"ISSUES OF DISTINCTION" The Nature Of The Lord's Church INTRODUCTION 1. In this series we have surveyed the following "Issues Of Distinction": a. The Existence Of God - which differentiates between... 1) Atheists and agnostics, who deny or question God's existence 2) Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Moslems, Christians, etc., who believe in a Supreme Being b. The Identity Of God - which distinguishes between... 1) Buddhists, Hindus, etc., who hold to many gods 2) Jews, Moslems, Christians, etc., who believe in the God of Abraham c. The Identity Of Jesus Of Nazareth - over which there is a difference between... 1) Jews, Moslems, etc., who may accept Jesus as a good man, perhaps a prophet 2) Christians, who believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God d. The All-Sufficiency Of The Scriptures - where again there is a difference between... 1) Catholics, Mormons, JWs, etc., who deny the Scriptures are all-sufficient 2) Mainstream Protestants, Christians, etc., who profess the principle of "scriptura sola" (the Scriptures alone) e. The Purpose Of Baptism - where there is a difference between... 1) Those who proclaim that baptism has nothing to do with salvation 2) Those who teach that baptism is an integral part of the gospel and God's plan for saving man in Christ 2. A final "issue of distinction" I would like to examine in this series is "The Nature Of The Lord's Church" a. This is not to say there are not other "issues of distinction" b. For example, the Lord's Supper is certainly an issue that distinguishes those who have differing views concerning it c. But for this particular series, this will be our last lesson 3. In this study, we shall examine... a. The nature of the Lord's church as revealed in the Scriptures b. The trend toward denominationalism, even among those who claim to be nondenominational churches of Christ c. What is wrong with denominationalism and current trends leading toward it [Let's begin, then, with...] I. THE NATURE OF THE LORD'S CHURCH AS REVEALED IN THE SCRIPTURES A. THE TERM "CHURCH" IS PRIMARILY USED IN TWO WAYS... 1. In the UNIVERSAL sense a. Referring to all the saved throughout the world b. Used this way in Mt 16:18; Ep 5:23; Col 1:18 2. In the LOCAL sense a. Referring to the saved in one particular geographical locality a. Used this way in 1Co 1:2; Re 1:11; Ro 16:16 B. DIFFERENCES BETWEEN "THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL" AND "THE CHURCH LOCAL"... 1. In the UNIVERSAL sense: a. There is only ONE church - Ep 4:4; compare with Ep 1:22-23 b. Christ is the head; individual Christians are members of His body - 1Co 12:27 c. There is NO EARTHLY ORGANIZATION; what organization there may be is spiritual in nature - Ep 2:19-20 d. The universal church never meets as such; it has no "officers" except Jesus Christ and the original apostles and prophets 2. In the LOCAL sense: a. There are MANY churches - cf. Ga 1:2 b. There is to be EARTHLY ORGANIZATION within each local church 1) Ideally, each church has elders (also known as bishops, pastors) and deacons - e.g., Php 1:1 2) Although churches may exist temporarily until such men can be appointed - cf. Ac 14:21-23 c. Local churches meet regularly; and Christians have responsibilities in connection with their brethren in the local church C. LOCAL CHURCHES WERE INDEPENDENT AND AUTONOMOUS... 1. Each congregation was to submit to the oversight of its own elders - cf. He 13:17 a. Certainly they were also subject to the authority of Christ and His apostles b. But no other church or human organization had any authority over them 2. Elders had oversight only over the flock of God which was among them: a. "Shepherd the flock of God which is AMONG YOU..."
- 1Pe 5:2 b. "take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, AMONG WHICH the Holy Spirit has made you overseers..." - Ac 20:28 -- No elder or group of elders was appointed to be over two or more churches! [Such was the nature and pattern of the Lord's church as found in the New Testament. With such simplicity the gospel spread and congregations were planted all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. But not long after the apostles died, the nature of the Lord's church began to change, brought about by...] II. THE TREND TOWARD DENOMINATIONALISM A. DEFINING "DENOMINATIONALISM"... 1. Let's first define "denomination" a. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: "A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy." b. From Webster's: "A religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body a number of local congregations." c. In simple terms, a denomination is a group of congregations that are joined together under some governing body... 1) The number of congregations can be as few as two or more 2) But by their tie to a governing body above the local congregation, by definition they are "denominated" from all congregations that do not submit to the same authority d. Some examples: 1) The Roman Catholic Church is a denomination made up of those churches that submit to the pope in Rome 2) The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) is made up of those churches that submit to the synod in Missouri 3) The International Church of Christ is made up of those churches that submit to the Boston Church of Christ -- These are just a few of the thousands of different denominations that now exist! 2. Now let's define "denominationalism" a. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, it is: 1) "The tendency to separate into religious denominations" 2) "Advocacy of separation into religious denominations" 3) "Strict adherence to a denomination; sectarianism" b. Again, Webster's dictionary defines it as: 1) "Devotion to denominational principles or interests" 2) "Narrow emphasizing of denominational differences: SECTARIANISM" c. In this lesson, I am applying the term to any effort to create a collectivity of congregations in such a way as to denominate them from other churches B. HOW DENOMINATIONALISM BEGAN IN THE SECOND CENTURY... 