A quick perusal of the yellow pages reveals a plethora of churches to choose from: Advent, African Methodist, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptist (ABA, Bible Fellowship, Independent, Independent-Fundamental, Missionary, Primitive, Reformed, Southern, Sovereign Grace), Catholic, Christian, Christian Science, Church of God, Mormon, Nazarene, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, and Unitarian Universalist. And these are only a few. We live in a religiously pluralistic society. Today it is possible to find a church suited to every mindset and personal preference. Men seem to be pleased with this "buffet" approach to religion.
This writer once attended a baccalaureate service where a Protestant preacher prayed to God in this fashion: "God, I thank You that there are so many churches that exist today, where each of us can find opportunities and churches that we are comfortable and pleased with, as we offer worship to You." The sentiment is often heard that upon salvation one should "attend the church of his choice." Others say you should find a "Bible believing church", though all the churches listed above would make such a claim.
For centuries "Christendom" has been divided. It has been this way for so long, many have come to believe this is as it should be. But, what does the Bible say? Is it possible to reconcile the present multitude of churches with Jesus' prayer in John 17? "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). The quick answer is no! But, let's examine the phenomenon known as denominationalism.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Palace church, in Wittenberg Germany, and challenged the Catholic leadership to religious debate. The Catholic church had become a monstrosity of tradition and superstition (see article 3), and had thwarted the efforts of reformation from within the institution. Though Luther did not initially intend to break with Catholicism, his challenge to debate any or all of the 95 theses with Catholic representatives marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Others joined him in the movement, which gained such momentum as to blossom into what we see today.
It is important to note that the desire of these men was to reform the Catholic church. It was not their purpose to restore the church to the pristine simplicity revealed in the New Testament. The sale of indulgences and other corruptions were too much to take for these reformers, and they felt compelled to change some aspects of church doctrine. Luther and others had an aversion to the Catholic's dependence upon works of merit, and formulated the doctrine that we are saved by "faith only." This doctrine is almost universally held among Protestant denominations today.
The attempts of these reformers, though laudable, fell far short. Though they achieved some success in their reforms, they did not restore the doctrine, work and worship of the church as God established it in antiquity. As such, the churches they established are but pale imitations of the glorious institution for which Christ died. Please note how the present practice of denominationalism violates clear injunctions in scripture.
It is significant to note that the principal desire of our Lord, expressed in his prayer to the Father in John 17, was that future disciples would be unified rather than divided. This beautiful sentiment is expressed in verses 20 and 21, "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." This desire is inclusive of all who name the name of Christ. In other words, 2000 years after His words, Jesus still desires of us that we might be one.
This unity can not be realized within the structure of denominationalism. So long as men are content to embrace divisive doctrines and practices, the world is hindered from believing. The creeds of men and multiplicity of churches indicates division and confusion rather than the unity for which Christ prayed. While some call for ecumenism, and have great "unity meetings", they then retreat to their distinctive styles of worship and conflicting teaching. Unity can not be achieved by "agreeing to disagree", or by "disagreeing without being disagreeable". It can only come if we "all speak the same thing" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10). "Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?" (Amos 3:3). The status quo of denominational affiliation is contrary to the beautiful sentiments expressed by our Lord in his prayer to His Father in Heaven.
Older individuals may remember when the "denominator" in a mathematical fraction was called the "divisor." The term "denominationalism" is defined by Webster as "the emphasizing of denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive: sectarianism." This definition is helpful, though it fails to fully explain the danger of the practice, and to differentiate between division that is desirable, and that which is condemned by God.
Jesus Himself was divisive. He said, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'" (Matthew 10:35). Truth divides, as it separates those who will be saved from those who will be lost. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). However, division among those who name the name of Christ is wrong. Paul wrote, "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?" (1 Corinthians 3:2-4). The division that exists when those who claim to know Christ differ in worship and doctrine can in no way be justified. It is carnality, or worldliness, and a shame to those who practice it.
The church is described in scripture as the body of Christ. Using that illustration, we see a single head, (Christ) on a single body (the church). This is as it should be. It would be a monstrosity to have a body with multiple heads. Too, it would not be natural to see one head attached to multiple bodies. But, this is an accurate description of the present claim made by the denominations. Christ as head over many bodies, each with distinct doctrines, government and practices. Ephesians 4:4 says there is, "one body" , and we need to be content with this Bible truth.
Others have seen the incongruity of denominationalism. "For God is not the author of confusion but of peace..." (1 Corinthians 14:33). This is one reason for the proliferation of "non-denominational" churches. However, these churches fail in two areas. First, they themselves teach religious error, making them a sect, (notwithstanding their claims to be non-sectarian). Second, they attempt to bring unity not by obtaining agreement in doctrine and practice, but by "agreeing to disagree, without becoming disagreeable." This is not Biblical unity. Paul wrote, "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" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
The proper means of obtaining unity is by agreeing to the one standard, which is God's word. Lay aside all creeds of men, follow the divine standard, and withdraw yourselves from those who walk disorderly. Respect the authority of scripture, and refrain from "teaching as doctrine the commandments of men" (cf. Matthew 15:9). Paul exhorted Timothy, "Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 1:13). When a group departs from truth, and the depature results in division, the fault lies with those who do not "abide in the doctrine of Christ" (cf. 2 John 9).
So many claim to love Jesus, and yet they work and worship with religious organizations whose origin and creeds are from men. These churches do not do the work of the Lord, and they do not respect the authority of Christ. They are self-willed and presumptuous in their teaching and practice. Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15).
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