More Thoughts On… Denominationalism
Previously we broached the subject of “Denominationalism.” Here
I have always had a nagging in my heart about denominational structure in God’s Church. Perhaps, you have too. What makes the Southern Baptist denomination more relevant than the Lutheran or the Methodist? There are differences between them, after all.
I’d like to thank Dr. Mark A. Copeland who prepared literally hundreds of Bible Study Outlines over the course of thirty years. It is from his study on “Denominationalism” this blog post is prepared.
Let’s look again at terms; “denomination” and “Denominationalism.” A “denomination” is a group of congregations that are joined together under some governing body, that effectively serves to distinguish and divide them, that body, from other congregations. For example, local Lutheran churches are responsible to a higher governing authority. The people of the local Lutheran church agree as part of their association to submit themselves to that authority particularly in things of doctrine.
I don’t mean to single out Lutherans. Southern Baptists submit to governing bodies too. They would deny it vehemently, but each local church claiming to be Southern Baptist is likely a member of a local regional association which is associated with a larger district convention which in turn is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptist churches adopt the creeds of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Denominationalism” is the advocacy of separation into religious denominations.
In the previous message three reasons are given why “Denominationalism” is wrong.
- First it is not scriptural. There is nothing in scripture that leads me to conclude believers are to divide themselves into categories.
- Second, it is anti-scriptural (e.g., Jn 17:20-23; 1Co 1:10-13; 3:3-4). It is a practice that goes against the clear meaning of what scripture does teach.
- Last, it is harmful to the cause of Christ (Jn 17:21). It discourages people from believing in Christ foremost instead leading them to cling to a loyalty to the denomination.
It is possible for people to simply be Christian! Christian belief does not require, in fact cannot require, an association with any man-made denomination.
Jesus set the example and that is what we’ll examine today. We are instructed to follow Him. By doing so we can clearly see we are members of His Body; His Bride without the added burden of being associated with any denomination.
THE EXAMPLE JESUS HAS SET FOR US
Jesus was born at a time of great upheaval in the Israelite nation. This was the time of silence. God last spoke to them by way of Malachi and then for 400 years He said nothing.
What was the religious climate of His day; His time as Jesus?
When Jesus came to this earth, the Israelites were living under the Law of God as given by Moses. Under that Law God had not made any provision for the division of His people into religious sects or parties.
Yet, by the time of Jesus, the Jews had formed several distinct religious parties:
- Pharisees (somewhat conservative). We might associate fundamentalists of today in this category. I am not saying conservative believers are Pharisitical, but maybe….
- Sadducees (very liberal, the “modernists” of their day). We might look at Unitarian churches or United Methodist or Anglican churches in this light. I am not saying these believers are Sadducees, but we must admit these denominations adopt very modern doctrines.
- Essenes (radical isolationists). I cannot think of a current church association that would fit this kind of radical and isolationist category. I am sure there are some that believe their way is the only way; perhaps Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists.
- Herodians, Zealots (political religionists). This was difficult to find a current day equivalent, but there is one. The World Council of Churches is a denomination of denominations. This body’s larger purpose when you filter through all the verbiage is purely global politics. And, the focus of this organization is the capitulation of Israel to the world.
It was assumed that all who were serious about religion during the time of Christ’s life on earth would be associated with one of these groups.
Let’s look at THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS…
Jesus belonged to none of these groups. He was never of the world and always bound to God, The Father. Jesus did nothing that The Father did not command Him. Jesus was simply an Israelite. The Law of Moses was still in effect. The rites and rituals still had authority in every Israelite’s life. Jesus was not excluded. In fact, Jesus taught all to maintain and adhere to the Law.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus taught, “Simply be an Israelite.” Nothing more and nothing less. Keep the Law and teach the Law. Do that and be considered “great in the kingdom of heaven.”
How could we classify Jesus today? WHAT WOULD JESUS BE TODAY? Which denomination would He associate with? Would Jesus associate Himself more with Southern Baptists or Catholics? Would He be a Methodist more than a Lutheran? Do you suppose He would worship God with more enthusiasm in an Assembly of God or at a Church of Christ?
Think on what is about to be said. If Jesus is simply an Israelite then would He not be simply a Christian today? The Apostles came to be called Christians.
And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
The example Jesus set is clear. Be what God has always intended under the Law; that is the “law of Christ.”
1 Corinthians 9:21
To those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law;….
The disciples were simply Christians and that is what we should be; simply Christian. Paul was striving to teach those not encumbered by The Mosaic Law to submit to the law of Christ; believe and be baptized. Baptized, here, meaning to become fully associated with the message; the Gospel message.
Not only should we be content with being “called” Christians, we should also be concerned with “just being Christians”. NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS!
But how can we be sure that we are simply Christians? How do we know we are members of the church we read about in the New Testament?
Let’s examine THE LORD’S CHURCH IN THE FIRST CENTURY A.D.
The Lord’s Church is PROMISED BY JESUS. Jesus said He would build HIS church.
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Greek renders the English word “church” as “ekklesia.” Ekklesia means “a called out group, an assembly, a congregation.” Jesus, therefore, promised to create His church with “the called out ones.”
Are you a believer? Isn’t it a great joy in your heart at this moment that now you know Jesus created a church of those called out of the world? And, YOU ARE A PART OF IT!
The Lord’s Church is ESTABLISHED THROUGH THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL.
