Question: “I am incarcerated. A lot of times I am asked the question, ‘What denomination do you follow?’ I always say, ‘I am just a Christian ? a member of the church of Christ.’ Then after that it’s hard for me to explain. Would you please tell me how I can discuss this and make it clear to others?”
Answer: This can be a sensitive question. It is difficult to talk about the concept of one church with those who are only acquainted with sectarianism and division. No one likes to think of his religious affiliation as anything less than adequate. Everyone who belongs to a church sincerely believes that his faith is just as acceptable to God as his neighbor’s.
It is easy to become uncharitable and appear arrogant in a discussion on the Lord’s church (2 Tim. 2:23-25). Our mandate is to lovingly, yet firmly, communicate the truth in this realm (1 Pet. 3:15; Eph. 4:15). While not everyone will be receptive, this should not deter us from our task. Please consider the following:
1. An illustration. You might ask your cell mates to define the word “denomination” and then inquire, “What are some possible divisions of a U.S. $100 bill?” A single $100 bank note could be divided into the equivalent of one hundred dollars with a $50 bill, a $20 bill, two $10 bills, a $5 bill and five $1 bills. Point out that any of these ten bills are but a part of a whole.
2. New Testament teaching. The Lord’s church is presented in Scripture as the whole thing. It is “the FULNESS of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23b ? emphasis mine, mb). It is never spoken of as a “segment” or “part” of a larger religious entity. In fact, the word “church” is used only in two senses in the Bible: 1) as the UNIVERSAL church over which Christ is Head (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18), and 2) in reference to LOCAL churches [i.e., congregations] in a given geographical area ? “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1), “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2), and “the churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16; Cf. Acts 14:23; 20:28). “Christians” (Acts 11:26) “were of one heart and one soul…” (Acts 4:32a); they were not denominated or divided (Phil. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:2). They followed “one faith” (Eph. 4:5), they adhered to the same doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3,10; 2 Tim. 1:13) and contended for the [singular] faith (Jude 3).
On the other hand, denominationalism ? by its own admission ? is composed of more than 1,600 religious groups, often wearing different (man-made) names, teaching conflicting religious doctrines, and endorsing contradictory practices. Note this statement from The Standard Manual For Baptist Churches by Edward T. Hiscox:
“It is most likely that in the Apostolic age when there was but ‘one Lord, ONE FAITH, and one baptism,’ AND NO DIFFERING DENOMINATIONS EXISTED, that baptism of a convert by that very act constituted him a member of the church, and at once endowed him with all the rights and privileges of full membership. In that sense, ‘baptism was the door into the church.’ NOW, IT IS DIFFERENT…” (p. 22 ? emphasis mine, mb).
You might want to ask your peers as to why things are different today. Religious plurality is obviously not in harmony with either the Lord’s prayer (John 17:20,21; cf. Matt. 15:1-14), nor the standard practice (Acts 2:42,47; Col. 3:17) of His disciples (John 16:13). In fact, on those few occasions when weak and immature brethren in the first century attempted to denominate and fracture themselves (1 Cor. 1:11-13), they were hastily condemned as “carnal” and “unspiritual” (1 Cor. 3:1ff; cf. Gal. 5:21).
3. Some questions:
. How many churches did Jesus promise to build (Matt. 16:18)?
. How many churches did Peter try to build (Matt. 17:4)? What was he told (v. 5)? How did he and his friends react when they were told to listen only to Christ (v. 6)? How should men react today when they consider building a church not sanctioned by the Father?
. How many different churches or choices of churches can we have today without dividing the body of Christ?
. Can you read of any “hyphenated” Christians in the Bible (1 Pet. 4:16; Acts 11:26)? Was Paul a Southern Baptist-Christian? Was Peter a Methodist-Christian? Was John a Lutheran-Christian? Was James a member of a Jehovah Witness group or any of the other hundreds of religious sects we find today?
. How many approved denominations can you read about in the New Testament?
. Did John, Peter, or Paul ever encourage men to join the church of their choice (Gal. 3:27)?
. Does Jesus desire a $50, a $20, two $10’s, a $5, and five $1’s, OR does He desire a $100 bill (John 17:20,21; Acts 4:12; John 14:6)?
I appreciate your sincere question, as well as your desire to share the Gospel to your fellow inmates (Rom. 1:16; Matt. 28:19,20). In closing, you might ponder the words of John Wesley, noted Methodist leader of long ago. He wrote, “Would to God that all party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgotten: and that we might all agree to sit down together as humble, loving disciples at the feet of a common Master, to hear His word, imbibe His Spirit, and transcribe His Life in our Own” (Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, p. 7). To that we might add a hearty, “Amen” (1 Cor. 1:10)!