Denominationalism – Permissible or Reprehensible?
The word “denominate” means “to give a name to, to designate.” It is a perfectly respectable term. If one cashes a two hundred dollar bank draft, he may request currency in “denominations” of tens and twenties. In this sense the word merely signifies a separation into various divisions by name. And so the term itself is not “tainted.”
“Denomination” takes on a less-than-ideal sense when one considers its popular use in the lexicon of “Christendom.” “Christendom” is a term that embraces the entire religious terrain that professes any identification – however remote the connection may be – with Jesus Christ. This would include every kind of organism, from the Unitarian Universalist Church, to the various cults that allege an association with Christ (e.g., Christian Science, the Watchtower movement, etc.).
One authority defines denominationalism in the following fashion.
“The system and ideology founded on the division of the religious population into numerous ecclesiastical bodies, each stressing particular values or traditions and each competing with the other in the same community under substantial conditions of freedom” (Jerald C. Brauer, Ed., The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971, pp. 262-263).
Within this definition several flaws are revealed that mar the system.
(1) Denominationalism is the result of division – a division, incidentally, that frequently is applauded.
(2) The ideology accommodates variant “ecclesiastical [church] bodies” with distinctive, doctrinal differences.
(3) Denominationalism tends to focus more upon tradition and preferential values than Scripture.
(4) The system engenders a spirit of adversarial rivalry rather than cooperation.
(5) The denominational concept encourages the idea that the freedom to differ on major points of doctrine is a healthy spiritual phenomenon.
Each of these propositions is antagonistic to biblical truth.
The Scriptures do not condone the diversity characteristic of denominationalism. Religious division is condemned in both Testaments of Scripture.
David declared that it is a “good and pleasant” thing when brothers live together in unity (Ps. 133). What are the opposites of these adjectives?
When the kingdom of Israel split into northern and southern segments, each with its different system of worship, such became the disgrace of Old Testament history. The rebellious Jeroboam started a new “denomination” that he “had devised with his own heart” (1 Kg. 12:33); in so doing, he “made Israel to sin” (1 Kg. 14:16). It was not many years before Judah charted a similar course of apostasy.
Jesus prayed that all those who profess being his disciples might be one, thus emulating the unity he shares with his Father (Jn. 17:20-21). The object of this unity was that the world might believe that he came from the Father. The reverse of his petition suggests that division is the fertile soil for unbelief!
In numerous texts Paul condemned divisiveness (1 Cor. 1:10-16; Rom. 16:17; Gal. 5:19ff); in others he extolled the virtue of unity. Note his admonition to the saints in Philippi – that they cultivate the “same mind,” and “same love,” being of “one accord” and “one mind” (Phil. 2:2). God’s attitude towards religious division is perfectly clear.
Even in the Old Testament there were prophetic glimpses of what Heaven intended in terms of the unity of Christ’s church – when that body should appear. For example, Isaiah spoke of the coming of Jehovah’s “house” (2:2-4). Ezekiel wrote of the day when the Lord’s people would be “one nation” (37:22), under “one shepherd” (34:23). Daniel foretold the arrival of the Lord’s “kingdom” (2:44). Note that “house,” “nation,” and “kingdom” all are singular in number.
Jesus spoke of the time when his people would be “one flock” (Jn. 10:16), and, as noted earlier, he prayed for the abiding unity of that flock (Jn. 17:20-21).
Caiaphas unwittingly prophesied that God would gather together his scattered children (potentially so) into “one” (Jn. 11:52). The object implied by the numeral “one” would seem to be “house” or “family,” since the term “children” is employed in the text (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15; Eph. 2:19).
The early church was “one” (Acts 4:32). Is there any suggestion of multiple, “Christian” denominations in the inspired historical record? None whatever.
In a letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul declared that there is “one body” (Eph. 4:4). It is hardly a point of dispute that this “one body” is the “church” of Jesus Christ. The church and body also are seen as equivalents elsewhere in this epistle (1:22-23; cf. Col. 1:18,24). The apostle makes a similar point in a letter to the “church” in Corinth. “You are the body of Christ,” he says, “and severally [individually] members thereof” (1 Cor. 12:27).
The church (the “called out” of God) is viewed under the figure of a “body” for at least two reasons. First, the body is under the control of the “head.” Even so, Christ is the head of his spiritual body, and the members are subject to his sovereignty (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:22ff; Col. 1:18). Second, just as a physical body cannot function with precision unless there is unity of operation among its members (1 Cor. 12:12ff; Rom. 12:4-8), even so, Christ’s kingdom cannot be effective when there is an absence of cooperation among its fellow-citizens (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10ff).
This information necessarily implies a condemnation of the denominational system that clutters “Christendom” today. Unfortunately, men, wedded to their sectarian ideologies, applaud this factious system, rather than seeing that the divine ideal is oneness in teaching and practice.
The term “tradition” renders a Greek word that suggests the idea of “instruction that has been handed down.” It takes on two senses in Scripture.
“Tradition” may be instruction that originated divinely. Paul commended the Corinthians for holding to the “traditions” he delivered unto them (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thes. 2:15). The brethren at Thessalonica were admonished to disfellowship those who refused to follow the apostles’ “tradition” (2 Thes. 3:6).
On the other hand, “tradition” is viewed biblically in a pejorative sense. It can refer to human practices of long-standing duration that have supplanted supernatural revelation.
