Sharing Your Faith - Lesson 11
How to Explain the Church and Denominations
Using a drawing, the student can explain the concept of denominationalism and can contrast it with the view the Bible provides of the church.
One of the most vital issues and one of the most discussed topics today is the concept of denominations. Many, but not all, of the mainline denominations are losing membership. Many “community churches” are developing that have no denominational connection and who call themselves “non-denominational.” Important questions arise: (1) What is a denomination? (2) How did denominations arise? (3) Is the denominational concept of the church the plan Christ wants us to follow? (4) Can one be a Christian and not be in a denomination? (5) Is it scriptural to be a member of a denomination? (6) Should those who consider themselves members of the church Jesus established seek to avoid being a denomination? Questions like these are vitally important for all who would seek to follow Christ and those who would be personal workers must be ready to answer them with scriptural accuracy and love.
What does the word “denomination” mean?
Of course the word “denomination” is not a Bible word and so we must find its meaning from the way in which the word is currently used. Since “to denominate” means “to name,” the word denomination is connected with naming things. When, for example, the government produces money, it makes bills of varying amounts and names them $1, $5, $10, $20, etc. Each of these types of bills is called “a denomination” of paper money. Thus, one type out of many similar types is called “a denomination.” By definition, then, a denomination is something less than the whole because it is one among several that make up the whole.
What does the word “denomination” mean when applied to religion?
There are many major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and others. These are not called denominations because they are not parts of the same whole. Within some of these, particularly Christianity, however, there are different groups which share the belief that Jesus is savior, but which differ on various points of doctrine and practice. These “churches” consider themselves as one among many “churches that are part of the large whole of Christianity. These are properly, then, called “denominations” because they are one type among many similar types. This view is often expressed in sayings that have become familiar. “Join the church of your choice.” “All churches are headed to the same place, they just take different roads to get there.” “All churches are equally good so just choose the one you like best.” “You can be a Christian and not be a member of any denomination.”
So there are various “branches of Christianity,” as they are sometimes called, and these constitute groups about which one must make a decision. Which of these should one join? Does one have to be in one of these to be a Christian? Is this view of Christ’s church as He wanted it to be? It is questions like these that this lesson will seek to answer.
What passages are especially important in this study?
- Matthew 16:18—“I will build my church”—church not started yet.
Mark 9:1—“Some of you shall not taste death until you see the kingdom come with power”— kingdom (church) not started yet. (See Lesson on the Thousand Year Reign for more about the church and kingdom.)
Acts 1:6—“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”—kingdom (church) not started yet.
Acts 2:47—“The Lord added to them daily such as were being saved”—a body of baptized believers is now in existence and people are being added to that body each day.
Acts 8:12—Philip preached “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” As he preaches Jesus he is also preaching the kingdom.
Colossians 1:13—“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”—The Christians at Colossae were members of the kingdom (church), therefore it was in existence by this time.
1 Corinthians 1:1-2—“Paul … to the church of God in Corinth.” Obviously the church is in existence because Paul writes to those who are in it.
Romans 16:16—the churches of Christ salute you—Christ’s church exists and the congregations together were referred to as churches of Christ.
What began between Acts 1:6 and Acts 2:47 something began of which saved people could be members?
Between those two scriptures we have, in Acts 2, the record of the day of Pentecost when Peter preached about Jesus and told those who believed to “repent and be baptized for remission of sins.” The three thousand who obeyed him that day and others who followed later were “added” to the body of the saved which by then was in existence. Sometimes this body is called “the church,” sometimes “the kingdom,” and sometimes the “body.” These are just different terms for the same people—those saved by the blood of Jesus. In the Bible, the church means the saved and the saved means the church.
It is important to note from Acts 2:47 that the Lord did the adding to this body. He knows who is saved and, therefore, He alone can add to the saved, the church. While we can read in the Bible of His commands about how to be saved and we can observe whether one has outwardly followed such commands, a person has “inner thoughts” only God can see. Since salvation involves “inner” beliefs and commitments, only God can know for certain whether one has followed such teachings properly.
So, the church Jesus said He would build started on first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus (30 A.D.), and all those who were saved by His blood became members of it. In Colossians 1:18 Paul called this church “the body of Christ,” and in Ephesians 4:4 he said there is “one body.” When the church began, then, all those saved by Christ’s blood were considered as “the church” or “the body.”
