-A. Ralph Johnson
I Cor. 1:10-15, 31. “Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
The word, “denominationalism” means, “to separate into religious sects or denominations.” (American Heritage Dictionary). The basic word means to divide and name.
Men glory in their denominational distinctions. However, the last prayer that Jesus had with his disciples was for unity (John 7:17). Because those who profess his name have in fact been divided up into hundreds of warring factions--even to the point of killing each other, the work of extending the gospel to all men has been hampered and the world has largely discounted its importance.
Paul warned against calling ourselves after men --even after the apostles themselves (1Cor. 1:10; 3:1)
If it is wrong to call ourselves after the apostles, how much more is it wrong to call ourselves after uninspired men such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley or Campbell. Some of these leaders specifically opposed such use of their names. Luther said that we should just be called, “Christians.” (Life of Luther, by Michelet, p.262)
Our focus should be on Christ (1Cor. 1:1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 17, 23, 24, 30).
We are to glory in the Lord, not men.
1Corinthians 1:31. That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
1Peer 4:16. but if (a man suffer) as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name.
Romans 16:16. Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you.
This is not to say that “Church of Christ” is the only name that can be used. The Bible uses many other terms to describe God’s people.
1. Collectively they were called:
a. “Church,” or “Churches”
“of the saints.” 1Cor. 14:33
“of the firstborn” (ones) Heb. 12:23
“of Christ.” Rom. 16:16.
“of God” 1Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:16, 22; 15:9; 2Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1Thes. 2:14; 2Thes. 1:4; 1Tim. 3:5, 15.
b. “House of God.” 1Tim. 3:15; Heb. 10:21; 1Pe 4:17
c. “Body of Christ” cf. Rom. 12:5; 1Co. 10:17; 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 2:16; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23-32.; Col. 1:18; 2:17, 19; 3:15; Heb. 13:3.
2. Individually they were called:
“Disciples” --Acts 1:15; 6:1, 2, 7: 9:1, 19, 25, 26, 38; 11:26 etc.
“Christians” --Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1Pe. 4:16.
“Brethren” –Acts 11:29; 15:23; 17:20; 21:17; Rom 12:1; Jam 5:7; 1John 1:7 etc.
“Children of God” –Rom 8:16, 21, Gal. 3:26; 1John 3:10; 5:2.
“Saints” –Acts 9:32, 41; 26:10; Rom. 12:13; 15:25-26; 16:15; 1Cor 16:1 etc.
Naming ourselves after doctrines is equally unacceptable. There seems to be no limit to the multiplication of party labels to distinguish this or that faction of the body of Christ.
1 Corinthians 3:21 Wherefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours; 22 whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; 23 and ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's.
The result is that these have become fences – “no trespassing” signs, keeping people confined to the denominational corral and barring outside communication and input which might raise questions about the validity of the party line. We need to communicate without regard to humanly devised walls. The “Sheltered Enclave” stifles the truth of God. The motive is always to “protect the faithful,” but error is the only thing which needs to fear the light (Jn. 3:19-21). Non-communication keeps the saints unprepared, allows evil to grow unchallenged within the walls, preserves unscriptural traditions and fosters indifference.
Denominationalism, by it's very nature, tends to focus upon some personality for it's primary generating impulse. In First Corinthians, chapters one and two, Paul cites the problem as reliance upon the wisdom of men. He warns against relying on the “excellency of speech” and “persuasive words of wisdom.” Human nature seems to always seek out someone to exult as “our leader,” in whom they can place their trust to make decisions and guide them. This is often an abdication of personal responsibility. They are the “scholars” or “fathers” and their words and judgments become relied upon as substitutes for the word of God.
In turn, these are codified into “creeds” or “statements of faith” and an organizational structure is developed to shelter these venerated “traditions.” This may be in the nature of a large ecclesiastical organization controlled from the top such as a “prophet,” “patriarch,” “Most Holy Father,” “Pope,” “Arch Bishop,” or “Vicar of Christ,” professing special guidance or infallibility, or it may be a somewhat less structured system such as an “association” or “central committee.”
