DENOMINATIONALISM - FROM WHENCE IS IT?
The churches of Christ Greet You (Romans 16:16)
Someone once said, "For the genuine, a counterfeit will be made! For the true, there will be a false! For the pure, there will be the impure!" The truthfulness of that statement is borne out every day, and that it is especially true in the religious realm is evident. John made this same point in the latter part of the first century when he wrote these words, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). No sooner had truth arrived when perversions of it began to rear their ugly heads.
In Matthew 21:23-25, an interesting exchange took place between Jesus and the religious leaders of the Jews in the temple. The passage says, "And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?..." With His simple statement, our Lord taught the lesson that men need to be sure of the authority behind all religious practices.
Today, in the midst of such statements as "Go to the church of your choice," or "One church is as good as another," or "We are all going to heaven, just taking different roads to get there," there is a question that needs to be asked. This matter of denominationalism, from whence is it? From heaven, or of men? Has God revealed it, or has man devised it? Did God command it, or is it the invention of men?
Please turn in your Bible to John 17, and we will look at verses 20 - 23. Here in these verses, with the deepest love and the highest emotional feeling, the Son of God prayed for the unity of His disciples and those who believed on Him through their teaching. This is what He said, "Neither pray I for these along, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word: That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me."
Thus we read the beautiful words of our Lord. But look around you dear friend and view the sorry state of division that exists today among those who claim to worship the very One who prayed, "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us." In many cities across the nation, within a circumference of approximately 2 1/2 miles there can be found 15 or more different denominations, all of them claiming to worship Jesus. Thus His glorious prayer for unity is mocked.
Loved ones, think about it. These denominations make Christ a contradictory Lord, if in fact He has called one man to deny what He has called another to affirm. These different denominations make Jesus a hypocritical Lord, if He has given us a book to guide us and then made it such that we cannot understand it alike. These denominations make our Lord a polygamous Lord, for the church is called the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2, 9), and yet, if denominationalism is right, He must have many different and differing brides.
None of the unity for which Jesus prayed exists in the modern religious world. The modern religious world is divided into several hundred denominations that have different names, different creeds, different practices, different organizations, different worship, and different rituals. In truth, denominationalism is the direct opposite of unity. These two views, denominationalism on one hand and unity on the other, and the systems that grow out of them, are diametrically opposed to one another. No apologist for denominationalism can ever make the two lie down in peace together.
My friends, the unity for which Jesus prayed is not to agree to disagree - it presupposes oneness of spirit, purpose, speech, and action in all matters of faith and practice. Is this not what Paul meant when he wrote in First Corinthians 1:10-13, "Now I beseech you, brethren, by 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 perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul: and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?"
The questions at the end of that passage are rhetorical, all to be answered with a NO! All of these different names that they wanted to go by, most of which did not give glory to Christ, were wrong.
Paul gave us the prescription for the Lord’s prayed for unity in Ephesians 4:1-6. He wrote, "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all."
Until all aspects of the one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all is accepted by all, the factionalism will continue and the Lord's prayer for unity will go on being mocked. The unbelievers will continue to look at the divided state of those who claim to worship Christ and continue right on being unbelievers.
Denominationalism, in itself and by its very nature, implies division. According to Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, the term "denomination strictly applies to a body of people holding common and distinctive beliefs, and called by a particular name so as to distinguish them from a more inclusive body." That kind of hits the nail on the head, doesn't it?
A denomination is a religious body with extra Biblical peculiarities distinguishing it from the church or religious body revealed in the Bible. We can readily see that it is impossible for a denomination to exist without believing something, or doing something, or having something that is not in the Word of God. Oh sure, all denominations teach some things that are in the scriptures, but mark this down, dear friends, it is not the things taught that are in the Bible that make them denominations - it is the things taught that are not found in the Bible that make them denominations.
The unity that our Lord prayed for can only be had if all who claim to worship Jesus are willing to yield our human opinions to the absolute authority of God's Word. All such things as Manuals of Faith, Catechisms, Creeds and so on are going to have to be done away with or the sorry state of division will continue. It just stands to reason that none can unite upon the very things that have divided religious people in the first place - human creeds, doctrines, and traditions. And what good are those things except to cause division?
Jesus said in Matthew 15:8-9, "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Earlier in that same chapter, Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your traditions?" (vs. 3.) And again in verse 6 He said, "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition."
Loved ones, in the early days of Christianity there were no denominations existing, none at all. The early followers of our Lord were simply called Christians (Acts 11:26), and belonged to "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16); both names giving honor where it belonged, both simply meaning, "belonging to Christ." It is amazing that those in the denominations recognize this to be true, but then choose to ignore it or change it.
Please consider what is written in the Standard Manual for Baptist Churches, one of the largest man-made denominations in the world. On page 22 we read, "It is most likely that in the Apostolic age when there was but one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and no differing denominations existed...” Skipping down a little bit we find, "Now it is different." My friends, the ones who say it is different NOW are those who composed the Baptist Manual and those who continue to believe and adhere to it. And it is not just the Baptist Church who does this - all man-made churches do the same thing.
Religiously, the apostles, Peter, Paul, John and the others, were not Catholic or Protestant - they were just Christians. They as well as all the saved were "nondenominational." The apostles did not approve of those in their day that tried to create division within the church which would have resulted in denominations.
Don't you remember Paul's strong condemnation of those who claimed "I am of Paul, I of Apollos, and I of Cephas"? Don't you remember his exhortation that there "be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment"? (1 Cor. 1:10-13.) Indeed, their remedy for such a thing is found in Romans 16:17, where Paul wrote, "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them." Denominationalism is the epitome of religious division.
Again, from Philippians 3:16 we find, "Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing." You see, dear friends, the allegiance of the first century Christians was to Christ and Christ alone. They were just Christians, not Baptist Christians, Catholic Christians, Methodist Christians, Lutheran Christians, or any other hyphenated Christian - they were just Christians.
Today if we follow Jesus Christ as they did, we too, can be just Christians, having "like precious faith" (2 Peter 1:1). We then, as they were, will be free from the error, confusion, and complexity of denominationalism. We all can be united in fulfillment of our Lord's beautiful prayer.