By Cecil Willis
Denominationalism is a synonym for division. The world of denominations consists of several hundred warring, discordant sects. In sectarianism there is no unity in name, organization, a doctrine or practice. But the Bible teaches that “variance, strife, seditions, heresies,” the inevitable ingredients of denominationalism, are works of the flesh, and ill prevent one from entering heaven (Gal. 5:19-21).
Usage of the Word “Church”
We hear much talk about a denominational “church.” The word church, in addition to referring merely to an assembly, is used in but two senses in the Bible. Sometimes it refers to the saved everywhere, the church universal (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22, 23). In other places it refers to all the saved in a given locality (1 Cor. 1:2).
When men speak of a particular denomination, say the Baptist Church, they do not mean to imply that all the saved throughout the world are in the Baptist church. They use the word “church” here to embrace less than is embraced by the church universal. But everyone knows that the expression “Baptist Church” is intended to embrace more than a congregation. The denominational usage of the word “church” embraces too little to be the New Testament church universal, and too much to be the New Testament church local. But these are the only two New Testament usages, other than assembly. Hence, the concept of a denominational church is foreign to the New Testament, and therefore unscriptural.
Christ’s Prayers and the Prayers of Men
There is a wide divergence between Christ’s prayers and the prayers of denominational men. Men sometime thank God that there are so many different denominations, one to fit the pleasure of nearly everyone. However, Christ prayed for his disciples “that they all may be one; as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou last sent me” (Jno. 17:21). Paul commanded that men must endeavor to “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). But when men thank God for denominationalism, they thank God for division and confusion (1 Cor. 14:33).
We sometimes speak of the “systems” of denominational error. But these errors are so conflicting and contradictory, that one can hardly call them a “system” of anything. If one man were to attempt to preach everything that denominationalism teaches, he would be adjudged insane, so inconsistent are the doctrines of sectarianism. These inconsistencies and divisions, Jesus declares, result in infidelity (Jno. 17:21).
Defenses of Denominationalism
So divergent are the prayers of Christ and denominationalism one would think none would attempt to defend such a divisive state. But half-hearted defenses have been made.
1. The Vine and the branches — Some think they see in the parable of the Vine and the branches authority for divisive religious organizations. But Jesus was talking about a “man” (Jno. 15:6), not denominations, when he said “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (Jno. 15:5). The fruit-bearing branches are individual disciples of the Lord, not differing denominations. By the way, did you ever see a vine that bore two hundred and fifty entirely different kinds of fruits?
2. Routes to heaven – Some defend the multiplicity of religious bodies as merely being different routes to heaven. Jesus declares himself to be “the way” to the Father (Jno. 14:6). Every other “way” is a way unto death (Prov. 14:12). If men could devise successful ways to go to heaven, then Christ died for naught (Gal. 2:21). If men could chart their own way to heaven, then Christ was not needed.
3. All denominations teach some truth — This claim is readily admitted. The more truth a particular denomination teaches the more apt it is to fool people. The better the counterfeit, the more people that will be fooled by it. But “some truth” is not enough to save people. The Devil tells “some truth.” An atheist might declare “some truth.” But the Bible teaches that salvation requires the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27; Rom. 15:19). The least admixture of the doctrines of men will damn one’s soul and invalidate one’s worship (Gal. 1:8, 9; Matt. 15:9). So “some truth” is not enough to save (Jno. 8:32). To say that denominationalism teaches “some truth” is to admit that it teaches “some error,” and error will damn.
4. There are good people in all churches — If one means that there are morally good men, or sincere people in all churches, this claim also is quickly admitted. But if some good people in a denomination justify the denomination, then we reply that there also are good people who belong to no denomination, and even some are “good” atheists. But mere human goodness, without the Lord’s blood and the Lord’s church, cannot save. Cornelius and Saul of Tarsus are good examples that show that just being good and doing what one thinks is right are insufficient (Acts 10:1, 2, 22; Acts 23:1; 26:9; Phil. 3:6; 1 Tim. 1:15).
5. One church is a good as another — This is perhaps the most successful lie that the Devil has ever put in circulation. One church started by man is as good as another church started by man. But no church started by man is as good as the church planned by God and pitched not with men’s hands (Eph. 3:8-11; Heb. 8:1,2). I have often wondered why people who argue that one church is as good as another inevitably pick one that man started to the rejection of the church of Christ. It seems they have something against the Lord’s church.
Just as the word of man is not as good as the word of Christ, so my friends, the churches of men are not as good as the church owned and built by Christ and over which He rules (Acts 20:28; Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1: 22, 23). The blood of Christ is in no other church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25); reconciliation unto God is in no other church (Eph. 2:16); salvation is in no other church (Acts 2:38-41, 47); and Christ is the Savior of no other church (Eph. 5:23).
Not only does the Bible condemn denominationalism on every count, even its chief proponents have condemned it too. Note what some have said:
Martin Luther, the great reformer and founder of the Lutheran church, said:
“I pray you to leave my name alone, and call not yourselves ‘Lutherans,’ but ‘Christians.’ Who is Luther? My doctrine is not mine. I have not been crucified for anyone. St. Paul would not permit that any should call themselves of Paul, nor of Peter but of Christ. How, then, does it befit me, a miserable bag of dust and ashes, to give my name to the children of Christ? Cease, my dear friends, to cling to these party names and distinctions; away with them all; let us call ourselves only ‘Christians’ after him from whom our doctrine comes.” (“Life of Luther,” by Stork, page 289.)
Dr. Charles H. Spurgeon, said by some to be the ablest Baptist preacher of all time, declared:
“I look forward with pleasure to the day when there will not be a Baptist living. I hope they will soon be gone. I hope the “Baptist” name will soon perish, but let Christ’s name last forever.” (“Spurgeon Memorial Library,” Volume I, page 168.)
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, condemned denominationalism with the following language:
“Would to God that all party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot; that we might all agree to sit down together as humble, loving disciples at the feet of a common Master, to hear his word, to imbibe his Spirit, and to transcribe his life into our own.” (“Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons,” Volume V, page 60.)The able Presbyterian commentator, Albert Barnes, gave the following reasons for opposing sectarianism:
“The existence of sects, and denominations, and contentions may be traced to the following causes: (1) The love of power, and they who have control of the consciences of men and of their religious feelings and opinions can control them altogether. (2) Showing more respect to religious teachers than to Christ. (3) The multiplication of tests, and the enlargement of creeds and confessions of faith. The consequence is that every new doctrine that is incorporated into a creed gives cause for those to separate who cannot accord with it. (4) The passions of men–their pride, and ambition, and bigotry, and unenlightened zeal. Christ evidently meant that his church should be one, and that all who were his true followers should be admitted to her communion and acknowledged everywhere as his true friends. And the time may yet come when this union shall be restored to his long-distracted church, and that while there may be an honest difference of opinion maintained and allowed, still the bonds of Christian love shall secure union of heart in all that love the Lord Jesus and union of effort in the grand enterprise in which all can unite–that of making war upon sin and securing the conversion of the whole world to God.”
Religious division (another way of saying denominationalism) is a work of the flesh. It is unscriptural, and the defense for it has been predicated upon human wisdom rather than on the Word of God. Its ablest proponents have condemned it, and longed for its demise. So do we.