While different groups of this church met in different locations, they were one church, the same in doctrine and practice. An important lesson on this matter comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Division was creeping in and members and were beginning to call themselves after the preacher who had baptized them. Some said, “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ.” Paul rebuked them strongly and urged that they “all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12). This was exactly in harmony with Jesus’ prayer that His followers would all be “one” so the world would believe that God sent Him (John 17:21).]
How may we contrast the denominational view and the biblical view visually?
Notice the following concepts as you look at the two circles.
Each dot in both circles represent a saved person.
Both large circles represent all of the saved according to each view.
In the “denominational” circle, the arrow with the “F” indicates that, according to this view, one enters the circle of the saved at the moment he/she believes—thus “salvation by faith only.” This is expressed in various ways such as “receive the Lord Jesus” or “Just tell Him you believe “or “Just give your life to Jesus.”
Beginning from a point about an inch to the right of the right circle and even with In the circle to the right, representing the scriptural view, there is an arrow with FRB to stand for the words faith, repentance, and baptism. According to the scriptures, God adds to the saved those who have confessed their faith in Christ, repented of their sins and have been baptized for remission of their sins. Since they are now “saved” from sins, God adds them to the church. The Greek word we translate church is the word for “called out.” Thus those in the church are the ones God has “called out” of the world by setting them apart.
Thus, a major difference in these two views is what God commands us to do to have our sins forgiven and thus to be eligible for God to add us to the saved. Is it by “faith only” we are saved, or do the scriptures teach faith, repentance, and baptism are necessary prior to forgiveness?
A second major difference in the two views lies in the relationships between those inside the circle. Now note the four or five smaller circles inside the circle on the left. These circles include most of the dots but some dots are left outside any smaller circle. This represents the denominational view that within the “church universal,” the larger circle, there are denominations, each containing some of the saved. Those in each smaller circle consider those in each other smaller circle to be saved even though they have doctrines and practices that differ. Those with this view also believe that since one is saved at the moment of faith, there are those who have been saved that have not and may never join any denomination. So there are some dots (saved people) inside the big circle that are not inside one of the smaller circles. This concept is expressed by saying “join the church of your choice.” Once you have been saved, it is good but not required that you enter one of the smaller circles. Being in a denomination, they think, is not required to be saved for you are already saved before you enter one. Each denomination, then, may set its own entrance requirements because being in that church is not linked with salvation. Also according to this view, it makes no difference which of the small circles you join. Since you are saved before joining any of them, membership in a denomination has no effect on salvation.
In the circle on the right there are no small circles within this larger circle. The scriptural view say that since Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers condemned divisions and parties within the church (the saved), it is wrong to develop or promote such division. While those in this circle will be in different locations and thus in different congregations of the Lord’s people, they should all be one with each other and one with the Lord. They all were added to this circle by the Lord when they obeyed Him in faith, repentance, and baptism.
These people may or may not be known to each other. That is, one might find in another part of the world a person who had read the Bible and obeyed its teachings about how to be saved whom the Lord would have added to His church independent of any connection with any other members of God’s family. Anyone, anywhere, at any time who has followed the teachings of scripture by confessing faith in Jesus, repenting of sins, and being baptized for remission of sins has the promise that God will add Him to the body of Christ. All so added are in fellowship within this body unless they have in some way departed from the essentials of faith and practice revealed in scripture. Even then, these are still in the family though they might be disinherited children and not accepted in fellowship because of their unscriptural practices and beliefs.
Sumary. The left circle shows the denominational concept of the saved. One enters this “church universal” by faith only and then has the option of selecting a denomination he/she prefers or remaining outside of any denomination. Joining a denomination, however, has no consequences about salvation because those in all groups or who join none of these groups are equally headed to heaven. The concept also suggests that it is acceptable to have different “varieties” of churches within the church universal, even with differing beliefs and practices. By contrast, the other circle shows the concept of the church presented in scripture. The Lord adds those to His church, the body of Christ, the kingdom, the family when they have complied with His commands about how to receive His grace—confessing faith in Jesus, repenting of sins, and being baptized for remission of sins.
If one has been saved and thus God has added him/her to the church of the New Testament, that person would not, by that process, have become a member of any denomination. Should such a person be asked, “What denomination are you a member of?” a proper response would be to say “I am not a member of any denomination. I am just a member of the Lord’s body.” That church is the same as the kingdom, the family, the bride. If such a person should be asked, “Do you believe only those in your church are going to heaven?” he/she cannot give just a simple “yes” or “no” answer. A little background will have to be given. First, he/she can say, “I believe the Lord adds all He saves to His church, the body of Christ. Since God adds all the saved to that church, and I believe I am in that church, I believe only those in this church are promised salvation. Since the church Jesus started on the day of Pentecost was not to be divided into factions or divisions, we should all work to make that the case in His church today.” The author has articles on this topic in the following locations: www.oc.edu/faculty/stafford.north. Jim Sheerer and Charles L. Williams (eds.) Directions for the Road Ahead, Chapter 15.
