The gospel of Jesus records that He built one ekklesia and that all saved people were in that ekklesia. He prayed for unity and rebuked division. Denominations as we know them did not exist till centuries later. Yet today hundreds of denominations exist in the name of Christianity, claiming to be Christian. They are divided and contradict one another. This study examines the teaching of the Scriptures about the existence of denominationalism.
Introduction:(For the purpose of clarity in this study: The word "ekklesia" will refer to the actual Greek word used by Jesus and biblical definition of "the body of Christ" in the new Testament. The word "church" will refer to the institution created by man almost three centuries after Jesus' resurrection.)
To the average person, "Christianity" includes hundreds of different denominations that disagree with one another in name, organization, doctrine, worship, and plan of salvation. Such a situation clearly constitutes division, not unity. Yet all the denominations claim to be Christian and to follow Jesus Christ. If we really want to please God, however, we must forsake what we want and practice what He wants.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 - Man's whole duty is to fear God and keep His commands. We should be determined to do God's will, not our own.
Matthew 16:24 - To follow Jesus one must deny himself. True religion does not consist of what pleases us. It is entirely a question of what pleases God.
In this study we want to consider whether or not God is pleased by the existence of denominations. What does He really think about the religious division that exists today? Does He want unity instead? The only way to know what God thinks is to study His revelation, the Bible. So, what does the Bible say about denominationalism.
I. The Bible Concept of the Ekklesia
Ephesians 3:10,11 says the ekklesia is part of God's eternal wisdom. This shows that the ekklesia is important to God, so we should respect His will regarding it. What does He say should be our concept of the ekklesia, and does denominationalism fit that concept?
A. Bible Meanings of the Word "ekklesia"The word "ekklesia" is used two ways in the Bible:
The ekklesia in the "universal" senseThe "universal" ekklesia refers to the body or group of all saved people everywhere. It includes all who have been redeemed by Jesus' blood, have been forgiven of their sins, and have been born into His spiritual family. Bible examples of this usage are:
Matthew 16:18 - Jesus promised to build His ekklesia. The ekklesia is built on Jesus and belongs to Him ("my church"). [Cf. 1 Cor. 3:11]
Ephesians 5:23,25 - Jesus is Head of the ekklesia, and He is Savior of His body. He gave Himself for the ekklesia. So the ekklesia is the body of all people who have been saved by Christ.
Acts 2:47 - The Lord added to the ekklesia those who were saved. The "universal" ekklesia consists of all saved people everywhere because, when God saves people, He puts them in the ekklesia. In this sense, the ekklesia is always singular.
[See also Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18,24; 1 Tim. 3:15; cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-14 to Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mk 16:16.]
The ekklesia in the "local" senseThe "local" ekklesia refers to a congregation of Christians in a region who have united themselves to work and worship together. According to the Bible, they have a pattern of organization, work that they are to do, and funds they use to do this work.
In the Bible, Christians were not just members of the universal body of all saved people, but they also associated themselves into local ekklesias. Here are some examples:
Acts 8:1 - The ekklesia which was in Jerusalem.
1 Corinthians 1:2 - The ekklesia of God which was at Corinth.
1 Thessalonians 2:14 - ekklesias of God which were in Judea.
Revelation 1:4,11 - The seven ekklesia of Asia.
Galatians 1:2 - The ekklesias of Galatia.
Note that, in this local sense, the word "ekklesia" can be used in the plural - "ekklesias of Christ" (Rom. 16:16). Congregations existed in different localities, but they were not religiously divided. All had the same pattern of organization, doctrine, worship, salvation, etc.
[See also Acts 11:22; 2 Cor. 1:1; 8:1; Gal. 1:22; 1 Cor. 16:1; Rom. 16:1,4; 1 Cor. 14:33.]
B. The Denominational Concept of the ekklesiaModern denominations (Man's "church") include many local congregations, and they claim there is one universal church composed of all "saved" people. But they add something new - the denominations. All these "saved" people in all these local churches are now divided into denominations. The concept of a denomination, as commonly believed today, involves all the following elements:
* Each denomination is an affiliation or confederation consisting of a number of local churches.
* Each denomination has its own peculiar name, doctrine, organization, plan of worship, etc., which distinguishes it from other denominations.
* Each denomination claims it is composed of Christians, but it does not claim to contain all faithful Christians. Each denomination believes there are faithful children of God in other denominations. "There are saved people in all the denominations." "We're all going to heaven, just by different routes." "One church is as good as another." It's just a matter of personal preference, like different kinds of cars, colors of clothes, etc. So "join the church of your choice."
Ask any informed denominationalist, and he will confirm what we have said. Ask: "Are there saved Christians in your denomination?" He will say, "Yes." Ask: "Are there Christians in other denominations, who will go to heaven?" He will say, "Yes." Ask: "Does one have to be a member of your denomination to go to heaven?" He will say, "No." So each denomination claims to consist of some Christians, but not all Christians.
