By Timothy Sparks
There is tremendous confusion about the term “denomination,” even though we might hear the word used regularly. When a word is not found within Scripture, we must determine the meaning as defined by others who have done the necessary research to define a word properly. Therefore, we turn to a resource such as a dictionary. Naturally, we have to use some “scholarship” in order to substantiate our claims rather than defining a word to mean whatever we might want it to mean. Such is the case with the word “denomination,” since it does not occur in standard English translations of God’s Word.
I once heard an instructor give his definition of “denomination.” He said that it means “a part of a greater whole,” primarily appealing to the term “denominator” since he wished to link “denomination” with “division.” Certainly, the word “denominator” in a mathematical fraction implies division, and there is much division among religious denominations. However, an injustice is done to the definition of “denomination” since “division” is not synonymous with the primary, secondary, or tertiary definitions of “denomination.” Had the instructor done his due diligence by examining the definition of “denomination,” he would have known that authoritative sources give quite a different meaning.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “denomination” (a noun) and “denominate” (a verb) originate from the Latin word “denominare,” which means, “to name, specify by name.” The primary definition of “denominate” is “To give a name or appellation to; to call by a name, to name (orig. from or after something). Now usually with complement: To give (a thing) the name of . ., to call.” Notice, in the definition, the significance of the word “name” since it is also an essential term in defining “denomination.” The primary definition of “denomination” is “The action of naming from or after something; giving a name to, calling by a name.” The secondary definition is “A characteristic or qualifying name given to a thing or class of things; that which anything is called; an appellation, designation, title.” Now, observe that in regards to a mathematical denomination, such as a coin, the tertiary definition is “A class of one kind of unit in any system of numbers, measures, weights, money, etc., distinguished by a specific name.” The fourth listed definition is similar to the preceding three: “A class, sort, or kind (of things or persons) distinguished or distinguishable by a specific name.” We now come to the last listed definition: “A collection of individuals classed together under the same name; now almost always spec. a religious sect or body having a common faith and organization, and designated by a distinctive name.”
In each definition we find the term “name.” We might wonder within Scripture what “name” or “denomination” the Lord gave, if any, to his people, the church. Perhaps you have heard people speak of “scriptural names for the church.” However, in each passage of Scripture we might examine, we will discover that the Lord never named (denominated) the church. Rather, we will find descriptive phrases of possession. The descriptive phrases within Scripture can be paralleled to our use of possessive phrases. For example, “the wife of Jimmy” is most commonly stated, “Jimmy’s wife.” This descriptive phrase does not reveal the name of “the wife of Jimmy.” So, “the church (congregation/assembly) of God” (Acts 20:28) is to be understood, not as a name but as a description: “God’s church (congregation/assembly).” The same is true with “the churches (congregations/assemblies) of Christ” (Rom. 16:16): “Christ’s congregations (assemblies/churches).” In other words, within the New Testament there are descriptions, not names, indicating ownership. Christ and God own the church; the church belongs to God and Christ.
Examine the following descriptions of God’s people:
“the kingdom of Heaven” or “Heaven’s kingdom” (Mt. 16:19)
“the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1; 11:22)
“who were of the Way” (Acts 9:2)
“the churches throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31)
“the church in Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1)
“the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom. 16:4)
“the church that is in their house” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19)
“the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1)
“the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; Gal. 1:13; 1 Tim. 3:5)
“the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16; Eph. 4:12)
“the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16; 2 Thess. 1:4)
“the body” (1 Cor. 12:18-25; Eph. 4:16; 5:23)
“Christ’s body” (1 Cor. 12:27)
“the church” (1 Cor. 12:28)
“the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33)
“the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34)
“the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor. 16:1)
“the churches of Asia” (1 Cor. 16:19)
“the churches of Macedonia” (2 Cor. 8:1)
“the churches of Judea” (Gal. 1:22)
“those who are of the household of the faith” or “the members of the family of the faith” (Gal. 6:10)
“the church, which is his body” (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23)
“members of the household of God” or “members of God’s family” (Eph. 2:19)
“the kingdom of the Son of his love” (Col. 1:13)
“the body, the church” (Col. 1:18)
“his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24)
“the church that is in her house” (Col. 4:15)
“the church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16)
“the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1)
“the churches of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 2:14)
“the church in your house” (Philem. 2)
“the general assembly and church of the firstborn” (Heb. 12:23)
“God’s household, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15)
While this list is not exhaustive of the descriptions found within the New Testament, these references are sufficient to show that the Lord did not denominate (name) the church. If the Lord had denominated (named) the church, then surely he would have addressed each congregation listed above by a particular name, such as “the Church of Christ in Corinth.” Did you know that the specific phrase “church of Christ” or “Christ’s church” never appears within Scripture? We find only the phrase “churches of Christ” or “Christ’s churches” or even a better translation, “Christ’s congregations” (Rom. 16:16).
