Bible Class Curricula - First Principles - Lesson #8 - Denominationalism Is Sinful
It would be a gross understatement to say that our religious world is divided in the name of Christianity. According to different internet studies, in America alone, there are over 1,500 different groups all claiming to be followers of Christ. When one views all of this religious division, one is left feeling overwhelmed and confused by it all. How can a person expect to find the church that Jesus established in the midst of all this denominational chaos? Is this what Jesus had in mind when he died on the cross? Is denominationalism acceptable to God?
What Is a Denomination?
The word denomination has a rich history that dates all the way back to 1398. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines denomination as "a naming, from Latin denominationem, a calling by anything other than the proper name."2 This definition sheds light on one of the many problems of denominationalism. Denominationalism is sinful because it attempts to call the church by anything other than the proper name or description(s)! Biblically speaking, a denomination is a division resulting from the teaching and following of men. For example, Paul condemned Christians in Corinth for trying to be followers of Apollos, Cephas, or Paul. Paul plainly said, "let there be no divisions among you" (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). The proper ownership for the church is given to us by the Lord. Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:13-18). Jesus is the One who purchased the church (Acts 20:28). The Scriptures refer to the church as belonging to Christ and God (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 20:28; Colossians 1:13; etc.).
How Do We Make a Distinction?
How can a person know which religious group is right? To many people, this seems like a monumental task that is almost unachievable, when in reality it is a very simple task. For example, imagine that you go into a grocery store to shop. When you come out of the store, you forget where you parked your vehicle. How will you be able to find it? You begin by identifying the make, model, and color of your vehicle. The only problem is there are four vehicles that are the same make, model, and color as your vehicle. What will you do now? You now begin to think about unique identifying characteristics that only your vehicle has. For example, your vehicle may have a unique scratch or a bumper sticker. With these unique characteristics and a little time, it will not be that hard to find your vehicle. This same process is used in finding the Lord’s church in the midst of denominational and community church chaos. The Lord’s church has certain unique identifying characteristics that separate it from denominations (2 Timothy 1:13).
Here Are Some of the Unique Identifying Characteristics of the Lord’s Church:
- Time of Origin: 50 days after Jesus was resurrected (Daniel 2:44; Acts 1:3; 2:1-5, 47)
- Place of Origin: Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1-4; Acts 2)
- Founder: Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:13-18; 1 Corinthians 3:11)
- Descriptions: church of Christ, church of God, etc. (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2)
- Head of the church: Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:21-23)
- Headquarters: Heaven (Psalm 119:89; Matthew 16:19)
- Final Authority: The New Testament (Matthew 28:18-20; John 12:48; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Colossians 3:17)
If a religious group does not meet these exterior identifying characteristics, there is no way they can be the church you read about in the Bible. But, what happens if they meet these exterior criteria and there is still religious division? We then must look beyond the surface to their interior characteristics. In 1 Corinthians 4:17, Paul said that he taught the same thing in every church. This teaches us that every true church will teach only what the Bible teaches (1 Corinthians 4:6). To determine if a religious group is the true body of Christ, we would need to examine their doctrine or teaching with that of Scripture (Acts 2:42; 17:11; Romans 6:17; 16:17). This is the only way you can know if a religious group is the true church that Jesus built.
Denominationalism Is Sinful Because…
- It creates unwarranted religious division (1 Corinthians 1:10). Jesus prayed, "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me" (John 17:20-21). Does the religious world today look like a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer? Not at all! God also desires the same unity His Son does. God said, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Psalm 133:1). Christians are to "endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3). God wants His church to "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" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
- It is explicitly forbidden in Scripture. Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for dividing in the names of different men and creating division. He said, "Now 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?" (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). This passage of Scripture stands as a perfect model for the current problem of denominationalism. In the first century, some were claiming to be a part of the one church and yet be followers of Paul, Cephas, or Apollos. God clearly said, "Let there be no divisions among you." The problem with denominationalism in the first century is the same problem that exists today. The following chart illustrates the problem then and the problem now:
(see image below)
- It follows the teachings of men – not God. Jesus condemned the hypocrites of His day for following men’s teachings when he said, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men"" (Matthew 15:7-9). Since there were no denominations that existed in the first century, men had to "go beyond what is written" (1 Corinthians 4:6) and add to God’s word in order to form them (Proverbs 30:6; Galatians 1:6-10). One does not have to look far to see that the origins of denominations have arisen from men putting trust in men and “their writings” rather than Jesus and His doctrine (2 John 9-11). For example, the Baptists have their Standard Baptist Manual. Methodists have their Book of Discipline. Martin Luther had his 95 Theses. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have their own “Bibles.” And, Catholics have their own Catechisms and Papal edicts.
- It creates confusion and doubt in the place of God’s simple plan (2 Corinthians 11:3). This confusion is created by men and their doctrines – not God (Proverbs 16:25). The Scripture says, "For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33). Unscriptural division and denominationalism speak negatively against God’s plan and creates unnecessary confusion.
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