Are We the Only Ones Going to Heaven?

Things I Love about the Churches of Christ

(Churches that go by the name “Church of Christ”)

  • I love our passion for understanding and living according to Scripture; that we trust all scripture (New Testament and Old Testament) as the word of God and it’s of the utmost important to us to interpret and follow it as God intends.
  • I love our Christology, our doctrine about Christ, that He was God in the flesh, that He died for our sins and rose from the dead and was made Lord of all creation and He saves from sin and death all who trust and obey Him.
  • I love that we tell new believers to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, and not that they’re already saved before repentance and baptism, or that they must merely ask Jesus to save them.
  • I love that we stress the necessity of continuing to grow into the image of Jesus.
  • I love how the whole congregation participates in worship. We all sing to one another as Christians were encouraged to do in the NT.
  • I love that we take the Lord’s Supper together as a part of our weekly assembly as the NT church did.
  • I love that we don’t call any of our leaders “Reverend” or “Father” or other exalted titles like that. We recognize that we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow members of one body with different functions.
  • I love the way we organize our churches, following the way the NT churches were organized. No one senior pastor over the whole church.  No synod or headquarters over multiple churches, but a plurality of spiritually qualified elders that oversee and shepherd their own congregation, and deacons in charge of areas of service.
  • I love our zeal for missions. Every Church of Christ I’ve been a part of has been involved in supporting missionaries to spread the gospel.
  • I love our desire for helping the weak and poor people, feeding the homeless at shelters, clothing drives, food pantries, orphan homes, and the like.
  • I love that Churches of Christ are full of people that see me as I see them, as family. Every Church of Christ I’ve been to, I feel like I have extended family there.

So, for many reasons, I love Churches of Christ.

But I want tell you…

A reason why a lot of people do not like the Churches of Christ.

I’m going to share with you four similar experiences of many such experiences I’ve had.  These are what have prompted me to do this lesson this morning.

  • Last week I heard from someone, “What I hate about the Church of Christ is that they think that everybody else is going to hell.  They think people of other churches who differ from them in various doctrines are not saved”.
  • A couple months ago I asked a lady who knows many of us pretty well why she doesn’t come to church with us on Sundays.  She basically told me that her experience with Churches of Christ is that we tend to be overly judgmental, condemning of other believers over matters like instrumental music in worship, and it has turned her off to us.
  • Several months ago, a newer member here was saying, “I don’t know if I want to attend this church anymore” because she heard some of us saying something like, “People of other churches are not saved. One needs to be a part of this church to be saved.”  The person didn’t want to be part of us if that’s what we believe.
  • A couple years ago a lady emailed me after coming across an article I put online about baptism.  She wrote to me, “Dear James: I have been burdened by what I see in the scriptures about baptism and its connection to our salvation.  I just read your article…  [The things in your article] I have been seeing already.  Anyway, I don’t even know all what you believe about it…but want to speak more with you about this.  I think we should be teaching that one must believe the gospel and be baptized to be saved and this is not what the church where I attend, now teaches.  Thank you.  Gwen”.  That began a great discussion over email with this lady that went on for a few months.  We came to see many things alike in our study of the Scriptures.  She decided she wanted to visit the Church of Christ in her town in California.  After visiting she told me that she liked the simplicity of the Church of Christ and she liked what they teach about baptism in particular.  But then, later after visiting that church a few more times, she wrote to me that she did not think she could be a part of that church because they seem to think of themselves as the only church in town acceptable to the Lord and seemed to regard Christians of other churches as not saved.

Now, I’m not saying that most of us have this narrower, restricted view of who God’s people are.  But some of us I think do.  And this is the view I was persuaded to believe as a boy and a new Christian, growing up in a Church of Christ…. that we alone know the way of salvation; we alone are really pleasing to the Lord.  People need to be a part of our church, worship like we worship, take communion as often as we take it, and believe like we believe on several different issues to be a true Christian.