Background Information for the Teacher
- Using a drawing, the student can explain the concept of denominationalism and can contrast it with the view the Bible provides of the church as "the saved."
- Have a blank sheet of paper and pencil for each student for taking notes.
- Have access to a chalkboard or marker board or blank transparency on an overhead projector.
- Have copies of the quiz over Lesson 10.
The church of the New Testament was the body of those saved by obeying the gospel message of faith, repentance, and baptism, and in it should be no divisions.
Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class
Introduction: (about 18 minutes)
- Call the roll and welcome the visitors.
- Make any necessary announcements.
- Have someone lead a song like "We are one in the Spirit" or "The Churches' One Foundation."
- Call on a young man to lead a prayer and ask him to remember especially the fellowship we have in the church and to ask God's blessings on us as we seek to be brothers and sisters in this body.
- Hand each student the quiz sheet. For the quiz, ask the students to draw the diagram from the last class period that demonstrates the concept of the start with the apostles' teaching, the departure, and what happened after that. The quiz sheet tells the students what to do. Ask them to properly identify the line, give one scripture that predicted a departure and provide two cases of departures. Tell the students you will collect the papers for grading to save class time. After the students have had time to finish, collect their papers. Then you should quickly draw the basic lines of the chart on the board to show them what they should have drawn but don't take time to put all the details on it. Place it on the board so you can leave it there with room left to draw the two circles for this lesson. You can use this "departure" chart while teaching today's lesson. Some time prior to the next class period, you can score the quiz as shown below and report the results to the class. 20 points for drawing the line and putting two names under it; 5 points for a scripture predicting departure; 30 points for drawing the angled line and giving two instances of departure with dates; 5 point for the date of the Reformation; 15 points for the lines with the names Calvin and Luther; 5 points for the sub-divisions under Calvin and Luther; 15 points for the lines going back to the original line from the denominations; and 5 points for the date of 1800 on The Restoration.
- Now introduce the study for today. Q: How would you answer if someone were to ask you, “What denomination are you a member of? (some may say "Church of Christ," some may say "I'm not a member of a denomination.) Q: Have you ever heard someone say that the members of the church of Christ think they are the only ones going to heaven? Our lesson today seeks to provide a basis for you to give a Bible answer to questions like these.
Learning Experiences: (about 22 minutes)
- First, let's study the concept of "denominations." Q: What does the word "denomination" mean? (Basically to denominate means "to name.") But the name denomination also applies to "things named" such as types of paper money-a $1 bill or a $5 bill is a "denomination" of money. So a "denomination" of something can mean one type among several types of the same thing.
- Q: When applied to religion, what is a denomination? (A church. Actually, it means "one church out of many churches.") Visual: put about 25 dots on a space on the board around which you can draw a circle. Then draw the circle around them. Above the circle write "Saved." Below the circle write "Denominational View." Ask the students to draw this on their paper. Q: What do the dots represent? (People who are saved.) Q: How, according to the typical denominational view, did these people become saved? (By faith only.) You might have heard someone on the radio or television say, "Just believe and the moment you believe in Jesus you are saved." Or "Just receive Jesus and you will be saved at that moment." The view among most of those in denominations, then, is that the moment you believe in Jesus you enter the body of the saved. Visual: draw an arrow from outside the circle into the circle and on the arrow put an "F" to represent "salvation by faith only." Ask the students to draw the same.
- Those holding the denominational view would say this circle represents "the church universal"-all those who have believed in Jesus and so are saved. Visual: draw four smaller circles inside this larger circle. Each circle should encompass three or four dots but leave a few dots not in a smaller circle. Ask the students to draw the same. Q: What do these smaller circles represent, according to the denominational view? (Denominational churches) So once inside the "saved" circle by faith, one can choose to join one of the denominations, a smaller circle, that is, "Join the church of your choice." Each of these smaller circles has particular conditions for entering their circle: being baptized by immersion, being sprinkled, being voted on, telling of your "experience" or just saying you want to join. Q: Do those in each smaller circle consider those in the other small circles as saved? (Yes.) Q: Who are these people in the big circle but not yet in any of the small circles? (People who are saved but who have not yet joined a denomination.) Q: Do these ever have to join a denomination? (No.) They are saved because they have believed and so are in the big circle. They are encouraged to join a denomination, but that has nothing to do with their salvation. One who is saved is in the big circle and whether her/she ever joins a denomination is not related to his/her salvation.
