Why Not Be Just a Christian?
After more than sixteen years of research, J. Gordon Melton discovered that
there are more than 1,200 different religious sects in America, ranging from
major, well-established denominations to bizarre cults specializing in all
sorts of strange and outrageous beliefs. In other parts of the world, many
hundreds more varieties of religious faith can be identified.
Confronted by so many conflicting religious doctrines, many people don't know
what to believe. "Which church is right? they wonder. "Is one
just as good as another?~ Hearing so many conflicting voices claiming to speak
for God, many are turned off Christianity all together. The power of
Christianity and its influence for good in the world have been tragically
diminished by the divisions which exist.
The cost of religious division is staggeringly high: It is paid in the
duplication of facilities and overlapping of effort; It is paid in the
jealousy, suspicion, and competition between rival groups; It is paid in the
unbelief of those driven away from Christianity by the scandal of
denominational division. This prompts a question which many have probably never
seriously considered: Why nor be just a Christian? That is, why not
simply be followers of Christ without bogging down in the narrow confines of
denominational loyalty? Why not, instead of being hyphenated Christians, be
just plain Christians - Christians only?
I believe the time has come to take a long searching look at the division which
exists in the religious world and ask, "Why are we so badly divided? Is
this really what God wants? Is there any way for all followers of Christ to be
united?" I believe the answer is Undenominational Christianity - the commitment to
be and do in the 21st Century just what Christians were and did in the 1st
Century! I am convinced that we have come to the point where we can only go
forward by going back - back to New Testament Christianity! Why not be just
IN NEW TESTAMENT TIMES
In describing the New Testament situation, Paul wrote, There is one body,
and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one
faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through
all and in you all." (Ephesians 4.4-6.) The one body Paul had in mind was
the church! (Ephesians 1.22-23.) Members of that one body were referred to
simply as "Christians" in New Testament times! (Acts 11.26.) It was
the desire of Jesus that His people be united. When He spoke of building His
church, He promised only one. (Matthew 16.I8.) He prayed fervently for the unity
of His followers: "That they may be one; even as thou, Father art in me,
and I in thee.. (John 17.21.) Ephesians 2.13-16 notes that Christ
reconciles men unto God through the one body which is the church! The inspired
writers of the New Testament condemned division in the strongest possible
terms! Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1.10, "I beseech you brethren, by the
name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, that there be
no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same
mind and in the same judgment." The Word of God condemns division as a
work of the flesh in Galatians 5.20, and speaks of the "sects of
perdition" in 2 Peter 2.4.
THERE WAS ONLY ONE CHURCH
This New Testament concept of the oneness of the church has far reaching
Without malice or bitterness, and in a spirit of love and concern, we need to
stress the Biblical picture of the church as an undenominational,
Christ-centered body of men and women fully committed to doing the will of God!
If there is only one church, modern denominationalism stands condemned!
If there is only one church, then it is most emphatically NOT true that
"one church is as good as another."
If there is only one church, then those who had advised that everyone should
attend the "church of his choice" are either terribly misguided or
deliberately defying the will of God.
If there is only one church, then any other religious body is merely a
counterfeit of that one true church.
If there is only one church, then it is essential for men and women to be
members of it!
THE DEVELOPMENT OF DENOMINATIONALISM
Present day religious division is rooted in a period in history known as the
Great Apostasy or "falling away." Even during New Testament times
some were trying to divide the church. The apostles and other inspired writers
warned that there were some who would seek to pervert the Gospel"
and would bring "damnable heresies into the church." (Galatians
1.6-9; 2 Peter 2.1.) In 2 Thessalonians 2.3, the apostle Paul warned that after
the days of the apostles there would come a departure from New Testament
Christianity as men drifted from the truths which they had received. He calls
this departure the "falling away." The Greek word apostasia means a
decline, "defection, apostasy." Paul warned the New Testament
congregation at Ephesus, "I know that after my departing grievous wolves
shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves
shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after
them." (Acts 20.20-30.)
This period of decline and digression resulted in a gradual loss of the
emphasis of the New Testament over a period of two centuries from about 100 A.D.
to approximately 300 A.D. During this period, in one area after another, changes
were made from the New Testament pattern.
The steps of apostasy can be traced in a series of significant dates:
Changes occurred in church government as the independent congregations of New
Testament times were gradually replaced by a centralized religious hierarchy of
bishops, archbishops, and from the 7th century onward, the papacy.
Changes occurred in doctrine as human traditions were exalted over the Word
Changes took place in worship when the simple and devout services of New
Testament times gave way to Involved Liturgy, Mass in Latin, the veneration of
Images, and instrumental music.
Changes also took place in the terms of membership in the church with the
introduction of infant baptism and the adoption of sprinkling and pouring for
With the passing centuries, departure became so complete and the pattern of
digression so fixed, that Christianity was buried under a virtual avalanche of
apostasy, worldliness, and corruption. In the 16th century the attempt to
correct these abuses led to the Reformation! Men like John Wycliffe, John Huss,
and Jerome Savanorola paved the way for this attempt to get back to the New
Testament ideal. They gave their lives in order to say, The church is
corrupt." It is truly inspiring to think of these men standing almost
alone against the religious and political powers of their day to say,
"We've drifted far from the original pattern." In later generations
came Martin Luther, who insisted on the right of every individual to read and
study the scriptures for himself without going through any ecclesiastical
authority. Others like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox followed in
his wake and carried on the work of digging the church out from under the
centuries of digression and innovation which had swept over it. Still later,
John Wesley attempted to breathe the life which characterized New Testament
Christianity into the lifeless forms and rituals which men were observing.
