When looking at the Christian world today there are now an estimated 45,000+ denominations globally, with the majority of those being in the United States. The truth is we don’t really know how many there are and new groups are popping up all the time. Furthermore, that number cannot account for the growing ‘non-denominational’ church trend. But the real question faced by all of those numbers is; Does Denominationalism Blind you to the Truth?
This article is not to denigrate faith, Christianity, or any denomination. It is a simple exploration asking the question “Does Denominationalism blind you to the truth?” Can we hold to objective truth written in the pages of Scripture if creeds and divisions in the church hold our identity hostage? If faced with the reality that our denomination does not hold to full Biblical truth, would we have the strength to stand for Truth in the face of our denominations?
Does Denominationalism Blind You To the Truth?
We know that there is only one Faith. (Ephesians 4:5) According to this passage there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, and One God and Father of All. This One God is over all, and through all, and in all. We could take that to mean that God is through and in all 45,000+ groups who don’t fully agree on how to observe their faith, or how/if to be baptized, and so forth. But God is most definitately not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33) and this intense division leaves a lot of people asking, “Which one is right?”
Paul began his letter to the Galatians declaring that there is no Other Gospel, declaring again that there is only One Gospel, one Church, one Faith, and that he was astonished the Galatians had so quickly turned to another Gospel. In modern terms we could say, they had turned to another Denomination.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ga 1:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
We can be honest and say that not every denomination is distorting the Gospel as Paul referred to, but truth be told, that was, and still is exactly what was happening. Most denominations hold to a similar core belief set, such as being Monotheistic, believing in the full deity of Christ, and in the Resurrection but then differ on things such as baptism, frequency and format of Communion, etc. These things scholars will call secondary or even tertiary beliefs that do not affect our fellowship or salvation.
Yet and unfortunately, denominationalism does just that, it divides most commonly on secondary and tertiary matters, emphasizing them to the point of becoming sectarian. And while the rise of denominationalism is a rather modern phenomena that didn’t really take form until after the Reformation, human nature is not so modern and we saw this dividing behavior early in the Christian church.
By 1 Corinthians 3 Paul addresses division in the church by saying, ‘I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 3:1-4) because of their division, a seeming precursor to denominationalism. By verse 4 Paul states the following;
“For when one says, I follow Paul, and another, I follow Apollos, are you not being merely human?”The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 3:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
What seems to be taking place is the sin of pride and the rise of personality-centric movements. Sadly, denominationalism fuels this pride, the end result being that denominationalism blinds you to the truth.
What is Denominationalism?
The word denomination should be familiar to all. As we grow up and go through math class we learn how to count money by use of denominations. Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, dollars, etc. A denomination is simply a way of dividing. In fact, in mathematical division, the number being fractured (numerator) is cut in to pieces by its denominator.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, denominationalism is defined as having these two qualities;
- devotion to denominal beliefs and practices
- the emphasizing of denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive, sectarianism.
One really good read on the topic is the GotQuestions? page that gives their basic take on what denominationalism is. The highlighted focus is the seemingly unavoidable negative effect of denominations. In basic terms, a denomination is simply an organization of congregants who share beliefs and practices.
In America we can easily recognize some of the larger and well known group labels such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. In these organizations, people have the ability to fellowship with what we would call ‘like minded’ people, or ‘of like faith‘ and this gives people a place to call home, to feel a sense of community and connection and to belong. (Although in each branch you’ll have sectarian splinters and divisions among divisions)
We can recognize the positives such as I listed above, but we are still left with the glaring truth that there is only one faith. Through the earliest Church history there was only one church. Then there entered the time where we had the Eastern(Orthodox) church and the Western Church. By the 16th century the Roman Catholic church was challenged by the Church of England and then with the Reformation, fractures quickly grew and were often quite violent. As one person put it, “While the Arab nation was discovering the cosmos, Europe was busy disembowling heretics.”
