Denominations: Is it wrong to be in a denomination?

Being “non-denominational” always sounds better than being in a denomination. No one wants to be “labeled” or narrowly pigeonholed. Some even seem to believe that their non-denominational status is inherently superior to those stuck in an old man made denomination.

But is being in a denomination inherently bad? They seem to imply that a denomination needs a justification for its existence while being non-denominational requires no justification. I don’t know when or how this happened but that seems to be the state of affairs now.

In this study, I want to argue for the benefits of being in a denomination and argue that an independent non-denominational church creates more problems than they know.

What is so great about…?

I want to present a typical scenario to help us look into the supposed benefits of being non-denominational. Let’s say the non-denominational church in question called itself Community Church of Warminster (CCW). This church emphatically distances herself from being connected to a certain denomination. She sells this as her strong point. They remain adamant about this — they desperately seek to be THE community church for everyone in their neighborhood and city.  Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, non-denominational, etc. can all come. They exclude no one.

Furthermore, denominational churches, they argue, were started by men. Wesley (for Methodists and Wesleyans), Calvin (Presbyterians and Reformed churches), Luther (for Lutherans), etc. A non-denominational church depends only on the Bible and not on the fickle and peculiar personalities of men and fallible institutions. Her eyes behold only the Bible and nothing else!

Sounds great! She remains open to all and excludes no one. They also depend on the Bible and not on men and great personalities. These things appeal to every believer. Who can disagree with that? That surely makes a non-denominational church great! Right?

Hidden Assumptions

Under closer scrutiny, these things may not be as beneficial as they first appear to be. But what does CCW believe? Does CCW tell us anything about what she believes? Will she always believe it? Is that belief dependent on the pastor or her leaders? The simple affirmation, “We just believe in the Bible.” is both naïve and misleading.

No church exists without some doctrinal positions. She has to believe in something. To say they believe in the Bible doesn’t tell us much. The devil espouses the Bible. Jehovah’s Witness and even the Mormons appeal to the Bible. Roman Catholics do the same. The question remains, “What doctrines or teachings do you believe come from the Bible?” Once we frame the question that way, many churches part company from each other. Many churches that purport to believe in the Bible rarely read it from the pulpit.

Most non-denominational churches have a statement of faith or beliefs. Often they tend to express their beliefs in minimal terms. But even here they can mislead. Every church has a position on women preachers, baptism (paedo, credo, salvific, etc.), Lord’s Supper, Christ’s return, its view of the millennium, view of the OT (dispensational, covenantal, etc.), Ten Commandments (all say they believe them but most deny the second and fourth), God’s sovereignty, church discipline, church government, etc. but they rarely ever set forth where they stand on these important issues.

For example, Calvary Chapel[1] lists what they believe. It doesn’t tell us about their view of women’s ministry, Ten Commandments, church discipline, and God’s sovereignty. They believe in baptism by immersion but we know nothing else as to its meaning. They are clearly dispensational though they do not say so. Their Trinitarian formulation borders on being modalistic[2] and their view of Christian fellowship is faulty — the basis of Christian fellowship should not be “Christ’s agape love”[3] (does that clause mean Christ’s love for us or our love for others on account of Christ’s love)?

A lot more could be said. But who holds the pastor accountable? Can the entire church simply change all those views? Does each staff member have to hold to these doctrinal views? Is the pastor the final authority? Are there elders?[4] We don’t really know any of these things.

To Form a Perfect Union?

Individual non-denominational churches remain unconnected to any other church in any formal way. They can meet with other churches but nothing requires or encourages that. In their efforts to be open to everyone, they can only be that way if someone comes to that church. CCW remains unattached to any other church and technically, she could live and die without ever fellowshipping with other local churches!

Presbyterian churches have voluntarily joined themselves together by their mutual confession of faith. We have a “built-in” fellowship. We remain connected to other churches in our denomination and the leadership regularly meets with the leaders of other churches. Some of them meet together as churches on a regular basis while the rest of them have to meet together as elders (in Presbyteries).

Having said all of this, being in a denomination will not necessarily determine the church’s general attitude. She can be either charitable and catholic (in the generic and the true sense of the word) or be sectarian and parochial. Whereas being Presbyterian may help to foster a more generous charitable spirit, it does not necessarily always happen. Truly, if we are one in Christ, then we must love those whom Christ loves.

KEY THOUGHTS: Beyond the Local Church

Creeds and Confessions or What we Believe (Statement of Faith)

A non-denominational church list what they believe. Most are short and very simple. We would expect something like that in CCW.

Conservative Evangelical Bible believing Presbyterian churches hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms. Many godly and learned men met together to write this Confession (all of them well aware of the historic creeds and confessions) and it has stood the test of time since 1646. The WCF was something of a consensus statement by many of the great men of the seventeenth century. These men held to more distinct views on many other matters but these statements in the WCF were held by all of them.

However, “What we Believe” statements seek to be minimal. Therefore their broad statements create many more questions (because they are not as comprehensive). Also, because they were written by a few people and not necessarily by the most biblically and theologically equipped men, they tend to lack depth and insight (being unaware of the broad differences of opinions on certain matters). For example, many people do not know that the modern view of the “rapture” is less than 150 years old! Such a view was never ever considered before this. Yet, some believe if you don’t believe in the “rapture” then you are not a Christian![5]

To argue that nobody wants to follow “men” and instead follow the Bible overlooks a simple point. These “What we Believe” statements were composed by contemporary men and I can hardly believe they are godlier and more theological than the men who penned the WCF. They were all composed by men — which one is more biblical and more thoroughly theological and reflective of the Bible’s overall teaching?

