by Tom McLemore
What is a denomination?
The term denomination is from Latin denominatus (de [from] and nominare [to name]), hence, to give a name to, designate. The idea of giving a name or designating is to emphasize division and differences. For instance, in math, the denominator is the divisor. In currency, the denomination is the difference between one bill’s value and that of another. The same goes with the names of people, of countries, etc.
Denomination is a general name for a category. The origin of religious denominations is the formulation of distinct groups on the basis of adherence to doctrinal distinctions. These distinctions are articulated in the creeds, disciplines, confessions of faith, decrees, etc. of the various groups. The names by which they are “denominated” reflects the essence of the categorization.
There are two fundamental false assumptions underlying denominationalism. One is the assumption that Christianity can accommodate tremendous diversity of belief and practice and still rightly be considered “Christian.” The other is the assumption that such a state of affairs is inevitable and is well-pleasing to God, i.e., that “Christendom” may be thus divided and still be acceptable to God.
Is the Church of the New Testament denominational?
Jesus built his church (Matthew 16:18). Was the church which he built meant to accommodate tremendous diversity of belief and practice? Is denominationalism the intent, the desire, or even the product of Christ, the builder of his church? These questions are answered by another. Did Jesus, the apostles, and other inspired men consider it possible for Christianity to accommodate such diversity of belief and practice and still rightly be considered “Christian.” Consider 1 Corinthians 1:10. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Notice also the uniformity of New Testament church (1 Corinthians 7:17; 11:16; 14:33b).
What about denominational names in the New Testament? Were there names in Scripture which highlighted an acceptable diversity in belief and practice among all those considered to be Christians? There are two types of scriptural designations. One type manifests the church’s relationship to its divine owner: “the church of God” (Galatians 1:13), “the church of the Lord” (Acts 20:28), “the churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). The other type reveals the church’s make-up: “the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33) and “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23).
What conclusion shall we draw from these designations? Do these designations suggest any inherent diversity of belief and practice? Are they not all rightly seen as descriptions of one and the same thing?
Is an undenominational New Testament church feasible?
If it was ever feasible, it is feasible now! Was it ever feasible? If so, how? The principle upon which it was and is feasible is the apostles’ doctrine, which was first Christ’s doctrine which he received from the Father, and which is now preserved in Scripture (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; John 17:8, 20; 1 Corinthians 14:37; cf. 2 Peter 3:15, 16).
What is the path to reproducing the undenominational New Testament church today and eliminating denominationalism? One sign post pointing to that destination is a recognition of the fundamental flaws in denominationalism. One of its flaws is the view that men’s understandings and interpretations of the doctrines of Scripture (which have become the creeds and confessions, etc.) are of equal authority with Scripture itself. Another flaw is the notion that religious practice that is acceptable to God may be regulated by human reason and temporal considerations. Hence, many practices characteristic of the primitive church have been abandoned, altered, etc. (e.g., sprinkling instead of immersion, monthly, quarterly, annual observance of the Lord’s Supper, etc. ad infinitum).
Another sign post is the restoration plea. The restoration plea contends that the express words of the Bible (rather than interpretations of men) form the confession and terms for fellowship in the church. It demands the practice of all that is explicitly commanded or authorized by apostolic teaching in the manner in which the primitive church practiced it.
Naturally, feasibility and probability are two different things! Consider the probability in light of what I would call “the new denominationalism.” Reports from pollsters generally indicate that denominational dogma is no longer as significant to the new generation of adherents to various religious groups. This means, they will more readily abandon the mainstream denominations they grew up in for less traditional, less doctrinally oriented denominations.
This is good news and bad news. Good news because it indicates a potential openness to pure primitive Christianity, since the trappings of denominationalism are not important to them. Bad news lies in the underlying reason for their abandonment of denominational dogma--rejection of traditional approach to authority, including Scripture. The same motives which have led them to see dogma as no longer significant will lead them to view the finer points of scriptural teaching as insignificant. Yet, insofar as people will accept the Bible as the only all-sufficient standard and guide for faith and practice, the undenominational New Testament church is entirely feasible!
Are not the churches of Christ just another denomination?
In theory, no. The theory is simple, plain, unadulterated New Testament Christianity. If the churches of Christ are following this theory, they are not just another denomination, but the true church of the Bible. The divine plan is flawless and perfect. God’s revelation thereof is equally flawless and perfect. However, human beings are not perfect; their performance is not flawless. Such is true even of people in the churches of Christ. Regardless of what may be said of any man or group of men, there can be no questioning the premise that ALL SHOULD SEEK TO FOLLOW THE DIVINE PLAN.
The challenge before us all is for us to study the Scripture and then do what the apostles taught. Thenwe will be what the apostles were and members of that of which the primitive Christians were members. The same process which makes one a Christian constitutes the increase of the church! (1 Corinthians 12:13; Acts 2:47).
Ultimately, God will pronounce judgment regarding who has obeyed his will and who has not. But consider the following facts. God’s revealed will in Scripture is the basis upon which he will judge. Jesus said we can know the truth and continue in his word (John 8:31, 32). Thus, we can tell whether we are pleasing to the Lord and also determine who else is following the Lord. If you can find a group of people who are following more closely the teaching of Scripture, you are obligated to become a member of it; on the other hand, if there is none, then you have found undenominational Christianity and the true New Testament church among the churches of Christ.
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