New Testament Christianity, the religious model followed by the first century apostolic church, was decided non-denominational. More than that, it was distinctly anti-denominational; so much so that it seems impossible, upon reflection, to follow the apostolic model, given to these apostles by Christ and the Holy Spirit, while simultaneously embracing confessionalism.
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 that contains many facets. The most obvious of these is an institutional hierarchy, most often including a central headquarters or governing body that determines the doctrine and practices of the various member congregations of that institution. This practice is so common that most people give little thought to the phenomenon, assuming that it is simply the way things are done, never considering such an arrangement to be completely alien to the New Testament model which does not knows that Jesus is both head of the church (cf. Ephesians 1:22) and giver of doctrine (cf. 2 John vs 9). The idea that men could come together in committee 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 complete submission to his will which accepts that once he , as Lord , has spoken on the matter, it should be settled. Rejecting the inspired arrangement of his own realm in favor of ours seems more than a little willful.
That being said, there is another element in the very philosophy of denominationalism which is so contrary to the very nature of the Gospel that all who wish to follow the New Testament model should be alert to the danger of tradition, no matter how it is accepted. is worldwide. The problem is this: each denomination is designed as a branch, or division, of the main body of the church. Each denomination follows a different pattern, creates a new hierarchy, and teaches a different doctrine than any other denomination, becoming distinct in name, function, creed, purpose, governance, and association. Each denomination becomes evidence of a lack of unity and a willingness to separate from other believers on essential matters.
In this regard, the apostle Paul, faced with an ancestor of phenomena, was clear in rejecting such a philosophy. We read, for example, “I ask you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all be in agreement, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same spirit and judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10; ESV). And likewise: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, exhort you to walk in a manner worthy of the vocation to which you have been called, in all humility and meekness, with patience, supporting one another with loving, desirous of maintaining 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 before his death opened his heart in prayer concerning who would be his disciples. He said, “I’m not asking [the apostles] only, but also for those who will believe in me by their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so that they too may be in us, so that the world believe that you sent me (John 17:20-21; ESV).
Jesus did not die to establish one or more denominations. Nor was he willing to suffer in order to promote further division among his followers. On the contrary, He foresaw one united body of believers presenting a common and loving front to the world in order to convince the world of the truth of His message.
How can we say that we love our Lord and Savior if, instead of honoring his sincere prayer, instead of obeying the apostolic call to seek the unity of the Spirit, rejecting all division, we accept with complacency division and disunity as the status quo? Jesus rightly foresaw that such a situation would simply give the whole world one more reason to reject the truthfulness of his message. If those who claim to follow Jesus are not content to just be his church, if they have to pile on other creeds, names, governing bodies and the like, why should anyone in the world think that the Gospel, and the gospel alone is sufficient for their spiritual needs?
The apostle Paul went on to rhetorically ask the church at Corinth concerning its own divisions: “Is Christ divided (1 Corinthians 1:13a)”, the answer to this question being a “No!”
Christ is not and cannot be divided. His body, which is the Church, cannot therefore be divided by men. This truth warns and reminds us that if we intend to divide Christ, all we will accomplish is to separate ourselves from him who saves, to separate ourselves from the eternal body and the security it contains (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
Jonathan McAnulty is a minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. The views expressed in the article are the work of the author.