Our prayer for you, and for each and every one of us, is that we will never be content with simply “going to church,” but that we will be intent on “being the church” wherever we go.
NOTE – this article is not meant to judge, criticize, or condemn any group of Christians anywhere in the world for the way they choose to “do church.” It is only meant to set forth the Biblical precedent — to show how the early Christians of the 1st century went about doing it during their generation, as recorded in scripture. We acknowledge that the “freedom of the New Covenant” allows for cultural relevancy; and for people to structure their fellowship in whatever ways they deem most appropriate for them.
That being said, as New Covenant children of God, we should all understand that we are not obligated to join, attend, or support any particular religious institution or organization designed by man. Just because people calling themselves “Christians” decide to create a formal organization, legally incorporate, perhaps buy or lease some property, build a building, hire a pastor or some other professional staff, and set forth some kind of an agenda for ministry, does NOT mean that we are obligated to support it—regardless of the doctrine they may profess or the sign they hang over the door. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles many face with regard to their spiritual growth and walk with the Lord, is that of organized, institutional, corporate religion. It’s heartbreaking to see well-intentioned people give up their identity as a simple child of God—the object of God’s love, desire, and grace—and opt, instead, for an identity tied to some particular religious organization, movement, doctrine, practice, name, or label. Furthermore, a sophisticated business model, with accompanying organizational rules and regulations depicting well defined corporate roles and administrative responsibilities, is not necessary for cultivating Christian community within and among the family of God; and is, in fact, quite foreign to Bible teaching. We have no evidence of the church that we read about in the Bible ever “incorporating” as a business, or governing themselves by separate articles of incorporation or corporate by-laws. We see no evidence in scripture of the church ever investing in real estate, owning lands and buildings, having corporate bank accounts, or establishing high-yield corporate savings accounts and other financial investment tools. We can find no examples in scripture of Christians ever organizing themselves beyond the immediate, local community, “grass-roots” level. There is no mention in scripture of a diocese, parish, synod, council, conference, or any other “centralized” governance or authority.
Due to the influences of Western capitalism and the corporate climate in which we live today, we find ourselves in a world that pulses to the beat of trademarks and branding of every kind. But we should be aware that the Christians who were living in the city of Corinth were reprimanded by the Apostle Paul for exactly this kind of thing when he told them: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Cloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I Corinthians 1:10-13, NASB).
Those who advocate for “denominationalism”—separate and distinct religious organizations, each with their own self-identifying labels and brands in which they take pride, and practices around which they rally and in which they find their identity—are walking in direct violation to this passage of scripture; regardless of the name over the door or the doctrine they espouse.
In the first place, the body of Christ as presented in the New Testament was never named, labeled, or officially branded by God anywhere in scripture. It was simply the ekklesia (church), the “called out body of Christ,” no matter where you went. Why is it not enough for people to simply be a disciple of Christ, a Christian, a child of God in today’s world? While even these terms get abused by people today, still, the Apostle Peter said, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (I Peter 4:16, NASB). For this very reason, many of God’s children today are refusing to use or wear any kind of denominational name or label to identify themselves or the group with which they fellowship.
In the second place, as is far too easy to note, “denominationalism” has the peculiar tendency of producing religious pride! Too often we encounter people who seem to be more devoted to, and proud of, their religious organization than they are the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and the incredible sacrifice He has made for them. We often meet people who are constantly bragging about, talking up, and glorifying their church—as if their church held all the answers for people’s lives—yet they seem to have very little to say about Jesus and His sacrificial love. They seem to have forgotten the Apostle Paul’s exhortation: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14, NASB), and “just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (I Corinthians 1:31, NASB). To combat this evil “party spirit” and the foolish pride always lurking just beneath the surface in the heart of every man, the Apostle Paul told the Christians at Corinth that they must “learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (I Corinthians 4:6, NASB). Paul’s solution to denominationalism–and the religious pride it fosters–was to simply: just do it the Bible way!