The Way of Christ
by Jerry Vinson
November 2, 2000
"Neither do I pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they all may be one...that the world may believe that You sent Me." - John 17:20-21
Is unity in faith, doctrine, and practice possible among all who profess to believe in Jesus Christ?
Can denominationalism fulfill the plea of Jesus Christ for unity when He prayed, "that they all may be one?"
Is denominationalism helpful to the faith of people in the world?
Read on - find the answer to these questions. Consider if there really is a better way!
Can you imagine a time when the disciples of Jesus were just called Christians - a time when believers were united in faith, doctrine, and practice - a time when churches of Christ existed, yet, there were no differing denominations? Perhaps you've answered, "No. I can't picture a time like that! Just look at all of the denominations that exist today. They believe and practice many different and contradictory things. If there was ever a time like you have asked me to imagine, where did all of these different denominations come from?" Friend, that is what this article is about. Let me introduce you to the idea of "The Way of Christ Without Denominationalism."
The Way It Was
What I have asked you to imagine was a reality in the first century A. D. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promised His apostles, "I will build My church." Jesus later traveled to Jerusalem where He was tried by the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. After being falsely accused and convicted, Jesus was crucified. He died, He was buried, and He rose again on the third day (Matthew 26:57-28:20). Forty days later, Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:1-11). Ten days later in the city of Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost in 30 A. D., Christ's church began just as He promised when those who heard the gospel of Christ responded by obeying the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:22-41, 47). His church rapidly spread by the preaching of the gospel throughout the regions of Judea, Samaria, and the farthest parts of the world (Acts 2-28). In fact, about thirty years after Christ's church began, the apostle Paul said "the gospel" had been brought "to all the world" and "was preached to every creature under heaven" (Colossians 1:5-6, 23).
During that time, the disciples of Jesus were called Christians - "And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26). This one name alone shows a relationship to Jesus Christ. James alluded to it as "that noble name by which you are called" (James 2:7). The disciples were Christians - just Christians and members of the Lord's church.
The Christians were united in faith, doctrine, and practice in the first century. For example, we read that "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). When questions or controversies arose among the Christians, they were settled by acceptance of and adherence to "the apostles' doctrine" which is also called "the gospel" (Rom 1:16), "the doctrine of Christ" (2 John 9), "the faith" (Jude 3), "the commandments of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37), and "the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). "The apostles' doctrine" was the source and basis for all that the early Christians believed and practiced - no Articles of Faith, no Catechisms, no Creeds, no Confessions, no Disciplines, no Manuals - just "the apostles' doctrine."
Finally, this was a period of time in which there were numerous churches of Christ, or churches of God. For example, Paul wrote to the saints in Rome and declared, "the churches of Christ greet you" (Romans 16:16). Paul wrote to "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2). He commanded the elders to "shepherd the church of God" (Acts 20:28). These were not different denominations - not even "Church Of Christ (God)" denominations. These were just "churches of (belonging to) Christ" in various localities and regions.
It is obvious and clear, according to the Bible, that there was a time when the disciples were just called Christians, a time when believers were united in faith, doctrine, and practice, and a time when churches of Christ existed without the existence of any denominations. Friend, that is the way it was in the first century.
The Present Situation
Today, those who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ call themselves by other religious names instead of just wearing the name "Christian." Today, there is no unity in faith, doctrine, and practice, seeing that denominations teach and practice different things that contradict one another, as well as things that contradict "the apostles' doctrine." Today, there are over 1,000 different denominations which claim to belong to Christ.
Denominationalism has become the accepted way of honoring and following Jesus Christ. We are told, "The church doesn't matter." "Join the church of your choice." "Different strokes for different folks." The question is, "What happened to the biblical precedent of the way of Christ without denominationalism?" Perhaps your reply is, "What difference does it make?" That is a good question. Does it really make a difference?
Look At The Fruit
Countless numbers of people have been assured that denominationalism is a good thing, and different reasons are given for why it is good. We need to understand a crucial lesson. Just because we think something is good or bad, that does not make it so. How can we determine whether or not denominationalism is a good thing or a bad thing? How can we determine whether or not "Denominationalism" or "The Way of Christ Without Denominationalism" really matters? The answer is, "Look at the fruit."
Jesus said, "...every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:17-20). Let's apply this principle to the "tree" of denominationalism to help us see whether denominationalism is "a good tree" or "a bad tree." Remember, "a good tree cannot bear bad fruit" according to Jesus.
