The New Testament Church was Not a Denomination

By Bruce Edwards, Jr.

“The church described in the New Testament was not a denomination.” We understand that sentence. We have heard it all our lives. We mouth it to friends and to neighbors. We courageously affirm it before fellow Christians. We are thoroughly and categorically convinced that it is true. But do we fully realize the implications of this deceptively simple group of words?

It implies that the Lord’s people are not denominationally organized. Search the Scriptures, up and down, and you will find that in the first century there was no “national headquarters” (no, not even in Jerusalem) for the church. You will find no centralization of funds. You will find no “Sunday School boards.” You will find no institutionalism whatsoever. In fact, you must conclude that each congregation was independent and autonomous, fully capable of handling its own evangelism and edification, including discipline, free of outside intimidation or influence.

It implies that the Lord’s people are not subject to denominational leadership. Each local church was Scripturally led when there were a plurality of elders and deacons present. There was no clergy-laity caste system. All were “ministers.” All were individually responsible for teaching and preaching the gospel. No one was permitted or encouraged to allow “the minister” to do the evangelistic work for them in that location. There were no “lay-ministers,” no “arch-bishops,” no “cardinals,” no “presidents,” and no “reverends” in the first century church. In fact, you must conclude that each and every Christian was on an equal basis before God, each with his own responsibility to teach the word.

It implies that the Lord’s people are not guided by nor subject to denominational creeds. All beliefs and practices of the early church were founded upon the word of God. You will find among them no appeals to The Book of Mormon, The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Plain Truth magazine, Calvin’s Institutes, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health, the Methodist Discipline, nor anything else to establish Divine authority. In fact, you must conclude that each Christian was individually answerable only to God and was eminently capable of understanding and practicing God’s will on the basis of his own judgment free of “official creeds,” “papal encyclicals,” or “brotherhood editorials.”

It implies that the Lord’s people do not possess a denominational name. The church in the New Testament is labeled variously as, “the saints,” “the brethren,” “the church of God,” “the kingdom of heaven,” etc. There was no attempt on the part of the early Christians to set themselves apart in a denominational way by “name.” In fact, you must conclude that they met in synagogues or buildings they did not own or private homes, and worried little about the “proper designation” that may have hung on the front door. What “names” that were employed identified them merely as God’s people, set apart unto His Son, “names” given by the Lord Himself, free of any attempts to glorify any particular man, doctrine, or practice.

It implies that the Lord’s people are to dwell in unity. The very term “denomination” implies division. Any attempt to justify divisive groups, each proclaiming allegiance to a peculiar theologian or theology, from a Biblical standpoint is futile. The very idea that God could ordain and approve of all of today’s “roads to heaven” is in itself ludicrous. In fact, you must conclude that the early Christians were united in Christ through His word denying any sectarian or denominational concepts or beliefs.

The comment, “the church described in the New Testament was not a denomination,” is often made casually, almost nonchalantly. In reality, it is the most profound truth that confronts “modern Christendom.” Let us not mouth these words as an empty slogan or catch-phrase; rather let us drink deep its significance, letting it influence our thinking and application in our approaches to His service. Christ’s church, His ekklesia, is not a denomination! What wonderful freedom this truth brings!

Truth Magazine, XVIII:45, p. 9
September 19, 1974