Written by Paul J. Bucknell on April, 16, 2019
Are Denominations Biblical? (Acts 20:28-32)
The Question on Denominations
The Word of God never spoke of denominations but of the one true church of the living God (Mat 16:18, Eph 4:4). I know in Acts 20:28-32 the Apostle warned the elders against apostasy.
Martin Luther leveled ninety plus charges against the Roman Catholic church over the selling of indulgences for sins, etc. and that brought about the Reformation movement, and as a result, Protestantism was borne.
Who are the Reformers, and under which denominations fall under the Reformation movement? Who are the Protestants?
The Discussion on Denominations
Most believers grow up within a church structure and, like a family, never really question the biblical nature of the denomination or group of churches they belong to. This is fair enough, but others, like yourself, want to know the biblical nature of denominations and how we are to understand and present this to others. Furthermore, you ask if this issue is critical enough to consider as a form of apostasy. Good questions!
So let me use this text you suggested as a starting base for answering some of your questions.
“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:28-32)
Is this issue critical enough to consider as a form of apostasy?
Paul carefully warned the leaders of the church to be on constant watch over the flock of God guarding them of those that would hurt and confuse them. Though innocent-looking enough, some sheep might really be wolves! Strong words. Paul wrote to the church of God at Ephesus and warned them of the necessity to guard their teaching and devotion to God. Jesus later in Revelation 2-3 warned all the churches to be on guard against how the evil one uses the world to lull the church of God, so to speak, spiritually asleep, no matter how genuinely the new church began. The church at Ephesus was among the seven. Therefore, it is good that we, and especially the leaders of the church, be careful to guard their doctrine and devotion to God lest they be carried away and demobilized by the way the evil one uses the wolves of our modern day.
“Therefore be on the alert!”
So, from an objective point of view, all issues, including the discussion on denominations, should be examined to see the way they differently influence the minds of God’s people. It is unfair, at this point, to just label denominations as a form of apostasy, but we need to be on guard, and so your question is most pertinent.
Paul directed us to God and the Word of His grace, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” It is well to remember that the apostles would not always be there, but they laid a foundation in the Word of God that counters the legalistic movement attacking the churches at the time. Each generation has its own opponents, and yet “God and the Word of His grace” is sufficient for us to stay fixed on the promises and hope in God.
Is there one true church?
The true nature of the church is our starting point of discussion. Rightly you state that there is one church from the following verses. Yes, and I would add there is one church, one people of God, even through all time and location.
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18)
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling.” (Eph 4:4)
The scriptures are in agreement with your conclusion that there is one church described as the one body of Christ. The one church is Jesus’ church. People join the church by their faith in Christ and spiritual baptism. (The mere ritual of baptism does not save but truly should affirm the spiritual work of the Spirit in a person uniting him to Christ (Romans 6:1-10).
So we can be at peace assuming there the existence of one church along with our common destiny, hope, purpose, and worship with those who likewise have been united unto Jesus. The church is genuinely made up of such believers as having found forgiveness through Jesus and live unto His Name in the fellowship of the Father. God powerfully works in His people throughout the earth beyond the bounds of nations and denominations, bringing His people to faith in Christ. This is the one true church of God.
17 So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God. 20 Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:17-21).
Verse 21 affirms the one church, all of God’s genuine members throughout the earth, to be the place God glorifies His Name by powerfully working in and through her.
And so, we agree, that the Biblical picture of the church doesn’t seem to match up to our present situation that has many different church and denominations including those under the larger structural umbrellas of Roman Catholicism or have a history common to the Reformers.
Part of this confusion is that the church is spoken of both universally, as seen above, but also as local groups of Christians such as the church at Ephesus or the many groups throughout Rome. Each group is mandated to have its leaders and pastors, whether full-time or not. These local churches, especially when started by a common leader would respect certain leaders among them or in their district. So the early churches would have well-known bishops who were respected over large regions to help the many untrained pastors and new churches.
These leaders, whether we call them bishops or elders, had authority and this authority developed into organizations. For example, it is very difficult for congregations not have to formalize into a legal identity in the United States. Although not wrong, per se, if there is material property, then it becomes all the more mandatory. When the groups are small and can meet in homes such as in the early church, then no church structures are necessary, but like every family, they want a place to call their own. Again, this is not wrong nor necessary, but helpful.
A Discussion on Denominations
God’s people will, at times, belong to such organizations with their own leaders and often buildings. Many will not. But to show you the great and wonderful ways the Spirit of God can work in and out of denominations, even those that have left the Lord, let me share from my own experience.
