Anyone who has only a casual interest in religion recognizes that hundreds of different so-called Christian denominations exist today. Estimates have placed the number of religious denominations in the world to be around 1,200. The question we wish to consider this morning is this: Which denomination has the right to exist? This is not an academic question. It is extremely relevant because it’s not unusual to see signs exhorting people to “go to the church of your choice.” Those who erect these signs may have good intentions and they might be trying to encourage people to worship God. But they fail to understand that the Bible never encourages us to go to the church of our choice. Let me say that again: The Bible never invites anyone to attend the church of his choice. Instead, the Bible continually urges us to respect and become part of the church of God’s choice! Today, multitudes of denominations offer a wide variety of methods to worship God. As a matter of fact, our society has developed the attitude that all of these denominations are good and that we are free to go shopping for a religious experience (or church) in the same way we can go shopping for clothes at either Wal-Mart or Sears.
Instead of selfishly trying to find a church to fulfill our personal desires, we should be searching the scriptures to see how we can worship and serve God in a manner that will be pleasing to him. Most people have grown so accustomed to modern denominationalism that they believe the apostles must have been joined to particular denominations. Let me ask you; were the apostles and early disciples members of denominational churches? Imagine this if you can: Peter as a Roman Catholic, Paul as a Methodist, James as a Seventh Day Adventist, John as a Mormon, Matthew as a Baptist, James as a Presbyterian, Judas (not Iscariot) as a Pentecostal Holiness, Andrew as a Jehovah’s Witness, Thomas as a Jew for Jesus, Philip as a Quaker, Simon as a Unitarian, Bartholomew as a Lutheran, and Judas Iscariot — well, he thought one church was as good as another.
If this sounds bizarre to you, how do you think it sounds to the Lord? Today’s denominational preachers would not even claim the apostles joined any denomination. Even among the denominations, it is common knowledge that not one of them is mentioned in the Bible. The attitude of most people, however, is that one denomination is as good as another. Frankly, this is a lazy and cowardly excuse to keep from studying the Bible and standing on something as firm as God’s Word. To anyone who has read the Bible it ought to be obvious that the Bible does not teach all the conflicting denominational doctrines taught today. Neither does the Bible teach the multitudes of church organizations, such as synods, councils, and conventions that men have erected. And if they can’t be found in the Bible, where did they come from? And more to the point, do any of them have a right to exist? The only way any religious body not found in the Bible can have the right to exist is for man to have the same authority as God. God has revealed everything we need to know about the church in the Bible. Peter wrote in 2 Pet. 1:3 that God by “his divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by glory and virtue.” And since this is true, there is nothing left for man to dream up or invent, because God has already covered everything in the Scriptures, which is his divine power according to Rom. 1:16. When we see any religious teaching or practice, honesty demands that we ask where it is found in the Bible. If it can’t be found in the Bible, it has nothing to do with wither life or godliness.
In Matt. 16:18, Jesus told Peter, “I will build my church.” Then years later, Paul told the elders of the Ephesian church, “God purchased the church with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Since Christ purchased his church, he has the right to make the church into whatever he pleases. And whatever the Lord has made the church has been revealed in the Bible. Jesus is the head of the church according to Col. 1:18, which says Jesus “is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he may have the preeminence.” Therefore, as the head Jesus alone has the authority to establish the rules of the church, and each rule is outlined within the pages of scripture. The New Testament provides many examples of the existence of the Lord’s church in the first century. A few of these examples include the local congregations in Corinth, Rome, Jerusalem, Galatia, and the seven churches of Asia to which the book of Revelation was written. What kind of churches were these? Does the Bible speak of the Methodist church in Corinth, the Roman Catholic church in Philippi, the Baptist church in Antioch, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Jerusalem, and the Mormons in Ephesus? Just asking the question sounds silly, without even trying to give an answer. We all know this was not the situation of Christianity in the first century. As you read your Bible, you become well aware that none of these denominations existed while the apostles lived and preached. Therefore, why do we have this situation today? If they did not exist in the Bible, why do they exist today? This should trouble every man or woman who loves and respects the Bible as the word of God.
