Denominationalizing The Church

Bobby Witherington

According to the World Book Dictionary, a denomination is: (1) "a name for a group or class of things," (2) "a religious group or sect," and (3) "a class or kind of units." From the same source we are told that "the presence of many different denominations and sects in a society means that the culture is differentiated into many parts, with differing group interests and view points."

No doubt, the first of the above definitions is the one which people generally have in mind when they use "de-nomination" in their speech. For example, one may ask another, "of what denomination are you?" The one asking this question is expecting to hear the "Name" of the "group or class" with which the individual is religiously affiliated. However, a denomination, in the religious sense, is more than just something named. Donald Tender, in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology gives this definition:

"Denominations are associations of congregations  though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations  that have a common heritage. Moreover, a denomination does not claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church."

Presumably, in mathematical terms, one could conclude from the preceding definitions, that "the church" represents the denominator, or "the number below the line in a fraction, which states the size of the parts in their relation to the whole." For example, if there are a total of 300 denominations (in fact, there's a lot more!), then "300" would be the denominator ("the number below the line"), and the denomination known as the Lutheran Church (or whatever denomination you may choose) would constitute the Numerator (the number above the line). Tragically, the mind set of most people in our society is such that "the church" On its broadest, or universal sense) is "differentiated into many parts" (or denominations), based upon "differing group interests and view points." Moreover, each congregation is simply viewed as a "localized subdivision" of that particular denomination.

It should be evident that the preceding comments were intended to define "denomination," and to present the general concept regarding "the church" (universal) as consisting of a hodgepodge of all conflicting denominations. More-over, it should also be stated that this concept of "the church" necessitates not only the tolerance, but also the conscientious acceptance of every denomination as representing "the legitimate expression" of the "group interests and view points" of that particular group. It should further be observed that a conscientious acceptance of the very concept of denominationalism also necessitates a conscientious endorsement of religious division.

But Something Is Clearly Wrong!

As we have plainly shown, the acceptance of the concept of denominationalism constitutes an endorsement of religious division. However, our Lord was definitely opposed to religious division. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed, saying, "Neither pray I for these alone (the apostles, bw), but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." Jesus not only prayed for the unity of all believers; He also died to "reconcile both (Jews and Gentiles, bw) unto God in one body by the cross..." (Eph. 2:16). Moreover, the apostle Paul, one of Christ's chosen "ambassadors" (2 Cor. 5:20), plainly charged the saints at Corinth, saying, "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" (1 Cor. 1:10). Further-more, from heaven's perspective, "there is one body, and one Spirit, ... one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all..." (Eph. 4:4-6).

Jesus Built But One Church

While addressing Peter, Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). In this verse "my church" is singular, and is modified by "it," a singular pronoun. Moreover, the Lord's "church . . . is his body" (Eph. 1:22, 23); there is "one body" (Eph. 4:4), and those who are scripturally baptized are "baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). There is absolutely no way to harmonize the modem concept of denominationalism with biblical teaching regarding the "one body," or church! This is so plain it should be self-evident.

"Church" Used in Two Senses

"Church" (ekklesia) denotes the "called out." All who are members of the Lord's church have been "called" by the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14). However, "church" is used to refer to:

1. Those in a given locality, who have been "called" by the gospel, and who have joined with others of like faith to worship and work together as a local church. In this sense, we read of "the church of God . . . at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2), "the seven churches which are in Asia," (Rev. 1:4), etc. In keeping with this concept, Paul said "the churches of Christ salute you" (Rom. 16:16).

2. The church in a universal sense  consisting of all the saved, regardless of locality. When Jesus said, "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18), he was referring to his church in the universal sense and which would be inclusive of all whose names "are written in heaven" (Heb. 12:22).

Distinctions Between The Local

Church and the Universal Church

1. In Number. There is only one universal church (Eph. 1:22, 23), whereas there are many local churches (Rom. 16:16).

2. In Beginning. The universal church began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), whereas a local church can be-gin any time a plurality of people obey the gospel, and band together to function as a local church.

3. In Fellowship. Membership in the local church involves fellowship with each other (2 Cor. 6:14), whereas membership in the universal church involves fellowship with God (1 John 1:1-4), a fellowship which death does not terminate (Heb. 12:22,23; Phil. 1:21-25). Whether or not members of a local church enjoy fellowship with God depends upon whether or not they are walking "in the light" (1 John 1:7), abiding in the "doctrine of Christ" (1 John 9-11), and serving God in keeping with his revealed will (Acts 2:42; Gal. 1:6-9).

4. In Organization. The local church, when fully and scripturally organized, consists of "saints ... , bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1: I), whereas the universal church has no earthly organization, headquarters, or address. Also, it should be observed that each local church is to have her own officers (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1), with each eldership shepherding the particular "flock of God" of which they are a part (Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2).

Note: There are other "distinctions" between a local church and the universal church, but this is sufficient to illustrate the fact that distinctions do exist.

Denominationalizing the Church

"The church," in the universal sense, consists of "saved" people whom the Lord has "added" thereto (Acts 2:47). "The church" universal does not consist of a multitude of churches; rather it consists of a multitude of people people who function as "branches" in Christ, "the true vine" (John 15:1-6). The idea of the church universal consisting of a multitude either of congregations or of denominations is completely foreign to the Bible. In plain language, every denomination constitutes a religious "plant" which God has not planted, and which ultimately "shall be rooted up" (Matt. 15:13). Hence, in this article as we speak of "the church," we have in mind all saved people (universal church), but who also, in keeping with the divine will, are members of a multitude of independent, autonomous congregations or local churches scripturally organized, scripturally named or designated, and scriptural in teaching, function, or work.

Unfortunately, due to environmental conditioning, it is difficult for many to conceive of "the church" in a purely undenominational sense. Moreover, the desire to be like the denominations around us (cf. 1 Sam. 8:1-5) has prompted many in various congregations to mimic the procedures of denominational bodies, instead of being governed by "book, chapter, and verse." One prominent way in which this is done today is represented by:

The Sponsoring Church Arrangement  an arrangement whereby the elders of one church conceive of a work of brotherhood proportions and then solicit funds from thou-sands of sister congregations for the wherewithal to do this work. Through this arrangement the elders of the contributing churches relinquish the oversight of the funds they send, and the elders of the receiving church become totally dependent upon the funds of the contributing churches to carry out their assumed work. Local church autonomy is hereby destroyed! But more specifically, let us keep in mind that de-nominations, by definition, are "associations of congregations," and this is exactly what is produced by the sponsoring church arrangement! Ironically, the desire to outshine the denominations has resulted in many "undenominational churches of Christ" becoming denominational by definition!

Another way to denominationalize the church is by forming human creeds. A creed can be a man-authorized written creed (cf. The Methodist Discipline), or it can even be an unwritten creed which people follow instead of the Scriptures. Legion are the churches "of Christ" (?) which take their cue from well-known preachers, or schools, or respected religious publications. We certainly do not oppose preachers per se, or schools per se, or publications per se (you are reading a publication!), but with all our might we do oppose the tendency to follow man rather than God!


Denominationalism, as we know it, is less than 500 years old. It is not of God. But it is so widespread that it has become difficult to even think of the Lord's church in a purely undenominational manner. This surely pleases Satan no end! Hence, eternal vigilance is the price we must pay to make sure that we continually walk in "the old paths." Therefore it continually behooves us to "speak as the oracles of God" (1 Pet. 4:11), and to be undyingly committed to the concept of submitting to the authority of Christ (Col. 3:17) in all that we teach and practice. Consider ye well!

Guardian of Truth XLI: 13 p. 18-20
July 3, 1997