Maybe you’ve heard some of the jokes about Churches of Christ.

  • How do you kill a Church of Christ preacher?…  Lock him in a room, tell him you’re a Baptist, then offer him a free dinner and watch him starve to death rather than have table fellowship with you.  (Because we have a reputation of refusing to fellowship with Baptists).
  • A man went to heaven and was being shown around by St.  Peter.  Peter showed him everything from the streets of gold to the tree of life.  Then as they passed by a section of heaven surrounded by a high wall, Peter put his finger over his lips and said “Shhhhh” and they walked real quietly past that section of heaven.  Then the man asked Peter, “What was all that about?”.  Peter said, “Oh, on the other side of that wall are the folks from the Church of Christ.  They think they’re the only ones here”.

Now, to be fair some also tell that joke about the Baptists or Catholics, because there are Baptists and Catholics who feel like they’re the only ones going to go to heaven.

Well, is this exclusive narrow view of who God’s people are, right?  Are we right to refer to the Churches of Christ, as many do, as “THE Lord’s church”, and when speaking of someone who attends a Church of Christ to say, “Oh he’s a member of the Lord’s Church” and when we speak of someone from a different church to say, “Well, he has some faith but he’s not a member of the Lord’s church”?  Is it okay that we turn a lot people away by speaking as though Church of Christ members are the only true Christians?

You might say, “Well, the Bible says there’s only one church”.  Yes, it does.  Jesus told His disciples, “I will build My church,” singular.  There is one body of the saved.  But how does the Bible define that one church?  Does it define it as one body of people who attend a church with this particular name?  No, it doesn’t say that.  Churches didn’t have names in the first century, they were referred to by descriptions: “Church of Rome”, “Saints at Corinth”, “Brethren at Colossae”, etc.  Naming your church is a man-made tradition.  So the name has nothing to do with it.  Does the NT define the one body of the saved as being made up of people who have our understanding on, let’s say, 18 different issues that distinguish us from other churches (believe like we do on eschatology and election and church leadership and worship practices, and so on? Is the church made up only of those who are right on all of those issues?  OR, does the grace of God and the sphere of His church include people who have misunderstandings and people who have a lot of learning and growing and changing to do?

I’d like us to first reason together about a hypothetical story, but a story that depicts many true situations.

Story of Fred

A man named Fred, for various reasons, believes there has to be a God and reaches a point where he starts seeking God.  He starts reading the Bible and he knows some folks at work who claim to be Christians and so he discusses spiritual and Bible matters a little  with them.  Through his search, he comes to understand that Jesus is the one God sent for us.  Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead and ascended to heaven and He is Lord of all.  He’s the King and He’s willing to save from sin and death anyone who will trust and follow Him.  Now, there’s a lot of the Bible Fred doesn’t understand.  There are a lot of spiritual matters he either doesn’t know about or has misconceptions about.  But those basic truths about Jesus are crystal clear to him.  And Fred decides “I believe that’s who Jesus is and what He’s done and Jesus is going to be Lord of my life now.  I’m going to start doing things Jesus’ way in my life”.  Fred doesn’t know all the will of Jesus, but He’s knows some.  He knows Jesus wants him to be honest and kind to people and quit drinking so much and quit sleeping around, and Fred decides that’s what he’s going to do.  Fred sees stuff in the NT or hears from the Christian folks at work about new believers being baptized.  Fred wants to obey Jesus, so Fred tells the Christian people at work, “I want to be baptized”.  A time and place are set up and Fred with faith and commitment to Jesus is baptized.  Is Fred a Christian?  Over and over in the book of Acts those basic truths about Jesus, His death, resurrection and Lordship that Fred believed are the very truths that the apostles taught people who didn’t know very much about spiritual matters, and when those people believed and changed their lives and were baptized, they were saved, every one of them.  I think Fred would be a brother in Christ.

