by William J. Stewart
Having heard the confession of Peter, Jesus turned to him and said, “…on this rock I will build My church…” (Mt 16:18) In the first century, one could easily identify the church which Jesus promised – there was only one church. But, in the process of time, it has come to pass that there is now not one church, but in fact over 10,000 distinct denominational groups. Pick up any phone book or newspaper listing a church section, and you will immediately see the divisions which call themselves Christianity. What accounts for all these different groups? Why is there not still one church, as there was in the first century?
The word “denomination” is not in the Bible, but the concept is. The New Testament speaks of sectarianism, which is one and the same as denominationalism. Merriam-Webster defines denomination as “a religious organization uniting local congregations in a single legal and administrative body.” A sect is “a division or group based upon different doctrinal opinions and/or loyalties” (Louw/Nida, Greek-English Lexicon). Judaism of the first century was segmented. There were a few sects among them, two of which were the Sadducees (Acts 5:17) and the Pharisees (Acts 15:5). As one might expect, these did not get along, for they were divided over doctrinal issues (Acts 23:6-8).
After the Lord’s church began, the Jews considered it to be nothing more than another sect among sects. Paul’s accusers before Felix called him “…a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” (Acts 24:5). However, Paul did not concur with them about the church being a sect among sects. He responded, “…according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets.” (Acts 24:14) The church was not a sect of Judaism, but distinct, the covenant people of the New Testament. Years later, when Paul was in Rome, the Jews there likewise referred to the church as a sect of the Jews (Acts 28:22). However, when Paul spoke with them, he “…explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God…” (v 23). Again, the apostle spoke of the church as distinct from the sects of Judaism, even as the exclusive “kingdom of God”.
The English “sect” comes from the Greek hairesis. The same word is elsewhere rendered as “factions” (1 Corinthians 11:19) and “heresies” (Galatians 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1). The very inference of the word is that there is not only doctrinal division, but doctrinal error inherent to sectarianism. Truth is exclusive. There are endless ways which one might be wrong, but there is only one truth. When two persons or groups take opposing views on a given topic, only one can be right. If one is correct, the other must, of necessity, be wrong. Opposing views can both be erroneous, but two opposing views cannot both be right.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he rebuked their sectarianism ways (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). They had divided themselves after different names (denomination literally means breaking off after names) and teachings. Note the emphasis in the text on the need for doctrinal unity. What did the apostle link their divisiveness to? Just a few chapters later, he wrote, “…where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3) The apostle associated sectarianism with carnality. The end result of carnality is condemnation (Romans 8:5-8).
Denominationalism exists because people are following people rather than the Lord, and man made doctrines rather than the Bible. Though many will simply tell us that the various creed books, manuals, catechisms, confessions and the like only restate what is in the Bible, the division which exists says otherwise. These statements of faith and doctrinal documents serve to wedge believers apart, not unite them together. If all these books did was restate the Bible, then they are not necessary. The Bible already says what the Bible says.
Over the past several years, I have made a regular habit of searching the religion section of used book stores. Why? Because I have become a collector of creed books. Not to use them as a source of doctrine or authority in religion; quite the contrary. I use them to demonstrate to folks the religious division which exists, and the role these books play in it.
A few of the books in my collection include: The Book of Mormon, The Westminster Confession of Faith, Luther’s Catechism, The Book of Discipline, Reasoning from the Scriptures, Handbook of Church Administration, The Book of Common Prayer, and more. Each of these books are used by different religious groups, none of whom are in doctrinal agreement. Are these just innocent summaries of God’s word? Consider the complete name of the Anglican book usually called the Book of Common Prayer. It is:
THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER AND ADMINISTATION OF THE SACRAMENTS AND OTHER RITES AND CEREMONIES OF THE CHURCH ACCORDING TO THE USE OF THE ANGLICAN CHURCH OF CANADA TOGETHER WITH THE PSALTER AS IT IS APPOINTED TO BE SAID OR SUNG IN CHURCHES AND THE FORM AND MANNER OF MAKING ORDAINING AND CONSECRATING OF BISHOPS PRIESTS AND DEACONS
It is not just a prayer book; it is a legislative document for the worship and functions of the Anglican Church. It completely denominates the Anglican Church from the church we read about in the Bible. Documents such as this serve to accentuate and perpetuate the religious division which we know as denominationalism.
CHARTING CHURCH HISTORY
In the Bible, we read of just once church, not the thousands of denominational splinters which exist today. Notice the course of church history on the chart provided.
Though the religious world is a splintered, segmented conglomeration of semi-Bible believing groups, there has been a push to bring these parts together as one. This effort is known by the term eccumenicalism. The thought is that if everyone gives up the things which they disagree upon, and clings together to the areas of agreement, there can be unity. That is not the unity described in the Bible. And recall, the Jews attempted to be ecumenical amidst the division of their sects, and it failed. Paul, standing trial before the Jewish council easily diverted their attention from him to their differences (Acts 23:6-10). The way for those who believe Jesus to be the Christ to be united together is to set aside their unbiblical doctrines, and be united upon ALL that is taught in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 1:27). Turn away from the fables and teachings of men, and cling to the whole council of God.
JESUS BUILT AND PRAYED FOR ONE CHURCH
Denominationalism stands in contradiction to the intent and prayer of our Lord. As we began our article, we noticed the words of Jesus, “…upon this rock I will build My church…” (Matthew 16:18). He did not come, intending to build “churches” which would be noticeably different from each other. He came to build one church, His church. Again, hear the Saviour. After identifying Himself as the Good Shepherd, the Lord said, “…other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16). There is one flock, not 10,000+.
On the night when Jesus would be betrayed, His mind was upon the unity of His people. The Lord prayed, “…Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are one.” (John 17:11). Then, He said, “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.” (John 17:20-21). Do you see that He was praying for us, and for those who have come before us, and those who will come after us? He was praying for unity among believers. He was praying for His ONE church.
Years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the apostle Paul, in a letter to the Ephesians addressed several elements about unity among God’s people. Therein, he wrote, “…there is one body…” (Ephesians 4:4). What is this one body? The same apostle tells us, it is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). Though there are thousands of churches in the religious world today, Jesus built one church. All these denominational divisions are no part of the Lord’s church. The Lord’s church is neither a denomination, nor a collection of denominations.