The Path of Denominationalism: What Is a Denomination?

After having completed a study of denominations (accessible at astudyofdenominations.com), and after publicizing it within the Internet community, some people who assemble with a church of Christ responded to me and asked, “so, where’s your page on the Church of Christ denomination?” This kind of statement demonstrates that in the minds of these individuals, the “Church of Christ” is a denomination, in that regards no different from the rest of “Christendom.” Is it true that the Church of Christ is a denomination, just like the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, the Baptist denomination, and the multitude of other denominations in the world today? Let us begin a study on denominations in an attempt to see first what they are and what characteristics they share, and then later to examine what practices that are seen in churches of Christ that may lead to denominationalism.

First, we must ask: what is a denomination? Webster’s Dictionary defines it as the following:

name, designation; especially: a general name for a category; a religious organization uniting local congregations in a single legal and administrative body.

The dictionary gives us the first, and preeminent, definition of a denomination: a group of congregations that are bound together in a religious organization with an administrative body. When we read about the church in the New Testament, do we see such an organization? By no means! The elders of the church in Ephesus were told to shepherd their flock, not the flock of any other church (cf. Acts 20). While there was certainly kinship felt amongst members of different local congregations (e.g., Philippi and Thessalonica), there is no evidence that any group of congregations were legislated by some earthly head or administration. Therefore, even according to the dictionary definition of the term “denomination,” the Church that the Lord established is not a denomination.

Is organization, however, the only mark of a denomination? By no means! Let us now look at some characteristics of denominations that are not a part of the Church established by Jesus Christ:

  • Denominations will often regard the writings and deeds of a man or men in great esteem, often discussing them with or instead of Scripture. Many times these writings are actually considered Scripture or are considered to be binding statements of belief on all members of that denomination. Christians in the Lord’s Church are to adhere to the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone (cf. Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • Denominations will often have schools and ordination procedures in order to have control over those who would minister to their congregations. Christians in the Lord’s Church who desire to minister to congregations need only to understand the Bible and its message in order to do so (Romans 1:16).
  • Denominations, by their very nature, will often collect a portion of the treasury of the congregations in order to fund projects and events. Christians in the Lord’s Church give to the Lord’s Treasury, and the funds contained therein are to be spent or given wisely only by those entrusted to shepherd that local flock (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8-10).
  • Denominations hold to titles and names very often not found in Scripture; in this way, they resemble the erring Corinthians of 1 Corinthians 1:12-13 who named themselves often after men and not after God.

These are only a few generalizations of many characteristics that are marks of denominations and denominational attitudes. We see, then, that a denomination is really an organization established, without Scriptural authority, that often professes authority in some collective form that is also not seen in the Scriptures. We intend to examine certain practices that are seen in many churches of Christ today and how they demonstrate signposts on the path that leads toward denomination, and also, hopefully, a way to prevent more Christians from walking down that path.

ELDV

5 thoughts on “The Path of Denominationalism: What Is a Denomination?

  1. Not a very accurate definition of denomination (with all due respect to Webster’s) nor a good description of its characteristics. The definition would, for instance, exclude many Baptist and Pentecostal groups as there is little legal or administrative oversight over the member churches (SBC notwithstanding). Membership is voluntary. Denominations are better characterized as associations of like-minded churches.

    There is not a single mainstream Christian denomination that regards the writings of its spiritual ancestors as Scripture. Wesley’s writings are not Scripture to Methodists nor Knox to Presbyterians nor Calvin to Reformed nor Luther to Lutherans.

  2. I would also add that Acts provides several examples where the Apostles, as well as a Jerusalem Council, exercised authority over the churches, issuing directives that established orthodox faith (Acts 15). Indeed, the Epistles are, in themselves, examples of such authority. Even in respect to titles, we know that priest, bishop, presbyter, minister, elder, deacon, and pastor are all attested. Papa, equivalent to pope, is also found as a honorific in the Bible (Acts 7; 22; 1 Tim. 5:1-2). Paul clearly presents himself as a father in many instances and invites the churches to imitate him in this (1 Cor. 4:14-17; 2 Cor. 6:13; Gal. 4:19; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2,18; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1; 1Thess 2:11; Titus 1:4; Phm. 10).

    A common treasury to fund projects is attested in Acts. In fact, this is the reason the Apostles create the deaconate, to manage it for the community. It makes no sense to claim that the funds donated by churches to their denomination is not part of the “Lord’s Treasury.” That is a purely arbitrary statement on your part. The Bible clearly recognizes more than just the local church. There is considerable scholarship now pointing to early Christian associations, reflected even in the New Testament.