150 A.D. The rise of the Monarchal Bishop.
251 A.D. The first substitution of pouring for immersion.
405 A.D. The introduction of Images to worship.
607 A.D. The first real pope.
666 A.D. The first instance of instrumental music in the church.
800 A.D. The unification of church and state by Charlemagne.
1054 A.D. The division of the Greek and Roman churches.
These were great men; we owe them a great debt; they set a light shining which
helped to dispel a great deal of the darkness of apostasy. But the tragedy is
that they did not go far enough! And in the end they set loose the seeds of
denominationalism. None of these men started out with the intention of starting
new churches. It was
their intention to contribute to religious division. Unfortunately, their
followers rallied around them instead of focusing upon Christ. From their time
until this day, one denomination has followed another and Christianity has
become ever more fragmented. The teachings of Luther were crystallized into the
Lutheran Church; the writings of Calvin became the basis for Baptist beliefs;
John Knox established the Presbyterian Church; the work of John Wesley led to
the formation of the Methodist Church; the Reformation in England produced the
Episcopal or Anglican Church. As the years have passed, these denominations
have divided and subdivided until today more than 1,200 different churches are
to be found in America! The Reformation failed because it stopped too soon!
THE RESTORATION MOVEMENT
Near the beginning of the last century, a great movement began to gain momentum
in the United States. It was born out of the sense of disillusion and
disappointment which had been created by denominationalism with its legacy of
factionalism, strife, and bitterness. It sprung from the recognition that the
answer was not the creation of another denomination, but the rejection of
denominationalism altogether in favor of a return to New Testament
Christianity! It had as its aim the complete restoration of the 1st century
church in all its original glory and purity. The movement spread like a prairie
fire in the frontier American states of Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and
The movement drew its leaders from many different religious backgrounds. Men,
who had come from Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Episcopalian churches,
united in an attempt to erase denominational differences in the restoration of
New Testament Christianity.
One of the First leaders in the movement was James O'Kelly, a Methodist
preacher from North Carolina who separated from the Methodist Church in 1793 to
work for New Testament Christianity. Over 5,000 others united with him in
pleading for the use of the name "Christianity" as the only name for
believers, and the Bible as the only creed for the church.
Up in New England, two Baptist preachers, Elias Smith and Abner Jones, became
disturbed over "sectarian names and creeds" and left them to begin
working for New Testament Christianity beginning about 1801.
In Kentucky, a Presbyterian preacher, Barton W. Stone, withdrew from the
Springfield Presbytery along with half a dozen other Presbyterian preachers in
order to take the Bible as their only creed and to wear the name of Christian
only. They published a famous document entitled, "The Last Will and
Testament of the Springfield Presbyter" in which they said, "We will that
this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at
large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one
hope of our calling... We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as
the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books,
which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose;
for it is better into life having one book, than having many be cast into
hell." Soon Barton Stone had influenced thousands to renounce
denominational ties to become Christians only.
Two of the most influential leaders in the Restoration Movement were Thomas and
Alexander Campbell, father and son, who migrated to America from Ireland in
1807 and 1809 respectively. The elder Campbell a Presbyterian minister,
delivered the "Declaration and Address" in 1809 which ended with the
famous words: '~Where the Bible speaks we sneak; where the Bible is silent, we
are silent." He and his son Alexander withdrew from the Presbyterian
Church, first to work within the Baptist Church, and later, after further
study, to plead for New Testament Christianity. Alexander Campbell achieved
world-wide fame through his writing and debating, and through his influence,
tens of thousands joined the movement to become Christians only.
Beginning about the year 1832, these various movements which had arisen without
knowledge of one another and were led by men of widely different religious
backgrounds, joined forces in preaching for the same great principles which
have become known as "The Restoration Plea."
Now this "Restoration" movement has gone around the world. In Africa,
India, the Philippines, Central and South America, Europe, the Far East and
elsewhere thousands have taken up the cry, "Why not be just
They urged the unity of all believers in Christ on the basis of the Bible
alone. (1 Peter4.11.)
They urged the rejection of all man-made creeds. Because of the divisive
influence of creeds, they determined to take the Bible only as their authority
They urged the use of only scriptural names in referring to God's people. They
refused to call themselves hyphenated Christians. They were Christians only.
They determined to honor only Christ in their name.
They urged the recognition of the independence and autonomy of each local
congregation of the church.
They urged a return to the worship and terms of membership practiced by the
New Testament Church. Believing that the church of the New Testament provided a
continuing pattern for the church, they called for a careful reproduction of
all the particulars of New Testament Christianity. They were convinced that the
only way to go forward was to go backward by restoring the church as it was in
Today we continue to cherish the hope that we may be Christians only. In
humility we continue to plead for the unity of a divided religious world on the
basis of the Bible alone. In pursuit of that objective, we urge with all the
power we possess that men and women of all religious persuasions re-examine
their beliefs and practices with the sincere intention of "Speaking where the
Bible speaks and remaining silent where the Bible is silent!"
We do not ask that you go back to Alexander Campbell or Barton Stone, or John
Wesley, or Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or any other man. We plead instead
for all men to go back to Christ! Back to the Bible! Back to the church of the
New Testament! It is our prayer that we may be undenominational in our faith
and in our practices.
This is the only real hope for unity in our religious world; it has worked
before, it can work again! Our only hope is for all believers in Christ to walk
faithfully in the Old Paths, following in the steps of the Lord. We can be in
the 20th century just what Christians were in the 1st century if we will
believe what they believed, obey what they obeyed, and observe what they
observed! We must go back in order to go forward! Why not be just a Christian???