Free in Christ – Chapter 19, The Identity of the Church

by Cecil Hook


Many times I have pulled out my yellowed outlines and sought to convince my audience of the identification of the Church of Christ with the one true church. In time I have come to realize that many of the marks of identity that I stressed were secondary characteristics and not of primary significance.

Most of the treatments of the identity of the church that I have heard or read dealt with an organizational concept of the church. An organization can be traced historically and may identify historically. The church, however, is a here-and-now relationship of people with God. It is a present, living organism.

There were predictions of falling away which have been misunderstood generally. “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith … “ (1 Tim. 4:1). Concerning the coming of the day of the Lord, Paul assured, “for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first” (2 Thes. 2:1-4). There was to be a rebellion or falling away of some. But how extensive was that to be? Would it be some or all individuals, or some churches, or a universal obliteration of the church?

If the concept of the restoration of the church is built upon the premise that the church was totally fallen away from the faith, then some scripture teachings would need more explanation. Daniel predicted that “the God of heaven shall set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed … and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). The writer of Hebrews exhorts, “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). How could the kingdom be declared to be non-existent through most of the centuries since its founding, like from Constantine in the fourth century until our pioneers in the nineteenth century, in view of these passages? Alexander Campbell considered himself a reformer, not a restorer of the church. He believed that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16 :18). He sought to restore the unity which had been spoiled among disciples.

The church has been in need of constant reform since its earliest days. Most of the epistles were written to congregations needing redirection. Because the church is people, there will always be error and misdirection which will need to be corrected.

As the centuries passed, many doctrinal and practical changes came to be accepted. Because of the development of bishop rule, these erroneous teachings and practices could be bound on the church universally. So it happened. The question now is this: Did deviations make it no longer the church? Was its identity destroyed? If so, when? When did the church lose its essence, or essential nature?

To illustrate this matter, as Leroy Garrett once proposed, let us explore what is the essential nature of a man. Here is a man. We amputate a leg. Is he still a man? We add glasses. Is he still a man? We pull his teeth out and substitute man-made dentures. Has that changed his essential nature? He changes his name. Is he still a man — the same man? He is addled by a stroke. Has he ceased to be a man? Many other physical, mental, and social changes might affect his quality as a man, but they would not destroy the essential nature of a man.

Now, let’s think of the essential nature of a church. It has only one elder. Is it still a church? It binds the holy kiss. Is it a church now? It changes its name. Has it ceased to be a church? It is filled with jealousy and strife. Has that destroyed its identity? It burns votive candles. Has that changed its essential nature? It accepts tongue speaking and belief in miraculous healing. Is it still a church? Many other deviations of belief and practice might change its quality as a church but they would not destroy the essential nature of a church.

These changes in the man and the church are not changes in the essence of either, but they are changes in secondary characteristics. Secondary characteristics are always in need of purification and reform; however, deviations do not always destroy the identity. While it is our role to reform, only the Lord is able to judge and remove the candlestick.

The Essence

What is the essence of the church? Stripping off all secondary characteristics, what will we discover to be the real church? What is essential? The essential nature of the church is that it is those in Christ. Being baptized into Christ, His body, His church, persons are saved, being added by the Lord Himself (Acts 2:38, 47; Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 1:18). The church is those who have been redeemed. They are not perfected in belief or practice but, serving sincerely, they are continually cleansed (1 John 1:7-10) and are made to stand (Rom. 14:4). According to Romans 14, we are not to judge or disdain those in Christ who differ in belief and practice. There is need of constant reform. There are proper causes for rejection, withdrawal, and delivering to Satan which we discussed in the previous chapter titled Our Creed. These drastic actions are to be taken only against those who renounce the faith, abandon moral purity, or become divisive. These actions are not to be taken against ignorant, misguided, stumbling disciples who are sincerely trying to do the will of their God who happen to be in error on convictions different from yours or mine.

Some of my earliest remembrances while growing up on a cotton farm near Rochester in West Texas were of attending revival meetings. The people of that small community built a “tabernacle,” as we called it. It was like a house without walls, a superstructure somewhat like a tent without the side flaps. Each church had its turn to use it for gospel meetings.

A Union Meeting

Three of the churches joined forces to have a union meeting. They chose a preacher who agreed not to preach any of their distinctive denominational messages. Even though I was only a young child, I can recall how the preacher would bring laughter, then tears, and, in his concluding appeal, fright. Many would respond and were saved, supposedly. After the concluding service the chairman said something to this effect: “We have had a great number saved. Now it is time for you who were saved to join the church of your choice. Brothers A, B, and C, pastors of the cooperating churches, will stand in these different locations at the front. You may present yourself to one of these men and he will tell you how to join his church.”

Now, let us suppose we have a union meeting similar to that one but different in some details. Three churches cooperate in it. They get a preacher who promises to preach no doctrine except from the Bible. He will just preach the gospel like Peter did on Pentecost. The meeting is a great success. Eighty persons believe, repent, confess faith in Christ, and are baptized for the remission of their sins. Everyone is rejoicing.

Then the final service is completed and the chairman arises and says, “Many have been saved. Now it is time for you to join the church of your choice. The preachers for churches A, B, and C will stand here before you. All who wish to join A church come with Brother A.” Twenty arise and stand with him. Brother B is introduced and twenty stand with him. Brother C rejoices inwardly because he thinks he is to get the remaining forty. But when he is introduced, only twenty stand with him.

At this point there is an air of perplexity about the remaining twenty. The chairman inquires of them, “Aren’t you going to join a church?”

“No,” they respond, “we are in the church already.”

“How can that be?” the chairman asks.

“So far our preacher has preached the gospel like Peter did on Pentecost. When people were baptized for the remission of sins then, they were saved, being baptized into Christ and his one body which is the one church. We have done only what they did and we trust that we are in the same church that they were added to. Now you are going beyond the scriptures in urging us to join divisions. All eighty of us are in the one church, being added by the Lord himself. To join different groups now and to wear names to distinguish us from one another is to become divided and denominational.”

“Well, you are starting a new church, are you?” the chairman asks, not quite able to grasp the explanation.

“No, we are just remaining in the one the Lord added us to. We will not exclude the other saved persons or wear a distinguishing name.”

“What, then, are you going to do?”

“We will meet together in fellowship and worship after the New Testament pattern. We will follow that pattern in our personal lives, congregational organization, name, and group activity. We invite the other sixty saved persons to be with us in this undenominational fellowship. To divide into groups as you have done is sinful, and we can recognize no fellowship with you unless you come with us.”

Can we identify the church in this illustration? Since, in its essence, the church is the saved people, the eighty persons are in it. Meeting in separate groups locally would not alter that. Meeting together holding identical scruples was not a condition of their salvation nor the essence of the church/saved.

Since their fellowship is in Christ rather than in doctrinal agreement, the disciples composing these groups accept all the others as fellow-disciples without condemning them for differences in understanding. That is, all are accepting except the last group! Those in the last group reject and condemn all other disciples! They become sectarian. Although they claim undenominational status, they become a separate group with a distinguishing name. They become the divisive ones!

The saved ones are in the various groups. They are not saved by being in the distinctive groups but in spite of it. They are united in Christ. There can be unity in diversity. In fact, there can be no other kind!

The Stone-Campbell Movement was begun in an effort to cause disciples to accept each other across their party lines. Those reformers had a better concept of the identity of the church than most of the heirs of their heritage today.


Christ’s church is sparkling new,
Yet we’re nineteen centuries old,
Like wheat which this year grew,
And has for years untold.

Though time may kill each crop,
Another fills our need,
Not by perpetual plant,
But by life-giving seed.

-Cecil Hook

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