Is Denominationalism a Viable Christian System? (1 of 3)

By Kevin Cauley

Last week I started an e-mail conversation with a man who was a member of the Methodist church. The conversation started because he had seen an article that I published on our web site, “Is the Church of Christ a Cult?” His contention was that any group that claims that they are the only one’s going to heaven are a cult. He sees the churches of Christ as making that claim, and so, according to his definition, they are a cult. The first response to this is, of course, that his definition of a cult is obviously flawed. While it is difficult to put a precise definition upon the concept of “cult,” we usually know them when we see them. The churches of Christ that I know are obviously not cults. However, there is another, deeper, issue that needs to be discussed in this regard, and that is the question of the validity of the system of denominationalism. I submit that this is the real issue, because it is the assumption of the system of denominationalism that all denominations are equally accepted in the sight of God. Hence, if one religious group claims that salvation can only occur through that one way, then that kind of thinking is anti-denominational, and if it is anti-denominational, then it must be cultish. In other words, anyone who denies that denominationalism is a viable Christian system must be a cult. Instead of having the discussion of what is and what is not a cult, instead, we should focus upon the legitimacy of the concept of denominationalism.

In today’s culture, we are seeing around us the ultimate fruits of the system of denominationalism. Those fruits are basically the complete rejection of the word of God and the substitution of God’s word with the words of men. The issue of homosexuality in denominationalism today tells the tale. Leaders among the Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and now some members of the Lutheran denomination have publicly come out and endorsed the idea that homosexuality is not something to be condemned as sin, but to be tolerated as an alternative lifestyle and given recognized place within said denominations. When confronted with the issue within their own denominations, leaders of these denominations fail to turn to the scriptures to solve the problem, but instead, turn to their church disciplines and manuals, documents written by men. Case in point: in the Methodist denomination, the jury of people who judged the case of the lesbian “pastor” stated that they found nothing in the church discipline that she had violated. It wasn’t the Bible that determined the validity of her behavior, but the church discipline. The issue of homosexuality in the religious world today is exposing to the religious world at large what members of churches of Christ have known all along. Denominationalism is not a viable Christian system and ought to be rejected.

Denominationalism is not a viable Christian system because it seeks to elevate the doctrines of men above that of God’s. Homosexuality is just one issue. There are also the issues of women preachers, church organization, God’s plan for man’s salvation, New Testament worship, and many others. In each of these areas, denominationalism has placed the words of men above the words of God. They have substituted their own church disciplines, creeds, and confessions of faith for God’s word; they have elevated the teachings of men such as Charles Wesley, John Calvin, and Martin Luther to above-God-status, perhaps not in their words, but clearly in their actions. Jesus condemned such attitudes and teachings in Matthew 15:18, 19 “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Lip service is all that the denominational world pays to Jesus in our times. When such a situation exists, Jesus calls such actions vain, empty, meaningless. Can a Christian system be valid and viable when elevating man’s will above God’s? It cannot.

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Is Denominationalism a Viable Christian System? (2 of 3)

Last week we noted the charge of “cult” that denominationalism levels at those who claim to be New Testament Christians today. One of the additional reasons this charge is leveled against us is that to the denominational world, it is unthinkable that the church of Christ (the church that belongs to Christ) would be one small group out of the millions of adherents to denominational philosophy. The proponents of denominationalism may confess that there is a “church of Christ,” but that it is far more broad and diverse than we believe it to be. In fact, they argue, that the “church of Christ” is merely the great body of believers throughout the world composed of the various denominations worldwide. In essence, they claim, anyone who believes in Jesus as their Savior is a member of the “church of Christ” regardless of what particular denomination they are a member. To disagree with this concept relegates the contester to the status of “intolerant” and “uncharitable” of other’s peculiar beliefs and practices. They ask, “how could one be truly loving of another by saying that they are wrong and need to repent?” Of course, Jesus was loving, but He demanded repentance out of those He dealt with (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17).

Somewhere in this mix, it will be pointed out that we all believe in the same Jesus and that this is the only uniting bond that we need respect when it comes to unity within the Christian world. Passages such as 1 John 5:1, (“Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God�”) and John 3:16 are bandied about in an effort to “prove” that mere faith in Jesus (without any sort of God-work on the part of the believer) is all that is necessary to be part of the one great “body of Christ” and that this tenet of faith alone is enough to unite all believers. Such thought fails to take into account the words of Jesus in John 17:21-23, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and especially Ephesians 4:1-5 where Paul lists at least seven uniting principles upon which Christians MUST agree, one of which is baptism. There is more to Christian unity than mere mental acknowledgment of Jesus as the Christ. It is due to the purposeful overlooking of this one key and vital fact that denominationalism cannot see the division that it is in reality fostering upon its adherents.