1. It did not happen overnight, but through small, subtle changes in the organization of the Lord's church 2. The first step was a change from a two-tier system to a three-tier system a. I.e., the early churches had elders (also known as bishops, pastors) and deacons b. But then the title "bishop" came to be reserved for just one of the elders, creating a three-tier hierarchy of bishop-elders-deacons within a local congregation 3. The next change involved one bishop over many congregations a. In the NT, there were a plurality of bishops over just one congregation b. But now, there was one bishop over a plurality of congregations 4. Eventually this pattern of change led to the formation of various denominations a. E.g., Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Coptic, etc. b. All depending upon which religious leader was recognized by a group of churches C. HOW IT CONTINUES TODAY... 1. The Protestant Reformation did not really help matters that much a. While the reformers may have had the right idea, their followers often simply crystallized and formed denominations (in some cases, over the objections of the reformers themselves) b. As denominations were formed, many of them divided even further, creating more denominations 2. Efforts to restore the New Testament pattern often went awry a. Some restoration movements started out by following the NT pattern b. But as time passed, they slowly drifted into forming denominational structures 1) E.g., many churches became the Christian Church- Disciples Of Christ denomination 2) E.g., other churches became the International Church of Christ denomination 3. I see this trend even among churches of Christ claiming to be non-denominational... a. By changing the nature of cooperation among local churches, they create de facto denominations b. This is especially manifested when the "sponsoring church" concept is adopted 1) For by its very definition and in actuality, one church takes oversight of a work done by a collectivity of churches 2) This "collectivity" of churches, under the oversight of the sponsoring church, has formed a denomination in practice, if not in name! [I can imagine that some may be wondering, "What is so bad about that?" In other words...] III. WHAT IS WRONG WITH DENOMINATIONALISM IN ITS VARIOUS FORMS? A. FIRST, DENOMINATIONALISM IS UN-SCRIPTURAL... 1. That is, it is without Scriptural support 2. We have seen that in the New Testament that... a. Local congregations were independent, self-governing b. Church organization was limited to within the local congregation, with elders (also known as pastors, bishops, overseers, presbyters) appointed to oversee only the congregation of which they were members
- cf. Ac 20:17,28;1Pe 5:1-2 3. The only authority above the local church was Christ and His apostles... a. Once the church began, apostles were not replaced after they died b. But through the Word of God, the authority of Christ and His apostles continues 4. Individuals, synods, conferences, sponsoring churches, etc., that presume to have oversight over local congregations do so without Scriptural authority B. SECOND, DENOMINATIONALISM IS ANTI-SCRIPTURAL... 1. I.e., not only is it without scriptural support, it is contrary to what the Bible teaches 2. Denominationalism creates division, and division is: a. Contrary to the prayer of Jesus for unity among His believers - Jn 17:20-23 b. Condemned by Paul in his epistle to the church at Corinth 1) There are to be no divisions among believers
- 1Co 1:10-13 2) Sectarianism is a sign of carnality - 1Co 3:3-4 C. THIRD, IT IS HARMFUL TO THE CAUSE OF CHRIST... 1. Jesus knew that unity among His disciples would be
"the final apologetic" a. Cf. "that the world may believe" - Jn 17:21 b. In view of Jesus' words, we should not be surprised when unbelievers are slow to accept the gospel coming from a divided church 2. Many people point to the divided condition of those professing to follow Christ... a. Atheists and agnostics often use division as an excuse not to believe in God b. Adherents to non-Christian religions (such as Islam, Judaism, etc.) will often use denominationalism as a reason not to believe in Christ 3. Denominationalism has also given support and encouragement to the cults a. Mormonism started in reaction to the denominationalism of Joseph Smith's day b. Those who call themselves "Jehovah's Witnesses" use the religious division to encourage people to follow their strictly-controlled organization 4. It opposes the efforts of Christ on the cross! - Ep 2:14-16 a. Jesus died to break down the wall of division b. Jesus died to reconcile man to God in ONE body -- Just as sinning works against the efforts of Christ on the cross (for He also died to put away sin), so it is with denominational division! 5. It is harmful even in it's most subtle forms (e.g., the sponsoring church concept) a. Churches that refuse to join in with some a congregation's desire to sponsor some "great work" are often ostracized b. The change in church cooperation is a small one, but it is small steps away from the New Testament pattern that eventually lead to the creation of something totally different than what the Lord intended 1) It happened in the second century A.D. 2) It has happened time and again ever since, leading to the formation of more and more denominations! CONCLUSION 1. The nature of the Lord's church may not seem to be a significant issue... a. Many would consider church organization and cooperation to be a matter of indifference b. They would certainly not put it on the same level as "The Identity Of God" or "The Identity Of Jesus Of Nazareth" 2. Whether or not it belongs on the same level, I do believe it is worthy of our prayerful consideration... a. History reveals that the departure from the New Testament pattern began with small changes in the organization of the church b. History continues to reveal that this is often the first step toward apostasy time and again -- For when one disregards the New Testament concerning the nature of the Lord's church, it is not long before they disregard what else the New Testament has to say! It is my prayer, therefore, that we will always give careful heed to whatever the New Testament reveals concerning "The Nature Of The Lord's Church", for it is truly an "issue of distinction"!