However it represents itself, the fundamental problem is reliance upon the wisdom or power of a man or group rather than upon God. The creed, confession of faith, articles or traditions, tend to become the test of orthodoxy (See I Cor. chapter 1). Indeed, often the adherents are little disturbed about violations of New Testament teaching (women preachers, unqualified Elders, discounting scriptural baptism or the Lord's Supper --or even homosexual ministers) but outraged at any question about their party practices. Jesus said, “In vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. ...ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition.”- Mark. 7:7-9
Even among less structured churches there is the tendency to rely unduly on the professional hired brains from some Bible college. Accreditation becomes more important than scriptural reliability. Eldership declines in importance and becomes a “rubber stamp” for the preacher or “senior pastor.” They seek some man to make their decisions but the man also often becomes a focus of controversy as the people tire of him. If he excels, when he leaves, there is often a power struggle seeking a replacement. While both the preachers and the people like it that way, unfortunately there are many bad side effects.
The earliest tendencies toward denominationalism were dealt with by Jesus and the apostles themselves, as shown above. Jesus repeatedly had to struggle against those who sought exaltation through religious titles such as “Father,” “Rabbi” or “Master” (Matthew 23:5-12). However, in spite of all of the warnings to the contrary, exploitation of the name of Christ for power, praise and wealth has gone largely unrestrained.
At first, each local gathering of Christians was provided a collective leadership of carefully qualified men known as “bishops,” “elders” or “overseers,” who were to rule by example rather than as overlords (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5-9; I Tim. 3:1-7; I Peter 5:1-4). In addition to these, in the first century there were the inspired apostles and prophets who provided the foundational revelation and direction to set up the church (Eph. 1:20). But these, as with Jesus who is the chief corner stone, when they had completed their work of setting up the church and giving us the inspired teachings of the New testament, passed into the heavens (I Cor. 13:8-13). In addition, there were also evangelists, primarily for spreading the gospel (missionaries) as their name would imply, teachers to communicate the word among the saints, and deacons, who were to assist the elders by keeping them from having to take time out to care for the church's physical needs.
However, just as Israel of old sought a king to look after and make them “like the other nations”(I Sam. 8:19,20), the concept of a leadership vested in a single individual soon was established. Now, after the Roman political pattern, an “arch” or “ruling” bishop over all the rest became the fashion. In time, whole districts came under such control and in the end, the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were jousting for domination in the Empire.
This conflict was so intense that in the forth century the Emperor, Constantine, established the precedent of using the government to bring the warring factions together to resolve questions and enforce their decisions. Unfortunately, this only resulted in government being exploited to enforce false teaching and in turn, the church being exploited by the government for it's own selfish interests. Thus, the concept of a religion of the state was introduced into Christianity.
With the rise of Islam under Mohammed and his successors, Palestine and North Africa were conquered and Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria were removed from contention. The bishops of Rome and Constantinople were left to carry on the struggle. Constantinople, being the primary center of the empire after Constantine moved his capitol there in the fourth century, had the edge for a while but with the conquest of Rome from the north by the barbarians in the fifth century, the bishop of Rome was freed from the Emperor's dominion. He expanded his power by playing off the barbarian kings against each other, resulting in his receiving large land gifts and thus he became a temporal ruler. In time he even claimed authority over the whole western world with the right of setting up or removing kings. On Christmas day, 800 he crowned Charlemagne “Emperor of the West” and thus became the key figure in establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted until as late as the time of Napoleon in the eighteenth century.
It has been said that, “power corrupts, and total power corrupts totally.” The papacy was no exception. All kinds of false teachings were accepted into the church. The Pope's power became so great that whole nations bowed to his authority. He claimed to be the “Vicar of Christ” and the “Most Holy Father,” head of the church on earth. Multitudes were put to death or suffered under his claim of temporal authority. He even reigned over the Papal States in Italy as a temporal monarch.
