4 Common Mistakes Christians Make about Denominationalism

Last Tuesday, I explained why the Franklin Church of Christ is not part of a Church of Christ Denomination. That article dealt with common mistakes folks who are not members of this congregation make about us. In this article, I want to look at the other side of the issue. I want to point out mistakes I’ve heard members of a church of Christ make that cause part of this problem.

Common Mistake #1: “We’re Church of Christ.”

Regrettably, one of the reasons other folks believe we are part of a denomination is because too many of us act like we are. When we say things like, “We’re church of Christ,” or, “He’s a church of Christ preacher,” or, “Are they church of Christ?” we’re are using the language of denominationalism. Individual’s cannot be “church of Christ.” Rather, Christ’s church is made up of individuals. “Church” represents a collective, therefore an individual cannot be “church of Christ” nor can a preacher be “church of Christ.” We may be members of Christ’s church but we are not Christ’s church.

Think of it this way. Would you ever say, “He’s Christ’s church” or “He’s a Christ’s church preacher”? If you can’t substitute the phrase “Christ’s church” in the sentence you are making then you can’t use the phrase “church of Christ.” That is all “church of Christ” means. It is a reference to the church that belongs to Christ.

Of course, some will say, “Oh, but we know what they mean. It’s too much trouble to explain.” That’s right. We know what they mean and they are mistaken. We must not sit idly by and just further their misunderstanding about the Franklin church. We need to be clear.

Common Mistake #2: That church of Christ is calling itself non-denominational. That’s awful.

To be honest, I’m almost amazed I have to deal with this issue. But sadly, one of the reasons folks outside of churches of Christ are accusing us of being a denomination is because too many members think the same thing. I remember hearing a Christian ridicule a congregation because their listing in the phone book was under the heading of “Non-denominational Churches” instead of under “Church of Christ.” That is just sad. Perhaps we should consider placing our listing under that same heading if it will eliminate confusion.

Non-denominational is not a bad thing. It is what we teach and practice. Or it should be.

Common Mistake #3: They have to wear the name “church of Christ” to be one of us.

The fact is the New Testament never names Christ’s church. It offers descriptions. One description is “churches of Christ” in Romans 16:16. That doesn’t mean that was their name. That means Paul was referring to groups of people who belong to Christ. There is also the example of I Corinthians 1:2 and II Corinthians 1:1 in which Paul described the church as “the church of God which is at Corinth.” Why? Because that is what they were. They were the group of people in Corinth that belonged to God. Paul referred to the churches in Galatia as “the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2). Why? Because that is what they were. Groups of people in Galatia. He referred to the congregation in Thessalonica as “the church of the Thessalonians” (I Thessalonians 1:1 and II Thessalonians 1:1). Why? Because they were a group of people that were Thessalonians making up that church. 

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Sadly, folks accuse us of being a denomination because many among us are being like the denominations when it comes to our name. We have chosen the name “Franklin Church of Christ” because we want folks to know we are a church belonging to Christ and we meet in Franklin. However, we could just as easily be a church belonging to Christ if our sign read “The Franklin Church of God.” We could just as easily be a church belonging to Christ if our sign read “The Church of God in Franklin.” We could just as easily be a church belonging to Christ if our sign read “The Franklin Church.” We could just as easily be a church belonging to Christ if our sign read, “Christ’s Church” or “Christ’s Church in Franklin.” We could just as easily be a church belonging to Christ if our sign read “Christians assemble here Sunday at 10 am.”  

While we certainly need to describe ourselves in biblically accurate ways, we need to realize we are doing more harm than good by acting like the only way to refer to the congregation is the phrase “Franklin Church of Christ.”

Common Mistake #4: “That’s denominational.”

One of the common mistakes members of a church of Christ make about denominationalism is thinking that anything a denomination does is denominational. That is just not true. I don’t know how many times I have heard Christians claim something is wrong or shouldn’t be done and their sole argument is, “That’s denominational.” What do they mean? They simply mean a denomination does it.

