The Protestant Church of Christ also calls itself the Churches (or “churches”; lowercase “c”) of Christ. The names grant the group flexibility. “Church” (singular) communicates unity, and “Churches” (plural) communicates the autonomous nature of each local congregation. It makes sense; the Catholic Church has used the same names for centuries, but the Catholic Church’s use of the words does not indicate autonomy, but rather, unity even amongst its individual assemblies.
“Autonomy” is a goal and mark of the Protestant Church of Christ, whereas unity (catholicity) is a goal and mark of the Catholic Church of Christ; and even into the local congregations the Catholic Church remains united—remains one. And she, the real Church of Christ, remains united because of (not despite of) her hierarchical structure—her guarding of the Deposit of Faith: orthodoxy.
One Protestant Church of Christ writer, Edward C. Wharton, describes your groups’ position well, and he provides insight into its collective mind. He introduces the subject of autonomy in his book, The Church of Christ, by writing:
Contrary to the complex hierarchical system of one ruling bishop over many churches, the New Testament presents the autonomy of each local church, whether or not they have elders. Local church autonomy means that each local church is self-governing.1
It is expected and clear that Wharton begins to establish his group by comparing it to the Catholic Church: “Contrary to a complex hierarchical system . . . .” It is reasonable for a Comparative Religion book, such as the one in your hands, to compare religions; but Wharton’s book is intended to describe “The Distinctive Nature of the New Testament Church” (Wharton’s subtitle), yet it, like nearly all Apologetics material provided by your group, is an attempt to establish its restorationist tradition by comparing it to a competing tradition—it is an indication that his position antagonistically relies on a foreign and pre-existing ecclesial existence. Imagine the surprise if the Catechism of the Catholic Church (an exegesis of the Scriptures) established the Catholic Church by disestablishing any Protestant sect!
Is not the Protestant Church of Christ’s readiness to discredit a competing paradigm in order to establish its own credibility an indication that it is only reactionary—not leading; secondary—not primary? Is heresy not in the hands of those who protest a pre-existing paradigm? I suspect Wharton does not know what is “complex” about a hierarchy; autonomy and its provable and inevitable breakdown into disunity is a much more complex option. But as an indicative apologia for the Protestant Church of Christ’s position, please consider the illogic of Wharton’s sect-wide accepted introduction.
Is not the fact that he refers to the New Testament Scriptures an acknowledgement that a hierarchy of some sort existed to create the New Testament? Could he argue that autonomous churches autonomously created the canon of Scripture? The Protestant group takes what a hierarchy already produced, and then presents history as if that hierarchy had never existed—the group has no memory because it is new.
Autonomy is a founding tenet of the Protestant Church of Christ, it is a granted premise, and it is necessary for the group’s survival. If autonomy is shown to be wrong, then of course, the group is wrong; and the Catholic Church of Christ’s legitimacy appears more plausibly true. I will show you how the Old Testament provides the model of how the Church is structured, that the Christian kingdom has a prime minister (a pope), how the New Testament reflects the already-present Catholic Christian hierarchy, how important a prime minister is for maintaining orthodoxy, and of course, how the Catholic Church’s hierarchy throughout history is Jesus’ intent.
1 Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1997), 85.