Non-denominational churches have become increasingly popular in recent years. These churches identify simply as Christians without affiliating with a specific denomination. But what does the Bible say about this approach? Here, we’ll explore the biblical basis for non-denominationalism and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.
The Call for Unity
Several biblical passages emphasize the importance of unity among followers of Christ. For example, Jesus prays in John 17:20-23:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.”
This passage demonstrates Jesus’ desire for oneness and harmony among all Christians. Similarly, the apostle Paul urges the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
The Diversity of Spiritual Gifts
At the same time, the Bible celebrates diversity within the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12 notes how the Spirit gives different gifts and abilities to each person for the common good:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:4,7)
Therefore, unity does not necessitate uniformity. Followers of Christ have liberty in secondary doctrines and practices.
Criticisms of Denominations in Scripture
While never directly addressing denominations, several biblical texts criticize the division and pride that can accompany affiliation with particular Christian groups. For example, Paul laments quarreling and division in the Corinthian church:
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:10-13)
Here Paul chastises the Corinthians for pledging allegiance to particular leaders rather than Christ alone. The competitive, divisive spirit Paul confronted in Corinth arguably resembles denominational fragmentation today.
The Emphasis on Scripture Over Tradition
Finally, the Bible elevates Scripture over church tradition. Paul praised the Bereans for examining the Scriptures daily to confirm the authenticity of his teachings (Acts 17:11). Believers are encouraged to be discerning, carefully comparing new ideas to biblical truth. Since denominations emerge from theological traditions not explicitly outlined in the Bible, non-denominational churches aim to restore Scripture as the primary source of doctrine.
Benefits of Non-Denominational Churches
In light of these biblical themes, non-denominationalism offers several strengths:
Non-denominational churches can foster greater unity among Christians. Affiliating with a denomination sometimes breeds competitiveness and pride in one’s own tradition at the expense of Christian unity. Non-denominational churches avoid this tendency by welcoming all believers regardless of background.
Encourages Biblical Discernment
By elevating Scripture above denominational creeds, non-denominational churches spur believers to study God’s Word. Members are encouraged to develop personal biblical convictions rather than blindly inherit beliefs from a denominational tradition. This emphasis on discernment is very much in keeping with the biblical precedent.
Additionally, many non-denominational congregations actively cooperate with other local churches through shared ministry efforts and ecumenical relationships. Avoiding rigid denominational requirements allows them to jointly minister alongside churches of other affiliations.
However, the non-denominational approach also has some potential weaknesses:
Lack of Accountability
The absence of denominational oversight means members often lack structures for resolving conflict and holding leaders accountable. There have been multiple scandals involving autonomous, non-denominational churches where leaders abused power. Some accountability from the broader church can be healthy.
Vulnerability to False Teaching
Since each non-denominational church must interpret Scripture independently, some fall into theological error more easily. Cults often target and permeate autonomous non-denominational churches since they lack external doctrinal standards to safeguard orthodox beliefs.
Reinvention of the Wheel
Non-denominational church leaders must produce their own curriculum, leadership training systems, missionary programs, etc. This redundancy of effort can result in an inefficient use of resources. Denominations allow churches to benefit from shared materials and best practices.
Conclusion: Assess Each Church Individually
In conclusion, the New Testament does not directly prohibit non-denominational churches, but it also never explicitly forbids denominations. Much of the biblical testimony cuts both ways—stressing unity and discernment, celebrating diversity while condemning division. There are reasonable arguments on multiple sides.
Perhaps the healthiest approach is to prayerfully assess each local church individually, whether denominational or non-denominational, on its own merits. No church model or affiliate perfectly equates to the biblical ideal. Unity ultimately hinges on embracing our shared identity in Christ.
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