By Mark W Swarbrick
What People Say
“All denominations are all nothing but man made! The Lord hates denominations. Denominations are sending people to HELL every day. Denominations mean NOTHING!”
That is an example of a comment someone made on this website. I get a few of these anti-denomination comments from time to time. I have heard people make similar comments over the years. You probably have as well. It seems to be a pervasive and emotionally held doctrine among some Christians that God is opposed to the existence of Christian denominations. The attitude runs the gamut from those who merely think the church being split into various denominations is a sad thing and was not God’s perfect will, to those who strongly believe that all denominations are evil and have nothing to do with real Christianity.
The dictionary definition of the word “denomination” is: “A religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices.” The simple description is: “A Christian denomination is a distinct religious body within Christianity, identified by traits such as a name, organization, leadership and doctrine.” A true Christian denomination recognizes (or should recognize) all other Christian denominations as a legitimate part of the universal Body of Christ.
The Christian Church, for the greater part of its 2,000 years, has existed in the form of denominations. The two major branches of Christendom are Catholic and Protestant. Within Catholicism there are a number of major denominations, such as Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholic. Within Roman Catholicism are more sects, such as The Old Catholic Church, Traditional Catholics, Tridentine Catholics, Progressive Catholics and so on.
Who Hates Denominations?
Although it is understandable that someone might not be in favor of a particular Christian denomination, why a number of Christians are so strongly opposed to all of them is a puzzle. Is God really opposed to the concept of denominations? We shall examine this idea more closely and see what the Bible has to say about it.
But before we delve into the scriptures, let’s first consider the groups which oppose denominationalism. By examining who it is that dislikes denominations we may be able to see clues as to what is behind this attitude. It has been my experience there are two groups that disparage denominations the most. First, the non-Christian cultists will malign them, saying that they are all in error, they have all departed from the true faith and only their little group has the truth.
Then there is what could be called the Christian cults – groups that have, for the most part, orthodox Christian doctrine and preach salvation in Jesus, but who maintain so many strange heterodox doctrines and exclusionary attitudes that they have become extremely cult-like in their demeanor and ideas. It is this group that is often the most rabidly anti-denominational, some of them practically foaming at the mouth with hatred towards denominational churches.
In some cases, this animosity may spring from a situation where the cult leader has been defrocked by a denomination they belonged to. The embarrassment and humiliation of such an event is being masked and countered by claiming the denomination they formerly associated with is not of God. The adherents absorb a steady diet of anti-denominational hatred from their leader, not realizing the source is emotional bitterness rather than Biblical exegesis.
A third source of anti-denominationalism perhaps comes from plain old-fashioned rejection of any kind of authority. Whether as a psychological reaction to overbearing parents or some other childhood trauma, some exhibit a deep-seated sinful rebellion against Godly authority of any kind. This is, of course, a spiritual malady that will hinder their walk with Christ until it is brought into subjection to the Lord’s authority.
It behooves us to remember who hates Christian denominations the most: Satan. Nearly all of the good work done in the world for the name of Christ, — the salvation of souls, missions, hospitals, acts of benevolence for the poor and hurting — has as all been accomplished, for the most part, by denominational churches. Satan hates denominations for that reason.
Organized religion under the name of Christ is Satan’s most formidable enemy. He would much prefer the Church was disorganized. This anger of the enemy against the organized church is no doubt fostered by Satan upon minds open to deception. When you encounter someone who says they “hate organized religion” their motivation should immediately be suspect for they are sharing an attitude with the devil.
I must hasten to add that some people have been unfairly hurt by people in a particular church, and they may transfer that hurt to dislike for all churches or denominations. I am not disparaging those people. They have been wounded and they need love and understanding and perhaps help so that the Lord can heal their hurt before it turns into bitterness against the Church in general. I am not referring to these injured people as anti-denominational.
What I am talking about are those who have an unhealthy animosity towards the Church and against any type of organized Christian authority. Scripture gives warning concerning the proud and arrogant who despise authority:
“He is especially hard on those who follow their own twisted sexual desire, and who despise authority. These people are proud and arrogant, daring even to scoff at supernatural beings without so much as trembling.” (2 Peter 2:10)
When Did Denominations Begin?
Denominations sometimes arise in response to unscriptural doctrine or practice. When the Church, or a group within the Church does wrong and will not reform, the formation of a new denomination is a healthy response.
