There are many who have trouble with the idea of being part of a local church and do not want anything to do with them, and many people point to denominations as a major culprit, as if they are inherently sinful. The arguments usually start by decrying the “man made” organization that today’s local churches follow. After all, the church is not a building, it is a group of people in a locality, in other words it is an organism not an organization. On top of that you shouldn’t refer to it as “your” church because churches are not something to be possessed, it is something in which we partake.
After these usual semantics are expressed, many times the conversation will turn toward denominations. They will usually be argued against by saying something like, the practice of a denomination is to separate yourself from brothers and sisters through our thoughts and opinions, and Ephesians chapter 4 clearly tells us we are to seek unity. So this separations is a serious problem. On top of that, denominations are regularly contentious with each other over members because they want them all to come to be followers of their particular distinctives. Finally, if you want real clarity on this issue all you need to do is look at 1 Cor. 1 which says…
1Co 1:11 For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
1Co 1:12 Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.
1Co 1:13 Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?
Doesn’t this passage clearly condemn the very nature of denominations? You can be a follower of the Baptists or the Presbyterians if you want, but not me; I’m a Christ-follower.
Now the first thing we must see, beside a usual miss-characterization of denominational churches, is the self-refuting nature of these accusations. What they are arguing, is that the way churches and denominations are functioning today is wrong and they all need to correct themselves by aligning themselves under the arguers understanding of a local church, because according to them, they follow Christ’s example not man’s. So what they are doing in arguing against someone like myself is trying to convert me to their particular distinctives, along with everyone else with whom they come in contact. But as we all know not everyone will buy into this understanding of the local church which is really and anti-understanding. But some people will, and as they begin to align themselves under this theology they will begin to study under teachers who teach it and listen to preachers who preach it and gather together to take the Lord’s supper and etc. And before you know it, what they have become is the very nature of a denomination. Whether they want to call themselves by a certain name (nomination) or not, or even claim to be not-a-denomination (non-denominational) that is exactly what they have become.
Not only are they organized under their theology of a local church, they are actually trying to get others out of their denominations and come to their not-a-denomination. But if they can do it, why can’t other denominations? But here is the real issue, they are actually more divisive than most regular denominations because most regular denominations are not so concerned with getting everyone to their particular distinctives. They realize that as long as we agree on the essentials we can differ on the secondary doctrine and do not need to get someone to switch churches to be part of a healthy local church. Which happens to be something the person who argues against denominations cannot do. For them, in order for someone to be in a healthy local church, they must get out of a denominational church and become like the anti-denominational people, because denominations are sinful.
So what about Ephesians chapter 4 and First Corinthians chapter one? In Eph 4 it says we should be striving for unity and I believe many denominations agree with this. They (like the arguer) believe they understand what the will of God is and desire that all Christian be united under that truth. And if the arguer can do this why can’t a particular denomination.
To understand the passage in 1 Corinthians 1, we must realize that Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Christ, all taught the same doctrine. So when the people said I am of Paul or Apollos they were not disagreeing over the doctrine. The contention was one of mere personal pride. Some wanted everyone to know that it was Paul who led them to Christ as if that gave them some special clout to hold over other people. Others thought that being of Apollos was something to be proud of because historically and Biblically Apollos was a great orator, so some people thought that made them better than other Christians. Now it is true that some denominations and even some specific churches have these sins associated with them. They have divided because of these sinful contentions, but my point is that the divisions that Paul was addressing are not what typically brought many denominations to fruition. The contentions are usually doctrinal, and Paul took doctrine very seriously. Even to the point of dividing with people he thought were teaching incorrect doctrine.
Now if we read this passage the way I assume the arguer usually attempts to use it (to justify an argument against denominations), we would have to assume that Paul is talking about doctrinal issues. But if this is the case then we would have to assume that Paul and Apollos etc. where all teaching different doctrine and that Paul was telling them to not worry about doctrine, just be united anyway, which is something Paul never said.
What is really interesting about this passage is that Paul mentions that some were saying they were “of Christ” too. As if this gave them some special prestige. After all they didn’t follow the traditions of some teacher. They learned directly from Christ Himself. But if we are reading this as if this applies to denouncing denominations, shouldn’t saying we are of Christ be a good thing? Isn’t it true that we really aren’t of Paul or Apollos but of Christ after all. He is the true head of the Church. But Paul is arguing that even claiming to be of Christ and not of any other teacher etc. can be divisive and sinful. This statement makes it clear that Paul was not saying it is always wrong to gather under certain associations or nominal affiliations, because we should gather under the affiliation of Christ. What we have to keep clear here is that Paul is not speaking of doctrinal differences since they all taught the same thing, but of proud sinful divisions when they all believed the same doctrine. My argument is that denominations by definition do not fit into what Paul was addressing here, even though some denominations and local churches may act this way.
I actually believe that if Paul, Apollos, and Peter had all been teaching different doctrine and only Peter was correct, In that sense it would actually have been commendable to say I am of Peter and not of Paul. Likewise, if the Baptists are right and the Methodists are wrong or vise versa, it would actually good to say I am of one and not the other. Ultimately, it turns out the arguer is being more divisive than most denominations by rejecting them all based on an improper understanding of this passage. If this passage is to be read to fit denominations, the arguer is the one claiming to be of Christ. They are the ones claiming not to follow any teacher or group except Christ and refuse to have any other nominal associations. But remember Paul was condemning the people who where saying they were of Christ too. This is why this passage does not mean what they are using it to say. It is good to be of Christ and also good to be nominally associated with Paul and Apollos in that sense. Because they are right and speak the truth of God, but it is wrong if we use it as a prideful sinful division among these men when Paul, Peter, and Christ are united. It is also true that when a local church uses a denominational status in that way, they are acting sinfully, but most denominational differences deal with secondary doctrinal issues rather than mere prestige and pride.
Different denominations can have the unity and the love that Paul talks about even though they do not agree on all secondary doctrines. They can have this unity and love because they agree on the essentials. The argument that is usually made by those against denominations is that they cannot have true unity unless they agree on everything. But if that is true, it logically follows that the arguer cannot have unity with them either because they do not believe exactly the same thing. Now if they argue that they can have unity with someone who does not believe exactly like them, then all we have to ask is, then why can’t denominations?
Finally, what the arguer in these discussions usually neglects is the nature of truth, because many times the arguer will have some idea that unity is more important than truth, which is itself is a “truth” which they are using to separate themselves from others believers. Instead of arguing that all denominations are wrong, simply because they have nominal affiliations or distinctives that set them apart, the real discussion should be about which one lines up closest with the Word of God.
In conclusion, the idea of denominations is not inherently sinful. If it is always wrong to have associations or some kind of particular doctrinal distinctives, then everyone is wrong because even refusing to hold to a particular doctrinal distinctive is itself a particular doctrinal distinctive.