Most religious people are quite familiar with the concept of denominationalism. They understand a denomination to be a part of Christendom at large, and for the most part, they see no essential difference from one denomination to the next. All are equally related, they assume, both in their relationships to each other, as well as in their relationship to Deity.
When someone, whose only idea of religion is denominational in scope, encounters a member of the churches of Christ (someone who is just a Christian), the question usually arises: "What denomination are you? Where and what is your church's governing body? What are your creeds or statements of faith?" To some Christians these questions are perplexing. How do you convey to someone only familiar with a denominational approach to religion that the body (or church) of Christ is not a denomination? To simply claim that the church of Christ is not a denomination might alarm our querier: "Is the church of Christ a cult? Is it a world religion (e.g. Hindu, Islam, et. al.)? What is it?"
You might try to respond by saying that the church you are a member of is "the one you read about in the Bible" or "the same as the church in Acts" or "is like the church in Jerusalem (or Ephesus, Antioch)." And you would be right, of course. But what would your denominational friend understand from such answers? Would he really understand the unique nature of the blood-bought body of Christ? Would he suddenly appreciate the passages you hold dear that uphold simple undenominational Christianity like Matthew 16:18 ("I will build my church"), Acts 2:47 ("the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved"), Ephesians 1:22-23 (cf. Col 1:18, 24 "the church, which is His body") and Ephesians 4:4 ("there is one body"). Not likely.
A more thorough tactic would involve presenting a comprehensive overview of the new testament's teaching concerning the true nature of the church. That would predictably take a great deal of time, which your friend is probably not willing to grant you. So what's the answer to the oft asked questions "is the church of Christ a denomination" and "what denomination is the church of Christ?" While there are certainly other approaches you might take, consider these three simple truths:
1. Only the enemies of Christ, or those ignorant of scriptural teaching relative to the church, refer to the church of Christ as denominational in character.
Though the actual term "denomination" is not used in the new testament, the same idea is seen in the terms "sect" (or sectarian) and "heresy," which do appear (from the Greek term "hairesis"). The term "sect," in addition to being used with reference to the Sadducees (Acts 5:17) and the Pharisees (Acts 15:5; 26:5), is used three times with reference to the church.
First, it was used in this manner by a certain orator, Tertullus, who had come from Jerusalem with Ananias, the high priest, to Caesarea to appear before Felix and present a case against Paul. In doing so he referred to Paul as a "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5).
Second, in the context of Paul's refutation of the charges brought against him by Tertullus, he referred to the church as "heresy" (Acts 24:14 - KJV, "sect" - NKJV). He did so, however, only in reference to what "they" (Tertullus, Ananias and the elders) called the church. In the same context Paul refers to the church simply as "the way."
Third, when Paul landed in Rome and had opportunity to live in his own rented house (Acts 28:16, 30), he called the Jewish leaders in Rome to teach them about Christ. Though they never received letters from Judea concerning Paul, nor heard anything negative from Jews who traveled from there, they said concerning the church: "for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere." (Act 28:22)
These are the only three times that the church, as a whole, is ever directly referred to as sectarian (or denominational) in character (Note: refs to "heresies" in 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Pet 2:1 can refer to errors/divisions within local congregations rather than to the church as a whole being heretical, or sectarian). One was used by an enemy of the church and truth (Tertullus, Ananias and the elders from Jerusalem). The second was used by Paul, but only in referring to what enemies of the truth said about the church. And the last was used by Jewish leaders ignorant of Paul (and, obviously, the church), but already informed about the controversial nature of the church. None of these usages is reflective of Divine thought concerning the church.
2. The scriptures, via its inspired writers, warn against sectarian teaching and practices.
When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he denounced them for numerous errors. In the context of dealing with their problems relative to the Lord's supper, for example, Paul spoke of the "divisions" among them (1 Cor 11:18), and said that such "heresies" (vs 19 - KJV, "factions" - NKJV) "must" be in order to allow for the recognition of those who are approved. The term "heresies" in verse 19 is the same term translated as "sect" in the passages cited above in Acts. Heresies, or sectarian doctrines and practices (the denominational concept if you will), are thus condemned by Paul.
Furthermore, note the use of the word "divisions" in verse 18. This term comes from the Greek term "schisma" (i.e., schism), which Paul seems to use as parallel and/or synonymous with the term "heresies" or "factions" (Gr.- hairesis) in 11:19. It is the same term found in 1 Corinthians 1:10 where Paul condemns "divisions" (Gr.-schisma) and encourages unanimity in mind, judgment and speech (cf. Gal 5:20). Paul uses the same term in 1 Corinthians 12:25 where he discusses the controversy over spiritual gifts and where he said "that there should be no schism in the body."
Paul, in Galatians 5:20, and Peter, in 2 Peter 2:1, also condemn "heresies" (Gr.-hairesis): first, as one of the works of the flesh (cf. Gal 5:19), and second, in warning the churches about false teachers.
It is obvious from these passages, that the new testament denounces anything and everything that is remotely related to the ideas inherent in denominational, or sectarian, practice and teaching.
3. The scriptures always present God's intended message about the nature of the church in a positive way, a way that demonstrates its uniqueness and its non-denominational nature.
