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The Denominational Dilemma
Are All Churches A Part of the One Universal Church? This is a question that I am asked often. Generally speaking, many think that all churches
are denominations. I have heard people say, “We’re all going to the same place we’re just taking different roads to get there” and “It doesn’t matter what denomination you are a part of because it’s not
the denomination that saves you.” These statements suggest that 1) there is more than one way to get to heaven, and 2) there is no perfect church so God doesn’t care as long as you’re going somewhere.
Let’s establish a few things from the beginning. First of all, the Bible clearly states the way of salvation. There is only one way to get to heaven. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). After His death, burial and resurrection Jesus commanded His disciples to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16). On the day of Pentecost the apostles preached, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. When the Jews in Jerusalem on that day asked, “’Men and brethren what shall we do?’ Peter said to them repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:37-39). This is God’s simple plan of salvation in New Testament times. This is the only way of salvation.
The apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Galatia, wrote, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6-8). Any church that preaches a gospel that is different from God’s simple plan of salvation or denies that baptism is essential for forgiveness of sins and salvation is certainly not a church of Christ, and is destined to be accursed.
I have also heard people say that the Church of Christ is a denomination they just don’t know it. But, what is a denomination? What is it that makes a church either denominational or nondenominational? And what about interdenominational fellowship or community churches? These identifying terms are all in use and they serve to diversify and divide religious people and categorize their individual beliefs. The word denomination does not appear in any form in the Bible, Old or New Testament. The concept of denominationalism is entirely contrary to what the New Testament writers intended. Let’s take these questions one at a time and give them careful examination.
First, what is a denomination? The dictionary defines denominate as simply “to name”. A denomination is defined as “a designation, a general name for a category.” In the religious context a denomination is “a religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body.” Denominationalism in the religious context is defined as “emphasizing of denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive.” Do these sound like the kinds of definitions that God intended for His church? To denominate is to divide, but God calls us to be one in Him in the same mind and in the same judgment (John 17:17-21; 1Corinthians 1:10; 12:12-27). It was never God’s intention for us to divide ourselves into categories and emphasize our differences. The dilemma, however, is that it is also clearly not God’s intention that we be unified solely for the sake of unity. We must work out our differences. Paul wrote, “There must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” (1Corinthians 11:19). James wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18). If it be that divisions have and will always exists between religious people it will not be so by God’s design. The qualities of true Christian unity are the qualities with which many people have great difficulty integrating into their own personalities.
Second, what makes a church either denominational or nondenominational? In order for a church to be denominational all it has to do is designate itself as such. For a church to be a denomination it must turn a blind eye to the Biblical differences that divide us. The word nondenominational (or undenominational or anti-denominational) indicates a concept against denominationalism. A church that claims to be nondenominational is therefore declaring that the Bible teaches against denominationalism. Those who claim to be nondenominational, however, should also be invested in bringing all religious people together in the same Biblical mind and judgment.
Third, what about interdenominational fellowship or community churches? In the past few years there has developed a strong movement toward interdenominational fellowship. This is not an answer to the denominational dilemma, but rather an acceptance of doctrinal differences with the agreement to set them aside for the purpose of praise and worship. In these fellowships doctrinal differences are de-emphasized. Debate over doctrinal issues is strictly taboo. While togetherness is promoted, perfect unity is deemed unattainable and strenuous efforts toward doctrinal unity are not stressed. This too is contrary to Biblical teaching (Ephesians 4:1-16).
Attempting to divide the Lord’s church into denominations each denomination becomes obligated to intricately define and protect it’s own doctrinal beliefs. In order to accomplish this, many denominations have developed creeds and a hierarchal system of leadership. These church hierarchal leaders are usually headquartered in a central location and they meet regularly to oversee the work and teaching of their entire denominational body. Any localized congregation that is affiliated with a particular denomination, depending on the requirements of their denomination, must submit to the guidelines of the denominational creeds set forth by the governing body, pay dues to the denominational headquarters and/or relinquish ownership of their facilities and properties. While this may prove to be an efficient way of running an organization (religious or secular), it is not Biblical.
