Changes In Denominationalism

By Mike Willis

Through the years, denominationalism has changed. The attitudes of denominationalists which demonstrated themselves on the American frontier and which the Campbells confronted was one of bitter division. Each Protestant denomination was at war with Roman Catholicism and with every other Protestant denomination. Even within their own ranks, Protestant denominations fought bitterly, refusing to serve the Lord’s Supper to those from whom they were divided.

This picture does not describe the mainstream of twentieth century Protestant denominationalism. Today mainstream denominationalism is much more ecumenical. These modern denominations have accepted a policy of peaceful co-existence, if not actively working to effect some kind of merger of their respective sects. The historical heritage of each denomination might be considered as something of which a given group of people may be proud but it is seldom understood in the sense of being the only way to salvation.

Unfortunately, some gospel preachers are still fighting the denominationalism which existed several decades ago without taking note of so-called modern trends. We are generally very familiar with the creeds of denominationalism; in many cases, we know the creeds of a given church better than most of the members and some of the preachers of that church. However, modern denominationals generally could care less what their creeds say, for religion has little to do with doctrinal belief.

This change is not all that recent. In 1951, Yater Tant described denominationalism of his day as follows:

. . .Almost nobody cares anything at all about denominational lines, denominational doctrines, denominational shibboleths. Even the preachers themselves, committed to an upholding of the denominational peculiarities, are, for the most part, either uninformed or indifferent about much of their traditional teaching. On the contrary, the unforgivable heresy now is to do or teach anything that is distinctive. The whole emphasis in current denominational thought is on those broad general principles and ideals which nobody can question; preachers preach platitudes that even the Jew and the Mohammedan would sanction (“Protestant Preachers and Proselytism,” Gospel Guardian, Vol. II, No. 43, p. 4).

This is a rather accurate description of much of modern denominationalism. I am afraid that some of our preachers have not taken note of the change in position of modern denominationalism; some of us are still fighting the old form of denominationalism, which few people believe any longer. Perhaps this is because some of us are not informing ourselves about denominationalism or because we find it easier to preach an old sermon outline than to prepare one which deals with the denominational departures of our day. However, the departures of modern denominationalism need to receive more attention in our pulpits.

The Stance Of Modern Denominationalism

1. Ecumenism. One of the major thrusts of modern denominationalism has been the ecumenical movement. The desire for religious unity is certainly to be commended. However, the basis for unity which has been followed by the modern ecumenical movement is not the same as the basis for unity described in the Bible. The ecumenical movement seems to approach religion by reducing it to its lowest common denominator. When the lowest common denominator is found, unity can be had with everyone who has that common denominator.

The ecumenical movement has such a broad thrust that it is willing to consider unity with non-Christian religions. By extending overtures of unity to pagan religions, the ecumenical movement has reduced religion to any groping by man to have contact with something or someone called God or god.

Even among more conservative groups of denominationalism, the unity movement is being felt. Fundamentalist groups have a good rapport with each other. There is no present attempt to merge all of the Fundamentalist groups into one large denomination, as is presently being attempted by modernist groups seeking to form the Church of Christ Uniting; however, even the Fundamentalist groups, with few exceptions, have stopped fighting with each other. They have apparently agreed to recognize that each group can go to heaven in its respective way.

2. Gospel-doctrine. The theological justification for this approach to unity is based on some supposed distinction between gospel and doctrine. There is supposed to be a core group of beliefs which all men hold in common which all must accept; the rest of the Bible is apparently not revealed as clearly as this core gospel, inasmuch as denominationalism holds that doctrinal sections will never be agreed upon. Hence, doctrinal differences can and should be tolerated so long as one accepts the basic gospel.

The problem with this position, aside from the fact that it is not revealed in the Scriptures, is that there is no possible way of distinguishing the gospel from the doctrine. No one has given the final or absolute criteria by which one determines which part of the Scriptures is to be labeled as doctrine, allowing for differences in belief, and what part of the Scriptures is to be labeled gospel, demanding doctrinal uniformity. The result has been that the more liberal group simply applies the same rules to all of the Bible as the more conservative groups apply to part of the Bible. The liberal groups do not demand doctrinal agreement on the virgin birth, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the miracles of Christ, the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the nature of God, and the person of God. One can believe just about anything and maintain fellowship with the liberal groups of denominationalism. The more conservative groups, however, have chosen to abide in their inconsistency, demanding unity in gospel (whatever that might be) and diversity in doctrine.

