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What About Denominationalism?

One of the greatest challenges facing those who would be disciples of Christ is the scourge of sectarianism and denominationalism. The problem comes when one searches the Scripture and compares the church you can read about in the Bible with the churches that fill the religious world today. The fact is there are hundreds and hundreds of different churches in the modern day world! But, in the New Testament there was only one. See Matthew 16:18 and I Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:3-5 cf. Ephesians 1:18-23.

But, what does “one church” mean? And, more to the point how in the world can the denominationalism of the religious world even be justified in light of the fact that Jesus only has one church? Where did all of these different churches come from? While many assume that denominationalism is a perfectly acceptable way for us to express our faith and religion; and while most think all the religious division in the world really doesn't matter; and while some even think that denominationalism is actually a good thing, the Lord thinks differently!

The New Testament actually makes passing reference to “sectarianism” by its use of the term “sect” in Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:22; I Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20; II Peter 2:1. The term means “sect” or "party" (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 26:5) without all the negative connotations that it would later come to have is used of the divisions within the Jewish religion. In Acts 24:5,14; 28:22 it is used of Christians and apparently comes to mean “heresy” (with all the negative connotations) in I Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20 and II Peter 2:1. It is most interesting to consider I Corinthians 11:19 in the context of the problems at Corinth! See I Corinthians 1:10; 11:18; 12:25 where the term “schism” (rip, tear, split, division, dissension, schism) is used. (A related word is found in Titus 3:10 which illustrates the gradual evolution of the root meaning of the term as it moved from meaning, “one who chooses a particular group; a separatist or dissident” to that of meaning, “a heretic and troublemaker.”) The sectarian spirit is thus the heart and soul of denominationalism!

The Lessons of Church History

Christianity in church history and in the modern world has been noted for three basic understandings of (i.e., approaches to understanding) itself. The church has been viewed as either:

  • Catholic – Universal
  • Sectarian – Exclusivistic
  • Denominational – Divided

Catholicism views itself as the ultimate, the universal, and the only expression of the church – the body of Christ. And while denominationalism does not necessarily view itself as the only church, it frequently believes that it is the best and most faithful expression of the church to be found anywhere. But, denominationalism is hopelessly divided. Sectarianism on the other hand views itself as the only legitimate institutional (i.e., an emphasis on organization at the expense of other factors) expression of the body of Christ. Where Catholicism tends to exert extensive power, sectarianism tends to be much smaller in its power and influence and at times to be even cult-like in its dogmas. There must be another way! Surely it must be possible to follow Christ without either a sectarian or a denominational spirit. Surely it must be possible to follow Christ without all the foolishness of denominationalism. Surely we can come to the Lord in the purity of faith and just hold to Truth without all of the trappings of the sectarian and denominational world.

It must be noted that as in many things, “He who owns the dictionary wins the debate!” If we get to define ourselves that’s one thing; but if someone else gets to define us that means something else entirely! Consider I Corinthians 4:1-5. We must always remember, while it is important that we have the right view of ourselves, and while it matters little what others may think of us, what matters most is what does God think and say about us? Perhaps just as important is whether or not we are able to think with “the mind of Christ.” See I Corinthians 2:14-16.

So, what does the Lord say about all of this? That’s easy! There really is only one holy catholic (universal) church. See Matthew 16:18 … Ephesians 1:22,23; 2:16; 3:6,10,21; 4:4,12,16,25; 5:23,24,25,27,29,30,32; Colossians 1:18,22,24; 2:19; 3:15; etc.

Don’t for one moment read this as the “Roman Catholic” church! That church is not at all the church you read about in the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church is the church of the Apostasy foretold in Acts 20:28-31 and I Timothy 4:1-5. The Roman Catholic Church is a grotesque perversion of the one church you read about in the Bible! She has corrupted almost every single doctrine of Christ throughout the centuries and has been influenced by the grossest forms of paganistic idolatry. For just one example, go here (So, we are using the phrase “catholic” in its original form to refer to the original church in its ideal purity. We are not using the term “Catholic” in the sense of the Roman corruption.)

Also, don’t for one moment think that the Protestant Churches are any better. They too have the marks of the Apostasy (i.e., the hoof-prints of Satan) all over them! Even those who are in the “Church of Christ” may very well find themselves apostate and denominational! Let’s be very clear on this: While the church you read about in the Bible is not a denomination, the church is always facing the realities of apostasy and denominationalism. While the church is never to be denominational, the “Church of Christ” as we find it in America is in some ways becoming very denominational. How sad.

