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 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.