Is Modern Denominationalism Acceptable To God?
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you`! or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:10-13)
The first Christians claimed no human merit and were forbidden to exalt my human leaders (Matt. 23:1-12). The "worthy name" of Christ was a sufficient banner and the only badge of identification (Jas. 2:7). Jesus Christ had shed His blood and sinners received the benefits of that redeeming . blood when they were baptized in His name. Christ is not divided - His people must not divide. Since the Bible teaches this so plainly, we may well wonder why there are so many denominations today. A world which accepts this situation might be shocked to learn what God thinks of it. The more we study what the Bible says, the more ,we will understand the dangers of denominationalism.
Why So Many Different Denominations?
Modern denominationalism ranges from the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) which emphasizes traditional creeds, to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which is so broad as to include the likes of the now-defunct Peoples Temple with its communistic-style leader Jim Jones. Jesus Christ warned that during the first century false Christs and movements falsely claiming to be His own would arise (Matt. 7:13-23; Acts 15; 1, 2, 3 Jn.). Counterfeit Christs and churches multiplied after the first century but were overshadowed from about the 600s to the 1400s by the monolithic power of Roman Catholicism. Most dissenters from Catholicism during these Middle Ages were adopted into the Catholic fold, persecuted out of existence, or else died a natural death.
Beginning in the 1500s, several efforts were made to remove the most extreme corruptions from Catholicism, but it rejected from its fold the reformers instead. Reformation movements were inaugurated under Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-64) - resulting in Lutheran, Reformed, and Calvinist crusades. Lutherans were based largely in Germany. Reformed and Calvinist groups, based in Switzerland, often converged and formed various phases of Presbyterianism. While Lutherans and Presbyterians spread their teachings in Europe and sought political power, more radical reformers who were generally labeled Anabaptists (because they re-baptized people who had been sprinkled as infants) attempted to reproduce the New Testament church in strict detail. The visions and experiments with that restitution concept varied and were sometimes bizarre, but seed was sown contributing to the rise of such bodies as Mennonites; Independents, Baptists, Quakers, and several varieties of Brethren. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) engineered a break with Roman Catholicism that resulted in only mild religious reform but in a separate Church of England or Anglican Church. Overall, the Protestant Reformation changed the religious landscape of the West from one dominated by Catholicism to one dotted with nationally established churches in competition with smaller parties.
The major churches of Europe were to be represented in America: (1) Roman Catholic; (2) Lutheran; (3) Reformed and Presbyterian (including mixed groups of Puritans, Separatists, and ., Congregationalists); (4) Anglican (Episcopal in America after the Revolution, and the Anglican offshoot Methodism); and (5) assorted radical reformation groups such as Baptists, Quakers, and others. Some of these major groups were further divided internally along lines of national origin, language, and culture (for instance, Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches were splintered). The process of division has continued in America as well as in other countries. A summary on the origin of some major groups formed since 1500 and found in modern America is provided on the chart (Time, Place, and Founder).
The number of divisions is difficult to compute, depending on how many fringe elements, factions, cultists, and self-styled religions are included. The standard Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches lists 296. Arthur C. Piepkorn's seven-volume Profiles in Belief (issued by Harper & Row) enumerates 735 North American groups, but J. Gordon Melton's new Encyclopedia of American Religions (Consortium Books; $75) counts 1,187 denominations in the U.S. alone!
Prominent Characteristics of Modern Denominations
Historians and other analysts have made a few generalizations about the confusing medley of churches arising after 1500. Some appearance of unity with each other and even with Roman Catholicism centers around certain themes deemed the core of Christianity: "namely, the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus" (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity [New York: Harper & Bros., 1953], p. 1472). Many of the groups have continued to acknowledge a few post apostolic age formulations of faith such as the so-called Apostles' and Nicene creeds. "However, a minority either rejected these, or, endeavoring to go back to the primitive church and its beliefs and practices as pictured in the New Testament, declined to be bound by creeds" (Ibid., p. 996). All the groups can be identified negatively by their rejection of the Pope and "the corruptions for which the Pope stood," including the invocation of the saints, the cult of the Virgin Mary, indulgences, and the obligatory celibacy of the clergy (ibid.). Positively, a few distinct ideas widely held include: (1) appeal to the Bible rather than tradition, Pope, or the Roman Catholic Church as the authoritative revelation of God's will; (2) salvation by faith - generally understood as "faith alone",- rather than by the works stipulated by Roman Catholic leaders of the Middle Ages; and (3) the priesthood of all believers, rather than the dominant role of the priestly hierarchy in Roman Catholicism. These generalizations have been complicated since about 1875 by the development of Liberalism or Modernism which rejects all external authority - Bible, Church, Pope, creed, or any other. Latourette summarized,
Indeed, what we call Christianity changed from time to time. In most of its forms what came from Jesus and his apostles was regarded as primary and determinative, but other contributions entered, among them the cultural background of individuals and groups, the personal experiences of outstanding leaders, and inherited religions and philosophical conceptions (p. 1472).
