This is a difficult question to answer due to the phrase “Church of Christ” being such a broad description. There are many churches who refer to themselves as the “Church of Christ.” Even within the most widespread “Church of Christ” denomination, there can be significant differences between the churches. There is no doubt that many in the Church of Christ denomination are genuine believers in Christ who desire to truly worship, follow, and obey Him. At the same time, there are others in the Church of Christ, and some Church of Christ churches, that are borderline cult-like in their preferences, practices, and doctrines. We are by no means disparaging the entire Church of Christ denomination or every church that refers to itself as the “Church of Christ.” The purpose of this article is to express some concerns and answer some questions about the Church of Christ that we have observed and experienced.
One “minor” issue is the Church of Christ policy of not allowing musical instruments in their church services. While we entirely agree that a church is well within the freedom God gives to not use musical instruments in worship, the problem is that some within the Church of Christ are fanatically against musical instruments. Some are fanatical to the point of declaring any church that uses musical instruments as not being a true, biblical, or godly church. Such dogmatism on a clearly non-essential issue is often the mark of a cult, not the mark of a good biblical church.
A second issue is the fact that some in the Church of Christ claim to be “the one true church,” outside of which there is no salvation. By no means do all Church of Christ members believe this, but it is prevalent enough to warrant concern. Some go so far as to argue that since the name is “Church of Christ,” that indicates that the church / denomination is the one and only true Church of the Lord Jesus. This is completely unbiblical. The claim of exclusive access to salvation is another common identification of a cult, not the teaching of a good biblical church.
A third and very important issue is the Church of Christ’s emphasis on baptism as being necessary for salvation. Church of Christ advocates point to Scriptures such as Acts 2:38, John 3:5, Mark 16:16, 1 Peter 3:21, and Acts 22:16 as biblical evidence that baptism is required for salvation. There is no denying that baptism is very important. Baptism is intended to be an initial act of obedience to Christ, an illustration of Christ’s death and resurrection, a public declaration of faith in Christ, a step of identification with Him, and a proclamation of desire to follow Him. In the minds of the apostles and early Christians, baptism was so inextricably linked with salvation that the two were viewed as inseparable. The idea that a person could receive Christ as Savior and not be baptized was completely foreign to the early church.
With that said, however, baptism is not required for salvation. There are biblically plausible and contextually valid interpretations of each of the above Scriptures that do not indicate baptism as being necessary for salvation. There are many Scriptures that declare salvation to be received by faith / believing, with no mention of baptism or any other requirement (John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-9). If baptism is necessary for salvation, these Scriptures are in error and the Bible is contradictory.
Church of Christ advocates argue that when the Bible speaks of salvation “by faith,” it is speaking of a living faith, a faith that produces works of obedience, such as baptism and confession (Romans 10:9-10). They do not claim that baptism is a work that earns salvation, or in any sense makes a person worthy of salvation. Rather, the Church of Christ teaches that baptism is a work that God requires before He grants salvation. For the Church of Christ, baptism and confession are no different from faith and repentance—they are what God requires before He grants salvation to a person. The problem with this is that, while it may seem to be a subtle difference from the biblical doctrine of salvation by faith, it is in fact a crucially important difference.
A person who has genuinely received salvation will produce good fruit. Good works are the inevitable result of salvation (Ephesians 2:10). What differentiates a “living faith” from a “dead faith” in James 2:14-26 is the presence of good works. Church of Christ advocates are right to denounce churches that teach intellectual assent to the facts of the Gospel as sufficient for salvation. The Church of Christ is right to reject the idea that a dead faith, a faith that produces no good works, is what saves a person. Faith / trust in Christ as the Savior is what saves a person, but this faith is a living faith that always results in and produces good works. To say that good works must be present BEFORE a person is saved is to make salvation dependent on our obedience, which is works-salvation, not salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. As Titus 3:5 declares, “He saved us – not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
So, are Church of Christ churches good biblical churches? This is a question that cannot be answered with an all-encompassing response. Many Church of Christ churches are in fact solid, biblically based churches. There are many Church of Christ churches which declare the true Gospel of salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. At the same time, with an extreme over-emphasis on the absence of musical instruments, with a claim of exclusive access to salvation, and with a doctrine of salvation that is borderline (at best) works-based, there are other Church of Christ churches that should definitely not be attended / participated in. This requires discernment on the part of a believer considering joining a Church of Christ church. The answer to the question depends entirely on which type of Church of Christ church it is.