How are we called? What does it look like? How will we know it to be to us? According to the apostle Paul, we are “called” by the gospel of Christ.
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is by the Gospel message taught by the Disciples. God knew from the beginning who would respond to the Holy Spirit’s wakening in our hearts. God knew by the message that Jesus lived, died and was resurrected from the grave; the Gospel message!
On the first Pentecost after the ascension of Christ, we see by preaching the gospel Peter “called out” those who were willing to express their faith in Jesus.
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them..
Three thousand were added. Gladly they responded in faith. Three thousand repented and were baptized. Into what? Or, better into Whom?
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
They were being baptized; recognizing, associating with the Gospel message of salvation. They were added into the church; Christ’s Church!
That day of Pentecost was the beginning of the “EKKLESIA” of Christ. The calling out started that day. This group; the called out ones was created by the preaching of the Gospel; by the hearing of it; and by the acceptance of it.
The Church; the simple Christian church EXPANDED THROUGH THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL.
The church’s early roots were in Jerusalem. The Israelites returned to their homelands from Jerusalem after the Passover and subsequent Pentecost Feasts. Groups of men took the Gospel message with them and preached it at their respective home towns.
The Gospel spread by preaching, by hearing it and by responding to it. Groups of people in these towns began to meet together becoming local churches. This is not to be confused with the Church universal, but local congregations of “called out ones” meeting to worship God.
An example is seen in Paul’s first missionary journey when many new local churches were launched; established for the purpose of worshiping God.
And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith and saying, “ We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in Whom they had believed.
Paul preached the Gospel to them. It was heard. It was responded to. A local church was formed. Elders were established and the simplicity of the local church moved forward. By simply teaching the gospel of Christ, a local church was formed when those who obeyed the gospel joined together in their work and worship.
The local church was EDIFIED THROUGH THE APOSTLES’ DOCTRINE.
Though united in Christ, these local churches were independent of any human association or federation of churches. Each church was directed by Christ through the Apostles; the Holy Spirit inspired Disciples. The Disciples taught the local churches how to worship together and to work with one another.
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.
Sometimes this teaching by the apostles was done directly and at other times by appointed emissaries as we read in.
1 Corinthians 4:17
For this reason I sent Timothy to you….
Just as often, the teaching was done through the epistles or letters written by the apostles. The letters would make a circuit. For example a letter written to the Ephesians would make its way to Ephesus by way of several other churches. At each stop it would be copied before being sent on to its terminus.
When we see what the Bible tells us about the Lord’s church, we learn that by responding to the gospel and then paying close heed to the “apostles’ doctrine” (cf. Ac 2:42), people in the first century were able to be Christians only, without all the confusion prevalent today.
But is it possible for us to do this today? Can we break away from all the traditions that separate us? Can we set aside the rules of men and unite again as a simple Christian church. YES! And here is how.
Let’s examine THE WAY OUT OF RELIGIOUS DIVISION.
Let’s get back to the basics. ACCEPT THE CALL OF THE GOSPEL. Remember, Christ calls us into His ekklesia (church) through the gospel. We can take the first step and obey the instructions given on that day of Pentecost. “Repent and be baptized.” Stop sinning against God and make it known you are SUBJECT to the Gospel message. Repent and be baptized THEN RECEIVE salvation.
Forgiveness of sin is the first sip of grace from the pool of God’s grace. Only then can we count ourselves “added” to the Church; the simple Church of Christ!
It is important to FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF THE EARLY CHRISTIANS. The early Christians continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. They joined no other religious organization, and NEITHER SHOULD WE! By being in Christ, we are automatically united with all others who are in Him!
As members of the Lord’s church, we should study carefully the New Testament description of the church that continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. The doctrines are found in God’s Holy Word. The doctrines are found in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles which follow it.
It is here we will find instruction from the Lord’s apostles on HOW:
- To worship the Lord acceptably,
- To be organized as local congregations according only to Scripture,
- To live and work together as Christians, spreading the gospel of Christ through word and example
Because we have confidence the apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit, we are sure their instructions were exactly what Jesus wanted them to be! When we duplicate the early churches by following the apostles’ instructions, we will simply be “Christians”, and we can be certain the Lord is pleased with us.
Jesus said to His apostles about those who would receive or reject their instructions:
“He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”
Simply being a Christian, and duplicating a New Testament congregation is not as difficult as one might think. There are literally thousands of such congregations throughout the world. There is such a church in your community; a local church responding to the Gospel and adhering to the doctrines of the Apostles.
If your church is denominational I do not advocate you leave that church. They need you there. But, at the same time it is your responsibility to God to teach the truth in loving kindness.
By following Christ’s example; by listening and adhering to His Word; by practicing basic Christian doctrines we can be simply Christian. We can free ourselves of traditions of men. We can return to service without religious confusion. We can be the “called out ones” apart from the religion of men that tries to dominate the world today.
Do you want to be simply a Christian, a member of the Lord’s church we read about in the New Testament? If so, then I plead with you to first render obedience to the gospel of Christ as proclaimed by Peter and all the apostles: Believe and be baptized; become one with Christ Jesus and know the Gospel message!
You have the assurance of God’s Word that you will then be added by the Lord Himself to His church. Following that you have the responsibility to learn and follow the apostles’ doctrine as you serve the Lord Jesus in your life.
If you have not yet responded to the commands of the gospel it is my prayer you will do that today.
“Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” – Ac 2:41