And while there are all kinds of local churches referred to in the pages of the New Testament – and even though many of those churches were a mess! – they were all supposed to basically be the same in faith, doctrine and practice. See Hebrews 8:1-6 and I Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:34,36; 16:1 (Philippians 4:9; I Thessalonians 2:14). When they were not, they were called back to the Way of Truth. Consider Galatians 1:3-12. So, one of the purposes of this article is not simply to point the finger of accusation at everyone other than ourselves and accuse them of denominationalism; it is also to admit that we too (in the Church of Christ) have a problem with denominationalism and we too must repent and get back to authentic faith and spirituality and be the church that truly belongs only to Christ. So, the bottom line is this: In the New Testament there was really to be no such thing as denominationalism or sectarianism. God never approved of such for his people. See John 17:1-26 and I Corinthians 1:2-4:21. So, why would anyone ever want to be a part of denominational apostasy?

To help put this in perspective, consider just one modern day theological dictionary article on the dirty little secret (i.e., the hypocrisy!) of “denominationalism”:

“Even though denominations within Protestantism have come to be the largest expression of organized Christianity beyond the level of the congregation, there has never been much theological reflection on denominationalism. A look at theology textbooks or church creeds confirms this. Probably the simplest explanation for this omission is that the Bible in no way envisages the organization of the church into denominations. It instead assumes the opposite, that all Christians – except those being disciplined – will be in full fellowship with all others. Any tendencies to the contrary were roundly denounced (I Corinthians 1:10-13). Paul could write a letter to the Christians meeting in various places in Rome or Galatia with every assurance that all would receive its message. Today, for any city or country, he would have to place the letter as an advertisement in the secular media and hope. Denominationalism is a comparatively recent phenomenon. […] There is no indication that denominations will soon disappear; but neither does it appear that anyone is eager to justify them theologically…” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology; Baker)

So, are we a denomination or not? Are you part of a denominational church or not? Well, again, it depends upon who owns the dictionary! Consider the two basic definitions that the world and even the religious world give to the terms “denomination” and “denominationalism”:

denomination” – “a name or designation … a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices” or “a religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body a number of local congregations.”

denominationalism” – “a largely American system in which Protestant Christianity has been divided into competing (i.e., rival) groups”

We are a denomination on both counts. In the eyes of the world and in the definitions of men we along with every other church are denominational, and there is no way to get around that. But, there is another way in which we can look at all this – from the Lord’s perspective as revealed in his Word! This is, after all, the only definition that really counts. The fact is while denominationalism is the way of the world it is not to be the way of God’s people, no matter what anyone says! While men love and praise denominationalism, the Lord does not! Our Lord prayed, “My prayer is for … those who believe … that all of them may be one … so that the world may believe…” (See John 17:20-26.) The Apostle Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought...” (I Corinthians 1:10-17) It could not be any clearer!

Back to the Bible

To understand the problem and the origins of denominationalism consider the following three areas of faith and religion and what Jesus and his Apostles said about them:

  • Man-made Traditions, Dogmas and Creeds – Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23
  • The Social Gospel and Worldly Cultural Influences – John 6:26 and I John 2:15-17 (Romans 12:1-2)
  • Political and Institutional Ideas and Centers of Power – Mark 10:35-45 and John 18:36-37 and I Corinthians 1:18-3:23

What most fail to realize about their own church is that most all of them simply do not follow the Bible and the Bible alone in their faith and religion. Most follow the Scripture and something else. Most hold to the creeds (written or unwritten) of men rather than to the Truth of Christ and his Word. If you are a member of a man-made denomination you need to realize that you most likely have somewhere in your history a creed book that is not the Bible that actually divides you from the true body of Christ into the church of man. You most likely have a creed book that actually contradicts the Bible. You are most likely following the traditions – the doctrines and commandments of men – in your church that separate you from all other churches and make you something more than or less than a Christian and a member of the body of Christ. Too many creeds and catechisms of men actually pervert the doctrine of the Lord and do not teach the truth on a multitude of matters – especially salvation!

If you are in the Roman Catholic Church, you need to realize that you are part of the Apostate Church. If you are in a Protestant church of the Reformed Faith you too are part of an apostate church. And even if you are in a so-called “non-denominational” church you need to realize that most of these have been touched by apostasy and teach as their doctrines the commandments of men. Many of the so-called non-denominational churches are not that at all. Rather, they are “all-denominational” (i.e., trans-denominational) and hold to many of the teachings of the Reformation faith and all of their major creeds. In other words, too many non-denominational churches have just deceptively dropped the name of their actual denominational affiliation while continuing to believe most all of the creeds of that denomination. It is time for all of us to get back to the Truth and prove everything as we hold on to that which is good! See I Thessalonians 5:21.

