For centuries now those who profess to be followers of Jesus have been divided into feuding factions and scattered sects, all believing that they are right and approved by God. Divided into denominations and partitioned into parties people put their soul’s security into the peculiar precepts and historical heritages that perpetuate this condition of continuing separation.
The sad fact is that none of this has even the remotest approval in the word of God. In fact, the whole concept of Christianity existing in such a state of humanly preferred and humanly manufactured separation is manifestly contrary to Jesus’ expressed desire and prayer for his people.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).
Despite this earnest prayer to the heavenly Father, man disregards what is so plainly and obviously the divine will and continues in his defiance thereof. If we were to ask most people who profess to be Christians today what they are religiously, most likely they will identify themselves with their denominational affiliation. They are “______-Christians” (you fill in the blank). Their denominational identity comes before their commitment to the Lord who died for them.
In New Testament days there were no “hyphenated” Christians. It simply was not permitted by the apostles. When there was a beginning of such an identification of people with something (or someone) other than Jesus, it was soundly denounced. It happened in Corinth. There were some who were calling themselves after the names of men.
“What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).
The sinfulness of following men and naming ourselves after men or man-made doctrines and practices lies in the fact that all such is a denial of the sufficiency of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Those who do such believe it is necessary for them to identify with someone or something other than or in addition to Jesus Christ and him crucified.
No man, no doctrine, no ecclesiastical organization, no worship practice – nothing – has any saving power. To the Corinthians Paul said that he had preached among them NOTHING except Jesus Christ and him crucified. All such could be eliminated with no negative impact whatsoever. In fact, the effect would be hugely positive should Christianity ever be seen as a unified, cooperative whole. Why was it that the apostles refused to preach any other message than “Jesus Christ and him crucified? as Paul said of his preaching?”
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” ( 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 ).
It is faith in him as the Son of God who came to earth and gave himself for our redemption that saves us. It is not mere mental agreement as to who he is that saves, nor just an understanding of what he did, but such a complete trust in him that we are willing to do whatever he commands us to do that saves. We don’t have to go through a lengthy catechism training in order to understand the ins and outs of a denomination in order to be saved. We don’t have to agree to a particular doctrinal formula nor believe in a particular religious organization. Just to have faith in Jesus as the crucified, risen and exalted Lord is enough. That is all the people in the first century had and they were saved by the thousands. When we have the right kind of faith in the right object we won’t argue about the necessity of obedience to any command he may give – we will simply do it.
What will be the result of having such a faith as this? Will it not make us just what those people in New Testament days were? They were simply Christians – nothing more, nothing less and nothing else. No hyphens. No qualifying adjectives. Nothing else. Nada. Zip. Just Christians.
So, why is it not this way today? Why do people who desire the salvation offered by the Lord not end up together in the same relationship with one another as people did in New Testament times? If people were taught just what people were taught then would they not be just what those people were? So what makes the difference?
It is the same thing that set the Jews at odds with Jesus. In Matthew 15, Jesus’ disciples were criticized by the Jews for not washing their hands when they ate. This was not an issue of sanitation. They were violating a rule by which the faithfulness of an individual was measured and so came under the condemnation of the strict Pharisees and scribes. Jesus identified the source of their practice – and its worthlessness.
“He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
“So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:3, 5-9).
Human traditions and human doctrines do nothing to bring us into fellowship with God. They only serve to bring people who agree to them into fellowship with each other. And often, as in the case of the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking, put people at odds with God’s purpose for us. God wants people to love one another. He wants people to respect, obey and care for their parents. In this context, Jesus refers to one of the terrible consequences of the traditional doctrines of the Jews. He said that…
“God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Matthew 15:4-6).
How do traditions arise and why do people accept them? Maybe in the above case these people thought they had a higher responsibility to give to God than to support their indigent parents. Or maybe it was just a matter of selfishness and greed and their doctrine was concocted to justify(?) themselves. Whatever the case, it set God’s law aside and substituted the wisdom(?) of men for the perfect will of God.
In more recent history, many of the distinctive doctrines of present day Protestantism have their origins from either (1) reactions against the abuses and false doctrines of Catholicism as in Calvinism’s faith only doctrine vs. the (human) works oriented salvation of the Roman religion; or (2) doctrines formulated in the fires of controversy that seem to answer the opposition but are woefully lacking in valid Biblical substance.
There is also the hold that time and history exerts over people. Beliefs and practices that have been held – often without being evaluated for scriptural authenticity – are accepted simply because of how long and by whom they have been held. These divide people from those who do not share these traditional beliefs.
In later times it seems that people need very little justification for division and the instituting of new religious bodies. With many of those originating in recent times there is very little difference in terms of doctrine. Their biggest differences are in worship styles tailored to the likes and preferences of people as if the main thing in worship is pleasing men.
There are absolutely no advantages to the system of denominationalism as it exists today. All denominations trace their origin to men – not a one of them are of divine origin. They all continue to exist, not for the purpose of pleasing God, but pleasing men. In fact, the unbelieving world points to such division as proof of the ineffectiveness of Christianity. If professed Christians cannot get along among themselves, how can they effectively bring people to believe in Christ and become his followers? How can they have anything to offer the unbeliever?
Human nature being what it is, I do not expect that there will be any major move to do away with denominations any time in the foreseeable future. That does not preclude the need and the responsibility to think about doing something about this shameful condition of division. To pass it off by saying that all the division is merely a manifestation of God-approved diversity will not be acceptable. When people fly in the face of God’s self-proclaimed purpose of bringing all things together in Christ, this excuse is shown to be false. When people refuse to communicate with others who profess faith in the same Lord, it exposes the fallacy of the claim. When people maintain their divisions instead of going to the source-book to learn how to be united it belies our claim to be the Lord’s people.
What can be done about this situation? The ideal would be that people drop all their distinctive names, doctrines, practices, traditions and human preferences and simply be followers of Jesus who is the Christ. We should seek to base everything we teach, everything we believe and everything we do on the inspired word of God. We should burn every creed book, every denominational manual, every humanly originated dogma and/or opinion and simply take the Bible as our sole guide of faith and practice. In short, we should all seek to be just Christians.