3. Salvation For Sincere Men. Modern denominationalism also accepts the idea that so long as a man is good, honest, and sincere, he can be saved regardless of what he might choose to believe. Hence, modern denominationalism is fully prepared to admit that a person can be a member of any denomination or no denomination and go to heaven. The more liberal, modernist denominations extend this to include pagan religions. Their ideas of subjective truth (“if you think it is true, it is true for you”) allow every man to believe whatever he chooses and every man be right, despite the fact that the respective beliefs of several men conflict with each other.

This results in faith having validity not on the basis of the contents of what is believed but on the basis of believing. There is no virtue in the act of believing; what is important is what is believed. However, if one takes the subjective approach to truth and the position that “it doesn’t make any difference what a man believes, just so he is honest in it,” the result is the annihilation of the Christian faith. If it does not matter what a man believes, then it would not and could not matter whether he believes at all or not. It would not matter whether he believed in the virgin birth of Christ, if he were honest in rejecting it. It would not matter whether he believed in the resurrection, or even in the divinity of Christ if he were completely honest in rejecting such items. He could reject the transfiguration, the miracles, the crucifixion, and even the very existence of Christ, if he were sincere and honest in such rejections, and still be saved.

This concept of modern denominationalism is contrary to the revelation of the gospel which demands that one believe the truth in order to be saved (Jn. 8:32). There is no salvation available to those who reject the gospel (Mk. 16:16), regardless of how honest and sincere they might be (Jn. 14:6).

4. Condemn no one. Another tenet of modern denominationalism, though not generally expressed, seems to be that just about anything can be accepted, except a position which condemns the religion of another man. The denominationals can fellowship each other, despite the glaring conflicts in their doctrines. The one thing that they cannot accept is the simple gospel preacher who preaches the unique and distinctive message of the gospel. The reason for this is that the gospel preacher is actively seeking to convert their members from denominationalism to Christ; hence, they must unite to destroy his influence.

The end result of this position is presently becoming rather obnoxious to some Fundamentalist groups. They are quite concerned with the appointment of homosexuals and women as clergy persons. They are- witnessing the destruction of their faith by the appointment of infidels to positions of authority and power. Some of them are already ready to fight modernism’s application of the principles which they themselves have adopted!

Application For Us

The failure of some among us to preach on the themes of modern denominationalism, choosing instead to preach against the divisive denominationalism of a bygone era, is manifesting itself today in the grace-unity movement. If you will notice the main tenets of twentieth century, Protestant denominationalism, you will observe that the main tenets of the grace-unity movement which we are presently opposing are basically identical with those of modern denominationalism. Compare these following tenets with those of modern denominationalism mentioned above:

1. Ecumenism. It is no accident that what we are dealing with is a unity movement. That is the main thrust of modern denominationalism; the main difference is that the restoration movement is limited to a group described as the “heirs of the restoration movement.”

2. Gospel-doctrine. Anyone who has read very much written by the grace-unity brethren recognizes that the gospel-doctrine distinction is the basis for their being able to extend fellowship to those involved in doctrinal apostasies.

3. Salvation For Sincere Men. About every writer of the grace-unity movement has had something to say about the grace of God taking care of the sins of ignorance and the weaknesses of the flesh before and without repentance. Some provide for this through the imputation of the perfect obedience of Christ and others through some system of automatic grace.

4. Condemn no one. Anyone vaguely familiar with the writings of Ketcherside and Garrett will testify that the thrust of their material is aimed, not toward those who have perverted the worship, mission, and organization of the church, but toward those who have opposed these perversions. Any perversion can be tolerated. But, the faithful gospel preacher who calls for repentance cannot be tolerated.

Our failure to keep abreast with the changes of Protestant denominationalism and to preach concerning the main tenets of denominationalism, emphasizing the truth of God’s word and exposing the errors of denominationalism, is a contributing factor to what successes the grace-unity movement has had among us. The solution appears to me to be to preach specific lessons on some of the very topics listed above, showing wherein these depart from the revelation of God’s word.


We must continue to call for unity. However, the form of unity which we need to preach is not some organizational merger of existing denominations or some form of unity-in-diversity which simply ignores the major doctrinal differences among us. Rather, we should preach the unity based on the revelation of God’s word. To achieve that unity, all denominational organizations, names, doctrines, creeds, and distinctive features must be abandoned. Every member of each denomination must become simply a Christian, having been buried through baptism into Christ (Rom. 6:4). He must be willing to work, worship and live as an humble member of the New Testament church. When and if that spirit is present, then unity is not only possible, it will be inevitable.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 49, pp. 787-789
December 11, 1980