Influences of Denominationalism
James E. Cooper
Denominationalism is: "Adherence or devotion to a denomination, sect, or policy; specifically, a disposition to maintain sectarian ideas in matters of religion" (Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary). It is easily seen that so-called Christendom is divided into numerous schisms. Each reader personally knows of many differing denominations and will not be surprised to hear that there are over 250 different denominations in the United States.
Men toward this situation take different attitudes. A limited number of thoughtful members of denominational bodies sense that there is something drastically wrong about the divided state of religion, and are sincerely seeking a way out of error. But, the main body of those who compose denominational membership are unconcerned about this problem. They have accepted the status quo, and are content to drift along in traditionalism, never giving a serious thought concerning whether it is acceptable to God. Then, some try to defend denominationalism. Some try to find it authorized in the seven churches of Asia, which were only seven congregations in seven cities (Rev. 2, 3). Some try to find it authorized in the Vine and the Branches, but Jesus specifies that the branch about which he spoke was a "man," not a "church," or a "denomination" (Jno. 15:6). Some try to justify it on the basis of American Religious Freedom, which gives a man the "right to the church of his choice." But, would there be a choice if denominationalism did not exist? Freedom from political intervention is not the answer to the problem. The question is: Is denominationalism in harmony with the Will of Almighty God?
Denominationalism is not a True Picture of Christianity
True Christianity, revealed in the Bible, provides for only one church. Jesus promised to build but one church (Matt. 16:18). He is the head of but one church (Eph. 1: 2223; 5:23; Col. 1:18). There is but one body, the church (Eph. 4:4; Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18). Reconciliation is in but one body (Eph. 2:13-16).
There is no provision whatever in the Bible for denominationalism. When "church" is used in the Bible, it refers to either the local congregation or to the universal people of Christ, never to an organization larger than the local congregation and smaller than the universal people of Christ. Denominationalism did not exist during the first century. It developed as a result of apostasy from the original pattern and subsequent attempts at Reformation, which failed to restore primitive Christianity. The very idea of denominationalism is contrary to God's will. It is contrary to the prayer of Jesus that all who believes on him might be one (Jno. 17:20-21). It is contrary to the plea of Paul that we all speak the same thing (1 Cor. 1:10). It does not follow the plan for unity outlined by Paul in Eph. 4: 1-6. And, it is specifically condemned as division (1 Cor. 3:1; Gal. 5:20; Rom. 16:17-18).
Denominationalism Is a Curse Upon Mankind
It undermines man's inner honesty and thus is a curse against one's intellectual integrity. Our age has rightly put a premium on truth (cf. Jno. 8:32; Eph. 5:17; Prov. 23:23) and insists on truth in the fields of science, geography, history, economics, etc., but denominationalism prizes sincerity, honesty of purpose, an inner emotional feeling, rather than objective and consistent principles and realities. A basic tenet of the modern denominationalist is that everybody is right, and he feels that it is heresy to deny it! In no other area of life are we willing to blind our eyes to truth and consistency. But, religious truth is just like truth in any other field; it is always consistent with itself and objective in its nature. Denominationalism makes a sham and a mockery of man's intelligence by insisting that everybody is right in his contradictory positions, and then insists that for anyone to deny or defy any claim of denominationalism is to display and un-Christian and uncharitable spirit.
It lays the basis for moral anarchy and thus becomes a curse against man's social relationships. Having already undermined man's intellectual honesty, by insisting that truth doesn't matter, the basis for making moral decisions is undermined. People who have been listening to preachers say that the Bible doesn't mean what it says (or you don't have to follow it) on baptism, immersion, the one church, the name, falling from grace, etc., are left without any standard or guide by which moral values are determined and judgments made.
