The Apostles proclaimed the Gospel in its purity and simplicity. Soon after the forces of deceit and error wrought havoc in the world, resulting in the development of different doctrines and groups and thus the world of denominationalism. It is now for us to meet the forces of denomination in the spiritual battleground and resist them at every opportunity in every possible capacity.
Thus we might characterize the “anti-denominational” gospel. The anti-denominational gospel would not intrinsically deny anything God has made known in Christ yet places its emphasis on the doctrinal disagreements with those in greater Christendom. The anti-denominational gospel is understandable as a product of the Western world from around 1650 until 2000 in which society and culture at least nominally Christian, even though Christendom was divided into various denominational groupings. In such an environment many of the principles of the faith, especially in terms of daily practice, were agreed upon and not in dispute; thus emphasis was placed on those points of disagreement, particularly in matters of doctrine and church organization. As many began to recognize the importance of following Jesus as established in the pages of Scripture without reference to loyalty to a particular denomination or sect, the call to come out from the denominations was advanced. Those who maintained loyalty to denominational organizations and doctrines resisted the restoration plea, and the lines of dispute became hardened. Ever since the temptation of the anti-denominational gospel remains: to maintain a primarily polemic posture toward the Scriptures and those in the world who profess Jesus, and to understand everything in terms of what various denominations advance or teach.
Whenever and wherever the truth of what God has accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return has been preached, the forces of deceit and error have arisen to contradict and resist it. When Jesus made it known that Gentiles could receive the Gospel and remain Gentiles, zealous Jewish Christians insisted such would still need to submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 1:1-5:16). As the Gospel spread throughout the Roman world, others enamored with Greek philosophy denied Jesus’ bodily existence (cf. 1 John 4:1-10, 2 John 1:6-10). Paul, Peter, and Jude all warned Christians regarding the influence of the doctrines of demons and false teachers who would seek to lead the faithful astray (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-4, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, 2 Peter 2:1-20, Jude 1:1-23). Faithful Christians for generations have confessed the mystery of what God has done in Christ and the tensions which arise from a multi-dimensional, divinely ordained faith; in polemic argument there remains strong temptation to flatten out these truths, run to extremes, and seek to argue against an opponent more than to uphold the truth of God in Christ. Thus the story of Christendom has sadly become one of rancorous disputation and sectarianism, completely contrary to God’s eternal purpose for the church to embody perichoretic relational unity with God and among the people of God (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 3:10-11).
Christians ought not embody sectarianism yet ought to work together to uphold the truth of what God has done in Christ, since that truth is the foundation upon which all else rests (Ephesians 2:20-22, 4:1-4, 1 Timothy 3:15-17). Christians will therefore be called upon to resist the doctrines of demons and all that is false, correcting with patience those who are in error (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 2:14-26). While Christians must resist error to affirm the Gospel of Jesus Christ, such does not mean Christians ought to endorse the anti-denominational gospel.
The anti-denominational gospel poses many challenges for the Christian, not least of which involves its framing. There is no such thing as “denominational Christianity,” nor are there truly any “denominationalists”: no one would identify themselves as such. There remain many historic denominations of Christianity, a vestige of how Christendom ordered and reckoned itself for a few centuries between the Protestant Reformation and the modern day, but such a framework is woefully inadequate to describe the present condition of Christendom. Many people attend a given church without having much awareness of the particular doctrines or heritage of that denomination; for that matter, many individual churches have come to disagree with their denominational organization or its heritage. Such presumes participation in a congregation which maintains some kind of denominational affiliation: the twenty-first century has seen an explosion of “nondenominational” churches as a result of skepticism toward inherited authority and historic institutions and the advancement of Christian ecumenism. For many who profess Jesus doctrinal disputations seem functionally irrelevant; they find repulsive those who continually berate and denounce doctrinal opponents. We do better to get to understand what people believe as individuals, establish the point of agreement, point to the truth of what God has done in Christ, and from there explain how we are to work together to glorify God.
Furthermore, what makes a given doctrine or practice “denominational”? Effective arguments can be made with historical support to demonstrate how over time certain ideas developed that were contrary to what God has made known in Christ and then enshrined as dogma in many of the denominations of Christendom. According to the anti-denominational gospel, whatever is believed or practiced by those in denominations is thus rendered suspect. The problem with such doctrines or practices is not that denominations practice them; the problem is that God did not authorize them or commend them in Christ. Nothing is intrinsically right or wrong because of what various denominations believe and practice (or do not believe or practice); what is right or wrong is based in what God has made known in Jesus (Colossians 2:1-11). After all, every true doctrine and practice in the faith is believed and/or practiced by some denomination in Christendom; one could thus call almost any doctrine “denominational” by that standard. Preaching featuring the bulk of the concern of the Apostles in the first century, explanations of what God has done in Christ and exhortations toward faithful living, are maligned in the anti-denominational gospel as too “soft” and “something which could be preached in a denominational church,” as if a more universal applicability of the message somehow diminishes its importance or value. Far too often “denominational” becomes a catch-all boogeyman used not only to identify false doctrines but also cast aspersions on anything which might cause discomfort or seems different from what might have been originally heard and believed.
In resisting error Christians must make sure they uphold the Gospel of Jesus Christ and do not fall prey to anti-denominationalism. It is one thing to handle the truth rightly, compare the truth to various other doctrines, and to explain the truth in terms of what God has made known in Christ (2 Timothy 2:14-26); it is quite another to consider the truth as that which stands against the doctrines of denominations. We can benefit from looking at what the Scriptures teach with an apologetic/polemic lens but will invariably distort the truth of God in Christ if we look at the Scriptures only in terms of how to argue against those in opposition. Many times well-intended disciples of Jesus back themselves into an error or heresy in their attempt to resist and stand against an opposing error or heresy. The opposite of an error is most likely another error; we will not find the truth if all we are doing is reacting to a teaching or practice that is not consistent with what God has made known in Jesus. We must prove more circumspect in regards to the truth, perceiving a greater danger in the areas regarding which we may prove more ignorant or unaware than the manifest, evident danger which may present itself before us.
Jesus declared that we will know the faithful from the false by their fruits (cf. Matthew 7:15-20). The anti-denominational gospel bears diseased fruit because it places the emphasis of faith in the wrong place. Those who make anti-denominationalism the emphasis can easily become the anti-denominational denomination, a partisan sect not unlike those “of Christ” in Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12). The standard of judgment is misplaced: the Gospel is not about how right “we” are versus how wrong “they” have become, but that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, that all are corrupted in mind, body, and soul, and standing before God can only come through faith in God in Christ (Romans 3:20-28, 5:12-21). The Gospel of Jesus Christ will always resist false doctrines and prophets, including sectarians whose posture remains too ensconced in anti-denominationalism; the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return will continue to convict those who will hear it regarding their own errors, sins, and difficulties, and will exhort them above all things toward faithfulness to the Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6, Hebrews 4:12). May we resist the anti-denominational gospel and hold to the apostolic message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, and abide within God in Christ for all eternity!
Ethan R. Longhenry