Now, what if Fred didn’t understand the full significance of his baptism?  What if he didn’t understand that baptism is what brings you into Christ and the forgiveness of your sins?  What if Fred thought that he was saved just when he committed himself to Christ before baptism, and he was just baptized because, well, Jesus commands it and He wanted to obey Jesus?  Does Jesus not forgive Him because the reason he was baptized was just to obey Him, not necessarily to obtain forgiveness?  Well, I don’t know of a passage that says for a baptism to count the baptized must understand that it is at that moment that they are obtaining forgiveness.  And think about this: Repentance is also spoken of in “Scripture” as something we are to do “for the forgiveness of sins.” What if a Christian notices a sinful habit in his life and repents of it because he loves Jesus and wants to obey him, but doesn’t really do it for the purpose of obtaining forgiveness? Does Jesus still accept his repentance and forgive him, though he wasn’t repenting for the forgiveness of sins?  I can’t imagine that Jesus wouldn’t respond by forgiving him. So I’m not prepared to say that unless somebody was baptized purposely for the forgiveness of sins with our understanding of the significance of baptism, their baptism doesn’t count.  That’s where I’m at with it. You wrestle with that and see where you come to.

I think of it kind of like if you go to the doctor and the doctor prescribes some pills for your health, and later if you forget exactly what all each pill does, but you take the pills anyway because the doctor told you to and you trust him.  The pills are still just as effective when you take them whether you understand their significance or not.  I think faith, repentance, and baptism are like that, still effective whether somebody understands all the benefits or not.  What matters, I think, is trusting and loving Jesus enough to obey Him.  The NT says repeatedly everyone who believes in Jesus (which means trusts Him enough to obey Him) will be saved. So I understand that when sincere faith and commitment to follow Christ leads one to be baptized in His name  that person is brought into the one body of the saved.

Now, let’s say new Christian Fred, because he wants to obey the Lord in his life, wants to get together with other Christians to worship and learn, so Fred decides to go to a church.  But he doesn’t know the differences between all the many churches in town.  And he doesn’t yet know his Bible well enough to be able to say who’s right and who’s wrong on all the differences.  So Fred decides to go to the church that the guys at work go to or to go to the church nearest to his house.  Say it’s a Presbyterian church or Methodist or Baptist or whatever.  From all he can tell, they believe the same things he believes about Jesus, that He’s the risen Lord and they love Him and praise Him, and so he attends that church for a while.  Now, did Fred fall away because he started attending that denominational church?  Does the Lord require of Fred, if He’s going to be a Christian, to quickly find out what all these hundred churches in town believe and teach, and know his Bible inside and out so that he can figure out which one is right (probably have to quit his job because of all the time required for his research)?  Is that what Fred has to do?  Is that what you did when you became a Christian?  Did you figure out what all these churches believe and got to know your Bible so well that you knew who was right and who was wrong on the many issues? And what if Fred’s not the brightest crayon in the box?  What if Fred can’t read very well?  “Tough luck, Fred!  You’ve got to become a scholar, a theological expert, and figure out all of these churches and all of these issues people have been debating about for two thousand years.  And Fred, you got to get it all right. ” That’s hard to imagine of the Jesus who said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).  Fred may be confused, he may not understand some things, but I think he’s still a brother though he’s attending some other church.

But what if that church teaches Fred some things that are not true, but they quote some verses out of context that make them sound true, and Fred doesn’t know any better and so he believes what they’re telling him?  Does Fred fall away because now he’s in error in his beliefs?

Can you be in error in your beliefs or practices, yet still be right with the Lord?

Folks, I am counting on it!  If you cannot be in error to be a true Christian, then I don’t think I’ve ever been a true Christian.  I look back at my life, since when I baptized at 12 years old, and over those years, there are so many things that I see that I was wrong about in my beliefs.  And there have been so many things in my behavior and my language and my attitudes that I’ve needed to change because they were wrong.  Does that mean that I have not been a Christian? No.  The Christian life is a continuous growth and development process into the image of Jesus.  It is a life of constant learning and repenting, changing and progressing.  Psalm 19:12, “Who can discern his errors?” It’s a rhetorical question. In other words we don’t even realize all our errors, all the areas in which we’re falling short.