We need to understand that the word “Denominational” refers to one error. It refers to the error of establishing a governmental organization over multiple congregations and establishing a hierarchy of offices governing more than one church. It is not the catch all for everything that is error. The fact is most denominations believe in Jesus Christ. Is believing in Jesus Christ denominational? Most denominations take the Lord’s Supper. Is taking the Lord’s Supper denominational? The fact that a denomination does something doesn’t make it wrong. The fact that a denomination doesn’t do something doesn’t make it right.

Allow me an illustration. I believe and the Franklin church teaches that a congregation should participate in the Lord’s Supper every Sunday (cf. Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 11:20; 16:1-2). Many denominations participate in the Lord’s Supper annually, semiannually, quarterly, or monthly. Do I believe they are practicing something incorrectly? Yes. Is taking the Lord’s Supper quarterly denominational? No. It has nothing to do with the organization of the churches. We must not let the word “denominational” become our catch all word for everything we think is incorrect. That only confuses the issue.

Therefore, if we believe something is unauthorized, we need to demonstrate that from scripture. We cannot simply say, “A denomination does it. That’s denominational.” That is not sound logic but laziness and it is far too common of a mistake. 

Wrapping Up

Denominationalism is an unscriptural method of congregational organization. There is nothing in the New Testament that supports the practice. Therefore, we need to understand that we are not part of a denomination. We need to speak and teach clearly about denominationalism. Further, if we think something is wrong, we need to refrain from the lazy argument of “That’s denominational.”

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Are We Part of the “Church of Christ” Denomination?

Denominationalism has governed churches since the time of Martin Luther. So much so that few people can even comprehend the concept of just being a Christian without thinking we must be a certain kind of Christian–Lutheran Christian, Catholic Christian, Baptist Christian, etc. In fact, when you hear of a non-denominational church they rarely mean they are opposed to denominationalism, rather they mean they don’t care what denomination you are part of. Sadly, some congregations present themselves as non-denominational but are still part of a denomination.

What about us? What about the Franklin Church of Christ? Are we part of a denomination called “The Church of Christ?” No, we are not. I want to share three common mistakes people make in claiming we are a denomination.

Common Mistake #1: Denominate Means to Name

Commonly folks will say that the word “denominate” means to name, so if you name the congregation you have become part of a denomination by that name. Thus, if we call ourselves the Franklin Church of Christ then we are part of the Church of Christ denomination. Of course, I ask folks to look at that whole name. The whole name is “Franklin Church of Christ” why don’t they ask if we are part of the “Franklin Church of Christ” denomination. Even the assertion demonstrates a problem with this definition.

What we really need to note is a common mistake is made with this argument. No doubt one of the most basic definitions of the word “denominate” is “to name.” However, simply finding one definition of a term does not mean that is how it is being used in every context. For instance, the word “butterfly” does not refer to airborne dairy products. 

Consider the following definitions as applied directly to the issues of churches and denominations:

“Denominations are associations of congregations—Though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations—that have a common heritage. Moreover, a true denomination does not claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church” (Donald G. Tinder, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 310).

“Denominationalism – A term for the continuation of the organizations and emphasis on the divisions and distinctions of Protestantism” (Donald T. Kauffman, The Dictionary of Religious Terms, 1967, p 147).

In the context of churches, a denomination does not equal a church that has a name. A denomination equals a group of churches that are associated together in an organized way. Notice, it does not simply refer to a group of churches that have a similar name. Consider the fact that Southern Baptist and Missionary Baptist are two separate denominations. 

The question is not does the name on the sign in front of our church’s building have a name similar to other congregations. The question is whether we are organizationally associated with other churches. We are not. In fact, we believe the Scripture does not authorized such organizational association. In the New Testament we find the universal church (Matthew 16:18). We see local churches (Romans 16:16). We see that local churches are to be governed by their own group of shepherds (I Peter 5:2; Acts 14:23). That is how we are organized. We are an independent, autonomous group of Christians striving to glorify God as best we can by surrendering to the pattern established in the New Testament.

Common Mistake #2: Your Teaching is the Same as Other Churches

Because there are other churches that teach very similarly to us does not mean we are in a denominational arrangement with them. We have no offices or roles for people who are telling us along with other congregations what to teach. If another congregation teaches similarly to us, that is because when they study the Bible they have come to similar conclusions.

