The term “denominationalism” is a relatively familiar one, but what does it really mean? The word itself is interesting and instructive. The Latin word nomen meant “name.” From it we get such English words as “nominate” (to propose someone by name as a candidate), “misnomer” (an incorrect name for something), and even “noun” (the name of a person, place, or thing). The corresponding Latin verb denominare meant “to name.” Hence, in English, to “denominate” means to designate, to give a name to … and a “denomination” is a naming or classification of something. In religious usage, a denomination is an organized group of congregations that can be “denominated,” “named,” or classified together because they have formed a collective entity.
It is important to observe that a denomination is not simply a number of congregations that resemble one another, or seem to belong together. Rather, a denomination is an intentionally organized group of congregations … that is, a group of congregations that participate by intent in some organization through which they act as a unit for certain purposes. They are “named” together (designated or “denominated” as one) because they all participate in the common organization, and (in at least a part of their activity) function as one through the organization.
An old illustration helps to clarify the point. In language, we have “nouns,” “plural nouns,” and “collective nouns” … and there is a significant difference between “plural” and “collective.” For example, “ship” means one boat, “ships” means a plurality of boats, and “fleet” means a plurality of boats that have a relationship that allows them to be considered as a single unit. “Ships” may involve a number of boats that are very much alike, but a “fleet” does not exist until some common intent or organization appears, under which the individual ships agree to subordinate themselves in at least part of their activity.
Now, think carefully about the words “Christian/Christians” and “church/churches” in the New Testament. An individual disciple of Jesus Christ is called a “Christian” (1 Pt. 4:16). It would obviously be possible for there to be a plurality of “Christians” (individuals substantially alike in faith and practice, but living in different places and having no functional ties). However, in the New Testament, when a plurality of Christians in a given locality banded together collectively, with the common purpose of working and worshiping as a unit under common oversight and organization, that is precisely what a “church” was (Ac. 11:26; Phil. 1:1; 4:15; etc.). So then, we have three New Testament words, referring to three scriptural concepts: “Christian” (noun), “Christians” (plural noun), and “church” (collective noun).
But let us take the critical next step. In the New Testament, the noun “church” means a single congregation of Christians (Ac. 8:1; 13:1; etc.). And the plural noun “churches” means two or more completely independent congregations, which (to the extent they remain faithful to the Lord) are essentially the same in faith and practice (Gal. 1:2; Rev. 1:4). Here, now, is the clincher: Is there a collective noun in the New Testament that refers to a group of churches conceived not simply as a plurality, but a collectivity? The answer, of course, is no. The word is not there because the idea is not there. The concept of a collectivity of congregations is simply not in the New Testament.
The “churches” in the apostolic period were never anything more than a plurality of independent, autonomous congregations. To be sure, these strikingly resembled one another. But that was because they followed the same apostolic rule of faith and practice (1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; etc.), and not because they were a “brotherhood of sister congregations” (a curious metaphor that makes little sense grammatically or scripturally). There being among New Testament congregations no intent to function collectively, and there being no organization to effect such work, there was nothing that resembled what we know of today as a “denomination.” The church universal consisted of individual saints (Jn. 15:1-8) … not congregations, and certainly not denominational groups of congregations. In the New Testament, there was no organizational entity larger than a local congregation but smaller than the universal church, and the universal church itself had no organization beyond the singular headship of Jesus Christ.
If that was the case in the New Testament, what should be said about the collective groups of congregations … i.e. denominations … that exist so plentifully today? It is an obvious fact that these do exist, but ought they to exist? Ought there to be today any such thing as a “denomination,” an organization of churches acting as a functional unit? May we scripturally “denominate” any organization larger than the local church but smaller than the universal church? And what of the different doctrines and practices that distinguish today’s denominations from one another? These are tough questions we cannot avoid if we honestly care about unity among those who profess to be disciples of the Great Teacher.
By Gary Henry from Brass Tacks