A modern denomination is an organized form of religion that begins with some things taught or practiced by Jesus and His apostles, but changes those things by the application of human conceptions. The changes are made in the name of progress, service, peace, love, or some other positive sounding term. A denomination is not an individual Christian. It is an organization larger than the local church to which local churches belong, but usually does not claim to be the whole body of the saved. Denominational boundaries are determined by such factors as a human designation or name which is worn, a creed composed by men, some favorite doctrine emphasized to the exclusion of other truths, close adherence to one or more human leaders, and institutional loyalty.
Typical institutions generating denominational loyalty are the parent body which receives local churches, missionary boards, educational bodies such as colleges, publication houses, journals which attempt to speak for the denomination, summer camps, hospitals, old-age homes, apartment complexes, retirement centers, orphanages, and assorted humanitarian service organizations. The individual member of some denomination very often identifies such institutions with the church. He experiences a sense of pride and loyalty centered in them. Once the approved leader, parent body, or other important institution rules on a matter of faith or practice, the denomination as a whole tends to "line up" and to throttle any further open debate. Dissenters are seldom tried before ecclesiastical courts any more, but such people are easily labeled and their influence isolated by the bureaucratic machinery of the denomination.
The most widely held view among denominations of all sorts is: it is not essential to a person's salvation for him to join any denomination at all so long as he in his own way respects, serves, or worships God. If he wishes to honor God or serve humanity by joining one of the myriad denominations, one church is about as good as another. That is, God accepts and approves them all.
With this background we may readily understand why there are so many denominations. The question is, does God really accept modern denominationalism?
The Shocking Truth
Most religious people today would be shocked to learn that, no, God does not accept modern denominationalism! We cannot wave aside the question by saying that religious people should not question one another's faith and practice. Christ and His apostles spent much of their time challenging and teaching other religious people. We cannot wave aside the question by saying that we should "leave other people alone" in our preaching. In calling gospel preachers "Back to the Old Paths," C.R. Nichol said,
Exactly what will one teach and "let others alone"? If one preaches "God is," the atheist cries: there is no God, let us alone! If you preach that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Savior, the Jew raises his voice, saying: "Let us alone." If you preach that faith in Christ is necessary to salvation in this life, the Universalist insists that you leave him alone. If you teach that one must live the faithful Christian life, the Baptists declare you should let them alone, for they declare it IS NOT necessary to salvation to live faithful! If you teach that believers only are subjects of baptism (immersion) the Methodists and Presbyterians insist you let them alone. What can one preach and "let other people alone?" (Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures 1952 [Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation Publ. House], pp. 97-98).
The question, "Does God accept modern denominationalism?" must be faced.
All who claim to serve the God of the Bible must go to the Bible to learn what He does and does not approve. What man's eye, ear, and heart cannot of natural power know - i.e. the wisdom of God - He Himself has revealed in the words of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-13). All who claim to respect the Bible as God's Word are obligated to test every religious practice by the Bible. Knowing that false teachers abound, we must test every teaching by the apostolic word (1 Jn. 4:1-6). All who claim to believe in Jesus Christ must follow His word in all things and shun "the voice of strangers" (Jn. 10:4-5). Jesus asks, "And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Lk. 6:46).
In the excellent little book Can We Trust the Bible? (Earl D. Radmacher, ed; Wheaton, III.: Tyndale House, 1979), Edmund P. Clowny speaks precisely to the point:
The authority of Scriptures cannot be separated from Jesus Christ. The Word of the Lord bears witness to the Lord of the word (p. 39).
