There are all kinds of folks today that say they are undenominational. Probably most of the time the meaning is simply that that particular church or organization is not affiliated with any denominational organization. Usually it doesn’t mean that the teaching of the group is different from that of the denominational body from which they separated. Most often today it is simply an effort to be more acceptable to younger people who don’t want to be part of the religion their parents were part of or they grew up in.
But there is a whole different meaning of the idea of being undenominational. The New Testament doesn’t ever use the word “church” to refer to a denomination or to some segment of Christianity. The word “church” comes from a word meaning “called out” and referred to people who were called out to a gathering of some kind at the time Jesus adopted the word. In the New Testament it is used in three basic ways. Sometimes it refers to the whole body of disciples of Jesus Christ. It was in that sense that Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It is in that sense that it is said that Jesus is head of the church (Colossians 1:18) or that he loved the church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). It is in that sense that he refers to the church of the firstborn ones whose names are written in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). At other times the word is used to refer to a local congregation or group of congregations in some area. It is in that sense that there are references to “the church of God in Corinth” or “the church in Philippi”. It was in that sense that Paul said, “the churches of Christ salute you” in Romans 16:16. The only other way the word is used in the New Testament is about the local gathering of disciples of Christ. In I Corinthians 11:17ff Paul talked about when the whole church comes together in one place to take of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he discussed abuses taking place in the assemblies in Corinth and in verses 30-31 said, “Let your women keep silent in the churches for it is not permitted to them to speak in the church.” He didn’t mean anyone who was a female member of the church could never say anything. He was referring to the assembled church for worship and building up one another.
Denominational seeds began to be sowed in the early church before it had been in existence very long. In Corinth especially there were those who were saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Peter” or “I am of Apollos”. Paul asked them, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He went on to point out that Paul and Apollos were only ministers through whom they came to believe in Jesus Christ and that it was Jesus they should be loyal to.
Throughout the centuries there have been people who have pleaded with other believers in Christ to come out of denominational bodies and give up the different creeds so we can all just be Christians instead of some particular brand of Christian. When the restoration movement was launched in America by men like Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone their plea was for unity on Jesus Christ and His word. They challenged people to just read the Bible and believe what it says. Follow what you can read for yourself instead of letting someone else tell you what you should believe. They believed that honest people could read the Bible and understand the message God wanted them to understand.
In this sense being undenominational means to be devoted to Jesus Christ and His word to the degree you don’t teach anything as necessary for people today that is not founded in His word. It means that you refuse to set up some religious hierarchy where some are regarded as the authority on what the others should believe and do. What has been practiced and what will be practiced will all be subjected to the same standard. Is this what the Bible teaches that we should be doing today?
Before Jesus was crucified he prayed one of the most powerful prayers ever recorded in John 17. In that prayer he prayed for his apostles that God would keep them. He also prayed for all those who would come to believe in him through the things they taught, “that they all may be one Father as you are in me and I am in you, that they may be one in us, so the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Verses 20-21)
Who could possibly look at the landscape today of churches and think that Christians are “one” in any sense of the word? I don’t believe he was praying for us to all be just the same in every way. Christians aren’t stamped out with a cookie cutter mold. Whether you think of the individual Christian, or a Christian family or a congregation of Christians people will see different things and emphasize matters that seem important to them to others. Just as in Revelation 2 and 3 churches in different areas adapted in some ways to the city they were part of. But there are fundamental matters that must be followed by all if we are to be His.
In Ephesians 4:1-6 Paul told the Christians to walk worthy of their calling by being humble, forbearing and patient with each other “stretching every muscle to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Unity never comes easily. It is something that requires a lot of effort. Then he laid out seven fundamentals that must be there for the unity to be “the unity of the Spirit”. “There is one body, one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling. There is one Lord, one faith and one baptism. There is one God the Father who is above all, through all and in all.”
Look at the seven things he said there is only one of and think of the multiplicity of ideas that are pushed on each of them.
Being undenominational means, “I just want to be a Christian”. I am not interested in being a conservative Christian or liberal Christian, I just want to be a Christian. I’m not interested in being a “church of Christ Christian” or a “Baptist Christian” or “Pentecostal Christian”. I just want to be a Christian who is loyal to Jesus Christ as head and lord of his church. I’m not interested in trying to decide who else is a real Christian or who is in and who is out since the Lord is the only one that knows people’s hearts and motives. He does the adding of people to his church and he does the taking of names out of his book of life. I feel certain he has added some that I wouldn’t have thought he would have and he likely has not added some I thought he would.
All I can do is make certain I have a faith that is real and a dedication to the Lord that is real so that I can be right with him and leave an example for others that is what it ought to be. A denomination by any other name still smells bad. It is an effort to segment the body of believers into special groups that all follow some idea or person rather than Christ. Saying you are undenominational doesn’t mean you really are. The truth is found in singular loyalty to Christ the Lord.