There is a principle found in the Bible to which we must give close attention. Just before his death, Moses reminded Israel in Deut. 4:2, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” Moses repeated this when he said in Deut. 5:32, “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” To make sure they did not misunderstand this warning, Moses again said in Deut. 12:32, “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” After Moses died, Joshua was given the responsibility of leading Israel. As he was given this authority, God warned him in Josh. 1:7, “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.” Centuries passed in the history of Israel, but this principle remained in force. Solomon wrote in Prov. 30:5–6, “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar.” As we reach the New Testament of Christ, we find this same policy in effect. The New Testament teaches that men do not have the liberty to add to or take from the written word of God. Paul warned the Galatians that neither they nor anyone else could change what the Spirit revealed to the Apostles. He told them in Gal. 1:8–9:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
Furthermore, the Bible ends with the warning (Rev. 22:18–19):
For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book
The meaning of these passages should be clear to all. God didn’t write the Bible in such a way that it takes a Ph.D. in theology to understand it, but it does take a little common sense and an honest heart. God plainly said that we are not to change his instructions in any way. We cannot add to what he has written nor are we free to ignore any of what is revealed in the scriptures.
All denominations claim they are teaching the Bible, but how serious are they in not adding to or taking away from the Bible? Every denomination, without exception, adds to the Word of God because the Bible doesn’t teach us to form denominations of any kind. By their very existence, denominations demonstrate man’s pride and arrogance. It takes a man full of pride to think he has the right to change the Lord’s church and the worship that God ordained. The New Testament describes the church the Lord established. It consists of local congregations that are ruled by elders and served by deacons who meet the qualifications given in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. There is no organization of any kind that is above local congregations. But in spite of what the Bible says about Christianity, men have added to God’s pattern by forming multitudes of organizations foreign to the Bible. It doesn’t matter to them that God never instructed us to have synods, conventions, or councils where representatives gather to determine what everyone is to believe and practice. This same careless attitude toward the Bible is the reason some churches have a special priesthood or practice some clergy/laity relationship among their members. They are practicing what they think is best instead of being content with the Bible, which teaches us that all Christians are members of the royal priesthood of Christ, according to 1 Pet. 2:9. This is this same attitude that causes other churches to establish a Board of Deacons to govern the local congregation while they ignore the fact that the Bible teaches that deacons serve under elders in the local church. The attitude that emboldens some to add to the Word of God is the same attitude that emboldens others to leave out sections of scripture. This same attitude causes much of the doctrinal fighting that occurs among denominations. Different groups select various passages that are their favorites and ignore others that don’t fit their preconceived beliefs. Instead of trying to understand how to use all of the Scriptures consistently, they pick and choose which ones they want to believe. This is the attitude that causes some to claim that since Jesus taught that no man can pluck us out of his hand in Jn. 10:28–29, then we can ignore warnings about falling from grace like Gal. 5:4. This same attitude causes many to claim that since Jesus offered salvation to the thief on the cross, we can ignore passages like Acts 2:38, which says, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” Instead of pitting scripture against scripture, we must be continually studying with the goal to teach the entire Bible consistently, instead of using just pieces of the Bible. We need the same attitude as David, who wrote in Psa. 139:17, “How precious also are your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!” David didn’t want only pieces of God’s thoughts. He wanted the sum (or the total) of them all. He wanted to add them all together and have the total amount.
The Bible says in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Where do we get the right to call ourselves Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, or any other name you hear in denominationalism? Are people not content to use Bible names? How do some among us have the gall to say, “I am of Luther,” by calling themselves Lutheran, when we can read of early Christians being severely rebuked for saying, “I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas,” in 1 Cor. 1:12? Can we not be content to simply be obedient to the Bible and call ourselves Christians? Those who teach that the many denominations and divisions are all good need to seriously meditate on the prayer of Jesus while he was in Gethsemane. In Jn. 17:20–21, Jesus prayed:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word; that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
Notice the reason Jesus gave for his desire that all believers be one. It was so the world may know that you have sent me. Those who follow Jesus should be so united that the world could look at them and know that the only explanation for their unity is that their claim is true. That is, the Father had indeed sent his Son to be our Savior. Instead of being a force able to change the world, all the denominational divisions have caused Christianity to become a joke in much of the world. The only way this situation will ever change is for all who claim to submit to the Lordship of Christ to become willing to lay aside all preconceived ideas and humbly come to the Lord on his terms without adding to or taking away from His Word.
But one of the most common claims heard from members of the various denominations today is, “we teach the Bible!” It is true that all churches, no matter what, quote from the Bible, at least on occasion, but do they really care about everything the Bible teaches? One subject that is rarely discussed among the modern churches is the idea of biblical authority. It is so rare that many do not even know what it is. Biblical authority is simply turning to the Bible for instructions concerning everything that is done in service to God. Too often, modern thinking does not consider this. Instead, people talk about what they want to do and what feels right to them. If we are serious about following all of the teachings of God’s Word, we will pay attention to the rebuke Jesus delivered to the religious people of the first century when he said in Matt. 15:8–9, “These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” It isn’t enough to quote from God’s Word as the first century Jews did. We must be careful to follow all of God’s Word without perverting any of it with the teachings of men. This is something that God has incessantly warned men about throughout the ages. Remember the passage we noted a moment ago written by Moses in Deut. 4:2, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” We also considered Rev. 22:18–19, which says:
For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
There can be absolutely no doubt God intends for us to follow his Word without alteration. His revelation to mankind is complete and found only within the Scriptures so that “the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If God’s Word can make us perfect and if we then teach doctrines of men, our worship becomes vain.