If we lose the Lord's Word we lose the Lord (p. 41).
We cannot separate the Lord Jesus Christ from the Bible. If we turn away from the Scriptures, and suppose that we are turning to Christ, then what we turn to is not the Christ of the Scriptures but a myth of our own imagination (p. 53).
Other writers in the same little book underscore the close connection between God, His Son, and His revealed Word:
Just as Christ himself is Life and Light, the words he has spoken are Spirit and Life (Robert C. Preus, p. 58).
But just as Jesus Christ is God's Son for the world, so Holy Scripture is God's Word for the world . . . . Because the Bible is the Word of God, it is utterly trustworthy and utterly authoritative for our lives - not just relatively so, as being the best source we have, but absolutely so, as being God's pure word of address which stands for all eternity (James I. Packer, p. 24).
The Bible is the focal point both of God's authority and of all that man can know about what God approves and accepts.
What the Bible Says
Ephesians points to salvation in Christ, the one head of one body, as God's plan from eternity (1:4, 22-23; 3:8-11). Through Old Testament promises and prophecies, God unfolded this plan for salvation in Jesus Christ the seed of Abraham, in His kingdom alone, or under this one shepherd in His fold alone (Gen. 12:3 & Gal. 3; Isa. 2:1-5; 11:1-12; Dan. 2:44; Ezek. 34:23-26 & Jn. 10). In John 17, Jesus prayed for the unity of those disciples He personally selected and "for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one" - a unity to be based upon the word of truth (17:17-21). That prayer became a reality when, on the first Pentecost after Christ arose., Peter proclaimed the resurrected Savior. When thousands "were pricked in their heart" and cried, "What shall we do?" Peter told them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized . . . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2). All were added to the same thing, to the one church, to the Lord's body.
This glorious gospel, this perfect salvation, this unity in Christ spread throughout the world with the same result. Upon hearing and believing the word, lost souls repented of sin, confessed Christ, and were baptized in water. Their sins were forgiven in the Savior's blood and these precious souls became one in Him. They were known as "believers," because they believed in Christ (Acts 5:14); "disciples," because they were learners and followers of Christ (6:7); and "Christians," because they belonged to Christ (11:26). These early Christians were without exception undenominational Christians. They belonged to Him without joining or taking the label of any other group, party, sect, religion, division, name, institution, or organization! We, too, can be Christians only, as they were.
God planned for Christians to keep this unity in Christ in love and peace by serving Him in a local church (with no hierarchy or additional structure other than local elders, deacons, evangelists, teachers, and other saints working together; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3), in a spiritual mission of spreading the gospel and in a simple worship (songs, prayers, Bible study, and "upon the first day of the week" the Lord's Supper and fellowship in giving for the work of the church; Acts 2:42; 20:7; Eph. 5:19; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). Any tendency toward division through exalting human leaders was strictly forbidden (1 Cor. 1:10-13). Division through the formulation of human doctrines was also forbidden (Matt. 15:8-9; Gal. 5:19-21). "There is one body," unity of organization; "and one Spirit," unity of life; "even as ye are called in one hope of your calling," unity of desire and expectation; "one Lord, " unity of authority; "one faith, " unity of message; "one baptism, " unity of practice; "one God and Father of all," unity of worship (Eph. 4:4-6). Those who refuse to abide in the doctrine of Christ destroy their unity with God and His people, and therefore must be rejected (2 Jn. 9-11). God does not, nor should we, accept denominationalism because: (1) God is undenominational, (2) the Bible is an undenominational book, (3) Jesus Christ is an undenominational Savior, (4) the gospel is an undenominational message, and (5) the New Testament church is an undenominational body.
To resist the dangers of denominationalism, we must resist both without and within the church popular denominational concepts: God accepts any denomination, salvation by faith alone, unity in "gospel" with diversity in "doctrine," various schemes of unconditional grace, creeds of men, fear of open debate, human organizations attached to the churches, and institutional loyalty. Let us maintain unswerving loyalty to Christ and uphold New Testament Christianity. This alone, God has revealed. This alone He accepts.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 3, pp. 56-60