Additionally, if God had decided to name the church, surely he would have addressed each of “the seven congregations in Asia” (Rev. 1:4) by that name. However, no name is given. We read only descriptions identifying which congregation is being addressed (Revelation 2-3). While God named his disciples “Christians” (Acts 11:26), a name that appears two more times in the New Testament (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) and alluded to at least once (Jas. 2:7), yet the church remains unnamed. We should also notice that the name “Christian” is always used as a noun, never as an adjective.
When people ask, “What is the name of the denomination you attend?,” they are simply asking you to identify the name on the church building where you claim your “membership.” Their use of the word “denomination” is completely in line with its definition since “denomination” is defined by the word “name.” However, such a concept of “denomination” or “name” for the Lord’s people is foreign to the Scriptures. You simply will not find a name given to Christ’s body.
So, why do denominations exist among us? As long as people unceasingly apply names to their religious groups, there will be denominations. No wonder the Lord prayed so fervently for unity–not among denominations–but among his disciples (Jn. 17:20-23). In the thematic statement of 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “Now I urge you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all say the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be completely joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).
Paul addresses the issue of those within the congregation in Corinth who were applying names to themselves: “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I truly am of Paul,’ ‘but I am of Apollos,’ ‘but I am of Cephas,’ ‘but I am of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you! Or were you immersed in Paul’s name?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). It appears that there were those who, in modern terms, would have considered themselves to be “Paulites,” others “Apollosites,” others “Cephasites,” and the only correct group “of Christ,” who, if understood to have been genuinely “of Christ” would properly have been called “Christians.” Paul clearly rebuked them for adopting the other names the Lord did not give. To say, “I’m a Christian” is in harmony with the Scriptures, but to say, “I’m of the Church of Christ” or “I’m Church of Christ” or “I’m a Church-of-Christer,” or “I go to the Church-of-Christ Church” or even to use the phrase, “I go to the Church of Christ” is simply not within the boundaries of God’s Book.
Now that we know the truth about the meaning of “denomination,” what can we conclude about the name of the group to which you or I might consider ourselves to belong? Let us consider the following:
(1) When we give the Lord’s church a name, we are doing something the Lord never did.
(2) Since God did not name the church, do you or I have the authority to do so?
(3) If we do not want to be a denomination, we must not fit the definition.
Here are some possible solutions to our dilemma:
(1) The church does not have to have a name. If the Lord had decided to name the church, he would have done so. God does not require us to have a sign for our buildings. During the first century, the church had no name, no building (they met in their houses), and no sign to indicate where they were gathering.
(2) If we must insist on having a sign for the buildings where we gather, rather than giving the church a name, would it be too much for us to have a sign more in harmony with what we find within Scripture, such as “Christians meet here” or “The church meets here”?
Then, rather than people designating us by a denominational name we’ve applied to ourselves, if they call us “Christians,” we should strive to be all that the God-given name implies and requires (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). [We would do well to search the Scriptures concerning “Who is a Christian?” A fascinating and challenging study would surely be unveiled.]
Remember, if we do not want to be a denomination, we must not fit the definition.
See also A Nameless Church