A denominational preacher once said the following:
"There is only one 'holy Christian Church,' of which Christ is the Head, but it is now made up of many denominations ... But faith in Christ is the first criterion of membership in the holy Christian Church, and we feel that such believers can be found in all Christian denominations."
C. Denominationalism Differs from God's Plan.God's plan involves all saved people in one universal body - ekklesia, yet associated together in the local ekklesia. Denominationalism changes God's plan by adding the concept of denominational affiliations - associations of local churches that contain some of the saved but not all of the
saved - organizations that are more than just local churches, but less than the universal church.
Denominations were unknown in the Bible. They constitute an addition, a change in God's plan. Most people can easily read their Bibles and see that this is so.
What does God think about unauthorized changes in His pattern?What difference does it make? Will God be pleased with people who defend the denominational concept?
Galatians 1:6-9 - Any man is accursed if he preaches a gospel different from what is revealed in the New Testament. But denominationalism is different from the gospel. It is nowhere authorized in the gospel.
2 John 9 - Whoever does not abide in Jesus' doctrine does not have God. Is denominationalism part of Jesus' teaching? No! It is not revealed in His word. Therefore, those who practice this unauthorized change have not God! [See also Rev. 22:18,19.]
Is God pleased when people follow man's wisdom instead of His?The ekklesia is part of God's eternal wisdom in the Bible (Eph. 3:10,11). Denominations (man's churche) are not in the Bible, so they must have come from men. If we participate in them, we are following man's wisdom, not God's. What does God think about this?
Proverbs 3:5,6 - We must not lean on our human wisdom, but must trust in God to guide us.
Proverbs 14:12 - There are ways that seem right to men, but their end is death.
Matthew 15:9,13,14 - Human traditions and commands make our service to God vain or empty. Everything religiously which God did not plant will be
rooted up. By whose command do denominations exist? Who planted them? Not God, but man. Hence, they make people's worship and service to God vain and they will be rooted up.[See also Isa. 55:8,9; Jer. 10:23; Col.3:17; 1 Cor. 1:18-25; 2:1-5.]
II. The Bible Teaching About Unity
Each denomination has practices that contradict and disagree with the practices of other denominations. One says only immersion is true baptism; another says sprinkling is acceptable too. One says a child of God can fall from grace; another says this is impossible, etc. Surely this constitutes religious division and confusion. Yet the denominational concept says God will accept all this - people in all the groups please Him and will receive eternal life. "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you worship God sincerely," etc. Is this really what the Bible teaches?
A. Jesus' PrayerJohn 17:20-23 - Jesus prayed for all who believe on Him to be one as He and His Father are one. Jesus, the Head of the church, prayed for unity. Denominations claim that He is their head, yet they practice division!
Someone may claim the denominations are all part of one universal church, though they contradict one another. But is this how Jesus and His Father were one? When did the Father and Son ever disagree about what ekklesia people should be members of? Or about how to worship God? Or about the plan of salvation? Or about the organization of the ekklesia?
When did the Father say to the Son: "I disagree with your practices, but it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere. We're all going to the same place anyway, so just join man's church of your choice"??
In what sense were the Father and the Son "one"? John 12:49,50 says they both taught the same commandments! True Bible unity consists of everybody doing the will of the Father! Those who promote other forms of "unity," while excusing the existence of denominational division, are actually rejecting and rebelling against Jesus' prayer for unity.
[Cf. John 14:31; 15:10; 17:17.]
B. Division at Corinth1 Corinthians 1:10-13 - Paul pled with the Corinthians that there be no divisions among them (verse 10). Do denominations obey this plea? Are there "no divisions among them"? Surely they are divided, so how can anyone excuse their existence and say God will accept them?
Is Christ divided (verse 13)? Does He contradict Himself or teach contradictory things to His followers? Surely not. Such actions would make Him a hypocrite! How then can all the denominations be truly following Him and truly accepting His headship when they contradict one another? It must be true that some people are really not following Him and that is why the division exists.
If Paul rebuked the division at Corinth, should we not rebuke the far greater division in denominationalism? Did Paul tell the Corinthians to just overlook their differences because they were all pleasing to God anyway? Not at all! He told them to cease their divisive practices and seek unity by practicing the true teachings of God (read chapters 5,12-14,15, etc.)
C. Unity of the SpiritEphesians 4:3-6 - We must keep the unity of the Spirit. This means that, for the seven things listed, there is only one of each in God's true plan. Specifically, there is one true God and Father. Can a person be a true Christian and believe in many gods? "It doesn't matter what god you worship as long as you are sincere. Worshipers of all gods are going to the same place, so just worship the god of your choice"?! No. There are many false gods, but only one true God. Likewise there is only one true body and only one true faith, and the body is Jesus' ekklesia (Eph. 1:22,23; 5:23-25; Col. 1:18,24). It is just as essential to believe in only one true body and only one true faith as it is to believe in only one true God. But denominationalism takes the one true body and chops it up into many disagreeing bodies having different and contradictory faiths.