Let’s look at some Scriptures… because it’s one of the things I love about Churches of Christ, we’re not going to believe stuff a preacher says unless he can back it up with Scripture.  So let’s look at some Scriptures.

Romans 14:1-6, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.  2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.   3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.  4 Who are you to judge the servant of another?  To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.  Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.  6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God”.

So Paul is clearly talking about some differences of view among the Christians in the church at Rome.  One of the differences was over whether or not it was okay to eat meat.  Why?  Maybe much of the meat that was available in the city of Rome at the time came from animals sacrificed to pagan gods and so some felt it was too close to participating in idolatry to eat it. Or maybe much of the meat in Rome was non-Kosher and the Jewish Christians in the church still felt like the Lord wanted them to eat Kosher and so they wouldn’t eat it.  Another difference was over observing one day above others.  I suspect, because in the church at Rome there were Jewish Christians, that this referred mainly to observance of the Sabbath day and probably other Jewish holidays.  The Jews had never worked on a Saturday their whole life.  They reserved that day for rest and spiritual enrichment.  Just because they became Christians doesn’t mean they quit doing that.  Many of them for whatever reason (their interpretation of Scripture or their experience of its benefits) felt that it was the Lord’s will that they continue doing observing that day.  It says in verse 6, “he who observes the day, observes it for the Lord.”  And Paul says both of you, on either side of both issues, accept each other, don’t judge each other, the Lord accepts you both, you’re brothers in Christ, because you’re both trying to obey the Lord as best you know how.

Did you know there is another church in town here who believes very similar to us on many things?  It would probably surprise you how similar they are to us.  But probably the most glaring difference is that they worship on Saturday rather than Sunday.  It’s called the 7th Day Adventist Church.  Like these ancient Jewish Christians, they think it is still the Lord’s will that we set aside the seventh day of week for rest and spiritual enrichment.  They observe that day for the Lord.  I don’t agree with them on that.  I think they misunderstand some passages, and they think the Sabbath command on the Jews is still binding on us today.  But they think the Lord wants them to do that.  They’re following Jesus to the best of their understanding.  I think Paul would say, “Don’t condemn them for that. Still regard them as your brethren in Christ. They observe the day for the Lord.”

Look at some things in the Thessalonian and Corinthian letters.

I Thessalonians 4:13-17…  Paul talks to them about their eschatology (the study of the afterlife and what’s going to happen at the end of history).  And Paul had taught them that one day Jesus was going to come back and take us to be with Him forever.  But apparently the Thessalonians were really concerned about some of their brothers and sisters who had died, because they didn’t know that when Jesus comes back, the dead are going to be raised.  They thought their dead brothers and sisters in Christ were going to miss out on the coming of Jesus.  So Paul writes to inform them that they’re not going to go be with the Lord without their fellow Christians who have died. The dead in Christ are going to rise from the dead first and then we’re all going to go be with the Lord together.  Just because they didn’t yet realize that the dead would be raised when Christ returns, didn’t mean they weren’t Christians.

Then when Paul writes II Thessalonians, they had apparently been troubled by some teaching saying that either the Lord had already come back or that the time of His coming was upon them.  Some of them even quit their jobs because they felt like the time to go be with the Lord was at hand.  And so Paul writes to correct their misunderstanding.  And yet, throughout II Thessalonians, guess what Paul calls them?  “My brethren.”  And he writes about the hope that they have.  You mean, you can be wrong in your eschatology, that is your beliefs about the afterlife, and what’s going to happen at the end of history; you can be confused about that and still be a Christian?  Apparently.  That’s one of the other differences between us and the 7th day Adventist and many other denominations.  Our eschatology is different.  Most of them believe in a doctrine called Premillennialism, that is, when Jesus comes back he will set up a kingdom here on earth and reign with the saints for 1000 years, and then the final judgment will take place after the 1000 years.  Well, I don’t agree with that.  I think they’ve misinterpreted Revelation 20 and other passages.  But I’m not going to say that someone is not my brother or sister in Christ because their eschatology differs from mine, because Paul didn’t.