There are so many passages that reflect this theme that it would be impossible to cite all of them, but consider the following few examples from Ephesians.
a. The church exists "according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (3:11). There has never been a time when the church did not exist in the mind of God.
b. The church is the body of Christ (cf. 1:22-23; Col 1:18, 24; cf. Eph 4:4; 1 Cor 12, Rom 12). The intimacy of the head/body illustration concerning Christ and the church entails inherent closeness not found in any other religious relationship.
c. The church is the culmination of all things being gathered together in Christ (1:10). The law of Moses, the psalms and the prophets all spoke of its coming (cf Lk 24:44ff), and Christ, its founder (Mt 16:18; Eph 2:20), was the end (goal) of the law (cf. Rom 10:4; Gal 3:24ff).
d. "In Christ" (i.e., in His body, the church-cf. 1:22-23) are all spiritual blessings (1:3), including acceptance by God (1:6), redemption and the forgiveness of sins (1:7), an inheritance (1:11) and the seal of the Holy Spirit of promise (1:13). There are no spiritual blessings outside of the body, or church, of Christ (cf 2:12).
e. God's wisdom is made known by the very existence of the church (3:10). Paul told the Corinthians that "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Cor 2:9, citing Isaiah). Paul speaks of "the wisdom God in a mystery" (2:7), language similar to Ephesians 3:8-11 and 5:29. The church is thus a declaration of God's infinite wisdom.
f. God is glorified in the church by Christ Jesus (3:21). That God is glorified in this manner (i.e. by the church in Christ) is proof of the uniqueness of the body of Christ. No glory is brought to God by means of denominations that exist without scriptural authority (cf Mt 15:13; Ps 127:1).
g. Christ is the head of the church (5:23), and the church is subject to Christ (5:24). Christ only has one body, His body-the church. He is, therefore, only head over one body, and savior of only those in that body, the church. Only the church he died for is truly subject to him. That all religious groups exist without his authority confirms they are not subject to Christ. It is inconceivable, even impossible, for any unauthorized religion (including all "world" religions and all denominations) to legitimately claim to be subject to Christ.
h. Christ loved the church and gave himself for it (5:25, 29). Jesus died for only one body. He did not die for any other, nor does He love any other in the way He does His body.
i. The church will one day be presented to Christ pure and without blemish (5:27; cf Rev 19:7-9). On the day of judgment, the tares (including all false religions resulting from error that has been sown) will be separated from the wheat (cf. Mt 13:24ff), and only the righteous will stand (cf Mt 25:46).
j. The nature of husband and wife is an earthly approximation of the relationship between Christ and His church (5:32). No closer relationship exists among mankind than the husband-wife relationship, yet the one between Christ and His bride is greater. It is from eternity. It required his death. It will be through eternity.
To add to these references, study need only be made of the terms used by God to designate both His kingdom/church and His followers: (1) the church is a kingdom (Mt 16:18-19; Col 1:13), a bride (Eph 5:22ff; Rev 19:7ff), God's church (1 Cor 1:2), Christ's church (Mt 16:18; Rom 16:16), the house of God (1 Tim 3:15), a building of God (1 Cor 3:9; Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:4ff), a temple of God and of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), the church of the firstborn (Heb 12:23), a city of God (Heb 12:12:22; Rev 3:12, 21:1ff), and many more; and (2) members of Christ's church are His brethren (Heb 2; Rom 8:29, 12:1), disciples (Acts 11:26), Christians (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16), children of the kingdom (Mt 13:38), children of the Father and sons, or sons of God (Rom 8:14; 1 Jn 3:1; Gal 4:5-6), heirs of the promise and Abraham's seed (Gal 3:29), faithful (Eph 1:1), and many more.
Certainly these designations, in addition to the references from Ephesians, indicate the true nature of the church, or body, of Christ. It is not now, nor has it ever been, referred to as a denomination with divine approval. To represent it as such, either willfully or ignorantly, is to misunderstand and/or misrepresent God and His inspired word. Let us strive to do our best to speak of the church in scriptural terms and refer to it using scriptural ideas (cf. 1 Pet 4:11). In doing so we bring glory to God who planned it, and to His Son who died for it. We will also help those around us, young and spiritually immature Christians and the world as well, come to a better understanding of this glorious body.
[Note: Lexicographers often note the relationship between the terms translated as sect/heresy (hairesis - frequency 9, all listed above) and the terms translated as choose (from haireomai - Phil 1:22; 2 Th 2:13; Heb 11:25), chosen (hairetizo - only in Mt 12:18 ) and heretic (hairetikos - only in Titus 3:11). The idea of choice, or choosing a certain course of thought and action, when such choice is one that varies from a true tenet of faith is seen to be heresy, heretical and one who makes such a choice is a heretic. Choice, or freedom of the will, is inherent in all decisions, but choosing something other than what God wants is sectarian (e.g. Deut 11:26; 30:19). Choosing, of our own free will, to be submissive to God's truth is never sectarian. To confuse truth with sectarian teaching and practice, or to call truth sectarian, is tantamount to choosing error, and is itself heretical, or sectarian.]
By Jody L. Apple
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