Anyone who observes our religious world notices that it is filled with multiplied denominations. Many see this as a good thing—that anyone can find a denomination that teaches what he wants it to teach, thus the slogan, “Go to the church of your choice.”
This was the attitude expressed by Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon in a sermon: “I bless God that there are so many denominations. If there were not men who differed a little in their creeds, we should never get as much gospel as we do. … God has sent different men to defend different kinds of truth.” Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 2, 224. We might ask Mr. Spurgeon how there can be different kinds of truth. But on another occasion Mr. Spurgeon recognized the problem of denominations: “”Denominations! A plague upon denominationalism! There should be but one denomination: We should be denominated by the name of Christ, as a wife is named by her husband’s name. As long as the Church of Christ has to say, “My right arm is Episcopalian, and my left arm is Wesleyan, and my right foot is Baptist, and my left foot is Presbyterian or Congregational,” she is not ready for marriage. She will be ready when she has washed out these stains, when all her members have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”—Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Messages of Hope and Faith, p. 308.
The question is not whether Spurgeon approves of denominations, but whether God approves. Did God plan for man to “Go to the church of man’s choice”? Does God approve of our divided religious world?
Are religious divisions inevitable? Are all of the denominations in agreement with the fundamentals of the faith? Is it arrogant for anyone to claim that they understand the Bible and that others are in error? Can we know the truth?
Consider these facts about denominationalism.
1. Denominationalism is prompted by a spirit of separation.
Denomination is defined as “the act of naming, a name, an appellation.” The only way the word church is used in the New Testament is in the local sense—one congregation, or in the aggregate—the whole church. Any denomination is always more than the local congregation and less than the whole church, so it is based on separation. This is despite the Lord’s prayer that all of His followers would be united. In the very shadow of the cross, Christ prayed for unity. “Neither pray I for these alone [the apostles], but for them also which shall believe on me through their word [all who claim to be Christians today]; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-21). The separation of denominationalism is a great detriment to the world believing the message of Christ.
2. Denominationalism sanctions the way of man’s choice (instead of God’s choice).
Jeremiah lamented, “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). Wayward man thinks he is making the right choice, but is too often mistaken. “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 16:25). Remember, if it is up to man, he may pick the wrong church. The Lord will add a man to the right church, though. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:42b).
When the kingdom of Solomon divided into the two competing kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Jeroboam, who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, realized that he might lose the people if they returned to Jerusalem to the temple, so he offered alternative worship. “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Beth-el, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan.” (1 Kings 12:28-30). This was equivalent of “Attend the church of your choice.”
3. Denominationalism is built on sincerity instead of truth.
Sincerity is important, but is it enough? “And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1). Paul was sincere, but sincerely wrong when he persecuted the church. “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13). Most of the people whose conversion we read of in the book of Acts, such as Lydia (Acts 16), and the Ethiopian treasurer (Acts 8), were very sincere in their beliefs. Why did they have to change? Would a sincere atheist need to change?
4. Denominationalism ignores God’s standard for unity.
Notice again the Lord’s prayer for unity. “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Paul begged the Christians at Corinth to be united. “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Can you imagine Peter and Paul being members of different churches? Some say, “We are all teaching from the same Bible, going to the same place.” But how can one denomination say baptism is immersion, another say that it is sprinkling, and another say that it is pouring? “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3).
5. Denominationalism destroys faith in the church.
Some say it doesn’t matter which church, if any, you are a member of. “One church is as good as another,” they say. But can any man build a church as good as the church Jesus built? The church Christ built came at great cost. Paul urged the Elders of the church at Ephesus, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
That church was established in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost after Christ was raised from the dead. Acts 2 tells the full story of how Peter and the other apostles preached the first gospel sermon to the multitudes gathered there, in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the last days (Acts 2:14-21. Peter commanded, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47b).
You have the choice of being just a Christian. The appeal of the churches of Christ is to be a Christian, a member of the church of the New Testament, not a member of any denomination. If you obey the gospel just like they did in the book of Acts, worship like they did, and follow God’s commands as they did, you can be a member of the same church. The Lord does not want His followers to be divided among the denominations. He just wants us to be Christians, and Christians only. Why would you want to wear any other name religiously but that of Christian?