One of these unscriptural practices is exalting men in ecclesiastical positions. Just as ancient Israel wanted a king instead of God Himself guiding Israel, so also the Church has sometimes engaged in the practice of selecting someone to be a prophet or leader to lord it over them. Reaction to this error has given rise to denominations within the Church.
Jesus’ commanded “call no man your father on earth…” (Matthew 23:9). He also said, “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Matthew 23:8). “The anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you…” (1 John 2:27)
Clearly, from these scriptures, we see that God did not intend for there to be one holy prophet over the entire Church or even one over any church group. Although scripture lays down the principle of elders within the church, it was made clear that the Church, or individual church groups, were not to select a leader to put up on a pedestal to revere as specially anointed of God.
Those who worked hard at preaching and teaching were to be considered worthy of “double honor,” (1 Timothy 5:17) but they were not to be elevated with unscriptural ecclesiastical and temporal power. The greatest must become the servant; that was the principle laid down by our Lord.
Nevertheless, countless times throughout Church history, this admonition has been violated. In direct violation of the Lord’s command, on September 13, 590 AD, Gregory the Great, the Bishop of Rome, named himself “Pope” (which means father) and “Head of the Universal Church.” This laid the groundwork for the development of Roman Catholicism and a schism of the Church.
In the 11th century, after long periods of disagreement, The Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Church in what was called the Great Schism of 1054. The main disagreement was over whether the Roman pope had authority over the eastern churches.
The first Protestant denominations were formed during the Reformation in the 16th century. They were formed as a response to the error the Church made in forming a Papacy, as well as a host of other heresies. In other words, some of these first Protestant denominations came into being in order to correct false teaching in the Church. Since the Roman Catholic Church would not reform, the only alternative was separate denominations.
First was Lutheranism, started by Martin Luther and then Calvinism, by John Calvin. After that came multitudes of Protestant denominations. But denominations actually started long before this.
Denominations, in a beneficial sense, in point of fact, existed practically from the very beginning of Christendom, although they were not referred to as such. Originally there were only the Jewish Christians, but very soon the Gospel went out to the Gentiles. Jewish Christians worshipped Jesus on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) while Gentile Christians began to assemble together for worship on the first day of the week (Sunday) to commemorate that Jesus rose from the dead on that day.
There you had two branches of Christianity, that is, two denominations, if you please. Of course, both groups recognized each other as part of the same church. Nevertheless, there were distinct differences in how and when each group worshipped. There was no effort by the apostles to try to force uniformity. Each group was allowed to worship on the day they chose.
Then, in the book of Acts we read that Paul and Barnabas had differing opinions about how to minister, specifically whether to bring Mark with them or not. They solved the impasse by choosing to minister separately. In that prudent resolution we see a microcosm of denominationalism: Christians agreeing to disagree about inconsequential issues and working separately for the sake of harmony, while still recognizing the value and sanctity of the other. We shall look at that watershed event in more detail shortly.
It is sometimes taught that in the first century there was just one church in each city. That misunderstanding may have arisen because Paul did not address his letters, for example, to the “churches in Corinth, but to the “Church of God which is at Corinth.” But that does not mean there was just one large meeting place, as we think of a church today.
Corinth was the largest city in Greece with a population of 400,000. No doubt, Christians would gather in various places within walking distance of their home, depending on where they lived in the city. So, although Paul speaks of the “Church…at Corinth,” it was actually a congregation of individual groups that all recognized each other as part of the whole. Paul’s letters would be circulated among these groups.
In 1 Corinthians Chapter 3 we read where the Apostle Paul admonishes the Corinthian Christians for having quarrels. These disagreements concerned the situation where some of the groups would claim superiority over other groups based on who they honored the most as their spiritual leader. Some said they followed Paul, others Peter, and some followed Apollos. Each thought their leader was the correct one. Basically, what they did is to choose a pope and then claim their pope was the true pope.
Paul wasn’t having it. He wrote to them and basically said, if I may paraphrase, “Knock it off!” He made it clear that they were not to choose a man to elevate as some sort of special prophet or anointed leader. It bears repeating that Jesus warned against this very thing: “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.” (Matthew 23:9-10)
One True Church Mania
The Apostle Paul did not demand that all the groups do everything exactly the same. They were not required to all meet in the same place or to have a particular central authority. When he referred to “the Church…at Corinth,” he was merely affirming that they were all part of the same universal Church and that no one group should consider itself better than another. This mutual respect is the exact attitude Christian denominations should have today.