Just as there are many false gods but only one true God, so there are many false churches and many false faiths, but there is only one true ekklesia and only one true faith.
[See also 1 Cor. 14:33; 3:3; 12:12,13,20; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 2:16; Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 12:4,5.]
III. The Bible Concept of Truth
A. An Imaginary ChurchDespite the contradictory practices in denominationalism, we are told that it does not matter what church we attend, so just "join the church of our choice." Let us make up a church and
see if it "does not matter" if we attend this church.
Suppose we had a church that taught all the following things:
* We follow the Bible as our sole guide in religion, but we also follow the Book of Mormon, the Catholic catechism, and Jehovah's Witness Watchtower publications as authority.
* We believe that a child of God can so sin as to be eternally lost, but we also believe that it is impossible for a child of God to so sin as to be eternally lost.
* We believe that immersion is the only true form of baptism, but we also practice sprinkling and pouring as valid forms of baptism.
* We believe that man is justified by faith alone, but we also teach that obedience is essential to justification.
* We believe that the seventh day of the week is the Christian sabbath and the first day of the week is a perversion, but we also believe that the first day of the week is the Christian sabbath for worshipping God.
* We worship the God of the Bible as our only God and Jesus as our only Savior, but we also worship the sun, moon, stars, and Satan.
What would you think of a church that believed and practiced all these contradictory doctrines? "Ridiculous! Hypocritical!" Yes, but when different churches teach these contradictory doctrines, some people tell us it "does not matter" which we join. Isn't that also ridiculous and hypocritical?
Consider what denominationalism says about Jesus. We are told that "you can find Jesus in any of the churches." And "there are people in all the denominations that are following Jesus." But if Jesus is found in all the churches, though they teach all these contradic-
tory doctrines, doesn't that make Him a hypocrite? And if all the churches are following Jesus, yet they are going in opposite directions, doesn't that mean Jesus is leading people in opposite directions? When people try to justify denominations, they make Jesus ridiculous and hypocritical!
What is the real problem with our imaginary church? The problem is that no one could believe all these contradictory doctrines because truth does not contradict itself! This is the real issue. Jesus teaches truth, and truth does not contradict itself. Denominations contradict one another. Therefore, they cannot all be teaching truth, and they cannot all be following Jesus!
B. The Importance of TruthThe Bible emphasizes the importance of truth.
John 17:17 - God's word is truth.
John 8:32 - We must know the truth to be made free from sin (v34).
1 Peter 1:22,23 - Obeying the truth is what makes us free from sin.
2 Thessalonians 2:10-12 - Believing error and lies will condemn us. There is one true faith, just as there is only one true God (Eph. 4:3-6).
The fundamental consequence of denominationalism is that error is just as good as truth! If the denominational concept is true, then all denominations are acceptable to God even though they flatly contradict one another regarding worship, salvation, etc. This means error is just as good as truth and unrighteousness is just as good as righteousness. Denominationalism must be wrong because it says that error does not condemn.
CONCLUSIONHow can people today please God and be members of the one ekklesia of the Bible, despite the existence of denominational division?
1. Reject all churches that believe the denominational concept.Refuse to be part of any church that claims to be a denomination, or which excuses, justifies, or condones denominationalism. Recognize that all such churches are apostasies, departures from God's way.
2 Corinthians 6:17,18 - Come out from among them and be separate.
Ephesians 5:11 - Have no fellowship with the works of darkness, but reprove them. [See also Rom. 16:17; 2 John 9-11; Matt. 15:1-14; Tit. 3:10,11.]
2. Accept and obey only the word of God in its purity and simplicity.
Luke 8:11 - The Word of God is the seed of the kingdom.
1 Peter 1:22-25 - We purify our souls and are born again into God's family by obeying truth (not error).
Acts 2:38,47 - Repent and be baptized for remission of sins and God will then add you to His true church. Then find a faithful local ekklesia that follows God's true word and is not part of any denomination.
In the first century, obeying Jesus' true gospel made people members of Jesus' one true ekklesia. It did not make them members of any denomination. That gospel can have the same effect in your life as it did in theirs, for God is no respecter of persons (Acts 2:39; 10:34,35; Mk. 16:15,16). The seed of the kingdom will produce the same result today as it did in the first century (Gal. 6:8).
If you avoid man-made doctrines and obey just the true gospel, you too will become a member of Jesus' true body - the ekklesia - of all saved people, but you will not be a member of any "church" denomination. This will put you in fellowship with all others who have truly obeyed that gospel. Those who do not teach this truth are not the Lord's true ekklesia.