Denominationalism is not a viable Christian system because it promotes divisions instead of unity. One of the primary accusations leveled against churches of Christ is that they are divisive. Those who make such an accusation say we are divisive because we demand that everyone else come out of denominationalism and unite upon God’s word instead of being tolerant of the (truly divisive) creeds and church disciplines of the denominational world. They claim that because we do not accept the same standard of salvation as the denominational world, that we are being divisive. What is truly amazing is that those who are part of denominationalism fail to realize the divisions that already exist among them. One denomination is named the Methodists, another, the Lutherans, yet another Presbyterian, Episcopalians, Baptists, etc. The names themselves are divisive. Paul told the church at Corinth that such division was sinful (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). However, this is not the only area of divisions. Ask a Methodist about baptism and see what they say. Turn around and ask a Baptist and see what they say. You will find two completely different answers given. Yet we are supposed to believe that you may “go to the church of your choice” and that will be “ok” with God? How can God be “ok” with such divisions in teaching regarding a very important subject? A subject important enough for Paul to include in Ephesians 4:1-5 as a fundamental principle of Christian unity? Jesus prayed for unity among believers, but not the unity that the denominational world espouses. Jesus prayed for complete and total unity as He and the Father were united (John 17:21-23). Can a supposedly Christian system be valid and viable when it ignores obvious divisions and even promotes and encourages them among “the saved?” It cannot.

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Is Denominationalism a Viable Christian System? (3 of 3)

Last week we noted that denominationalism doesn’t recognize the inherent division within its organization because it fails to acknowledge any other doctrine of the Christian faith as truly important and grounds for unity except belief in Jesus as the Christ. On this account, denominationalism fails to realize that there could be any distinguishing marks that identify the one true church of Christ. Hence, proponents of denominationalism criticize any who would claim to be the one true church of Christ. After all, every denomination is part of the “church of Christ,” at least, according to denominational thinking. Saying that there are ways to identify the church of Christ through scripture in essence requires that there be more tenets of unity other than mere mental acknowledgement of Jesus as Christ.

When we look into the scriptures, we find that indeed, God through Christ has left us both the teaching and the example that the church is to be found identified through a clear pattern of behavior. That is, that the church of Christ that was established by the apostles and prophets of the first century behaved in such and so a way is clear from the scriptures. Should we seek to behave in such and so a way as well, we should have clear indication that we are the church of Christ as well. The example that we find within the New Testament of what it means to be the church of Christ is available for us today and we ought to emulate that example if we want to be the church of Christ. Obviously, we are not talking about emulating things which are pointed out by the apostles and prophets to be sinful and wrong. We must avoid those things. However, in looking at the things that the apostles and prophets taught the church to be, we ought to be those things as well. This is also known as the seed principle. Luke 8:11 teaches that the seed is the word of God. In reading the context of Luke 8 and understanding the parable of the sower, one discovers that God’s word contains within it the same pattern that a seed would contain within it. When that pattern is sowed, it grows into a plant. When the plant grows in good soil, it produces fruit.

Denominationalism is not a viable Christian system because it fails to offer identifying marks of the one true church of Christ. Denominationalism is not concerned with emulating the pattern of the church as found in the New Testament. Their concern is merely with following after their own church manuals, creeds, confessions of faith, and disciplines. Denominationalism says “attend the church of your choice.” That in essence says that there is no one “church” that is specifically following what God wants them to follow. It in essence says that each “church” is just as good as another. What does that mean except that there are no real identifying characteristics of the church of the New Testament? That each “church” has the right to do what it pleases as long as it hangs onto the truth of Jesus as the Son of God? Is that really right? What would be the purpose of the New Testament if it didn’t matter what the behavior of the church was? In fact, there is no purpose of the New Testament if the only thing that matters is that Jesus is the Son of God. A large portion of the New Testament is letters sent to churches instructing them how to behave. In those letters, the apostles instructed these churches to behave in certain ways (ex. 1 Cor.16:1). In the epistles, each church was given instruction, but all churches were expected to behave in the same way in key matters (1 Cor.7:17). Such key matters include salvation, church discipline, church organization, the worship of the church, the work of the church, and future hope of the church. It is not just a good idea to teach the same things in these matters, it is commanded (1 Cor.1:10; Phil.2:2; Eph.4:1-5). Can the system of denominationalism be a valid Christian system when it frankly denies that there is a pattern for the church that is commanded and needed? It cannot.

In this series of articles, we have noted three key areas in which denominationalism cannot provide viability as a Christian system. Denominationalism cannot be viable because it promotes the doctrines of men above the word of God. Denominationalism cannot be viable because it promotes divisions instead of unity. Denominationalism cannot be viable because it fails to offer the identifying marks of the New Testament church as the New Testament expects the church to have. Dear friends and neighbors, it is time to leave the shackles of denominational Christianity. We must unite upon God’s truth, the Bible, and simply be Christians and Christians alone. Not Baptist-Christians, Methodist-Christians, Presbyterian-Christians, and etc, but simply Christians. Surely we can agree upon this. Surely we can take the word of God as our only standard of authority to accomplish this task. Surely we can unite based upon the truths therein. Surely we can read those truths and recognize the one true church that exists today. Let us work and endeavor toward the unity that God wants us to have as His children. Let us respect the wishes of our Lord Jesus in these matters. Let us seek to be the one true church of Jesus, the church that belongs to the Christ, the church of Christ today upon the earth.

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