A denomination is a group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith. It is the result of religious division and hence is contrary to the will of Christ who prayed that we might all be one (Jn 17:22). At the beginning of the church in Acts 2 Christ’s prayer for unity was an accomplished fact. However, as time went on, there were people who departed from the faith and went out from the church (I Jn 2:19) to establish their own groups. These included “those of the circumcusion” (Titus 1:10) and those who “confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (II Jn 1:7). These groups flourished for a while and then mostly disappeared from history though there has been a reestablishment of those who practice gnosticism in recent years.
After the Edit of Toleration by Constantine the church of Christ
became the religion of the Empire. It remained the dominant religion of Western Europe for over 1000 years. During this period the church became politicised and degenerated in its moral and ethical conduct and teaching. While the church of Christ drifted into apostacy during this time, there were brethren here and there who did not share in her prostitution to idolatry. We read, for example, of the Old People in Germany who remained much closer to the truth and existed up until their dispersion by WWII. Generally, however, denominationalism is
traced to the Rennaissance and the weakening of the iron grip that the apostate and oppressive church had come to exercise over men.
Martin Luther, a Catholic Augustinian monk, was the most prominant of the those who protested the secular and immoral practices often apparent among the clergy. One example is the hideous excesses that resulted from the erroneous doctrine of celibacy. In Spain, for example, a monastary and nunnary that were located some distance from each other were found to have been connected by a tunnel. In the middle of the tunnel was a graveyard for babies who resulted from the illicit liasons conducted through that tunnel. Another example is John Tetzel who was commissioned by the Pope to raise money for the
rebuilding of St. Peter’s after it was sacked and burned by the
barbarians. Tetzel carried out his commission by selling indulgences as a sort of spiritual insurance policy against the consequences of sin.
Luther nailed 95 points of contention on the bulletin board (the
castle door) at Worms. It listed complaints regarding the doctrine and conduct of the church and was focused on reforming these practices. The church failed to take kindly to Luther’s 95 theses, and excommunicated him. Unfortunately for the Catholic church, the recent invention of the printing press spread Luther’s theses all over Europe, and they became the subject of heated discussion throughout the land. When the church declared him a heretic and attempted to seize him, because he had friends in high places, he was able to flee
and hide in a castle. Other contemporary reformers such as the Swiss reformer, Zwingli, were not so fortunate. Luther’s writing and ability to avoid death led other men such as John Calvin to also speak out in protest to the church’s obvious problems. The church excommunicated these men, but they had obtained many followers. The result of the excommunication of these protesters was to establish groups of “protestant” churches.
The splits on ideological and moral basis were followed by a division that was more politically motivated. King Henry VIII of England sought a divorce from Ann Bolyn because of his desire to find a wife by whom he could sire a male heir to his throne. When the Pope refused to grant the requested divorce, he declared the church of England to be independent of the Pope. The pope of course excommunicated him, but the result was another permanent split and the birth of a new “protestant” religion, the Church of England.
The process of splitting continued from 1521 to the present day with various doctrines and theories arising among the Protestants that drew away followers after them. The Churches of Christ arose in the the early 1800s on the frontier in America when men like Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone pursued a path of using the Bible only as a standard of faith and practice. These men came out of the Presbyterian and Baptist churches respectively. Though these men were historically associated with denominations, they repudiated denominationalism and creeds of men and assumed the plain Bible designation of “Christian” with no denominational affiliation. These two men and others like them continued where the Reformation movement left off. They began what is known as the Restoration movement. They had no creed but the Bible and accepted the Bible only as their sufficient standard for all faith and practice.
Other so called “Christian” relgions have adopted latter day prophets as authorities in addtion to Christ and the Bible. Organizations such as the 7th Day Adventists (Mary Baker Eddy), Jehovah’s Witness (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society with Rutherford and Russell), and Mormonism (Joseph Smith) have adopted writings of men in addition to the Bible to provide the basis for their individual practices.
God’s ideal is for Christians to speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent. They should have no creed but the Bible and no Lord but Christ. Ideally, Christians should not be of any denomination, but merely individuals belonging to the body of Christ which is the church of Christ (Rom 12:5) of which Christ is the head (Col 1:18).