According to I Corinthians 4:17, Paul taught the same thing in every church. If those churches practiced what Paul taught them, did they suddenly become a denomination with each other? There is no evidence for that. In I Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul claimed he gave the Corinthian church the exact same instruction he gave the churches in Galatia regarding the collection. If all those churches followed those directions, they would be teaching and practicing the same thing. That did not make them a denomination. 

The fact is, if we believe God has provided a clear revelation for us, we would expect all churches who are following the Bible to teach and practice similar things. That won’t mean they are a denomination. It will mean they are following the same standard.

Common Mistake #3: You Interact with Other Congregations

Since there are other churches that teach and practice similar things to us, we often interact with them. What I mean by that is we often invite members of other churches to attend special services we are offering whether lessons, lectures, singings, etc. We often encourage members of our congregation to attend the functions of other churches, even posting invitations on our bulletin board. Additionally, we often invite men who preach for other congregations to come and teach for us. Does this mean we are a denomination?

No. In fact, it just means we do the same things the Christians and churches did in the New Testament. Though we are not associated together in some kind of governmental organization, we do have interaction with other congregations. In fact, it would be ridiculous for us not to.

Notice in II Corinthians 8:18, Paul talked about sending the brother who was famous among all the churches for his preaching. Here was a brother that preached in many different churches. That didn’t make the churches part of an organizational hierarchy. It just meant many of them let this one fellow preach to them. In Acts 15, the church in Antioch sent men to Jerusalem to find out why the error about circumcision was originating there. That didn’t mean they had a denominational structure just because they interacted with one another. When Paul came to Derbe on his second mission trip, he decided to have Timothy travel with them. The text in Acts 16:1-2 says he was well spoken of by the Christians in Lystra and Iconium as well. These churches had interaction. That doesn’t mean they were in a denomination together.

Wrapping Up

Despite the accusations made that we are part of a denomination, it just isn’t true. Are there other churches like us? Sure. Do we interact? Definitely. Is there a governmental hierarchy over us? No. 

This article looked at some of the mistaken concepts about our congregation and denominationalism. Come back next week in which I’ll share some of the mistakes I hear Christians make about denominationalism.

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3 Reasons We Need to Differentiate between Universal, Local, and Individual

Last week we recognized the difference between the universal church, a local congregation, and an individual Christian. This week I want to show three reasons why noting these differences is necessary. The reasons have to do with…

  1. Organization
  2. Hierarchy
  3. Work

 

Organization

 

Sadly, over the past 500 years differing faiths have become the norm. Instead of everyone just getting into the Bible, coming together to work out differences, and all just be Christians, folks have divided into different denominations. 

Granted, I understand that division may sometimes be necessary. Those divisions will likely produce different bodies of believers. However, the point I want to make is the denominational structure is just not scriptural.

“Denominations are associations of congregations—Though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations—that have a common heritage. Moreover, a true denomination does not claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church” (Donald G. Tinder, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 310).

We learned last week that the universal church is made up of all Christians everywhere or all time. We also learned that the local church is made up of individual Christians who come together in a local area. In the New Testament, we don’t find any interim organization like a denomination. There were no congregations that formed associations based around differing faiths. The universal church was not made up of all the congregations. It was therefore not made up of all the “associations of congregations” either.

There are individual Christians who are members of the universal church and need to be members of a local congregation. That is all we have with nothing in between. Why then do men create such organizations today?

 

Hierarchy

 

In lockstep with the formation of denominationalism, there are hierarchy issues. As congregations came together in associations, these denominations needed officers to lead and rule over these larger organizations.

Yet, in scripture, we have no such hierarchy. In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. Then in I Peter 5:2, we learn the elders should shepherd the flock among them. Based on Acts 14:23, who is the flock among them? The local congregation. Thus, we have leaders or shepherds for the local church.

Is there an office for anything larger than that? Well, there is the headship of the church universal. Who sits in that seat? Ephesians 1:16-23 says that is Jesus.

When we recognize there is leadership for the local church in elders, shepherds, bishops, pastors and then leadership for the church universal in Jesus, we recognize there are no other offices over multiple congregations. There are no arch-bishops, cardinals, presidents, ambassadors, representatives for these larger groups.

