A denomination is a church organization that unites congregations of similar beliefs and practices. Examples of denominations include the Presbyterian Church of America; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod; and the American Baptist Church. Denominationalism, then, is a devotion to one’s own denomination (“I’m a Methodist and proud of it”) or, more negatively, an emphasis on denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive (“If you’re not a Methodist, then you’re wrong”). The negative type of denominationalism could be called sectarianism, and it is overly divisive.
Denominations vary in their creeds, practices, and traditions. Denominationalism clings to the particular creed, practice, and tradition of one denomination and rejects all other groups as unworthy of association. While there is nothing wrong with having denominations, per se, we should strive for peace within the church. Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. . . . What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10–13). The Christians at Corinth were dividing themselves into groups based on the personality and practices of their favorite teachers. Paul rebukes this early denominationalism as wholly unnecessary and damaging to the unity of Christ. Christians are to follow Christ, and the church is to be of the same mind and of the same judgment because we follow a God who is One and who does not change (Deuteronomy 6:4; James 1:17).
On at least one occasion, Jesus had to deal with a sectarian attitude among His disciples. John came to Jesus one day and said, “Teacher . . . we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38). This was before the church began, so John’s attitude cannot be properly called denominationalism, but it was a prototype. Jesus rebukes John: “Do not stop him. . . . For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward” (Mark 9:39–41).
Applying this incident to the church age, we can say that, first, denominationalism is wrong because the Lord can use others who are not involved in our denomination. Further, denominationalism is wrong because the Lord may have works in progress that we know nothing about, and He doesn’t need our approval to use someone not associated with our organization. Denominationalism is countered by Jesus’ words “whoever is not against us is for us.”
We cannot assume that other Christians are not “really” serving the Lord simply because they don’t belong to our denomination or run in our circles. Service in Christ’s name will be rewarded. We should allow the Giver of all good gifts to hand out the rewards as He sees fit. Paul acknowledges that not everyone who preaches the gospel is someone he would approve of: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, . . . out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15–18). What matters is not whether or not everyone agrees. What matters is that the gospel is being proclaimed.
While we are to strive toward unity in the Spirit, there are biblical reasons for the people of God separating themselves from other groups and maintaining doctrinal distinctives. Paul warns that there is strong judgment for those who distort the gospel (Galatians 1:6–9; cf. 2 Peter 2). The truth matters, and the gospel is of supreme importance. The gospel must not be watered down or altered. We must “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 1:3). Believers must separate from those who deny the truth about Jesus and pervert the gospel: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them” (2 John 1:10).
Denominations spring up for various reasons: mode of baptism, frequency of communion, use of musical instruments, etc. Even cultural and ethnic differences can give rise to different denominations. Despite the abundance of denominations today, we must remember that that gospel is paramount. When there is agreement on the Person and Work of Christ in salvation, then lesser differences take a back seat and denominationalism is stymied. Christians in one denomination should try to respect those in other denominations and focus on spreading the gospel to a needy world.
Evangelist D. L. Moody eschewed denominationalism. During his evangelistic crusades, Moody enlisted cooperation from all local churches and evangelical church leaders, regardless of their denominational affiliations. Moody cared nothing for what denomination a person claimed; he just wanted the message of Christ to be heard. The result was that over 100 million people heard the gospel plainly preached in his lifetime.
Born-again believers in Jesus Christ should “stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). We can avoid denominationalism by allowing God’s Spirit to work in us, for peace is a fruit of the Spirit of Christ (Galatians 5:22). “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” (Colossians 3:15).