The truth is, denominationalism is more a work of the flesh than anything else. In fact Paul gets to the heart of the problem in Galatians 5:13-26 where he says: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful flesh; rather serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other … The acts of the sinful flesh are … hatred, discord, jealousy, wrath, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions … and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God … Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” And James too captures the essence of the spirit of denominationalism when he said, “If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:13-18) Thus, we find in these two passages the anatomy of division.

It is interesting to realize that Jesus came into a world where even Judaism was tragically divided. In the First Century the Jews were sectarian and denominational. There were at least four groups: (1) The Pharisees; (2) The Sadducees; (3) The Herodians; and (4) The Essenes of the Qumran Community (not mentioned in the New Testament). When our Lord came into the world the amazing thing is he identified with none of them; but rather called all men back to God and to himself! We need to take a lesson and do the same. What is more, Jesus explicitly (or implicitly) condemned each and every one of these sects throughout his ministry. The fact is, denominationalism looks rather like the problem that Jesus described in Matthew 23:1-39 cf. Luke 11:37-54 where he pronounced “Seven Woes” upon the Pharisees. Consider the Seven Woes and the corresponding error of denominationalism:

  1. Denominational Hindrance – Matthew 23:13-14
  2. Denominational Numbers – Matthew 23:15
  3. Denominational Money – Matthew 23:16-22
  4. Denominational Pettiness – Matthew 23:23-24
  5. Denominational Emphasis – Matthew 23:25-26
  6. Denominational Corruption – Matthew 23:27-28
  7. Denominational Monuments – Matthew 23:29-36

It should be noted that our Lord not only exposed the hypocrisy of the institutional denominationalism of his day, but he also offered its remedy! See Matthew 23:37-39 (Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23). God is deeply grieved at what we (men) have done to his church. The only remedy is for the church to be cleansed (i.e., changed) from the inside out. See Matthew 5:1-7:29. The only hope for the church is to repent and reject all of its divisive creeds and make Christ our only Lord and his Word our only rule of faith and practice in religion. See John 14:6 and II Timothy 3:14-17. Perhaps the Apostle Paul sums it up best when he says, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when your were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6 cf. Philippians 2:1-10)

Thus, the solution to the problem and spirit of denominationalism is to have the mind of Christ with the “wisdom that comes from heaven.” See James 3:13-18. What this means is that we will live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. See Galatians 5:13-26. It is possible to walk in the Way of Christ without denominationalism! And, if we are true disciples of Christ that is what we will do. That is what we must do! The question is, “Are you really seeking the Lord and the Way of Truth?”

POINT AND COUNTERPOINT:If you can be saved without all of the denominational churches of men, maybe the real question is, “Then why bother with any of them?” You see, most Protestant churches if pressed will admit that they are not the church you can read about in the Bible. Most will admit that they are a much later church with additional creeds and statements of faith. Most Protestant churches will admit that you can be saved without them. So, again, why bother with any of them?

The Scripture teaches quite clearly that what it takes to make one a Christian (i.e., what it takes to be saved) is also the very thing that places him or her in the body-church belonging to Christ. Consider I Corinthians 12:13 and Galatians 3:26-29 (Acts 2:38-47; Romans 6:3-14). But, isn't it interesting that for most in the denominational world you are "saved" and then you have to "join" their church by accepting their creed or statement of faith? In the Bible being "saved" automatically makes you a member of the church which is the body of Christ. Then you join yourself to a local fellowship of believers to worship and work together. See Acts 9:26-28. It really is very simple. But once again, men make it very complicated. The truth is, denominationalism gets in the way of becoming a believer and being saved!

The fact is, you can’t so easily dismiss the true body of Christ that you can read about in Scripture. The body-church of Christ is important! See Matthew 16:18 and Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:8-11,20-21; 4:1-6; 5:22-33; Colossians 1:13-18,24; etc. Jesus is the Savior of the body – his body, the church. We must be a member of that church! And that church is not the church of either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. (By the way, what makes anyone think that the “church” that Jesus is going to save has anything to do with Catholic and Protestant denominationalism?) It is not even the church of most so-called non-denominational churches.

Why don’t you just find the true body of Christ and the congregation of God’s people that seeks to honor that body and just do that? What we are trying to be – what we must be – is just a people who are members of the body of Christ! What we must be as a local congregation is a church that belongs only to Christ and worships him in spirit and in truth and practices all things according to the will and Word of God. Are you a member of such a church?