When growing up I attended my mother’s church, which in the 1950s was a conservative Christ-honoring Congregational church (sharing the heritage of the Reformation). But in the 1960s, though the church rejected Christ and the Gospel, no longer holding to the “Word of His grace” (an no longer honoring the spirit of the Reformation), God cleverly brought evangelists from the nearby Protestant seminary to lead the youth group where this one young person (me), not seeking Christ at first, heard the Gospel and then found Christ and His precious grace.
This work in me, however, was only one small spark in a huge spiritual fire lit at that dead church. I was only one of many. God radically altered our youth’s newly organized coffeehouse—without any spiritual interest—held in the basement of the church by a spiritual revival where we would hold Christian gospel meetings and conversations—still all under the structured but liberal church.
If we are looking for easy answers regarding denominations, there are none. If we are looking to puff up one denomination or church against another, we fail to understand the real issues at stake.
Even when examining a conservative church that holds to “God and the Word of His grace,” we must recognize that not all members are believers. Even Paul suggested there might be wolves planted within the congregation at Ephesus. They might not have identified themselves as wolves yet, but they are there. One of the big struggles conservative churches have is to make sure their young people are not just baptized because they are children of members or even of the pastors (John 1:12-13), but because they themselves have this faith in Christ and spiritual union with God.
So we find that there is only one universal church, but that believers are not easily grouped under any one organization such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches, the fractured churches sharing roots from the Reformation including those influenced by the Charismatic movement. Many denominations go dead, even as the influential church in Revelation 2-3 with time. They no longer teach the Gospel and preserve the Word of grace. But this does not mean there are not residual believers still giving testimony to God’s truth within those organized denominations. Would I recommend a believer to attend such a church that has lost its faith? Certainly not. Nor should we assume that all members of conservative churches are genuine believers either. The one church, the dear bride of Christ, is instead like that growing mustard seed spreading out to the world. True believers share the common faith and life of Christ, whether within the bounds of a structured church or not. God’s Spirit works deeper and extends to the most remote regions of the world where some believers meet under a mango tree listening to the words of Jesus.
How are we to understand and work with people from varying denominations?
There are several answers to these questions, but first, let me give you a brief history of denominations, or better stated as groups of churches. A common misconception is to consider that the Roman Catholic Church is a representation of the one true church. Clearly, it is not. This church is itself a denomination as it represents a group of churches under its one authority. People assume their claim to direct connection to the Apostle Peter, but that is not at all true. The first three hundred years of the church there was no Roman Catholic Church. Because Rome was politically influential with the emperor resident there, its bishop usurped authority over the others, loosing the parity among the bishops. But even here, there were many churches, not under the cover of the residing bishops as the church went out to all different regions such as to India under the Apostle Thomas. The one Catholic church (catholic meaning one) is the spiritual designation of the universal church and not directly linked to any structured church or group of churches.
The connection that the Romans Catholic Church, the various Orthodox churches, or churches rooted from the Reformation (which would even include the charismatic churches) all are considered faithful and true not because of history but to their present hold to “God and His grace.” Each, including the Roman Catholic Church, has its own beginning and history. Usually, we see much faithfulness in the beginning but waywardness at its end. For example, we see some denominations, though rooted in the Reformation and God’s Word, like the Methodists and Presbyterians, struggling with the integrity of God’s Word, homosexuality and a host of issues that would shock the Reformers and even the founders of their denomination.
John Wesley (1700s), for example, had a vibrant faith and the founder of the Methodist churches, would exhaust himself traveling across portions of America methodically spreading the Gospel (so the name came to be). But now, most of their ministers deny the Gospel, the Word of His grace, and prefer their faith, though incongruous to the Word of God. In short, the Protestants were the same as the Reformers, those who protested against the Roman Catholic church who dictated norms for the Christians rather than allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves.
But we ask, “Are there true believers among these denominations?” Yes, there are, but many are oblivious to some of these doctrinal issues and so remain in these now barren and dying denominations—churches which the Spirit of God has departed from. But yes, there are true believers among them. Some remain within the churches, prodded by the Spirit, to continue the witness of Christ among the members. Jesus’ advice to this situation is clearly seen in his instruction in Matthew 13, in the Parable of the Tares.
But he said, “No; lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may root up the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:29-30)
Beliefs of Christian churches used to be much more uniform than they are today. Before, one would go to one church for their whole lives and only hear what was coming from that one pulpit. But today, with the web, people hear many teachings, some good (like this one!) and some false. And though cleverly disguised “wolves” distribute false teaching today, we also see much biblical teaching coming forth and edifying God’s people. Where before, the believers would be trapped in a spiritually “dull” church, now they can hear the biblical exposition of God’s Word. As much as Satan uses these devices, so does God, and the mustard tree continues to grow unseen to the world.
