What Is a Denomination? (Part 1)

What Is a Denomination?Everyone knows what a denomination is, right? When I’ve asked people in the Church of Christ what they think a denomination is, I’ve not really been surprised by their answers. People usually say that a denomination is any religious group that calls itself by a name not found in the New Testament, worships God in ways that are contrary to the New Testament pattern and practices doctrine not found in the New Testament. This definition sounds pretty good and is pretty much what we’ve all been taught for decades, but it has a serious problem. The problem is that this definition is simply wrong and everyone except those of us in the Churches of Christ knows it!

The first impulse of those who are Christians should be to turn to the Bible and see how it defines the word denomination. The problem with this approach is that the word denomination is absent in the pages of the Holy Scriptures. In fact, the very concept of a denomination is not to be found in the Bible. Go ahead, get your Strong’s Concordance off the shelf and try to look it up. You won’t find it though, because its not there. How can we authoritatively define a word and concept whose very notion is completely, utterly and absolutely foreign to the Bible?

If we are honest, we’ll have to admit that the word “denomination” simply isn’t a Bible word. Its a word and a concept devised by men and this leaves us no choice but to go to the dictionary to see how men define it. I’ve consulted several dictionaries, they have minor differences but they basically all say the same thing:

de·nom·i·na·tion [di-nom-uh-ney-shuhn], n,   1. the act of naming.   2. a name.
3. a class or kind having a specific name or value: as coins of different denominations.
4. a religious sect.

Thus we see that inherent in the concept of a denomination is the idea of giving something a name in order to classify it or distinguish it from some other similar entity. Therefore in a religious context, we create a denomination when we give a church a name.  A denomination is a distinct religious body with clearly defined marks of identification; chiefly a particular name.  We are pretty quick to acknowledge this definition when we apply it to others in the religious world. But lest we think that those of us in the Churches of Christ are in the clear, notice that the definition cited above does not allow an exception to this definition when a name is used that is found in the Bible. If it did, then the denomination known as the “Church of God” with headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee wouldn’t be a denomination because their name is in the Bible. Also notice that the definition says nothing about what a church teaches or how it worships. What a church practices or teaches has nothing to do with whether it is a denomination or not. Again, to name something is to denominate it, period.

This conclusion is not without a scriptural basis because in the Bible the church is no where called by an exclusive, proper name. The church is called by many “names” which are not really names at all but rather they are descriptive phrases. These phrases describe the church’s relationship to God and Christ or describe some other facet or trait of the church. Individual congregations were also referred to in a geographic sense (such as the church of Ephesus) which described where the church was. But no matter how you slice it, there were no exclusive proper names for the church, just descriptive phrases. In fact, I have been unable to find even one instance in the New Testament where a local assembly of God’s people ever went by one scriptural “name” to the exclusion of all other scriptural “names”. Nor can I find even one “name” given to the universal church (composed of all Christians everywhere) that was exclusive. No, the terms are all descriptive and never, ever exclusive! Since this is so it raises some serious questions:

  • By what authority do we select a descriptive name from the Bible and apply it exclusively to the universal church?
  • By what authority do we choose a descriptive phrase from the Bible and make it the exclusive name of a local congregation?
  • If we have selected an exclusive proper name, even if it is a name found in the Scriptures, why doesn’t that make us a denomination?
  • Why aren’t we content to refer to our congregation as the “Main Street Church” or let the sign out front simply say “Christians Meet Here” or something similar?

If you balk at these questions, remember that we are a people who demand book, chapter and verse for authority in all that we do. Let us practice what we preach!