New Testament Christianity, the religious pattern followed by the apostolic, first-century church, was decideded non-denominational. More than this, it was distinctly anti-denominational; so much so that it seems impossible upon consideration to follow the apostolic pattern, given to those apostles by Christ and the Holy Spirit, whilst simultaneously embracing denominationalism.
Let’s take a moment and explain why we would say such a thing, and also explain what is meant when we say that the apostolic church was not just non-denominational, but anti-denominational.
When men speak of a religious denomination, they are describing a circumstance which contains multiple facets. The most obvious of these is an institutional hierarchy, most often including a central headquarters or governing body which determines doctrine and practices for the various member congregations of that institution. So common is this practice that most individuals scarcely give the phenomena much thought, taking it for granted that this is simply the way things are done , never considering such an arrangement is completely foreign to the New Testament pattern which knows only Jesus as both the head of the church (cf. Ephesians 1:22) and the giver of doctrine (cf. 2 John vs. 9). The idea that men might gather in a committee so as to decide which statutes of the doctrine of Christ they will or will not deem to be authoritative is more than a little contrary to a full submission to His will which accepts that once He, as Lord, has spoken on the matter, it should be settled. To reject the inspired arrangement of His own kingdom in favor of our own seems more than just a little willful.
That being said, there is another element to the very philosophy of denominationalism which is so antithetical to the very nature of the Gospel that all who desire to follow the New Testament pattern should be alert to the danger of the tradition, no matter how accepted it is in the world at large. The issue is this: each denomination is conceived as a branch, or division, from the main body of the church. Each denomination follows a different pattern, creates a new hierarchy, and teaches a different doctrine than every other denomination, becoming distinct in name, function, creed, focus, governance, and association. Each denomination becomes proof of a lack of unity and a willingness to be divided from other believers in matters essential.
Concerning this, the apostle Paul, confronting a primogenitor of the phenomena was clear in rejecting such a philosophy. We read, for example, “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 (1 Corinthians 1:10; ESV).” And likewise, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3; ESV).”
In making these appeals, Paul was simply echoing the desire of Jesus, who prior to His death, laid open His heart in prayer concerning those who were going to be His followers. He said, “I do not ask for [the apostles] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21; ESV).”
Jesus did not die in order to establish one or more denominations. Nor was He prepared to suffer in order to promote further division amongst His followers. To the contrary, He anticipated a single, united body of believers presenting a common, loving front to the world so as to convict the world of the truth of His message.
How can we say that we love our Lord and Savior if, instead of honoring His heartfelt prayer, instead of obeying the apostolic appeal to seek after the unity of the Spirit, rejecting any and all division we complacently accept division and disunity as the status quo? Jesus rightly foresaw that such a situation would simply give the world at large one more reason to reject the truth of His message. If those who claim to follow Jesus are not content to simply be His church, if they must stack up other creeds, names, governing bodies and the like, why should any in the world think that the Gospel, and the Gospel alone is sufficient for their spiritual needs?
The apostle Paul would go on and rhetorically ask the Corinthian church concerning their own divisions: “Is Christ divided (1 Corinthians 1:13a),” the answer to which is a resounding, “No!”
Christ is not and cannot be divided. His body, which is the church, therefore cannot be divided by men. This truth warns us and reminds us that if we are intent on dividing Christ, all we will accomplish is dividing ourselves away from the one who saves, separating ourselves from the body eternal and the safety therein (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.