 

Work

 

The last two dealt with issues between the universal church and the local. This point is about the difference between the local church and the individual Christian. Sadly, many folks today make a mistaken leap in logic. They know the local church is the people and not the building, they then decide everything the individual Christian is authorized to do, the local church is then authorized to do. In fact, it is very common to hear, “Well the church is the people, so anything the people are doing, the church is doing.” This is just not true.

Notice I Timothy 5:16. “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.”

There is a distinction here. Just because this Christian is caring for a widow, doesn’t mean the church is. In fact, if the statement that anything the people do the church is doing were true, then Paul’s statement couldn’t possibly be true. He shows that an individual Christian was burdened, but the local church was not. 

This passage also demonstrates that there is work for the individual and work for the local congregation. If an individual has a dependent widow in the family, the individual should care for her. The congregation cares for widows who are truly widows who have no one to care for them. Granted, I recognize if no one will care for the widow, that makes her a widow indeed. The point being, there is a distinction.

That being said, we go all over the New Testament and we see an interesting distinction between individual Christians and the local church when it comes to benevolence. While Christians are encouraged to practice benevolence for everyone (Galatians 6:1), we consistently see that local churches practiced benevolence only for brethren (Acts 4:32-37; Acts 11:29-30; I Corinthians 16:1; Philippians 1:5; 4:15).

Additionally, we note the distinction between social time together. Clearly, individual Christians spent social time with one another eating with one another from house to house (Acts 2:46). However, we never see the local congregation planning, providing, or paying for that social interaction. Christians did these things together because they were members together of the local church, but the local church itself did not see that as part of its work. In fact, the one time the local church started turning the Lord’s Supper into a social meal, the Christians were told to eat at home. Keep that interaction in its proper place (cf. I Corinthians 11:22, 34).

We need to see the distinction between the individual Christian and the local church and not blur the lines.

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The Universal Church, the Local Church, and the Individual Christian

I’ve noticed a really good thing in my spiritual discussions with people today. More and more are learning and recognizing that the church is not a building. It is the people. When Christ presents His church holy and blameless to the Father, He will not present a building or buildings. He will present people (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27).

However, as some have made this discovery, they have started making an error. They have said, “If the church is the collection of people and not the building, then when the people do something, the church is doing it.” This is not necessarily true. The Bible demonstrates three different institutions or “levels” (for lack of a better term) within Christianity.

The Universal Church

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” He was going to build simply one church, not two, not ten, not hundreds, not thousands. Just one. Ephesians 1:22-23 says the church is the body of Christ and Ephesians 4:4 says there is just one body.

However, we see churches all over the place. How can this be? Is there only one congregation in all the world that is the right one and we must find it and be part of it, even if it is on the other side of the globe? No. This isn’t talking about a congregation. This is talking about the church universal. This is talking about the collection of all those who are in Christ. This is the collection of all who have been baptized into the one body (cf. I Corinthians 12:13). 

The universal church is the collection of all Christians, of all times, of all places. Some of this group is already in paradise. Some are still on earth. Assuming the world continues long enough, some haven’t even been born yet. 

What we need to understand very clearly is this is not a collection of local churches. It is not the sum total of all the members of local congregations. It is the collection of Christians. Further, this collectivity does not literally assemble until the end of time when God assembles us in heaven. Finally, this collectivity doesn’t do any work as the collectivity. The universal church is not organized in some way that accomplishes some work. There is no universal treasury. There is not universal government apart from Christ as our head teaching each individual how to behave.

This is the universal church. It should not be confused with a local congregation or an individual Christian.

The Local Church

Having learned about the church universal, we might get confused. Probably every one of us have been members of more than one congregation. Then we hear there is only one church and we wonder what is going on. The scripture uses church in another way. There is the universal collection of all the saints. But there is also a local collection of saints who have bonded together to work and serve the Lord together.

This is a local church and there are many.

Consider Romans 16:16 says, “All the churches of Christ greet you.” What? I thought there was just one church of Christ? Yes, in the universal sense. But in the local sense, there are numerous congregations that belong to Christ.

John wrote letters to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). He wrote to the church of God in Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2). He wrote to the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2).

All of this demonstrates a church in a local sense. Christians in a general location gathered together and joined themselves to one another (cf. Acts 9:26). 

