ARE WE A DENOMINATION?
by Stafford North

In the religious world, "denomination" refers to a body of believers in Christ who consider their church to be only one group among many groups of the saved. The majority of these hold that a person is saved at the moment of belief in Christ and then may join any one of many denominations, each of which has equal standing with God.

Thus, in a city-wide evangelistic effort for all denominations as people confess Christ as their savior, they are told, you are now saved and may "join the church of your choice." Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other denominations subscribe to this view.

To visualize this denominational concept, think of a larger circle with smaller circles within it. This view says that by "faith only" one gets inside the larger circle, sometimes called "the church universal." Once in the larger circle, a person may choose to enter his choice of the smaller circles which represent different denominations.

Accepting this denominational view necessarily means agreeing with the following statements implicit in the view that a person belongs to one out of many groups of saved people.

  1. That a person is saved from past sins at the time he/she believes in Jesus and asks Jesus into his/her life. Since those in all denominations accept those in any other denomination as saved, and since the great majority of denominations teach salvation by "faith only," one holding the denominational view must accept the "salvation by faith only" of those in all denominations.
  2. That a person is saved, and thus is in the "church universal," before joining a denomination. This denominational view holds that one is saved at the moment of faith and thus is saved before joining a denomination. Membership in a denomination then, has nothing to do with salvation. All denominations admit that there are saved outside of not only their denomination but outside of all denominations.
  3. That a saved person may choose to join any denomination of his/her choice. In this view, those in all denominations are equally acceptable to God, equally on the road to heaven. One may choose a denomination on the basis of worship style, building location, preacher, or particular doctrines, but whichever denomination a person joins makes no difference in his/her eternal salvation.
There was a time when the positions mentioned above characterized Protestant denominations but not those of the Roman Catholic faith. In recent years, however, under the pressures of our cultureís pluralism and "tolerance," this line is beginning to blur. Some in Protestant denominations now consider Catholics as equally in the fold of the saved and some Catholics, likewise, consider those in Protestant denominations as saved.

Are the views listed above in harmony with what the Bible teaches? Is this Christís view of His body? Should all adopt and promote this view? Let us examine this position in the light of scripture.

  1. The Bible teaches one is saved from past sins when he believes in Jesus and has demonstrated that faith in repentance and baptism. This is salvation by grace. No one can earn any of his/her way to heaven. At the same time, God has promised His grace only to those who meet His stated conditions to receive it--and these conditions include believing in and confessing Jesus, repenting of sins, and being baptized for remission of sins. That forgiveness of sins follows obedience in baptism is taught in Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27; Titus 3:5; I Peter 3:21. For churches of Christ to consider themselves a denomination means accepting salvation by "faith only," thus rejecting that baptism for remission of sins is essential.
  2. The Bible teaches that one who believes in Christ, repents, and is baptized is saved and, at that time, God adds that person to the body of the saved (Acts 2:47, Galatians 3:27). This body of saved people is called the body of Christ, the church of Christ, the kingdom of God, the family of God. All the saved are in it and no saved are outside of it. Each person whose sins are removed by the blood of Christ becomes, by that very act, part of the body of the saved and has no need to join any other group. For churches of Christ to consider themselves a denomination, then, means believing the Bible says God adds to the "church universal" on the basis of "faith only" and then that one may join the "church of Christ" or any other denomination chosen. This would mean abandoning our long held belief that the scriptures teach only one church which is the body of all those saved by obeying the gospel.
  3. The Bible teaches that those within Christís body are not to divide into groups, separating themselves from one another. In I Corinthians 1:10 Paul speaks to those beginning to start such divisions. He warns them against it because Christ is not divided and only He died for our sins. Jesus prayed for unity among believers (John 17:21) and Paul condemns such dividing (Galatians 5:18-21). The scriptures, then, condemn sub-groups within the body of the saved. For churches of Christ to consider themselves a denomination, then, means agreeing that it is right to divide the body of Christ into sub-groups with differing views on essentials. While we have disagreements within our own ranks, we have not taught that having sub-groups within the body is desirable.
  4. The Bible teaches that those on Pentecost, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian, Paul, Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailor and hundreds of thousands more in the first century were saved when they believed, repented, and were baptized and were in the "one body" of believers, not in any denominational sub-group of Christians. To consider churches of Christ as a denomination would mean that we no longer believe one can only be in the one body with these first century Christians.
  5. If a person, knowing nothing of denominations and reading only the Bible, were to follow the cases in Acts by believing, repenting, and being baptized, would that person be in a denomination? Such a person would know nothing of denominations and would have done the same as those in Acts. Such a person would expect to be added to the same church, the body of the saved, but would not expect to be in a sub-group of Christians of which he had never heard. If we preach the Acts message, and people today respond as these did, those converted will be in the same body as were first-century Christians, not a denomination.

It is possible, then, for one to believe and obey today like those in the first century did and, when that happens, God adds that one to His body of believers. Our role is not to pass judgment on the eternal salvation of others. How God will reward or punish those who have sought to come to Jesus in ways that do not match what the scriptures teach them to do, God alone can decide. Our job, however, is to teach and obey what the scriptures reveal. To do any less is to fail in our responsibility. To unite in fellowship with, and thus give our approval to, those who teach and practice such doctrines as salvation by "faith only" is to fellowship false teachers, which we are forbidden to do.

Aquila and Priscilla taught Apollos "the way of God more accurately" when they found him preaching less than the full truth about how to become a Christian. (Acts 18:26) When Paul found those not taught properly about the purpose of baptism, he did not consider them part of some other acceptable group of believers. He taught them the truth and then baptized them properly. We should do no less.

The church of the New Testament was not a denomination. It still exists where anyone has obeyed Godís plan for receiving grace. We could not make Godís church into a denomination if we tried. If never has been and never will be a denomination. We can, but should never, create a new denomination. Let us, rather, seek to be Godís church and call all others to the Bible concept of the body of Christ of which all the saved are members.