The churches of Christ advertise on most everything that we share with the community that we are “undenominational”. It is something unique that sets us apart from other religious groups, but sometimes it just becomes the wallpaper in the background that’s always there, even if we don’t know why anymore. So, what does it mean to be undenominational? And is this different than being “non-denominational”?
To understand, we’ll have to do a little light theology. The doctrine of denominationalism emerged from a well-meant but misdirected attempt to claim the unity in Christianity that Jesus expects (see John 17:20-23). Denominationalism declares that all religious groups claiming to follow Christ should be considered to be the one body of “the church of Christ”, and that the different religious groups are merely segments of it, identified by different names—denominated. The expectation of denominationalism is that all “churches” will simply agree to disagree on matters of doctrine and try to get along in a sort of divided “brotherhood”; or put another way, differences in beliefs should be ignored, and we should all just be friends. Religious groups under the umbrella of denominationalism found a way to claim “unity”, while staying divided. This is denominationalism.
On the surface it sounds great, but it is worldly wisdom to the core (see 1 Cor. 1:10-25). It is not the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for, being nothing more than a sad worldly union. Biblical unity reflects the unity enjoyed by the Father and Son (John 17:20-23), without doctrinal or moral differences. Any other definition of unity is—plainly put—“foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:10, 20).
Equally as sinful, denominationalism set the stage—it is the very foundation—for our current postmodern belief that truth doesn’t really matter. This was not a huge leap for many religious groups, who had elevated their traditions, creeds, and theologies to the level of God-breathed truth. Therefore, as each religious group decided to “agree to disagree” on their “truth” for the sake of “unity”, the whole idea that truth matters fell by the wayside. Ironically, denominationalism saw the valuing of truth as being the cause for divisions. So, truth was devalued and sacrificed on the altar of a false unity.
But what if we valued both truth and unity? What if, instead of valuing traditions, creeds, and theologies, we valued biblical truth alone? And what if we valued real biblical unity? What if every believer in Jesus simply agreed that there really should be only one church, the one described in the pages of the New Testament? What if we made the Bible the sole source of authority for truth, for doctrine, for morality, for direction in worship, for organization of the church, and for definitions? What if we refused to believe that our Creator can’t communicate with us in an understandable way? What if we realized that God never commands something that is impossible and took the command (1 Cor. 1:10) seriously? What if we refused to accept denominationalism as unity or anything like it? What would you call that? Perhaps “undenominational”.
The word “undenominational”, using the prefix “un-”, implies says that it is “not” denominational, that it stands opposed to the concept of denominationalism and any division of Christianity. And to be “undenominational” has been the plea that the churches of Christ have continued to make to our religious neighbors: to abandon denominational names, creeds, doctrines, traditions, and divisions (Col. 2:8); to seek authority for all Christian faith and practice from the Bible alone (2 Tim. 3:16, 17); to aspire to be and diligently work at becoming the one united body (Eph. 4:3-6) found in the New Testament.
To be “non-denominational”, on the other hand, simply means that the religious group in question has no alliances or identification with any of the named segments of Christendom—usually for the purposes of being able to appeal to a wide range of denominations. And while it is true that the Lord’s church makes an appeal to a wide range of religious groups, we want to and need to say, “We aren’t associated with either a Catholic or Protestant division.” We want to and need to say to the religious world that the divisions themselves are sinful; that we need to turn to the Bible for all religious authority; and that we need to (1 Corinthians 1:10) “… all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
The church of Christ (a biblical description, not a denominational name) is undenominational by God’s design. In the pages of the New Testament you will never find any directions for a Catholic or Protestant church, none for a denomination of any kind. Instead, one finds strong commands against division of the Lord’s church and against false teaching; and one finds strong commands for unity and for clinging to the truth.