However, with the invention of the printing press and the resultant spread of Bibles to the people, the corruption and abuses of the church ignited a great rebellion known as the “Protestant Reformation,” with Martin Luther in Germany as it's major champion.
While much was accomplished towards returning to the teachings of the New Testament, unfortunately, rather than continuing a search for truth, ideas and traditions of men tended to cling as the real standards of authority. Lip service was given to the Bible but in fact reform stopped and new creeds were established as the authorized standard of faith for the developing denominations, rather than the pure word of God.
Like the mother church, most of these movements were nationalistic and relied upon governmental enforcement. The sects could not agree on which name or authority all would accept so they fought bitter and bloody wars trying to settle these issues. Finally, at the end of the Thirty Years War, they were so worn down by this futile approach that they agreed to and let the king of each country decide which should be the state religion.
However, no form of coercion can resolve the problem of conscience. The struggle continued fiercely within these states until eventually they wearied of the conflict and government was removed from deciding religious disputes. This was a big step towards internal stability of the state but it did not resolve the problem of a divided Christianity. The conflicts continued on in the form of verbal wars between the sects.
Of course, in time the growing reaction against religious controversy resulted in the popular idea that what one believes is not really important and from this the ultimate conclusion was inferred that, if it does not make any difference WHAT one believes, it doesn't matter WHETHER he believes. Extreme begets extreme and Liberalism and indifference resulted in the concept of all churches joining together into one grand worldwide ecumenical movement apart from Biblical standards.
Thus, ignoring Jesus' call for unity on scriptural standards resulted in apathy. But indifference, in the church, is death. In effect, these churches are digging their own graves. A church must have a compelling reason for existence or it soon will not. The soul needs a strong satisfying personal relationship with God that provides purpose and meaning and that, in turn, depends upon a serious regard for what God says. Liberalism destroys the guidelines upon which real security depends and reduces religion to meaninglessness and indifference. In it's quest for satisfaction, the soul will inevitably demand some purpose and meaning.
At first this resulted in the doctrine of the “social gospel” in which people found meaning by involvement in community, national or international affairs. Unfortunately, since it is thus blind to the wisdom of God, it is often prostituted into furthering the goals of some political interest such as Communism (or anti-communism). However, this does not really satisfy so, in recent years a new swing has been to the emotional and mystical experiences of the charismatic movements, cults and eastern religions.
What is the solution? Jesus said, “sanctify them in the truth.” And again he said, “The truth shall make you free.” The first requirement is to return to the New Testament as the authority for our faith and conduct. With this we shall have the wisdom and blessing of God. Our goal must be to all speak the same thing and to be in the same mind and the same judgment (1Cor 1:10). Yet, we must apply those scriptural teachings fully to our conduct towards each other so that there is no abuse of those who have not attained to that which we think we have attained.
Human denominational barriers such as party names, creeds and systems of organization, should be exchanged for a determined effort to return to the simple pattern of the New Testament. This is something upon which all in Christ should be able to unite. Like the spokes of a wheel that draw closer to each other as they draw closer to the hub, so people of good will, as they move towards Christ, draw closer to each other.
This does not mean “peace at any price”. Jesus said he did not come to set peace on the earth but that there would be division (Lk. 12:51). Again he said, “Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?” (Luke 6:46) This is the distinction between the indifference of “inter-denominationalism” and true un-denominationalism. The former, pursued to it's logical end, is substantially a form of indifference. The latter can be a genuine effort to abide by His will.
God is wiser than men and knew everything to include in scripture for the church's benefit --and everything to leave out that would be detrimental. Following the New Testament pattern is safe. Following the ways of men is often disastrous.
This does not rule out declaring our convictions, either verbally or in writing, but nothing but the Bible should be accepted as the authoritative standard of our relationship in Christ's church. Our objective is to be Christians and “The Bible only, makes Christians only.” By it we shall be judged in the last day (Jn. 12:48). Faith comes by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10:13-17).
