Pretend, for a moment, “Christian” denominations don't exist. In fact, remove them entirely from your mind. What Christian in the New Testament ever became a member of a denomination? Such institutions were utterly foreign to Christian thinking then, and anyone seeking to become a Christian today need not bother with them.
Conversely, millions of people in nations around the world, have become simply Christians, belonging exclusively to the church which was built by our Lord. According to the Scriptures, the church of God is a distinct organization, and every individual who belongs to that divine institution is likewise called “saint” - i.e., set apart, distinct (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2). Thus, in an age in which religious pluralism pervades our world, in which there appears to be as many denominations professing to follow our Lord as there are opinions and preferences to be embraced, it is all the more important for that church to demonstrate its distinctiveness. Hence, consider the following areas in which the church of Christ, during the New Testament era, was distinct from modern institutions.
A Distinct Description
Churches of Christ in the New Testament were autonomous (self-ruling) congregations of Christians meeting to worship the Lord according to the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42). The expression “churches of Christ” evinced their desire to belong to Christ, to be members of His church (Romans 16:16; Matthew 16:18). It was not a sectarian organization. Too, the New Testament teaches that all Christians are added to that church only (Acts 2:47), and that Christ is its “head” and “savior” (Ephesians 5:23). Individual members of that church were known as “Christians” (Acts 11:26), “children of God” (Galatians 3:26), or “saints” (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). The church always and only wore the name of her Maker (cf. Psalm 127:1). Thus, she was variously called, “church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16), “body of Christ” (Ephesians 1:22, 23), “house of God” (1 Timothy 3:15), “kingdom of God's dear Son” (Colossians 1:13), and “church of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23).
A Distinct Creed
In the New Testament, the church of Christ had no humanly-contrived creed, manual, discipline or articles of faith. The words of the inspired prophets and apostles of the first century were sufficiently capable of directing the Christian in matters that pertain to “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), and all other uninspired teachers who went beyond the teachings of the prophets and apostles were rejected as specious and heretical (2 John 9-11; 2 Peter 2:1-22). It is no different today.
The Bible is the printed record of the Word of God revealed to inspired men (2 Peter 1:21; 1 Corinthians 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Matthew 4:4). As such, it makes men completely “furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Nothing else, in the form of a binding creed, is necessary or permissible. In fact, creeds are often barriers to unity rather than bastions for it. If the creed contains anything less than what the Bible teaches, it says too little. If it contains anything more than what the Bible teaches, it says too much. Hence, let the Bible alone be our rule-book (cf. Galatians 6:16), and let us reject creeds, for no Christian in the New Testament ever needed them to worship and serve our God faithfully.
A Distinct Organization
In the New Testament, churches of Christ were self-ruling – that is, there were no earthly headquarters to which each congregation belonged. Rather, each individual congregation, consisting of elders, deacons, and saints (Philippians 1:1), made their pragmatic decisions in matters of faith and practice internally, in accordance with “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42) and by the authority of, or “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17; Matthew 28:18-20). The jurisdiction of elders did not extend beyond their home congregation, nor were they permitted to enact practices or teach doctrines which the Lord had not already sanctioned (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Corinthians 4:6). The Word of the Lord alone guides each congregation in matters of faith and practice. And those activities and methods which expedite or implement the Lord's commands, which He has placed in our purview and wisdom to determine, are decided either by the elders of the flock (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1ff) or by the men of the congregation, when no eldership can be established (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Corinthians 11:3).
A Distinct Worship
The worship of the church of Christ in the New Testament was simple and sublime. It consisted of the following activities: a-Capella singing (Colossians 3:16-17), praying (Acts 2:42; 16:13, 16), teaching (Acts 2:42; 20:7), the Lord's Supper (Acts 20:7) [consisting of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine, taken every first day of the week], and contributions (1 Corinthians 16:1-2) [only members of the congregation were required to give; non-Christians were exempt]. No other worship practices were permitted in the New Testament, and those who deviated from God's pattern of worship often bore the brunt of His displeasure (cf. Leviticus 10:1-2; 1 Corinthians 11:27-29; 14:23ff).
A Final Distinctive Plea
In a divided religious world, our distinctive plea is based upon the religious unity for which Christ prayed in John 17, achievable only by submitting to God’s Word. Since “it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23), and since those who “pervert the gospel of Christ” are, by Him, “accursed” (Galatians 1:6), let us choose the restoration of His “old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16), abandoning our own. The God of the Bible has spoken in a manner comprehensible by all with “good and honest hearts” (Lk. 8:15), and anyone who elects to heed the ancient faith shall be blessed in his deeds (James 1:25). We request that you, with us, reflect solemnly upon this noble plea.