Denominations in and of themselves are not a bad thing, but that changes when any group claims they are more “Christian” than other groups within the Body of Christ. Then that denomination is expressing antithetical attitudes to the oneness and mutual respect that Jesus and the apostles intended for the Church. When a church chooses a pope or prophet or makes a claim that they are the one true church, then they are in effect dividing the Body of Christ, the very thing which Paul spoke against.
There is a long list of sects that defy these scriptural parameters for a church – many Church of Christ churches, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, Some Baptist Churches, Seventh Day Adventism, and Jimmy Swaggart Ministries and their satellite churches, and of course, all non-Christian cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah Witnesses – all these maintain that they are each the one true church.
If a group goes so far as to say that salvation is only found within their particular sect then they have denied a cardinal doctrine of Christianity. They are in essence, by insisting salvation is found only in joining their sect, declaring that salvation is by works (joining their sect), rather than by grace. This is, of course, a heretical teaching. For any group to maintain they are the one true church is a statement that puts them into a cultic, or at least cult-like, category.
When the Catholic Church, or any Christian Church, excludes other Christian denominations in such a manner, they are clearly speaking disunity to the Body of Christ. The very act of declaring your group to be the one true Church is an act of dissent which brings you into opposition to the prayer of Christ for unity among believers.
As scripture says, “God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Co 12:18-21). When a denomination claims to be the one true church, they are basically saying to the rest of Christ’s Church, “I have no need of you.”
Thus we see that there really is no such a thing as one denomination or sect that is the one true Church. God does not inhabit any one denomination created by man as his sole method of operating. God is much bigger than that. It is Jesus that saves, not religion. Scripture says, “The Most High does not live in houses made by men.” (Acts 7:48) This teaches us that man cannot build a church (whether a building or an organization) that God inhabits. Jesus said: “I will build My church…” (Matthew 16:18). This tells us that only Jesus builds His church. Man does not build it. Jesus does.
And who belongs to that church? The Bible says: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21). Not just Baptists or not just Catholics or not just Pentecostals. Everyone who calls on the Lord. People are saved by Jesus regardless of where they attend church so long as they put their trust solely in Christ to save them.
In Acts 11:14 we read: “And he will speak words to you by which you will be saved…” Here we see that salvation doesn’t come through a church, or by membership in any earthly religious organization, or even by religious works, but rather it comes through hearing and accepting the message that Jesus is the one and only Almighty God, that He became a man, died for our sins, rose from the grave, and that repentance and faith in His name is the only means of salvation. These are the “words by which you will be saved.”
Who is the Real Church?
If any group had a right to claim they were the one true church, it would have been Jesus and the apostles, yet it is written in scripture: John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40)
That scripture shows us that Jesus forbids the kind of exclusive sectarianism that would claim that there is only one true denomination or church. The fact is, The True Church is comprised of all Christians of all denominations who have put their faith truly in Jesus Christ. That is such an important point it bears repeating: The One True Christian Church consists of all born-again believers of all denominations. Anyone who has put their faith in Christ is, at the moment of conversion, added to Christ’s Church.
Christ has built only one church. It is His church and Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. A religious organization is of this world. Christ’s true church is a spiritual entity composed of all Christians from all denominations. Scripture says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21). In other words, God says you can’t point to this building or that organization and say, “Look, that’s God’s true church and kingdom.” No, the kingdom of heaven is much bigger and far more spiritual than some puny organization built by man.
Anyone of any denomination who puts their faith in the Jesus of the New Testament and surrenders their heart to Him is a member of the one true church built by Jesus. The real church is described in Hebrews and it is an awesome spiritual unity of believers of all time and all places:
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
We should not confuse non-denominational churches with anti-denominational sects. A non-denominational church is simply an independent church with no central or national governing body. There is nothing wrong with that. Some denominations list their churches under the non-denominational section in the Yellow Pages as a means of attracting those who prefer a non-denominational church.