When human tradition becomes an appendix to divine law, the perpetrators of such are transgressors, having gone beyond what “is written” (Mt. 15:3; Col. 2:8; 1 Cor. 4:6 – ASV; 2 Jn. 9). This was a problem with certain Jews, for instance, who used “tradition” to avoid their responsibility in caring for needy parents (Mk. 7:8ff).
Roman Catholicism holds that the “traditions” of the Church, as handed down over the centuries and ratified by the clergy, assume an authority equal to (even superior to) the Scriptures. The Church alleges that papal “tradition” is “infallible,” and that “tradition would suffice without Scripture” (Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary, New York: Macmillan, 1961, pp. 41-42).
On the other hand, it is also an act of presumption to take the law of God and treat it as mere human “tradition.” When some suggest that singing without the use of instrumental accompaniment is but a “Church of Christ tradition,” (yet see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), or that the apostolic restriction of women from leadership roles in public worship was but a first-century, cultural tradition (1 Tim. 2:8,12), they have failed to distinguish human tradition from sacred law.
And what is to be said regarding that growing swell of voices in the denominational community who contend that same-sex relationships, whether in one’s private life, or in church offices, are a matter of personal “value,” rather than divine revelation? Is this not a by-product of the “denominational” mentality? When men are unable to discern the difference between apostolic doctrine and man-made traditions, denominationalism will arise and flourish.
Rivalry versus Cooperation
When Paul sought to remedy a problem within the church at Corinth (a congregation plagued with multiple elements of divisiveness) he observed that the members of a body, though they have different functions, do not compete. They cooperate (1 Cor. 12:12ff).
This principle is well illustrated in the book of Acts. In Luke’s record of the growth of the early church, he periodically uses summaries to highlight the spirit of cooperation that adorned the Christian community (see Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16). Common to these sections are such expressions as: “fellowship,” “together,” “[in] common,” “shared,” “one accord,” “one heart and soul,” etc.
Paul’s great argument in Romans 15, as he sought to cement the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the primitive church, was that churches belonging to Christ are not in competition. Rather, they are mutually supportive. Just as the Gentiles were blessed by the spiritual contributions of the Jews to the sacred plan of redemption, even so, the Hebrews deserved to be assisted by the Gentiles in their time of economic need (see Rom. 15:27).
It is a crime of considerable magnitude that denominationalism applauds the spirit of divisiveness and rivalry. This writer has heard denominational clerics praise God for the different churches wherein folks may find a doctrine and practice that suits each individual’s taste. What a deplorable, anti-biblical disposition this is.
The Freedom to Differ
The world currently is witness to the spectacle of a wide variety of doctrinal differences within the denominational community, and yet, with many people, this scarcely is a matter of concern. This phenomenon presents a huge “problem with religion” in the minds of numerous sincere people. Their question is: If God is a Being of truth, and if he is the Author of “Christianity,” how can there possibly be so many contradictory teachings within the community of believers, and yet all of them be right? This is a logical absurdity.
The careful Bible student is aware that there is room for some variation of conviction among those who follow Christ. In areas of expediency, for example, differences of opinion may prevail with impunity. Barnabas wanted John Mark as a missionary companion on a campaign. Paul did not agree; he preferred Silas (Acts 15:36ff). Scripture censures neither man.
Additionally, it must be acknowledged that there may be differences among the people of God due to varying levels of spiritual maturity. Some Christians of the early church, for example, did not understand the implications of the abolition of the law of Moses (Col. 2:14), hence, they were sensitive about the eating of certain foods, or the observance of particular days (Rom. 14:1ff). Accordingly, the “infirmities” of those who were “weak” (i.e., less-informed) were to be tolerated patiently, until they could be taught and made stronger (Rom. 15:1ff). It is a tragic mistake, however, to make ignorance the ideal!
But within the environment of the “denominational mentality” significant differences are viewed as trivial matters. Consider, for example, the philosophy of the Unitarian Universalist movement. Many of these folks view themselves as “Christian,” holding that the “religion of Jesus, so simply and beautifully expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, remains the ethical ideal?.” Yet, the issue of whether there even is a God is an open-ended proposition for these folks. They happily embrace atheists, agnostics, humanists, and a variety of other skeptical inquirers (see: Leo Rosten, Religions of America, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975, p. 265).
How can it possibly be a righteous situation when people affirm that mutually exclusive propositions are equally acceptable? For example, is “baptism” to be administered exclusively by immersion, or are pouring and sprinkling also permitted as options? A professor of theology in a denominational seminary argues that each of the three “baptismal” modes “are only parts of a greater whole,” and so each is acceptable (Allan Killen, “Baptism,” Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, Charles Pfeiffer, Howard Vos, John Rhea, Eds., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999, p. 201). This mind-set is at the very core of “denominationalism.”
The spirit of denominational compromise is steadily invading more and more churches that once repudiated the disposition. Prominent personalities openly advocate that the “mode” of baptism is irrelevant, or that the rite, in terms of its purpose, may be received either as “for” the remission of sins, or “because of” the remission of sins; it does not matter. Doors of fellowship are flung open, and sectarian groups are embraced.
Far too many imagine that the church is a “democracy” in which the people decide what is permissible procedure, rather than recognizing that Christ’s church is a kingdom. And the King is the author of its law (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).
Denominationalism is wrong. There must be no compromise on this issue. Christians can and should oppose the system compassionately and courteously, but it must be resisted relentlessly. To neglect to do so is to fail in one’s responsibility.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.