- So let's review. Q: The dots represent what? (People who are saved.) Q: The big circles represents what? (All of those saved by faith only.) Q: The small circles represent what? (Denominations) Q: According to this view, are there any saved people outside the big circle? (No) Q: What do the dots inside the big circle but not in a smaller circle represent? (Those who have been saved but have not joined a denomination.) Q: Do those in each small circle consider those in other small circles as saved? (Yes)
- Q: How did these denominations begin? (Refer to the drawing from the last lesson.) The sub-divisions after Calvin and Luther were the beginning of various Protestant Denominations. Some of them sprang from the followers of Luther, some from the followers of Calvin, and some had other origins not represented on the chart such as the Church of England started when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church.)
- Now let's compare this view with the New Testament view. Visual: Put 25 dots on the board. Draw a large circle around them. Write "Bible View" at the bottom and "Saved" at the top." Draw an arrow from outside the circle to inside it. Ask the students to draw all of this on their sheets as you are doing it. Q: What shall we put on the arrow to represent what the Bible says about how one can move from outside the circle (lost) to inside the circle (saved)? (FRB-for Faith, Repentance, and Baptism. We have studied this in previous lessons.) Q: How is this different from the denominational view? (Has repentance and baptism as demonstrations of faith before one is saved.) Q: What scriptures would you cite as evidence that these additional steps are needed? (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; and especially Galatians 3:27 which says "baptized into Christ.) Visual: Write these scriptures beneath the "Biblical" circle. Ask the students to do the same.
- So, the Bible teaches that all who confess their faith in Jesus, repent of their sins, and are baptized for forgiveness of sins enter the saved. Ask someone to read Acts 2:47. Q: According to this verse, who adds people to the circle of the saved? (The Lord) Q: How many saved are outside of this circle? (None)
- Q: What are different names the New Testament gives to this group of the saved? (The church, the body, the kingdom, the family, the church of Christ, the church of God, the bride of Christ.) Visual: Write these to the right of the circle. Ask the students to do the same.
- Q: What other difference is there between the two big circles? (No little circles inside the big one.) Q: What does the Bible say about that? (No divisions.) Ask someone to read the following scriptures: 1 Corinthians 1:10; John 17:21. Q: What do these tell us about creating divisions among the saved? Jesus didn't want that and Paul taught against it. Visual: Write these two passages beneath the "Denominational View" to show that divisions are not God's plan. Ask the students to do the same.
- Q: When we speak of "the church" or "the church of Christ" in Bible terms, then, what do we mean? (The saved) Q: Are all of the saved in the body of Christ, the kingdom? (Yes)
- Q: When we speak of the church, then, and our friends in denominations speak of the church, are we likely speaking of the same thing? (No) That is why it is sometimes difficult to communicate on these matters. If someone asks me what church I am a member of and he is thinking "small circle" and I answer "church of Christ" thinking big circle, we will misunderstand each other. If I am thinking big circle and tell him that everyone who is saved is in the church I am in (because the Lord adds all the saved to it), but he thinks little circle, then he thinks I am saying my little circle is better than any other little circle. To communicate well on this point, then, we must first come to an understanding of how the Bible uses "church." You can even draw this chart to show someone the difference between the Bible view and the denominational view of the church.
Applications: (about 4 minutes)
- Do you have a good friend with whom you might share this lesson? Maybe it is someone with whom you have had some discussions about religion and this lesson would help to clarify some things you have talked about.
- Find someone, even if it is a parent or a brother or sister and explain this lesson to him/her this week. That will help that person learn something and help you lock in this lesson. You can use your notes while you share with them if you need to.
- Q: Why do we write "church of Christ" with a little "c" except when it is part of the name of a congregation like "Main Street Church of Christ?" (To show that we are not using this expression so much as a name or title but as a description of the church or body of people who belong to Christ.)
Assignment: (about 1 minute)
Next class period, you will be asked to do the drawing of the two circles. Be sure to practice doing it during the week. Remind the class to put the words “saved” above each circle and “Denominational View” and “Biblical View” beneath the two circles.
Evaluation: (next class meeting)
1. Asking students to share this lesson with someone during the week. 2. Asking students to take the quiz next week by drawing the two circles and what goes with them.
- From my website: Stafford North. "How to be undenominational in a denominational world." Directions for the Road Ahead. Yoeman Press: Chickasha, Oklahoma.
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