God intended for us to read the Bible and follow it. By it we are able to be “throughly furnished unto all good works” (2Tim. 3:16-17). If God did not mean what He said, why did he not say what he meant? If God cannot say what he means, who can? If a creed says more than the Bible then it is too much. If it is less than the Bible it is too little. If we add anything, to God’s word, the plagues of God will be added unto us and if we subtract anything, our place shall be removed from the book of life (Rev. 22:18-19; cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Pr. 30:6).
True undenominational Christianity seeks to avoid all humanly devised organizations. It returns control of church affairs to the local congregation, and to the individual the right to search and follow the scriptures without interference from denominational headquarters.
It seeks to avoid humanly devised names for either individuals or the church. The objective is to remove reliance upon party labels which, through loyalty to the sect, interfere with communication and interaction in the scriptures. It is no longer, “What my church believes,” but “What saith the scriptures?” (Rom. 4:3) We should be able to all accept each other under the name of Christ but we are never all going to accept anybody's party name. We should all be just Christians, not divided into hundreds of different brands.
An illustration I once heard is, If a box of Bibles were to fall off of a ship, washing up on an island where people had never heard of Christianity, and they should decipher the language and obey it's teachings, would they not be Christians? Few would question this. But to what denomination would they belong? None, of course. They would have no denominationally distinctive nature. They would be simply, Christians--Christians, and Christians ONLY.
That is what we wish to do. When the church began on Pentecost, they belonged to no denomination. There were no different “brands” of Christians. They were not restricted by party loyalties and dominated by a party headquarters. “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him glorify God in this.” (I Pet. 4:16) No way will we persuade all the sects to join any one of the others, but we can generally agree that just being a Christian is acceptable to all. No way will we get all of the sects to embrace all of the traditions of the others, but the teachings and practices of the New Testament should be acceptable to all who are truly dedicated to Christ. Too many are like the lady who declared, “I've been a Methodist all my life and you're not going to make a Christian out of me!”
Certainly, all may never leave their traditions, creeds, organizations and party loyalties but each of us can individually insist on our own liberty to be nothing but a Christian. We can personally return to the teachings of the New Testament and invite others to do the same. If this cannot be the standard then there is no possibility of any standard on God's terms. Thus, we can avoid abdicating responsibility for trying to fulfill Jesus' call for unity, resulting in either resignation to endless futile warfare, or surrender to indifference. Rather we have opted to pursue both unity AND truth.
Will we ever be able to resolve the problems of denominationalism? It does not appear likely. But we can say, “come out of her my people” (Rev. 18:4).
John 17:14. “I have given them thy word....
17 Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth.... 20 Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; 21 that they may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me. 22 And the glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as we are one; 23 I in them and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that thou didst send me and lovedst them, even as thou lovedst me.”
I Cor. 1:10-15,31.
“Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For it hath been signified unto me concerning you, my brethren, by them that are of the household of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. 12 Now this I mean, that each one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. 13 Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized into the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you, save Crispus and Gaius; 15 lest any man should say that ye were baptized into my name.”
32...He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
I Cor. 3:1-11. “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not with meat; for ye were not yet able to bear it: nay, not even now are ye able; 3 for ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you jealousy and strife, are ye not carnal, and do ye not walk after the manner of men? 4 For when one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not men? 5 What then is Apollos? and what is Paul? Ministers through whom ye believed; and each as the Lord gave to him. 6 I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. 7 So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase....
11 For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
I Cor. 3:16-17. “Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? 17 If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye.”
I Cor. 3:21-23. “21 Wherefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours; 22 whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come: all are yours; 23 and ye are Christ's and Christ is God's.”
I Cor. 4:6. “Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written; that no one of you be puffed up for the one against the other.”
I Cor. 12:13,24-27. “For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
24 ...God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked; 25 that there should be no schism in the body....
27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof.”
Eph. 1:2, 23; 4:1-5. “...and he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church,
23 which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.”
4:3 giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.”
Rom. 16:17. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned: and turn away from them.”
Luke 6:46. “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”
Matthew 7:21-24. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. 24 Every one therefore that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man, who build his house upon the rock:...”