Denominationalism: Is it Biblical?

The concept of denominationalism is not taught or sanctioned in the New Testament in any way, rather Jesus Christ established ‘one body’ or church: ‘And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’ (Matt. 16: 18). Notice that the word church is used, a singular body, united in Christ, the body of which He is the head. As Ephesians explains: ‘And hath put all things under his feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all’ (Eph. 1: 22, 23). Later on in the book of Ephesians the Apostle Paul explains: ‘There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling’ (Eph. 4: 4).

The word for “church” comes from the Greek word ekklesia which is defined as “an assembly” or the “called-out ones.” The root meaning of “church” is not that of a building, but of people. It is ironic that when you ask people what church they attend, they usually identify a building, however, Romans 16:5 says: “… greet the church that is in their house”. Paul refers to the church in their house not a church building, but a body of believers.

The concept of many different denominational churches was absent in the First Century. Paul, therefore, taught ‘every where in every church’ (I Cor. 4: 17). In stark contrast to the unity that was taught by Jesus and sought repeatedly by Paul for the church, denominationalism is in essence often divisive and sectarian. Within the New Testament there were similarly divisive situations, and groups forming as a result, for example, the church at Corinth. The Apostle Paul responded to this division not with praise, rather he emphatically taught against it. Let’s read from Corinthians for an example:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13) The notion of being from Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, as an emphasis rather than Christ, is clearly wrong. However, this is exactly what has been repeated often within the denominational church. The unbiblical and sad irony of this position is seen within the following quotes from historically respected and famously recognised Christian leaders: Luther, Wesley, and Spurgeon.

Let’s begin with Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation and certainly one of the most important and influential Christian figures outside of the bible: “I ask that men make no reference to my name, and call themselves not Lutherans, but Christians. What is Luther? My doctrine, I am sure, is not mine, nor have I been crucified for any one. St. Paul, in 1 Cor. 3, would not allow Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I, poor, foul carcass that I am, come to have men give to the children of Christ a name derived from my worthless name? No, no, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names, and call ourselves Christians after Him whose doctrine we have.” (Hugh Thomason Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943, p. 135). One can only wonder therefore, at the utter distain and anguish that Luther might have had, should he have ever considered that the Lutheran Church would become a denomination bearing his name.

Next let us look at the words of another highly influential and authoritative Christian figure, the first leader of Methodism, John Wesley. Regarding denominational sectarianism Wesley commentated: “Would to God that all party names, and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world, were forgot and that the very name [Methodist] might never be mentioned more, but be buried in eternal oblivion.” (John Wesley, Universal Knowledge, A Dictionary and Encyclopedia of Arts, Science, History, Biography, Law, Literature, Religions, Nations, Races, Customs, and Institutions, Vol. 9, Edward A. Pace, Editor, New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1927, p. 540). Wesley was clearly explicit in his understanding that the denominationalism of groups such as Methodists or Wesleyans etc., would be both unscriptural, and divisive, in the light of biblical Christianity. I can recall one Methodist denominations mission statement, it focused first and repeatedly, not on promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but rather on promoting the denomination itself. How far removed this is from the hope of Wesley, who would have preferred that the name Methodism was buried in eternal oblivion! The tragedy and irony of this scenario is often lost to denominational adherents.

Finally, lets read from Charles Spurgeon, who was called The Prince Of Preachers and who spent many years within Baptist denomination: “I look forward with pleasure to the day when there will not be a Baptist living! I hope that the Baptist name will soon perish, but let Christ’s name last forever.” (Spurgeon Memorial Library, Vol. I., p. 168). Spurgeon saw the limitation of denominations and as a container for biblical Christianity, their exclusive bias and anti-biblical position is a testimony to a compromised church.

It is clear that many of the most distinguished historical Christian leaders were not denominationalists, these men of God seemed to share a distain for denominational sectarianism and a love for Jesus Christ’s Gospel. Most importantly the bible itself provides no room for denominations, the teachings of the New Testament point us rather towards non-denominational unity, oneness of mind, a single united church. If you are in a denomination then be clear to follow the bible above any denominational bias or pattern of doing things. Remember, the true church is not necessarily made up of those people you see on a Sunday. Rather, it comprises of those who by faith in Jesus Christ, are your brothers and sisters in the one true church of God.

The true church consists of all those who have a personal relationship commitment with Jesus Christ. “For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This verse says that anyone who believes is part of the body of Christ and has received the Spirit of Christ as evidence. The church of God therefore is simply all those who have received salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

In summary, the church is clearly not a building or a denomination. According to the Bible, the church is the body of Christ, all those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for their salvation (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13). The local church is where the members of the universal church can fully apply the “body” principles of 1 Corinthians chapter 12: encouraging, teaching, and building one another up in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.