What began as an effort to weed out ‘error’ in the church, it rapidly turned in to sectarian violence and splintering of the One Faith. And with that splintering came, as Merriam-Webster defined it, an emphasis on denominational branding, or pride, to the point of exclusion. In today’s world, people rarely identify as Christian and but by the brand of Christian, much like Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 3.
Often people today respond by saying, “Yes, I’m Baptist.”, or, “I’m Catholic.” Some are so narrow they will actually respond that they are not ‘Christian’, but rather respond with their denominational title. I’ve known some to say, “I am not Christian, I am Catholic.”
Worse yet, when the pride of sin is interjected into the answer by saying things like, “I’m Baptist and Proud of it!”, then our focus and identity is in a denomination and no longer in Christ. When it is no longer in Christ we have been blinded to the truth by denominationalism.
Should we be Anti-Denominational?
I’ve belonged to several non-denominational churches in my adult years. The first was highly out of balance, sectarian, authoritarian and exclusive. The second was open, loving, full of grace, seeking to point people towards Christ and to then get out of the way. Depending on ones personality, upbringing, background and/or beliefs, one or the other will sound offensive or appealing.
What is true however is that just as unbiblical as denominations are, non-denominational church is simply another form of denomination. It is but a gentler or allegedly kinder way of dividing. The more inconspicuous issue of non-denominationalism however is it then fails again to follow the Biblical mandate of oversight and unity.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided?The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 1:10–13). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Philippians 2 is a commandment that if we walk in the Spirit we are to be of one mind and united in love and charity. In Ephesians 1:3-14 we are exhorted to unity by reason of our predestination according to the purpose of Christ, which was to ‘unite all things in him‘ (v10).
In fact, the entire purpose of the Gift of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers was to work towards unifying the people in Faith and knowledge! (Ephesians 4:11-14) In this passage is one of my favorite Scriptures and it harkens back to the reference I started this article with:
so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 4:14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
This indeed is how denominationalism blinds you to the truth. We are not spiritual adults or spiritually mature if our identity and Biblical knowledge is confined to what our denominations cling to. If our knowledge and power is in their creeds, articles of faith, and whims, we are but little children tossed to and fro by what Paul calls scheming and fraudulent teachers.
The Apostle Paul subjected himself to his own teachings early in his ministry which we can read in Acts 15 and his parallel recounting in Galatians 2:1-10. Paul went to the first and only Church authority/council to ensure that what he was teaching was going to be acceptable (indicating there was a difference between his message to the Gentiles and Peter’s message to the Jews) to the Apostles and that he wasn’t crossing boundaries.
With the splintering denominations, where is oversight? Furthermore, every non-denominational church has no oversight other than local elder boards, but that is an insular and local authority which does not satisfy the example of Acts 15.
So should I leave my denomination?
The truth is, in today’s world, you can’t get away from Denominationalism so the best advice is to be committed to none. As Paul readily declared in Galatians 3, you are neither Jew nor Gentile. This means your identity is in Christ not an ethnic, or in this case, denominational heritage. Paul commanded Timothy to ‘study and show yourself approved to God’. Your allegiance is to Christ alone. Be committed to Christ. Study Christ. Follow Christ. Imitate Christ! (1 Corinthians 11:1)
If you can maintain that commitment in your denomination, and the denomination is not straying from the pure Gospel (Ephesians 2:8-9) then remain and do your best in bringing souls to Christ, for he who wins souls is wise. (Proverbs 11:30)
Remember this: Denominationalism (at least at the time of the Reformation) was done for the purpose of allowing individual believers to Study Scripture and to come to their own conclusions. Today, especially with the rise of Charismatic/Prosperity preachers and teachers, denominationalism has become the inverse. As long as you can fit in and it’s comfortable, you may not listen much to what’s really being said, you won’t study much to make sure the teaching aligns to Scripture, and you may be blinded to the truth.