Paul called the church in Corinth “my brethren” and “saints,” but talk about a messed up church.  They were divided into little clicks that fought and competed with each other.  They had some guy in their church sleeping with his step-mother.  Some of them were taking each other to court and trying to sue each other.  Some of them were thinking it may be okay to use the services of a prostitute.  They fought about eating meat sacrificed to idols.  They made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper.  Their assemblies were disorganized and chaotic.  Tongue speakers showing off, people speaking at the same time.  They even had some in their midst saying there’s not going to be a future resurrection of the dead.  And it’s not that that was all okay.  Paul wrote to correct that stuff.  And yet, Paul regarded them as his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Folks I think there are a lot of “Freds” in the world.  They don’t attend a Church of Christ.  Yes, they’re confused, in error in various beliefs and practices (as are you, and as am I, we just don’t realize in what ways yet).  But they’re following Jesus to the best of their understanding, as you and I are following Jesus to the best of our understanding.  And from what I see about Jesus in the Bible, He accepts them in His family.  He accepted those disciples who followed Him around for three years.  Do you remember how mistaken they were about stuff?  They were arguing about which of them was the greatest, James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans, they had prejudices against the Gentiles, they didn’t know what kind of king Jesus was, or what kind of kingdom He was going to bring. They had all kinds of immaturity and misconceptions.  But Jesus accepted them, and He was patient with them, and they grew more into who He wanted them to be.

Is everybody in every church okay?  Absolutely not.  But I believe that even in really messed up churches where most may not be okay there can still be some true sincerely trying followers of Jesus.  It was that way in some 1st century churches.  Revelation 3 to the church in Sardis, Jesus said, “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”.  By in large, that church in Sardis was spiritually dead in the eyes of the Lord.  But Revelation 3:4 Jesus said, “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy”.  The Lord’s church extends even into ‘messed up churches’. Even in dead churches there can be a few who have not soiled their garments.

How do we tell who our brothers and sisters in Christ are?

I find in the NT that the way we tell who our brothers and sisters in Christ are is not by handing them a questionnaire to get their doctrine stance on a bunch of topics.  But the way that we tell is by…  Well, listen to these Scriptures, don’t take my word for it…

  • James 1:26-27, what’s pure and undefiled religion?  You bridle your tongue, you help the weak and poor, like the widows and orphans, you keep yourself unstained by the world.  You look like Jesus in your character.
  • Galatians 5:6, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but [what matters is] faith working through love”.  What matters is faith working through love, says Paul.  You see someone with genuine faith, faith that is moving them to try to obey the Lord and reflect His love to others, that’s the mark of a Christian.
  • Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?  So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  So then, you will know them by their fruits”.  I used to think “by fruit,” Jesus meant their doctrine. “You will know them by the doctrine they teach.” But Jesus said that in the Sermon on the Mount.  In that context, I think what Jesus means by good fruit, is things like poor in spirit, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, faithful through persecution, honest, forgiving, unselfish with their money, and they try to love their neighbor as themselves.  That’s the mark of a true Christian.

What God’s after are people who look like Jesus.  Not so much they get it all right, but He wants people who love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and they love their neighbor as themselves.

Certainly we should try to get it all right in our theology. We should try to understand and follow the scriptures the best we can. But my conviction from what I see in Scripture is that we should also embrace as our brothers and sisters all who are also trying to follow Jesus to the best of their understanding, even if we disagree them about various issues.  And yes, let’s talk with them about our differences. Let’s try to learn from each other and grow together. But let’s do it without condemning them and without drawing lines of fellowship between ourselves and other sincere followers of Jesus.

-James Williams

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