Is Denominationalism a Good Thing?
By Lance Mosher
I remember being at a high school football game in the United States, and a sincere man led a sincere public prayer before the game. One thing he said caught my attention and has concerned me ever since. He prayed, “…and we thank You, God, for all the many different denominations in this town. We are blessed to all have our own choices in how to worship you.” Are denominationalism and diversity in worship things for which Christians ought to be thankful?
WHAT IS DENOMINATIONALISM?
Almost everyone understands that “Christian” denominationalism is a form of religious division. When a person is a member of a denomination, he or she is separated from all other denominations by many factors, including doctrines and worship practices. Any honest person who has read the Scriptures will admit that there is no denomination that is in existence today that can be found in the Bible. That is because every denomination in existence is the product of fallible human beings and not God (2 Tim. 4:3-4). A denomination usually begins when a particularly outspoken person is not satisfied with the current religious situation for whatever reason. He or she then separates himself or herself from the original body and starts a new one, inviting outsiders to join in. After a span of time, these groups usually grow and are associated with their organizer by name and doctrine (for example, Martin Luther and the Lutheran Church).
Denominationalism ignores the strong condemnation of religious division in the New Testament. When the church in Corinth started to show signs of denominationalism, God inspired the apostle Paul to quickly put an end to it. He wrote to them:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.
The religious world today surely cannot be described as “perfectly joined together in the same mind.” Instead, it can be described the exact way that the Corinthians were described.
For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Certainly Christians should not be thankful for religious division, but instead, do all that is possible to avoid it!
DIVISION IN WORSHIP
Many people have asked me about the group of Christians with which I worship, “Is your worship contemporary or traditional?” It is a growing trend these days to classify worship in this way. Even churches have noticed this trend, and to please their members, they have started offering two different types of worship services. I don’t know if most people would consider my worship to God as contemporary or traditional, which does not interest me much. Instead, I am interested in whether or not it is true worship. Unfortunately, many religious groups have been ignoring the biblical classification of worship.
Jesus Christ, in response to a question regarding worship, claims:
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
It appears that the only classifications that Jesus submits for worship are true worship and false worship. If a person wants to be acceptable and pleasing to the Father, he or she must be a part of an assembly that worships Him in spirit and in truth. Otherwise, Jesus would consider it “false” worship.
The Scriptures teach that the spirit of a person is his or her innermost being, which, dwells inside the body while the person is on earth (Eccl. 12:7; Jn. 19:30; Jas. 2:26). To worship in spirit obviously means to worship whole-heartedly, completely focused on praising God. Concerning truth, Jesus prayed to the Father, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The psalmist prayed, “The sum of Your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160). If God’s word is defined as truth, then to worship in truth is to worship the way God’s word instructs us to, which makes sense, since Christians are to do all by the Lord’s authority (Col. 3:16-17). Jesus is not interested in whether worship is contemporary or tradition. He is interested in whether or not it is true. Why? The only reason we participate in anything spiritual is in order to please God – not ourselves (1 Thess. 4:1-2).
Imagine this. Since God neither decrees nor approves of division concerning worship, on any given Lord’s Day, when Christians assemble to worship, there should be no distinction between assemblies of God’s people concerning worship, whether there is another assembly across the country or across the world. We should be worshiping God today the same way Christians worshiped Him in the first century church – with our entire hearts, based on what the Scriptures say.
DIVISION IN DOCTRINE
Another major dividing line in the denominational world is doctrine (teaching). If a man visited four different denominations four weeks ina row, asking the leaders some simple questions, at the end of a month’s time, he would be quite confused. Why? Because denominations are divided on what serves as their authority (1 Cor. 14:33). Most large denominations have man-made handbooks, manuals, creeds, and/or catechisms that members must recognize and follow (e.g. Luther’s Catechism by Luther, The Standard Manual for Baptist Churches by Hiscox, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church Manual by the Secretariat).
For those who are members of denominations, I have a couple of questions. For me to become a true Christian, what teachings must I follow? Most sincere people trying to please God would answer with, “The teachings of the Bible, of course.” Here’s my next question: For me to be a member of your denomination, what teachings must I follow? Since no denomination can be found in the Bible, the answer must be found outside of the Bible. When one follows the Bible only, however, he or she becomes a Christian only – a member of Christ’s church (and no other!).
THE COST OF DENOMINATIONALISM
Where people might have sincerely meant good to come out of certain divisions, the sad truth is that denominationalism has cost the world the gospel. Christ’s commandment to His disciples is, “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19-20). When so-called “followers of Christ” are busy dividing, precious souls around the world, in every community, are dying in their sins. Each denomination must have its own buildings, programs, and events. All of these cost money. Imagine a small town that has ten denominations meeting in it. Each denomination has its own $100,000 building. Missionaries need to be sent, but they cannot go preach the gospel, since the churches around them have individual bills to pay and parking lots to maintain. Imagine now that all ten of these groups united under the pure and undefiled gospel of Christ. There would be only one building, only one set of bills, and only one parking lot. Evangelists wouldn’t have to ask for support, but instead, the congregation of God’s people would be searching for individuals to send to the Lord’s field!
The division in the religious world is no surprise to God. He predicted it through the apostle Paul, who claimed:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
That is exactly what has happened over the years. People have not been satisfied with the simplicity of the gospel, and they have gathered around teachers who do not satisfy God, but satisfy their selfish appetites instead. That is why Paul, in the same passage, instructs the young preacher, Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 3:2). Is God pleased with religious division? Absolutely not! What are we to do? Stick with the pure gospel, being ready “in season and out of season.” Reject denominationalism and man-made creeds and catechisms. Unite with the body of Christ.
Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Except where noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation