Getting to Know the Lord's Church

Lesson 3: Fighting Denominationalism


In our last study we looked at the differences between the two concepts that we find in the New Testament, the universal and local church. We remember that the word church, ekklesia, is simply defined as a group of people called out of one relationship or location and into another. In reference to Christ, in refers to people who had been called out of the world and into a relationship with Christ. We noted that there are two relationships that the scriptures speak of. We read of God’s group of saved people from past and present, dead and alive, from all over the world as the universal church, or universal group of saved people. As we noted last time, we will not find the phrase “universal church” so we must determine by context which church the scriptures are referring. This can be seen in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus said he will build his church. We also see in the scriptures smaller groups of Christians in various locations, usually called local churches. We see local churches in Revelation 2-3 with the seven churches of Asia, the churches of Galatia, the churches of Judea, and we see in this country that there are many churches in various locations. We also noted that there are numerous scriptural distinctions made between these two concepts. As we stated last time, we did not have the opportunity to talk about why this is important and how it affects us today. The reason this is important is because it is at the heart of denominationalism.

Understanding Denominations

What is a denomination?

A very basic definition is some smaller unit that is composed of a large unit. We understand the word denomination best by example. A quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a penny are all denominations of a dollar. They are smaller units that make up the whole. But what is a denomination in the religious world? Donald G. Tinder from the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says, “Denominations are associations of congregations–though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations–that have a common heritage.”

Collection of churches

Tinder defines denominations as an association of congregations, but even a little more than that. They are localized subdivisions of the greater whole. One of the reasons why we find so many denominations is because this is the common view of the Lord’s church. It is believed that the Lord’s church is comprised of congregations with a common heritage. So let us consider if this is what the scriptures teach.

Common False View: Denominations Compose the Universal Church

Religious denominations compose the church

This view teaches that the Lord’s church is comprised of all the religious groups that believe in Christ. Therefore the church is made up of the Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholics, Episcopal, and so on. The proof text which is generally used for this teaching is found in John 15:1-6. Here we are told that each branch of the vine is a denomination. But is this what Jesus taught? Does Jesus say that I am the vine and denominations are the branches? Does Jesus say that I am the vine and the churches are the branches? Not at all. Read the passage again and we see that Jesus is talking about people. He that abides in me and I in him bears much fruit. Individuals are the branches in Christ.

Christ divided among local churches

Another common false teaching is that the universal church, the Lord’s body, is made up of local churches. We have people that teach us that it is not all the religious groups out there, instead the church is made up of all the churches of Christ. So we have the church in Boca, Hollywood, Ft. Pierce, Okeechobee, and so on.

Alexander Campbell in the Millennial Harbinger of July 1834 said, “The church…is not one congregation or assembly, but the congregation of Christ, composed of all the individual congregations on earth.” Twenty years later in the Millennial Harbinger of June 1853 said, “Every individual church on earth stands to the whole church of Christ as one individual man to one particular church.” He had been so surrounded by denominations that he had accepted the same concept of the Lord’s body.

But the scriptures do not teach this about the universal church? In 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 we see that Christ is the body and there are many members of it. Now look at 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” The body of Christ, the universal group of the saved is not made up of churches. No where do we read of the universal group of the saved consisting of a bunch of congregations. In fact we read the opposite. Turn to Hebrews 12:22-24. Verse 23 says, “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.” This passage gives us a great definition of the Lord’s body. What consists of the general assembly and church of the firstborn? Is it congregations? No, it consists of the spirits of just men made perfect.

Illustrations of the relationship of the church

Now let us see if we can understand the relationship that Christ has set out for Christians and the church. Let us start with a link that we would have in a chain. Here we have a single chain link. The plural is many chain links, not interconnected, laying next to each other. If we connect the links together, then we have a chain. It is the same for the Christian. Turn your Bibles to Matthew 18:15-18. Here we read about one Christian alone. If the brother does not hear, the Christian is to get two or three more Christians. Thus we have a plurality of Christians in verse 16. If the brother will still not hear, then we are to tell it to the church. This is the collection of Christians in verse 17.

Now can we do this with the church? In 1 Corinthians 1:2 we have “the church of God at Corinth.” Here we are talking about one local church. We read of a plurality of churches each acting independently in Galatians 1:2, “the churches of Galatia.” This is also seen in Revelation 1:11, “send it to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Now what do we have if we have a collective of churches? What passage can we turn to that we will find churches in a collectivity? None. What we have is a denomination by definition, an association of churches. This is the point we made in the last lesson. The universal church has no collective action. There is no collective action greater than our own local church. But this is common in the denominational world, for nearly all of them consider themselves a collection of churches.

Scriptures Teach Independence of Local Churches

Church autonomy

The independence of each local churches is fundamental to the scriptures. We cannot find any authority for any church to exercise judgment or decisions for another congregation. 1 Peter 5:1-2 tells us the extent of the authority that elders have over local churches. Here we read that the elders are instructed to shepherd the flock of God which is among them. There is no instruction for the elders to exercise authority over any other church. However, this teaching of Peter has not been listened to in the religious world today. Very frequently we find denominations that have elders ruling over other churches. They make decisions not only for their own church but for some other church miles away, of which they are not a member of. This is seen even more clearly when we hear of a church board that convenes to make decisions for other churches. We hear of the Catholic church getting together to make a decision about the priests. There is no authority for this. We hear of special councils and conventions to decide if what should be practiced on certain religious issues. There is no authority for this. Again, there is no collective action higher than the local church. Therefore no one can come along and tell a group of churches what they are to do.

Easy error to fall into

But this is not an error that only has happened in the denominations. We must see that this same false view of the church has invaded people that we know and lives among many people in the local churches today. Anything that works greater than a local church goes beyond the authority of God. And we need to take note of the history of this error that we do not repeat it ourselves. The missionary society was something that sounded good on the surface. Our minds sometimes rationalize that we should have some sort of organization through which local churches could work collectively in evangelism. Think of all the good work we could do. But it lacks authority and violates the autonomy of the local church. The same goes for the sponsoring church arrangement. One congregation assumes the oversight and control of other congregations’ activity in evangelism, edification, or benevolence. This was seen when the Herald of Truth wanted the support of other churches to evangelize on a radio program. It does not matter what form it comes, the principle is the same. The local church is to be in control of its own efforts. It cannot delegate its duty to another church to evangelize for it. It cannot delegate its duty of benevolence by creating or supporting institutions like orphan homes. Churches cannot send money to support schools, colleges, or day cares. The church is turning control over its work or its funds to another church or institution.

The Boston Movement, often called Crossroads, is an excellent example of what can begin to take place. They consider themselves a coalition of churches in which the one church in Boston is the mother church. The other churches are under it, which are pillar churches, which establish capitol churches, which establish rural churches. This was a very real problem in San Diego because one of their large pillar churches is there and had a major impact on that community. The scriptures teach that local churches are independent and when we begin to blur those lines and allow for a collective action, then we have a denomination.

The relationship between local and universal church

So let us understand what we do see in the scriptures. One person is baptized for the forgiveness of sins. They are now in fellowship with Christ. He is not part of any local church yet he is still in fellowship with God and is saved. He teaches another the gospel in another city. They have a common bond, are not part of a local church and both have fellowship with Christ. Now this person moves to the same city and another person comes and they decide to have a common motive, common purpose, common resources, and common action in Christ and begin a local church. This illustrates the premise that we established last time, that in the universal church is primarily concerned with fellowship with God, while the local church is primarily concerned with fellowship with other Christians.

Now in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 we have another local church. The Christians are all in fellowship with one another, but not all of them have fellowship with Christ. One of them is the unrepentant fornicator. We can also have those who have been excluded from a local church but still are in fellowship with Christ. An example of this would be Saul in Acts 9:26 and the eunuch in Acts 8:39. We can also have churches like the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-4) where very few of the people there are in fellowship with Christ, yet all of them have fellowship together in a local church. This can be true today as it was then where in man’s eyes a church has a good reputation but Christ does not have fellowship with many of the members of that church. We also need to add those who are dead in Christ as we read in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17. They cannot be part of a local church because they are dead, but they are still in fellowship with Christ.

But do we see what is missing from the illustration? There is no scripture that we can point to which would show a collective action between any of these local churches. Each church is acting independently of another and any collective action would, by definition, be a denomination.

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