Unlike the universal church, the local church does assemble together regularly (see I Corinthians 11:18; 14:23). They collect funds to accomplish work (see I Corinthians 16:1-4; II Corinthians 8-9; Philippians 1:5; 4:15). Not everyone who is a member is necessarily a faithful Christian (cf. III John 9). Just because a local congregation refuses membership, doesn’t mean the person is not a faithful Christian (Acts 9:26).

This is the local congregation. It is not to be confused with the universal church or with the individual Christians who make up the congregation.

The Individual Christian

This is self-explanatory. A Christian is an individual Christian. A Christian is a member of the church universal and is to be a member of a local church, not forsaking the assembling together with the local church (Hebrews 10:25). 

Most of the New Testament was written to direct how the individual Christian acts. Even though letters were sent to congregations, most of the instruction is about the individual Christian. For instance, look at Ephesians 5. “Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” is about the individuals. When we get to the part about wives, husbands, children, slaves, masters-that is clearly about the individual and not the local church. With this in mind, the individual Christian clearly has work to do. This work is above and beyond what they do in the local church.

I Corinthians 16:1-2 demonstrated the individual’s responsibility to contribute to a church’s collection to accomplish the church’s work. At the same time, Hebrews 13:16 demonstrates the individual simply sharing with others in need apart from the work of the local church.

This is the individual Christian and should not be confused with the local church or the universal church.

We need to recognize these three different institutions or levels of Christianity. Come back next Tuesday as we’ll take a look at some practical reasons for noting these differences.

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Not Non-denominational but Anti-denominational

It’s vogue to be non-denominational today. In fact, churches of all denominational affiliations are dropping their denominations’ names from their signs in order to appear unaffiliated. First, I’m glad for this push for non-denominational Christianity. I certainly still disagree with many things taught in many churches but I’m glad to see more people recognizing there is no need to be a particular kind of Christian. Jesus died to forgive us and make us Christians, not so we could turn around and be a particular brand of Christian.

Perhaps now it is time for us to take another step when people ask us that fundamental question: “What denomination are you?” Instead of merely saying we are non-denominational, we need to point out that we are anti-denominational. That is, we have not merely chosen by way of congregational tradition to be unaffiliated with the hierarchy and governance of a denominational organization. We have decided to be independent and self-governing because the Bible does not provide authorization for churches to band together in some kind of mid-level organization. We believe God’s way works and so we have decided to merely be an independent congregation governed by our own local shepherds as they submit to the Chief Shepherd (cf. I Peter 5:1-5).

Approaching the Prooftext

However, if we are going to say this, we will certainly need to understand the one chapter in the Bible most folks turn to as their biblical explanation for the denominational model–Acts 15. Many people misread this chapter believing the church in Antioch sent a delegation to the mother church in order to learn from the apostles and the Jerusalem elders what the correct doctrine was regarding circumcision and the Jews. Further, when this delegation arrived, they had a conference to debate and vote on what the correct approach should be. This is simply not true.

Note that Paul did not learn his gospel from any other apostles according to Galatians 1:11-12, 15-24. Surely we recognize the teaching about whether circumcision was necessary to salvation for the Gentiles is part of the gospel message, it is not merely some ancillary doctrine. It is at the core of the good news that we are saved by Jesus and not by keeping requirements of the Old Law. Paul never went to Jerusalem to learn what to teach.

Why then did Paul and this delegation go to Jerusalem? 

Acts 15:1 says the men who taught this error had come from Judea. Further, when the letter was written by the Jerusalem congregation notice what they said in Acts 15:24: “Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions…” (ESV). 

Paul and the Antioch brethren traveled to Jerusalem not because they wanted to learn what to teach. They traveled to Jerusalem because the erring teachers who were troubling them had come from there. They were trying to get to the bottom of this error and correct it at its source.

The Conclusion

The fact is, we don’t see congregational hierarchy here. We don’t see denomination. We don’t see mother churches. Rather, we see one congregation trying to find out why error was coming from another one. Therefore, those who desperately want to justify the denominational model need to  find some other place of authorization. Since there is none, those who believe the Scripture equips us for every good work (cf. II Timothy 3:16-17) and who believe God’s way works are not merely non-denominational, they are anti-denominational.

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