Parachurch organizations, such as Gideons, Youth for Christ, Christian Research Institute, Answers in Genesis, Focus on the Family, etc., are vitally important Christian missions that have a very beneficial purpose within the Body of Christ. These valuable parachurch ministries, though not churches per se, nevertheless operate as a very valuable part of the Church under the denominational principle that recognizes the value of groups ministering independently with autonomy in the venue and mode in which they are called.
What the Bible Says
Those who believe that denominations are an affront to God point to a couple of scriptures, the foremost of which is Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-23:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Anti-denominationalists say that denominations are a denial of all that Jesus prayed for in this passage. They claim that the Church is all split up in disagreement over what to believe, that denominations prevent the Church from being one like Jesus wanted. But do they? There are several problems with their interpretation.
The first problem is that this position assumes that the unity Jesus was asking for was primarily organizational unity. Jesus gives one of the main reasons for this unity: “That the world may believe that You sent Me.” We must ask ourselves, is there anything particularly impressive about organizational unity? You can join the armed services and see rigid organizational unity at its strongest but is anyone awe-struck about that? I think not. There is nothing about organizational unity that will cause the world to believe that God the Father sent Jesus.
At the Tower of Babel, we see that God does not hold world-wide organizational unity in particularly high regard. God split mankind up into numerous language groups, dividing us into individual nations. We see from eschatological prophecies that Satan opposes nationalism. The enemy of our soul favors a one-world government and a one-world church. Most certainly organizational unity does not equate to godliness.
The second problem with the anti-denominationalist’s interpretation of Jesus’ unity passage is that if they are correct in saying that denominations destroy unity, then we must conclude that God the Father did not answer Jesus’ unity prayer as He wished. Yet, Jesus when raising Lazarus said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” (John 11:41-42)
If the anti-denominationalist is correct, then the Father does not always hear Jesus’ prayer or we wouldn’t have denominations today. But of course, such cannot be the case. There is no prayer that Jesus’ uttered that was not answered. The only exception might be in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me,” but even then, his prayer was qualified with “if possible” and “not my will but thine be done.” Thus, even in that case Jesus’ prayer was heard.
Unity in Jesus
Our only conclusion then is that Jesus’ prayer for unity has been somehow answered in spite of denominations. In what way has it been answered? In Ephesians 4:3 the Apostle Paul speaks of this unity as a reality already achieved: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” This is the unity of the Spirit that we all experience when in the company of other Christians.
That unity is so real you can feel it. Many times, I have met a stranger and in course of conversation I sense they are a born-again believer. Sometimes I’ll ask them and they confirm they are a Christian. The feeling of oneness is such that I feel as though I am conversing with an old friend, rather than a stranger. This is a common experience among Christians.
Often, I have been away from home and worshipped in another church, sometimes even a denomination differing from my own, yet that same sense of acceptance and love is there. What is the common denominator? Jesus is. Our combined commitment and love for Jesus, He who is in each of us, is what makes us one. The unity we have through Christ in us crosses denominational lines.
Unity of Faith
Once I was conversing with a Mormon who had come to my door to convert me. He told me that Mormons constituted the one true church. He said to me, “All the denominations in the world disagree with each other. They aren’t in unity. Therefore, they can’t possibly represent the Church. Since we Mormons all have the same doctrine, that shows we are the real church.” Apparently, he wasn’t aware of the many differing Mormon sects, all of which lay claim to being the one true Church, but I digress.
The fact of the matter is that all Christians actually are united in faith. The contention that all denominations differ in their beliefs and are therefore not one in faith is simply not true. All Christian denominations agree on the fundamental cardinal doctrines of Christianity. The carinal doctrines include: The inspiration and authority of Scripture; the Trinity; the deity of Christ; His substitutionary death on the cross; His bodily resurrection; His bodily second coming; and, salvation by grace through faith alone, apart from works. All Christian denominations agree on these things.
Frequently many different denominations come together in a cooperative outreach to minister the gospel to the unsaved. I’ve been involved in a number of those outreaches myself. Truly the Church is one, just as Jesus desired.
Denominations – A New Testament Practice
Would it surprise you if I told you that the principle of denominationalism is found in the New Testament? Well, it is there. We read in 1 Co 12:28 “And God has appointed in the church…administrations…” The church is called of God to be organized and the reality of “administrations” expresses itself in various denominations.