    Anyway… just a few quick thoughts to add…

  3. Although decentralized, the Churches of Christ are similar in every way to other denominations and, therefore, should be considered as such. This is very clearly reflected in the fact that you, e.g., travel around to various other Churches of Christ and assist in preaching, but only to other like-minded Churches of Christ. It is also my understanding that very frequently the evangelists and expenses of one church are supported by another. In other words, the Churches of Christ are quite aware of an association, however informal, of like-minded churches. What is all-the-more, these Churches of Christ are far more separatist and exclusivist in their thinking and attitude than most mainstream Christian denominations. Churches not part of their clique and Christians who are not members of the Churches of Christ are not regarded as real or, at best, faithful Christians; they are going to Hell.

    The Churches of Christ owe their establishment to the Stone-Campbell/Restoration movements. Their traditions, therefore, are, like most denominations, the product of men; all-the-more-so in the Churches of Christ because women do not have a leadership voice in the conservative churches. Moreover, because each church is autonomous and the evangelists and elders have primary responsibility for instruction, men continue to sustain the doctrinal/worship perspective of the Churches of Christ apart from the correction and discipline of a larger community of faith and body of Christ. Incidentally, how are your copious writings and pronouncements on nearly every matter under the sun any different than the writings of say Martin Luther or John Calvin (other than not being quite as learned–sorry, Ethan, I really don’t mean this as a slight, but rather simply as a statement of fact)? The churches where you teach/preach are taught what you think in the same way that Lutherans follow the teaching/preaching of Martin Luther. The only difference would be if you thought that your teaching was inerrant and a perfectly correct reflection of the Bible (something neither Luther nor Calvin believed, nor something the churches related to their teaching believe). If you don’t believe it is inerrant and perfectly correct, which I assume you don’t, then you must allow that the Churches of Christ, whose doctrinal outlook you reflect, could be in error. There are also several universities and colleges that sustain this doctrinal/worship perspective for both the most conservative of the groups (e.g. Florida College) and the more liberal (e.g., Pepperdine, Abilene).

    In their rejection of Scriptural titles (e.g. Bishop, pastor, priest) and the authority of a broader Christian community, the Churches of Christ are not emulating Scriptural practice any more than the churches that use non-Scriptural titles (e.g. Cardinal) and bind their communities into a single legal and administrative organization. Both traditions have evolved with distinctive practices reflecting their idiosyncrasies; neither perfectly reflects Scripture but neither is precluded by Scripture. The Bible simply does not mandate a definitive form of church governance. The only relatively clear legislation in a similar vein pertains to the governance of the Tabernacle/Temple community. Even there though, there are clear disagreements between Ezekiel, Chronicles, the Priestly and Deuteronomists on the organization of that community.

    1. Getting back to some of this…

      There’s a reason why the definition is as stated; denominations are marked by a level of organization beyond the individual congregation or even an informal understanding among local congregations. That’s the issue with denominations and denominationalism.

      The article does not claim that Lutherans think Luther is inspired or that Calvinists think Calvin is inspired; the article claims that their writings are held in high esteem, liberally quoted, commented upon, and frequently referenced, and so they are. This is done to maintain uniformity of interpretation– things are understood in terms of Luther’s and Calvin’s theology, when such things have no right to be.

      If my writings begin to be liberally quoted, commented upon, and frequently referenced as if I had some kind of spiritual authority, then I would rather stop writing entirely, for that is a complete bastardization of the point.

      There is no basis in the New Testament for the denominational organization as in existence today. The “common treasury” in Acts is, if I’m not mistaken, the “common treasury” of the church in Jerusalem, under the authority of the Apostles and then elders. The church in Antioch provides resources in a time of need in Acts 11 via Paul and Barnabas to the elders in Jerusalem– no indication that they were giving back to the “main headquarters” their contribution to the “common treasury.”

      As to titles, priest is never used in the New Testament as a title; all believers have access to God in Christ, as Peter declares in 1 Peter 2:5, 9. Presbyter, elder, pastor, and bishop all refer to the same office, as is evident in the Greek of 1 Peter 5:1-4, notwithstanding 1 Timothy 3:1-8, Titus 1:5-7, and Acts 20. Ministry was never limited to a professional class or even the diaconate. Your comment about “papa/pope” is utterly mystifying when the context of 1 Timothy 5:1 is considered: Paul is not even telling Timothy to call anyone those terms, but instead to honor older men (and women!) as one would fathers and mothers, younger men and women as brothers and sisters. Spiritual fatherhood is attested in a sense between Paul and those with whom he worked, but the very idea of turning it into a serious title runs afoul with and completely contrary to Matthew 23:8-9.

      Denominationalism was not the way the church was established in the first century and it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that God either intended for denominationalism or appreciated the existence of denominationalism.

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