Also, if we are not to add to or take away from God’s Word, where does that put all of the denominations today? They are unable to exist without either adding to or taking from the Bible. In the New Testament, we can read where Jesus said he would build his church in Matt. 16:18. Also we can read of the miraculous beginning of the church in Acts 2. Furthermore, we noted that the church is the body of Christ. Col. 1:18 says that Christ “is the head of the body, the church.” Now stay with me on this. The church is the body and the scriptures tell us that there is only one body. Eph. 4:4 says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling.” Since the Bible tells us that there is only one body, then it is easy to understand that there is only one church, because the body is the church. This one church is the only church to which God adds the saved according to Acts 2:47. There is not even a hint in the Bible that God wants even one denomination to exist. He neither promised, nor planned, nor built one denomination. Paul said in Eph. 3:10–11 that God established the church according to his eternal purpose. Nothing is said about denominationalism being according to God’s plan or purpose. God delivered complete instructions concerning the organization and work of his church in the Bible. And since we cannot add to or take from the Bible, who gave any man the authority to build another church after the Lord purchased his church with his blood? Who authorized men to amend or change the work and worship of the church to reflect denominational wishes? The history of every denomination is known and a beginning date can be traced for each one of them, and they all started centuries after the Lord began his church! It is vanity and arrogance to the highest degree on the part of man to think that he has the right to establish a church different from the one the Lord built.
Everything about the Lord’s church is revealed in the Bible. Even the simple fact that the Lord’s people were called Christians is something we should remember. To a great many people, what one is called religiously is of little importance. Yet this is something that evidently is meaningful to God, because Acts 11: 26 says, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.”
Also, when Paul was teaching Agrippa, it becomes evident that Paul was trying to persuade the man to become a Christian. Agrippa said to Paul in Acts 26:28, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.” I say this just as kindly as I know how, Paul did not try to persuade Agrippa to join the church of his choice. He was not trying to persuade Agrippa to become a Methodist or a Baptist. He told Agrippa nothing about Roman Catholicism or Presbyterianism. Frankly, the Bible never says that the Lord’s people were ever called Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, or any of the hundreds of titles being advanced today. All of these are man-made distinctions that are foreign to God’s Word.
In the Corinthian church, some tried to call themselves after Apollos, Peter (Cephas), and Paul. This was the first effort to denominate believers. And the apostle Paul strongly rebuked them for this. In the beginning of his letter to them, Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 1:10:
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Paul went on to expose their denominating error by telling them in verses 11–13:
For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, I am of Paul, or I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas, or I am of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
This passage is a rebuke to all of the denominational divisions existing today. All who are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ will call themselves after Christ. They will not call themselves Lutheran to identify themselves with Martin Luther. They will not call themselves Episcopal or Presbyterian after their forms of church government, they will call themselves after their Lord and will be known as Christians. They will not call themselves Baptists after John, they will be known as Christians. Also, why have some churches, such as the Roman Catholics, set up systems of organizations that imitate political governments rather than follow God’s pattern? Why do other churches send delegates to synods, conventions, or councils to discuss the activities of their church, even though none of these practices can be found in God’s Word? The answer is simple to those who are willing to acknowledge the truth. All of the denominations have come from men who have not been content with what God has revealed, but instead, are willing to add to or take away from the Bible and make the church into something they prefer better.
The Jews did the same thing in the first century when they divided into different groups of their own making. Many were Pharisees, and others were Sadducees. Still others chose to be Essenes and some were Zealots. While these different factions were common among the Jews in the first century, God authorized none of these groups. God taught Israel what he wanted through Moses, but the Jews ignored what God instructed. They all claimed to be following God, but instead of simply being the Israelites that God commanded, they formed their own parties and none of them were right! Today, all of the denominations claim to be following God, but they ignore what God has taught us concerning his church. Instead, arrogant men take it upon themselves to form new churches instead of being content with the church that Jesus purchased with his own blood. If you are serious about not adding to or taking away from God’s Word, before you become part of any denomination, ask yourself, where is this denomination taught or authorized in the Bible? Once you search your Bible, you will discover than no denomination has the right to exist.
by J. R. Bronger Original air date: January 17, 1999
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