There is no Biblical authority to develop and be governed by any written code or creed other than the Bible. Paul, referring specifically to God’s holy written word, wrote, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is God’s word and it is all we need.
We also have no Biblical authority to develop a single hierarchal system of leaders to oversee the church as a whole. The New Testament pattern for church government is congregational autonomy with each congregation choosing and appointing from among them qualified men to oversee the work and teaching of their own congregation and no other (Acts 14:21-23; 1Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
There is no authority for the church to have an earthly headquarters. Since the church, the body, has only one head – Christ, we must conclude that the only headquarters for the church is in heaven where Christ is (Ephesians 1:15-23; Hebrews 1:1-4).
There is simply no Biblical authority for dividing the Lord’s church for any reason. To the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, “I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Corinthians 1:10-13). “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?” (1Corinthians 3:1-4). Worldliness leads to division. God’s word calls us to unity.
Furthermore, It seems to me that the act of naming (denominating) the church has gone far beyond the scope of what the New Testament writers ever intended. When the New Testament writers made reference to the church they referred to it using a variety of descriptive words and phrases that all referred to that one church. They referred to it as: The church of God (1Corinthians 15:9), the churches of Christ (Romans 16:16), the church of the living God (1Timothy 3:15), the church of the firstborn (Hebrews 12:23), the body of Christ (1Corinthians 12:27), the way (Acts 9:2; 24:14), the kingdom (Colossians 1:13), etc. In modern times one could hardly begin to count all of the church names in existence. Many of the modern churches that claim to be Christian have chosen to refer to Old Testament people, places and structures in their name (for example: Evangel Temple, Harvest Time Tabernacle, Shiloh Baptist, King Solomon Baptist, etc.). Some have chosen to name their church after a man (The Lutheran Church, St. Augustine Catholic Church, etc.). Some choose names that reflect the styles and functions that they practice (The Methodist Church, The Baptist Church, The Presbyterian Church, The Episcopalian Church, Seventh Day Adventist). Some stretch themselves for more obscure concepts (The Upper Room Assembly Church, The Church on the Way, etc.). Some church names reflect the intended or target audience (The Community Church, Hillcrest Church, etc). The developing and naming of churches seems to be an endless pursuit.
Today we put names on church buildings to separate ourselves from other churches. We do not have the same mind and doctrine, therefore, we cannot/will not associate with each other. While this accurately depicts human nature it is far removed from what the New Testament writers intended. Ultimately, it is not the names on the outside of our buildings, but rather our doctrines that divide us.
The church of Christ that meets at 100 Rena Road in Van Buren, Arkansas is non-denominational. We have no creeds except the Word of God. We believe that the Old Testament has been fulfilled and nailed to the cross (Ephesians 2:14-15; Colossians 2:14). We have only one Head – Christ who is in heaven. We have no earthly headquarters. We are autonomous and self-supporting. We are lead by a plurality of qualified and appointed Elders who oversee the work of this congregation only (1Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). We believe and teach that Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, lived, died, was buried and was raised from the dead, and commanded His disciples to Go into the whole world and preach that good news to every person. He promised to save all those who believe His gospel and are baptized into Christ for the remission of their sins (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16). We believe and teach that when a person hears and believes the Gospel, sincerely repents of his sins, and is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ into Christ that God washes away all of his past sins and adds him to the church (Acts 2:36-47). We believe and teach that this new Christian must then maintain his faith by living fully in accordance with the teachings of the New Testament (Hebrews 10:19-39).
We worship together on the first day of each week. In our worship services we sing congregationally without the aid of mechanical instruments of music (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). We pray (1Thessalonians 5:17). Individually, we each give, on the first day of every week, as we may prosper (1Corinthians 16:1-2), and as we each have purposed in our hearts (2Corinthians 9:7). We partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of every week (Acts 2:42; 20:7). We preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His church.
While we do not wish to be divisive we are diligent to do all of this in accordance with the New Testament teaching of Christ and with the apostle’s doctrine. It is our fervent desire that there be no denominations in the world, but only the one church for which Jesus died and that God established by raising Him from the dead and sitting Him at His right hand giving Him power and dominion over all things (John 17:17-26; Ephesians 1:15-23).
Written by David Banks