Because denominationalism has softened its doctrinal teaching, having given up its conviction that the Bible is the infallible, inspired, Word of God, there is a corresponding breakdown in the moral and religious fiber of the people. Denominationalism of today is different from what it once was. Preachers once believed the Bible to teach their distinctive tenets, and defended their doctrine and insisted that the Bible is authority on how to live. But, they learned in the arena of public controversy that they would have to give up either their confidence in the Bible or their denominational doctrines and practices. In choosing modernism and giving up the Bible, they have undermined the only standard of making moral judgments - hence, the prevalence of immorality in the land.
It is spiritually defiant and thus undermines one's relationship to God. It has encouraged and promoted skepticism and agnosticism, if not downright atheism, by building and defending parties (cf. Jno. 17:20-21). When the unbeliever listens to different preachers reading from the Bible and preach different doctrines, having found them to be men of honesty and good will in other affairs of life, he gets the idea that the Bible teaches everything, contradictory though things may be. This tends to make him feel that the Bible is the product of ordinary men, like him, subject to errors, and therefore of no value in determining what is right.
Denominationalism deludes people into thinking they are saved when they have not done the will of God. Many who have been sprinkled in infancy think that they have obeyed the Lord's command to be baptized, but they were not proper subjects for baptism, and sprinkling is not Bible baptism. In providing substitute churches for the Lord's one body many think that they are serving Christ, when they are actually worshipping in vain (Matt. 15:9).
Denominational Influences Among Churches of Christ
Denominationalism has had an influence on churches of Christ as well as having had influence on the religious world in general. One indication of a denominational outlook is denominational language. The churches are filled with Ashdodic expressions and sectarian ideas (cf. Neh. 13:23). It appears that many think of the "church of Christ" in denominational terms, referring to "Church of Christ people," "Church of Christ preachers," "Church of Christ doctrines," "Church of Christ institutions," etc. Then, there are those who use such expressions as "join the church," "our pastor" and "reverend" when speaking of the preacher. The fact that we talk like denominationalists is an indication that we think like they do (cf. Matt. 12:34).
There is a denominational concept seen in softness toward error. There are many members who will not stand for exposure of denominational error, and who even argue, "Good people in all churches are saved." This comes as a result of viewing the Lord's church as just a denomination among denominations, but one which may be a little nearer the truth on some things. Then, there is a small segment of people who, it appears, would like to make a denomination out of the "Restoration Movement," and have proposed "unity" on the basis of one fact-- Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and one act-- baptism. This disregards the plea of Paul in 1 Cor. 1:10.
A denominational attitude is manifested in the current promotion of human institutions. The basic idea behind the sponsoring church and the orphan home institutions is a denominational attempt to harness the church universal. Human institutions are looked upon as a means of tying the independent, autonomous congregations to one huge cooperative work, and thus showing the world what "our denomination" is doing. This is clearly seen in some of the arguments our liberal brethren make in which they compare "our efforts" along certain lines with the efforts of denominations. These brethren fail to realize that the Lord's church is not in the business of trying to out-do denominational bodies. The Lord's church is in the business of saving souls, and our standard of comparison is not what sectarian bodies are doing, but what the Word of God teaches.
What Can We Do About Denominationalism?
We can achieve the purpose of God only by ~ a complete restoration of the New Testament order of things regarding the church, its doctrine, worship, organization, work, worship, etc. Anything short of uniting upon the simple teaching of the Bible is to fail in l achieving the purpose of God. Paul L. Maier, in Seminarian, August, 1955, said, "Scriptural guidelines to unity are clear, consistent, adequate, and complicated only by the human finitude and the propensity to adapt instead of apply, to unlock the treasury of the World with the key of bias, rather than the faith which listens."
We need to re-orient our thinking our denominational neighbors, and the changes that have come over the denominational world, with the swing to modernism and neo-orthodoxy. We should not grow weary in striving to lead our friends and neighbors out of the denominational error with its contradictions into the consistency of truth. And, we must root out every vestige of sectarianism from within the church. If we are ever to destroy denominationalism in Christendom, we must begin by destroying its spirit within the church.
Truth Magazine, VIII: 2, pp. 26-28 November 1963