of Christ to acknowledge their erroneous doctrines and practices, and use their zeal and dedication to practice Biblical Christianity as set forth in Scriptures.
Footnotes: All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1991.