What is a denomination other than merely a framework organized to accomplish Christ’s mission as a body of believers working together in unity? Scripture asks rhetorically, “Can two walk together, unless they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3) Clearly, they cannot. That’s why denominations have a statement of faith around which the members agree. Jesus wants us to operate in agreement, unity and peace and that’s what denominations accomplish. Even a non-denominational church operates with the same principle, for they have a statement of faith as well. A non-denominational church is basically a denomination of only one church.
Paul & Barnabas Agree to Disagree
The disagreement between the apostles Paul and Barnabas was mentioned earlier. That event sheds some light on our understanding of the validity and wisdom of denominational structure within the Church. Here is the account:
“After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”
An interesting point is that the scripture doesn’t tell us who was right and who was wrong. A good case can be made for each viewpoint. Paul apparently felt that some discipline was in Mark’s best interest. Mark had put his hand to the plow and looked back. His abandoning them before in the middle of the work had been a problem that had hindered their mission to a certain degree. Barnabas, on the other hand felt that mercy and forgiveness should be the order of the day and that understanding and compassion more adequately expressed Christ’s desire for this mission.
The fact that scripture doesn’t tell us who was right or wrong is an important point. It tells us that the main point is something else. Who was right or wrong did not matter. What we learn from this account is that Christians don’t have to agree about everything. We can agree to disagree on some things. That’s what Paul and Barnabas did. Although their disagreement was “sharp,” no doubt after an intense discussion, they talked again, probably the next day and came to an agreement that Barnabas would minister with Mark and Paul would travel with Silas.
Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree and to minister separately so that they could minister in the manner they thought best, so that peace and unity would be maintained. And that right there is what denominations are all about. People working for Christ in harmony according to their conscience and faith.
Can you imagine the disunity and disharmony that would result if you took all denominations and forced them to be part of one church? Just as Paul and Barnabas needed to work separately, so also Christians today need to band together with those of similar preferences and opinions so that they can preserve “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
The Two Extremes
There are two extremes, or errors, that are easily seen. One is what I would call authoritarianism and the other antiauthoritarianism. Roman Catholicism would be an example of authoritarianism. They believe that it’s essential that the Church have total world-wide earthly authority over church matters concerning faith and practice and they believe most sincerely that God has given that position to the Roman Catholic sect. They maintain that unless there is one central earthly organization called The Church (like Roman Catholicism) then church authority becomes non-existent.
The antiauthoritarians would be those who are rabidly against denominations. Jimmy Swaggart Ministries is a perfect example. Swaggarites spew their vitriol against the Assemblies of God for revoking Swaggart’s ordination, saying that God himself has ordained him as a prophet and that no evil denomination has anything to say about it. They see any denomination as an authority structure which they deeply resent. They don’t want any central authority ordaining (or unordaining) ministers and proclaiming a standard Christian doctrine, conduct, discipline or practice. Preferring to be a law unto themselves they see lawlessness as akin to freedom.
Those are the two extremes: On the one end of the spectrum, an unscriptural authoritarian structure that decries the existence of any other denomination, and at the other end is an equally unbiblical structure of lawlessness. Satan likes both extremes. He is all in favor of a one world religion while also fostering total lawlessness with no standards at all. The proper scriptural practice, one that is balanced and sensible, is found in the middle, and that is the denominational structure.
We have seen that those who hate denominations have some bad bedfellows: Roman Catholicism, Cults, and Cult-like Christian churches. These groups, because of their extreme unbiblical positions, are opposed to the whole concept of denominationalism.
When we look to the scripture we find in its pages the principle of denominations employed, to great benefit, in the early Church. We see, with the incident with Paul and Barnabas, that the principle of agreeing to disagree is a code of conduct practiced by the apostles. That wise principle is fundamental to the concept of denominations. Early on in church history the apostles saw the wisdom of that and practiced it.
Denominations allow for diversity and flexibility while still maintaining adherence to the essential and important aspects of Christian faith. Denominationalism is actually a means to establish the unity and harmony that Christ desires and for which he prayed. They provide a means of having authority and structure while avoiding the excessive authority found in authoritarian “one true” churches, while also avoiding the lawlessness and disorganization inevitable in anti-denominational cult-like sects.
Denominations are the very means by which God has brought about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for unity. Jesus said the gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church. We can be sure it hasn’t. The only conclusion is that denominationalism is something God has approved and is using for his glory.