The answer may surprise those who think of the church of the Lord in terms of a denomination, or as a conglomerate of disparate groups claiming to be parts of “the universal church of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Most denominations trace their origin to the work of some notable person – sometimes they are even named to honor their founder. Some think of the church of Christ as a predominantly American “denomination” with its origin and roots in the works of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, men who came to the United States from Britain in the early 1800’s. Of course we know, or should know that the Campbells and many others of that time were intent on simply returning to the New Testament pattern, initiated by Christ and implemented by his apostles. They wanted to become part of the historic people called together by the Lord and added to each time any person obeyed the commands of Christ and met his requirements for inclusion in his spiritual family (see Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38, 1 Cor. 12:13, Col. 2:11-12 and 1:13-18). They never intended to start something new, but only to become proper parts of something that had existed since the day of Pentecost after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Others had announced the same desire and intention before them and many have espoused the same principle since their time.
Documentary research done by a Dr. Robinson of Birmingham, England revealed the following: “In the Furness District of Lancashire, in England, there existed in 1669, during the reign of King Charles II, a group of eight churches of Christ, most of them not now in existence. An old minute-book has been found for the year 1669, and it shows that they called themselves by the name Church of Christ, practiced baptism by immersion, celebrated the Lord’s supper each Sunday, and had elders and deacons in each congregation. There was also a church of Christ in Dungannon, Ireland in 1804, and one in Allington, Deighshire. In 1735 John Davis, a young preacher from the Fife District in Scotland, was preaching simple New Testament Christianity some twenty five years from Thomas Campbell (Alexander’s father) was born.” We do not include this information here to show that the church of Christ started earlier than the 1800’s in America – we repudiate the whole idea that the church acknowledged and validated by Christ could have been started by anyone other than Christ himself, as warranted in the New Testament writings.
The church of the Lord existed long before 17th century England or 19th century America. It was predicted some five hundred years before Christ (Dan. 2:44), was promised by Jesus (Mt. 16:18), began and was announced as existing on the day of Pentecost, with the saved being added into it (Acts 2:41, 47). It has continued to exist without change since that day, with the only variable being those being saved by obedience to Christ and his gospel and assembling in various places as his people (Rom. 16:16, Gal. 1:1-2, etc). Whenever and wherever people obey the simple gospel message of the New Testament, the plan of salvation validated by Christ and implemented by his apostles, those people become part of the one true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even if for some period of time – even centuries – there were no living members of the Lord’s spiritual body, the body itself would continue. It would become a visible presence on earth again whenever the gospel was returned to and obeyed, in any place and at any time.
It is difficult to verify the existence of true Christians and congregations of true Christians in some periods of history. Much of church history is dominated by corrupt and unscriptural institutions claiming to be the church or parts of it. They suppress the truth of the Lord as given in his word, and promote themselves by denying the validity of anything other than themselves. They are believed by misguided people who believe that somehow the number of adherents proves the validity of the group. But multiplied millions of members of an unscriptural group will not make it valid, nor will they win for themselves the approval and acceptance of God (Mt. 7:21-28).
Of one thing we are certain: the church of Christ was not started in the United States by the Campbells, or by anybody else. The movement in which the Campbells and many others took the lead in America was simply one of many historical efforts to reform existing churches and restore the New Testament pattern for the church. To be sure that we are in the church of the Lord we must verify our own salvation, as set forth in the scripture (remember only those He saves are added by Him to His church). We must verify it by the scripture, not by the teachings of any reformer or restorer, not by the words of any modern day preacher, and not by any denominated group large or small that is not identified in the New Testament of God’s Word.
~ Gerald Cowan ~
(Minister of the church of Christ at Dongola, Illinois)