Denominations are organized groups of churches under one authority, including the Roman Catholic Church (though it would loathe to hear itself described as a denomination). Each is to be judged by their faithfulness to “God and the word of His grace.” Some have blatantly gone astray, while others face dangerous change, while others are new and guarding their faith in Christ carefully. Different churches, have no denomination to which they belong but are independent, but they too, are individually judged by their faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Denominations have a better opportunity to guard the churches under their guard, and yet, when gone away from their roots to God’s Word, they bring about more danger, persuading the people of false teachings.
In a broader look at the history of the church, we will find there are times of revivals in denominations and across large swaths of professing churches. God has His ways of reviving the hearts of His people, even though belonging to dead-like churches.
Churches Rooted in the Reformation
This question does not interest me too much, for, as I said before, each church is judged on the way it handles its teaching and devotion to the Word of God. No denomination is to be looked at as all bad or good. Instead, each is continually being tested on their integrity to the Gospel and living its mission and faith out for in this they prove to be the disciples of Jesus. But let me give an example of how this might work in our current church situation.
I interned with the United Presbyterian Church (UPC). It was called united in that there was no north and south Presbyterian Church as the Baptists in America. (It is comical to hear of Southern Baptists in foreign countries though critical for them to reach out in mission as it is for us all.) These denominations have their roots in the Reformation which returned to the foundational grid of the Scriptures. So we see each of these denominations having clear Confessions and Statements of belief based on the Word of God. I disagree with the fine differences they made, but they made them because they thought this was important.
The church I interned at, early in the 1980s, however, became a key church to the formation of a new Presbyterian denomination, The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), which is until today faithfully seeking the Lord. The UPC had left behind their faithfulness to the Scriptures and so allowed some ministers to deny the deity of Jesus and integrity towards the Word of Truth.
Some churches—think local assemblies—within the UPC, like the Reformation Churches, broke out from their bondage to this denomination that had gone astray so that they could faithful articulate the Gospel and affirm their faithfulness to Jesus Christ. They had the same spirit of the Reformers who were also locked into the Roman Catholic Church. I do not belong to the Presbyterian denomination but know many faithful brethren within their ranks. I am glad to see those local churches separate and form the EPC, even at the stake of possibly losing their physical properties. They made a significant statement to the Lord and their people and would be able to pass on “the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
The Reformation and the many smaller reformations, like the one above stated, are examining their faith and want to make sure it is rooted in the Gospel faith, even as the Apostles Peter and Paul would teach. They are seeking purity of faith and often face much pressure from the organized church against this, angry at those who would challenge them. They are, then, like us seeking a true allegiance to Jesus Christ and to be able to express and teach this faith freely. Our true allegiance is not to our denominations or countries, for that matter, but to our Lord and to love His people who have a common faith as taught in the Scriptures, the Bible (2 Tim 3:16-17).
More important than identifying all the groups of churches springing from the Reformation is the understanding that aside from some of the old Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, most churches have been influenced by the Reformation. The Reformation describes a Spirit-guided movement calling local assemblies and individual Christians to examine and if necessary return to their original scriptural foundation. Because of this quasi-revival and other genuine worldwide revivals later taking place, the birth of the modern missions movement around the world took off in the late 1700s, taking the gospel all the parts of the world. This scripture-energized movement continues to this day, targeting the very last people groups. It is more important for churches and their people to affirm the importance of basing their Christian faith and life upon the scriptures rather than boasting its consistency to one’s culture and custom, though highly esteemed.
For further study:
Fundamentals of the Faith - The Five Solas
#1 Reclaiming God’s Grace (Jude 3)
The Church in All Her Glory
7) The Expansion of the Church and Christ to 1400s
8) Church Awakening from, the 1400s to the Present
Evangelizing and the Cults
Renewal For Our Lives
Discussion Questions on Denominations
- What questions do you have about denominations and their association with the one true church of God?
- Is there only one true church? Explain.
- Can genuine believers worship among churches and denominations that have gone astray? How so?
- What challenges do conservative churches have in making sure that all their members are true in their faith and devotion to God?
- Why do denominations go astray?
- Is the Roman Catholic Church the same as the Catholic Church? Explain the RCC’s beginning which starts over 300 years after Jesus’ time.
- What are some false teachings coming from churches today? What defines “false teaching”?
- If churches express false teachings, do you think their leaders agree or not?
- How are we to relate to Christians from other churches and denominations?
- What should we do if we find unfaithful beliefs or lifestyle within our own church or denomination?
- Reaffirm your faithfulness, now, to the Lord and the teachings of His grace. Pray for each other than you would be faithful to the Lord until Jesus returns.
- What is the Reformation?
- Are the Reformed churches purer than the Roman Catholic Church?
- Why has the Reformation which occurred in Western Europe influencing Christians around the world?