The Fruit of Division
In John 17, Jesus prayed to the Father, first for His apostles, then "for those who will believe in Me through their word" (John 17:20-21). Faith in Jesus was established through the teaching (doctrine) of the apostles. His prayer continued, "that they all may be one." This was a prayer for unity among believers - unity in faith, doctrine, and practice based upon "the apostles' doctrine" - nothing else. This prayer was realized in the first century when Christians followed the way of Christ without denominationalism. The apostle Paul commanded, "let there be no divisions among you," (1 Corinthians 1:10) and he specifically condemned factions and divisions as "works of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19-21). By definition, "Denominationalism" is "The tendency to separate into religious sects or denominations" (American Heritage Dictionary). To separate is to divide rather than unite. Denominationalism, by its inherent nature, is factious and divisive. It is clearly a violation of Jesus' prayer for unity, as well as a violation of "the apostles' doctrine" against division. Friend, division is just one bad fruit on the "tree" of denominationalism! That's not good!
The Fruit of Atheism
In Jesus' prayer for unity, He realized that great harm would result if His disciples failed to be united in faith and practice. He prayed, "That they all may be one...that the world may believe that you sent me" (John 17:21). Jesus knew that without this unity among believers, the world would deny that He was sent by the Father. Unity among believers, based upon accepting and following only the "apostles' doctrine" is a compelling force that helps conquer disbelief in God and Jesus Christ. But, division among believers generates unbelief and skepticism in the world. Jesus knew it when He prayed for unity!
Denominationalism (division) necessarily results if men use and bind religious standards and creeds other than, or in addition to, "the apostles' doctrine." Examples can include such writings as the Standard Manual for Baptist Churches, the Catholic Catechism, the Philadelphia Confessions of Faith of the Presbyterian Church, Luther's Small Catechism, the Methodist Discipline, the Book of Mormon, etc. Each of these is a different religious standard from the other, not to mention a different religious standard from "the apostles' doctrine."
Unity in faith, doctrine, and practice is impossible if men follow a standard other than, or in addition to "the apostles' doctrine." The contradictory religious creeds of denominationalism are a major cause of the skepticism and atheism among people in the world. Do you doubt it? Read on!
Charles Darwin was once a seminary student at Cambridge who was preparing for the clergy in the Church of England. He disagreed with the creed of that church and could not go into "Holy Orders." He later became an unbeliever whose name is most known for its connection to the theory of evolution. Charles Smith, the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, became an atheist after his Methodist pastor denied the miraculous conception and virgin birth of Jesus as the Bible teaches. Robert Owen, a European of the 19th century, became an atheist after investigating the writings of a number of theological creeds.
This list of names could be easily multiplied! In each of these instances, it was not "the apostle's doctrine" which led these men of the past into atheism. It was either a man's denial of that doctrine, or the contradictory theological and denominational creeds that produced skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism.
I could add to this list of atheists and agnostics by mentioning people I have either known or visited. Not one of them attributed their unbelief to "the apostles doctrine." They always mentioned the contradictory beliefs and practices of denominationalism for their unbelief and skepticism! Accepting and following "the apostles' doctrine" alone leads to unity in faith, doctrine, and practice among believers, while embracing other religious standards produces division which leads people into skepticism and atheism. Friend, atheism is just another bad fruit on the "tree" of denominationalism! That's not good!
The Fruit of Confusion
It is strange to me that defendants of denominationalism believe it is a good thing. Their thinking is that, because God made each man different, we all have preferences, likes and dislikes. Consequently, denominationalism provides a way in which people can choose the church that matches their personal preferences and beliefs. Some even say that God established denominations in order to accommodate man's different preferences. There are serious problems with this view!
First, what the apostles taught in one church, they taught in every church (1 Corinthians 4:17; Colossians 4:16). This produced unity in faith, doctrine, and practice in all of the churches - not denominationalism (division) that catered to subjective personal preferences or to beliefs that contradicted apostolic doctrine.
Second, "God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Corinthians 14:33). Religious confusion necessarily results when those who claim to believe in and worship the same God believe and practice things that contradict one another, as well as things that contradict "the apostles' doctrine." Seriously consider this - since denominationalism causes confusion, and God is not the author of confusion, then we can be absolutely certain that God is not responsible for, nor does He approve of denominationalism! Friend, confusion is another bad fruit on the "tree" of denominationalism! That's not good!
Realizing that Jesus said, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit," we have briefly considered just a few of the many bad fruits on the "tree" of denominationalism. At the very least, this "tree" produces the fruit of division, the fruit of atheism, and the fruit of confusion. No matter where we may pick from the "tree" of denominationalism, we will only get bad fruit.
So, "What are our choices?" We can ignore these facts concerning denominationalism and say, "It doesn't really matter." Or, we can have the courage to stand against denominationalism and follow the way of Christ without denominationalism, just like we find it in the Bible. We can seek unity in faith, doctrine, and practice based only upon "the apostles' doctrine," regardless of what others are doing. Friend, the choice you make really does matter! Which choice will it be for you?
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