by Bob Hawks
Charles Isenberg presented an article in the bulletin this morning titled, What Church Should I Join? If you didn’t read it, I encourage you to do so. That article was a springboard for this lesson.
One of the easier resolutions that each of us can make for this new year is to better utilize the opportunities for learning and growing in our understanding of God’s word that are already around us. If you attend the services and Bible classes of the church, you will hear more than 200 Bible lessons during the year. Add the bulletin articles, House to House magazines, and the various other publications that are made available to us, and each one of us has the opportunity to increase our understanding of God’s word in a significant way – if we will just pay attention and apply a little effort.
I read an article in a recent Time Magazine that said that for the first time in its history, the population of America in 2005 would no longer have a majority Protestant identification. For the first time more than 50% of the people in this country do not identify themselves religiously as a Protestant. This country was established by a variety of groups of people that were fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom. Most of these groups, including the Pilgrims, identified themselves religiously as Protestant. The article suggested that this shift in the thinking of our population may have profound influences in the way our country thinks and acts.
I once read a tract titled Neither Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, and at that time, I thought that these religious categories described everyone who was not some kind of weird heathen. The message of the tract was that the non-denominational church of Christ was based on the New Testament teaching about the church that Christ established, rather than being based on any other religious or historical organization. The effort of the church of Christ was to get back behind all of the present day and historical religious organizations and just be what the New Testament church was – Christ’s church. As a person who had sampled several denominational groups, this idea had an appeal to me.
I think that the general thinking of most people is that if you are Christian, and you are not Catholic, then you have to be Protestant. Historically, Protestantism came into being as a result of the religious Reformations of the 14th and 15th centuries when people tried to reform official state religions – first the Roman Catholic church, and later, the Church of England. The word Protestant means protesting. These reforming efforts resulted in the development of several new religious groups, such as Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Baptist. And there have been numerous reform movements within each of these Protestant churches, and all who trace their history back to these churches are considered a Protestant church today.
There is another group of religious organizations, generally referred to as Protestant sects or cults, that are not historically based on these mainline Protestant churches, other than the fact that the people that joined them came out of Protestant churches for the most part. Rather, they are based on a person or a supposedly new revelation from God. Some of these sects have become worldwide churches. Someone recently told me that the Jehovah’s Witness Church is growing by 5,000 new followers each week. A nephew of mine recently married a girl in Indonesia, and even though Indonesia has the largest Muslin population of any country in the world, it turns out that she is a strong and dedicated Seventh Day Adventist. So even though some of the churches that we see around us are relatively new and relatively small compared to the mainline Protestant churches, many of them have become worldwide religious organizations with their own reforming or protestant offshoots.
The survey that I cited from the Time article about the demise of Protestantism is merely seeing a change in the terminology that people are using to describe themselves. I think that the concept of denominationalism has taken the place of Protestantism in people’s minds. And denominationalism is not on the demise. All of the religious groups have been denominationalized – Catholic, Protestant, Jews, Islam, Buddhism, etc. We are constantly hearing about the different denominations of Islam in the Middle Eastern countries – Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and others that I can’t pronounce are denominations of the Islam religion.
I looked up an official definition of what denominationalism means. This definition is from the Westminster Dictionary of Church History: “Denominationalism is the system and ideology founded on the divisions of the religious population into numerous ecclesiastical bodies, each stressing particular values or traditions and each competing with the other in the same community.”
Many people would ask, “What’s wrong with that?” And many have never considered the possibility that there was, or is now, something wrong with dividing the religious groups into denominations.
The first thing that is wrong with the denominational concept is that the whole idea is based on religious division, and religious division is condemned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament Scripture. David declared in Psalm 133:1, “how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” When the kingdom of Israel split into northern and southern segments and established different systems of worship, it resulted in both of their downfalls. God’s attitude toward religious division is very clear in the New Testament. In the book of Philippians, Paul admonishes the church of Christ in Philippi to be of the same mind, the same love, and to be of one accord. Philippians 2:2 “fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.”
The definition of denominationalism that was read included reference to “numerous ecclesiastical bodies.” Jesus spoke of the time when His people would be one flock and he prayed for the unity of that flock in John 17: 20-21: “I do not pray for these alone, but also, for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Denominationalism stresses “particular values and traditions.” Throughout the Bible, God has condemned the substitution of human tradition for His instructions; Matthew 15:3, “Why do you also transgress the commandments of God because of your tradition?”(I Cor. 4:6, Col. 2:8, 2 John 9-10). In every man-made church that comprises the denominationalism of our day, the traditions that separate each group from the other groups around it, have been handed down through the years, and justified by their clergy. These traditions have assumed an authority equal to or superior to scripture.
Following the plain and simple New Testament pattern for the church that Jesus established is the message that we have for our community in 2006. And, we have to keep on reminding ourselves and one another of these verses of scripture, because the world has accepted denominationalism as the norm, but being the norm is not the same as being scriptural. When Jesus comes to take His bride, the church of Christ, to the Father, we want to be a part of the church that He recognizes as His own, rather then part of an ecclesiastical body that is founded on man-made traditions.
What Church Should I Join?
All up and down this troubled land confusion reigns today;
As honest folks on every hand in doubt are heard to say:
“I cannot tell which church to join, there are so very many.”
To whom we offer this advice – you never should join any!
You cannot join the church of Christ, no man can vote you in.
The Lord Himself will add you, when He saves you from your sin.
Then take no chances, neighbour, this race but once you’ll run.
A church you’d join would be of man, and not the proper one.
Beware a church you cannot find within the sacred pages;
Be safe, dear sinner, rest your soul upon the Rock of Ages.
Be added to His blood-bought church, and drink salvation’s cup,
For every plant God planted not, it shall be rooted up.
No mourner’s bench on Pentecost, the inspired Peter fitted,
But said, “Repent and be baptized, that your sins may be remitted.”
The Lord, who saved and added those, who did that day His will;
Will do the same for you, dear friend, for He is adding still.
Let not false teachers lead you wrong, nor close your eyes in slumber;
When Jesus said He’d build His church, T’was not a plural number!
No choice of churches, neighbour mine, is found beneath the sun;
Though men may have ten thousand, our Saviour has but one.