We hold to these Confessions not by coercion but by conviction. After reading, studying and reflecting on the Bible’s teaching, we have come to believe that these statements in the Confession reflect what the Bible teaches as a whole. Yes, they were written by men ages ago but we believe the truth of Scripture has not changed. We embrace these doctrines because we believe they are in accordance with Scripture. The same can be said of the “What we Believe” statements. Both maintain their biblical basis. We affirm more and with greater precision; they affirm very little and some of their statements lack clarity.

KEY THOUGHTS: Minimal vs. Comprehensive; Credal by Conviction and not by Coercion

Church Government

Every church has some form of “leadership.” The question is not over its simplicity vs. complexity but its fidelity to the Bible. Is the church government in accordance with Scripture? Many non-denominational churches do not have “elders” or “deacons.” They have boards, committees, etc. All of them have a “pastor” and other leaders but the Bible clearly teaches that the church leaders are to be her elders who teach and oversee the flock of God.

The “pastor” is not superior to the other elders but they work as a body of elders. They hold each other accountable and are held accountable by the church and Presbytery. Here is where this is very important. We can be sure that everyone will voluntarily teach what the Confession teaches and that it will be (at least it should be!) the same in all the churches. Since all her elders believe the Confession faithfully reflects the Bible’s teaching, they require each individual elder to consistently teach what the Confession teaches.

In a non-denominational church, the pastor often has the highest authority. Sometimes, the ruling body (whatever they might call it, the board, etc.) has the highest authority and they hire and fire as they see fit. The doctrine that is being taught reflects the mind of the individual leader or the governing authority and no external doctrinal standard can hold him or them accountable. For example, in a non-denominational church, the pastor can say, “The Bible does not teach that Jesus is God.” The congregation may not like it but what can they do? Doesn’t it become a power struggle to see if the pastor stays or not? What if several people in the congregation have been convinced by the pastor? What happens now? In a Presbyterian church, we can say up front that we have already declared in our Confession and its Catechisms that the Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God! That doctrine continues to be what we believe the Bible teaches. So, the same pastor could be charged of heresy or formally disciplined and in the end, excommunicated. An appeal could be made to a larger body of elders beyond the congregation if it become messy in the local congregation. The same doctrinal standard will be used both in the local congregation as well as the local presbytery to try the heretic of his Arian Christology!

In a Presbyterian structure, the pastor will be held accountable either by the elders and/or the Presbytery. Her doctrinal distinctives regulate what can being taught! If the pastor no longer believes what he professed to believe when he joined the denomination, then he can leave or be deposed.

Because the Presbyterian church is a Confessional church, you don’t have to wonder what the pastor and the elders believe. Will this pastor teach such and such? You cannot be certain in a non-denominational church. However, in a confessional denominational church, though emphases may differ, each pastor will generally teach those basic doctrinal positions each pastor and elder voluntarily believes.

KEY THOUGHTS: Voluntary Association; Independent vs. Connectionalism (cf. Acts 15); Elders and not Boards, etc.

A Rose by any other name?

A non-denominational church may say they are free from the opinions of men and open to all people. Yet, their doctrinal distinctives, whether explicitly stated in a statement of belief or not, reveal their theological pedigree (whether they know it or not). Everyone is either an Arminian or a Calvinist; a paedobaptist or a credobaptist; covenantal or dispensational (though there may be moderating positions between these two); etc. That is, they are either Baptist or not — each church maintains a position on these and other theological issues.  A church may not want to be called Baptist and yet everything they believe in and everything they teach have been held by Baptists. That doesn’t per se make it right or wrong but not labeling oneself doesn’t mean the church can escape a label. A denominational label describes the kinds of beliefs held by the church — some are conscious of that while others are not. A rose by any other name is still a rose. A Baptist is a Baptist even if he disavows it. Avoiding a theological or denominational label does not enable a church to escape it.

If one has chicken pox, then one has it even if he or she does want to call it that. They could avoid the label entirely but call it what you will, it is still chicken pox. A church may avoid being denominational and being theologically labeled but what they believe still has a “label” perfectly describing them.

KEY THOUGHTS: Theological labels help us and do not limit us

CONCLUSION: There are several non-denominational independent churches that are healthy and powerful in their community (cf. John MacArthur’s church) but the church’s theological distinctives will disappear once the pastor retires. The same could be said about each denominational church but these churches are guaranteed certain theological positions after their pastor retires.


[2] To say “who manifests Himself in three separate persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is classic modalism. The word “manifests” is not the word to use because that is the word Sabellius and other modalists used to describe the Trinity. Our LC says,  “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one …God” (LC, #9).

[3] This phrase literally means Christ’s love love — there isn’t anything unique about the word “agape” per se no matter how many times ministers argue that it is a unique kind of love (it just means “love”).  Our fellowship is based on our union with Christ and in having the same Holy Spirit dwelling in all of us.

[4] Calvary Chapel’s statement talks about the church government being simplistic — “church government should be simplistic rather than complex and bureaucratic.” It should read “simple” and not “simplistic.” This is a very unfortunate formulation. It states what they avoid but does not set forth what they affirm.

[5] Our view of the “end times” (eschatology) is very basic and held by almost all Christians.

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