For many years now Christianity has been associated with denominationalism in the eyes of many people in the world. Many continue to participate in denominational organizations; some decry the existence and maintenance of such organizations. What is denominationalism, and how did it develop? Should Christianity be denominated? What should be our posture toward denominationalism?
A denomination is a kind of classification; it is generally used these days to describe different types of dollar bills or different kinds of churches. As it relates to churches, a “denomination” is a type of a sect; in denominationalism, a sense of legitimacy is conferred upon each denomination in a sense that does not necessarily exist with a sect.
Since the days of the Apostles many arose and taught doctrines contrary to the ways of the Gospel and led people astray; for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, any such group which abandoned the proclamation of the Gospel was known as a sect, and its adherents condemned as heretics (from the Greek hairesis, “divisions” or “sects”). To this day, many within denominations will condemn other groups who have pursued similar ideas to those earlier “heretics” as “cults,” and do not consider them within the “accepted bounds” of the definition of what makes a “Christian”: Latter-Day Saints, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. In general, over time, most such sects either entirely dissipated or faded into obscurity. After the Reformation, however, multiple different religious organizations professing Christianity arose, and this time they persevered: Roman Catholicism had already existed, and to it were added Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Mennonite organizations by 1600. All of these groups would experience their own reform movements, and would give birth to entirely new organizations by 1800: Pietists from Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Reformed groups from Calvinism, Methodists, Religious Society of Friends, and Baptists from the Anglicans, and the Amish from the Mennonites. Most of these groups would undergo even more divisions afterward.
During this time the call sounded forth to get away from this kind of confusion and to find unity as Christians by following what God had established in Christ according to the New Testament, and we can certainly understand why. All of these different groups claimed to represent faithful teaching in Christ, and yet they disagreed with one another, and all maintained loyalty to their particular tradition and champions from the past. Some heeded the call to restore New Testament Christianity; the majority stayed within these various denominational organizations.
Denominationalism, therefore, developed under a very specific set of circumstances: all of these various organizations claimed to represent the Church of Christ, and most people attempted to make sense of how this was possible by considering them all denominations of the whole: just like a $10 dollar bill and a $20 dollar bill are denominations of currency, both having equal legitimacy even though distinct in value, so most in the Western world considered the various churches of “Christendom” as having equal legitimacy even though they maintained distinctive teachings. The full flower of this attitude has come forth in our own time with the rise of sectarian ecumenism: Christian denominations are now seen by most as simply different flavors of Christianity, considering the United Methodist Church and the Southern Baptist Church to be akin to the church in Corinth or the church in Ephesus.
Denominationalism and all forms of sectarianism are foreign to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. Paul chastised the Corinthians for developing parties among them favoring various preachers: “I am of Apollos,” “I am of Cephas,” I am of Paul,” and exhorted them to have the same mind and judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21). In the same letter Paul made it known that he taught the same teachings in every church (1 Corinthians 4:17): while churches in the world of the New Testament featured different groups of people in different areas from different cultures and backgrounds, they all were to share in the same faith in Christ as revealed once for all (cf. Jude 1:3). Different teachings were advanced in the days of the Apostles, and the Apostles stood to resist them firmly, warning that those who adhered to them would fall from grace, or be considered as antichrist (cf. Galatians 1:6-5:13, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 6:1-10, 2 Peter 2:1-22, 1 John 2:18-27, 4:1-4, 5:1-4, 2 John 1:6-10, Jude 1:3-21). Instead, Paul affirmed the existence of one body of Christ, and one faith, just as there is one Lord and one God (Ephesians 4:4-6). God has made them into one body through the work Jesus accomplished on the cross, making one man out of Jewish and Gentile people, killing the hostility among them (Ephesians 2:11-22). Christians must strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3); contentions, divisions, and sects work against this unity, and are considered works of the flesh, and those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).
Denominationalism and sectarianism, therefore, are not to be named among those who would serve Jesus faithfully according to what He made known through His life and through His Apostles. God is one in relational unity, and desires relational unity with and among His people (John 17:20-23); denominational sectarianism is thus of the world, and not of Christ. Christians do well to be of one mind and one judgment in the truth, as Jesus is the truth (John 14:6, 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10): the truth is not the opposite of what “denominations” teach. Nothing is true or false because a denomination of Christianity teaches it or rejects it; if our goal is to simply argue against those in denominations, we become a sectarian group ourselves, and prove no better than that which we resist. Thus, even those who would stand against denominationalism must take care lest they become as sectarian and equally condemned!
It would seem that denominationalism is quickly losing legitimacy in the twenty-first century. Many are recognizing that truth is found in God in Christ, and do better to serve Him outside of denominational organizations which developed at certain times in opposition to other views and ideas. While it is good to see so many leaving such organizations, it is important for those within them to make sure they are also leaving behind any teachings or practices which prove inconsistent with what God has made known in Christ in Scripture, setting aside the relics of past arguments and disputations. Sectarianism and denominationalism can never be the way forward in Christ; instead, we must find unity in God in Christ, and not through adherence to one divided group among many in the world. May we jointly participate with one another in faith according to what God has made known in Jesus, and find eternal life in Him through the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry