"But, I am already a Christian!" "Why should I study the Bible with you?" Although sometimes couched in defensive language, maybe uttered in disbelief, wonder, and even resentment, these words highlight a barrier to study among Christians, who may be members of differing denominations.
We may ask, "How important is unity to you as a Christian?" "How important should it be?" "Why should we even try to resolve these differences?" In short, the motivation for study between Christians of differing denominational backgrounds is two-fold: Unity and Salvation. Before we begin to examine these answers in some detail, let us consider the concept that generates these question.
"One Denomination is as Good as Another"
Christians occasionally become upset during Bible studies and discussions with other Christians from differing backgrounds. Why? Is it because we think we already know everything? I doubt it. Are we skeptical of the possibility of learning from another Christian? Probably not. Generally, people are freely open minded, as long as they feel they are under no obligation to accept what is being discussed. However, as soon as someone suggests that these differences matter, people often become unglued. Why? Many believe that "one denomination is as good as another"; therefore, any difference in judgment arising out of our differing denominational backgrounds is of no consequence to such a worldview. Consequently, if we adopt this belief, we have relegated denominations and all their variegated colors to the realm of opinion, or preference.
When it comes to opinions, one person's opinion is generally as good as another, especially in matters where no human is an authority. Those who press their opinions are often judged to be arrogant and oppressive. Therefore, it is no surprise that people who believe denominations to reside in the matter of opinion and preference, should be frustrated by those who believe that it is not a matter of personal taste.
In this article, we want to next examine the questions: Is the basis of choosing a church limited to a matter of our personal opinion? Who said that one denomination is as good as another? This may be a popular view and sentiment, but can this be supported by the Bible? What does the Bible say about denominations in general?
What is a "Denomination"?
The word "denomination" is a generic word, which can be applied to any group that has been classified and distinguished from other groups. Therefore, all the constituents of any given denomination have at least one common feature, which distinguishes them from members of other groups. For example, we sometimes use this word in relationship to money. In fact, cash can be grouped into "denominations" of bills, such as $5, $10, and $20. Unfortunately, Christians can also be grouped into denominations. Depending on the context, this religious application is quickly becoming accepted as the primary connotation for the word.
To name the denomination is to point out its distinction. By definition, if it can be named, then it can be categorized; therefore, it is separable on some level from the other groups. Consequently the word "denomination" is synonymous with division. Therefore, the very existence of Christian denominations manifests the lack of unity, which exists among those who would call themselves after Jesus Christ.
The Need For Unity
Sadly, many Christians have come to accept the current denominational structure. In doing so, we accept a tragic weakening of the church's influence upon the world. Jesus spoke of the tremendous need for unity in His prayer:
"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." (John 17:20-21)
How important do you consider it to spread the gospel and reach the spiritually lost and dying of this world? It was of paramount significance to Jesus, because that was the single most salient reason He came into this world ("to seek and to save that which was lost" – Luke 19:1-10; 15:1-32). However, when Christians exhibit a divided body, it indicates to the world that either Jesus is incapable of unifying people, or His people do not care that much about what He taught. Both are discouraging to the unbeliever, providing them great opportunity to blaspheme and to excuse their wickedness (II Peter 2:1-2; (II Samuel 12:9-14). Why should the alien sinner try to pick up the Bible, read it, and hope to understand it; if Christians already familiar with the Bible, cannot understand it alike? What hope does the outsider have of even beginning to understand it?
Is this good reasoning? No. Does it excuse them? No. But, do you really want to be the excuse that someone uses for not becoming a Christian?
Then He said to the disciples, "It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. (Luke 17:1-2)
Would you not rather be a positive influence for convincing people of Jesus' true identity? Jesus said that unity is one of the most powerful, persuasive tools at our disposable. If He prayed for such a unity out of His love for the lost, is that not reason enough for His disciples to seek unity?
If Jesus' prayer and mission for reaching the lost is essential to us, let us leave our denominational backgrounds and seek a united church, built upon the only foundation that is capable of supporting such a goal – Jesus and His Word (II Timothy3:16-17) . How can we cling to denominations that are ultimately more interested in securing their own unique identity at the expense of reaching the lost?
In addition to capitalizing on unity's potential success in evangelism, we must also consider the benefit to our own soul, if not that of our fellow Christian. How do we know that our choice to join a particular denomination will not have eternal consequences? Joining the "church of your choice" may be a favored expression among men, but can we find that recommendation written in Scripture? What feelings has God expressed regarding this denominational division?
The Command to Avoid Division
Although extending our evangelistic influence is a powerful positive motivation, God provides additional motivation by directly commanding us not to divide.
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I Corinthians 1:10-13)
Do you know any denominations that are guilty of this very sin, even today? Do you know any churches that are named after men? How about a doctrine? Is it any better if a church sports the name of a peculiar teaching? Obviously not. What name should all churches and disciples of Jesus wear?
Admittedly, some will attack Paul's pleading as a sign of weakness ("Now I plead with you, brethren …"); however, please note that the pleading is performed in accordance with the "name of our Lord Jesus Christ". This is not Paul's personal preference or opinion; rather, this statement reflects the will of our Lord, delivered by His authority. How will the Lord receive people who reject His will?
" Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21-23)
The Lord has clearly warned those who disobey His will by causing divisions. Furthermore, we should not take comfort in the fact that we did not originate the division associated with a particular denomination. If we adhere to a denomination, then we are lending our support and approving its continued existence. (Please recall that condoning sin produces guilt equivalent to committing the condoned sin – Romans 1:32). Moreover, we are discouraging those who are trying to follow the Lord's will regarding unity. Furthermore, we are following the divisive teachings and influence, which will have the following consequences:
And He spoke a parable to them: "Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher. (Luke 6:39-40)
Notice that both the divisive false teacher and his followers will "fall into the ditch". Does this refer to their error or the consequences of their error? Jesus observed that they were already blind, so falling into the ditch must refer to some consequence of their error. Also, please notice that there is no hope for the disciple to obtain a higher reward than that of his teacher. Therefore, if we follow a false teacher, who will be condemned for his divisive ways, then we cannot hope to obtain salvation, since our teacher will himself be lost (Titus 3:10-11). Consequently, if we follow denominations lead by divisive men and built on divisive doctrines not taught in the Bible, how can we expect to receive a reward better than those who started such denominations? If we desire to break this chain, then we must go back to the source. We must truly follow the Teacher, who obtained a higher reward (Psalm 119:97-102; John 6:45-48; Matthew 19:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-4).
Even if you consider yourself to be firmly grounded in the Lord's will, judging contrary believers to be ignorant or divisive, would you not consider studying for your erring brother's sake? If you were in his position, would you want someone to show you the truth? If you fail to study with him, the damage he may ignorantly cause both to himself and others will go unchecked, and you will bear partial responsibility, because you might could have stopped it (James 5:19-20; James 2:17; Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 3:17-21; I John 3:14-18).
The Love of Truth
Most people, especially those who have been studying the Bible for a considerable time, will esteem themselves to be right until proved otherwise. It is somewhat natural to build confidence in one's understanding compared to another's understanding. However, how can we be sure that we are right, especially if we do not test our beliefs?
As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend. (Proverbs 27:17)
Each study with a friend, even a disagreeable friend, provides opportunity to test and prove our own understanding. It sharpens our grasp of beliefs that our disputant supports, and it enlightens our understanding regarding points of disagreement. If we only study with people who already agree with our own understanding, how can we hope that someone will reveal our error to us, since they share our prejudices? In some measure, our accepting invitations to study the Bible with those who disagree with us is a measure of our love for truth, since we are willing and open to subject our own beliefs to inspection and debate. Such exercises are fruitful in defending against the prejudiced convictions condemned in the following passage:
The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (II Thessalonians 2:9-12)
Studying the Bible with a fellow Christian of differing beliefs can be challenging, even unsettling. Such studies always run the risk of bumping us out of our individual comfort zone; however, they are necessary as a means to achieving unity in the Lord's body. How can we resolve our differences, if we do not discuss them? Since unity is critical to reaching a lost and dying world, then all Christians should be interested and focused on obtaining unity, even if it means questioning and examining long held and cherished beliefs. Furthermore, we should be personally interested in such discussions, because any part we play in supporting divisive denominations will open us up to the danger of eternal judgment. We will all need grace on that Last Day, but why would we knowingly and willingly make ourselves vulnerable to that eternal judgment, which attitude is condemned in and of itself (Romans 14:23)? Even if we are sure of our eternal fate, why would we not try to reach our erring brother, who himself may be lost and may overthrow the faith of others? Finally, if we are still reluctant to give a reason for our beliefs (I Peter 3:15), then we should examine ourselves and ask the question, "Why?" If we are persuaded that we understand the Bible correctly, then we have nothing to fear. If we are persuaded that we love the truth above all else, then we have nothing to fear. If in spite of these reasons, we somehow manage to avoid defending our peculiar faith, we should fear the eternal judgment of the unvoiced motivation that is lurking within the shadows of our hearts.