What Does It Mean to be Undenominational?

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.

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About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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9 Responses to What Does It Mean to be Undenominational?

  1. K. Rex Butts says:

    The Churches of Christ (CofC) a denomination, albeit organized very differently than classic mainstream denominations (i.e., United Methodist Church), the CofC is still a denomination. That’s why we have para-church ministries like “Churches of Christ Disaster Relief” who receive their support from and serve communities through the support of a particular group of churches known as the CofC. And I’m fine with the fact that the CofC is a denomination because I don’t know how any group of churches can remain affiliated as an organized group without becoming a denomination of some sorts. As for the “undenominational” vs. “non-denominational”… anyone can define the terms however they like but it seems more like a matter of semantics. Growing up in the CofC (I was born in 1973), I only ever heard the term “non-denominational” used in the CofC. It wasn’t until other community churches, Bible churches, etc…, who exist outside of sectarian fence the CofC has built up, started referring to themselves as “non-denominational” too that I heard folks in the CofC start referring to our denomination as “undenominational.” So it seems that the term “undenominational” is just one more way for the CofC to divide away from other Christians rather than to try embodying Jesus’ desire for unity among his one church (which is much larger than just the CofC).

    • parklinscomb says:

      “Denominations” theologically buy that divisions in the body of Christ are legitimate. The churches of Christ do not buy it. Using biblical language, we, collectively speaking, are a brotherhood, a family, the bride of Christ, or churches of Christ. “Churches of Christ Disaster Relief” and others like them, sometimes called para-church organizations, aren’t denominational structures, but rather are organized for the purposes of pooling intra-brotherhood resources without surrendering autonomy—not unlike the apostle Paul’s efforts at raising money to feed the poor of Judea (2 Cor. 8,9), well before the time of any denominational division.
      It is unfortunate that you are OK with the churches of Christ being considered a denomination, because it implies that you’ve largely or completely given up on the ideal of real Christian unity. While I would agree that the Lord’s church is probably larger than the known fellowship of the churches of Christ—thankfully, anyone anywhere can pick up a Bible, believe and obey its teachings and be added to the Lord’s church (and have)—I would disagree about the impossibility of “how any group of churches can remain affiliated as an organized group without becoming a denomination of some sorts”. The early church did.
      I would humbly urge you to re-examine—or examine for the first time—the restoration plea. It is an ideal that clearly has a biblical foundation and is worth striving for.

  2. Gerry says:

    Very well written article. It really destroys the lie of the church being a diversified unity.

  3. Gipson Baucum says:

    I’m wondering how much false doctrine can be taught/practiced before a church ceases to be a church of Christ. The church in Corinth was about as messed up as any church I know of (and Paul was obviously not OK with that), but to my understanding they never stopped being God’s people. So there’s obviously some room for a group to not have everything right but still maintain it’s identification with the church, though it should be striving for unity and doctrinal faithfulness.

    • parklinscomb says:

      Your question is a really good one, but it is one that ultimately can only be answered by the Lord Himself. He alone knows where that line is; however, I think the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation give us a little insight into the question. While the Corinthian church remained God’s people despite their serious problems, some of these churches were in danger of having their candlesticks taken away. And I believe that the word “repent”, used often in the letters to the seven church, is a key. If a church—or an individual disciple—continues to knowingly disobey the Lord’s will or teach false doctrine without attempting to change course, perhaps that is when the lampstand is removed and they cease being God’s people.

  4. 0nesimus says:

    Thanks Park! I really agree with the devastating effects of “let’s just agree to disagree” denominationalism, especially since I think we’re seeing the fruits of that in my generation where “truth is intolerable” and everyone holds their own private interpretation of everything to the extent that “everyone is right” and nothing really matters anymore (which is probably the most lukewarm position anyone could get to).

    I do believe that the original principles of “undenominationalism” that the churches of Christ held, which require patience and a willingness to discuss issues that are not yet seen eye to eye, are where we need to be as the body of Christ, but, in practice, I have seen very little willingness to function in those principles. Sometimes it seems the churches of Christ operate with a denominational mindset (an example being the division between R.H. Bolls and H.L. Boles in the 1920’s) that isn’t willing to patiently work these matters out between ourselves. And I’m seeing a lot of brothers that can quote church of Christ position on things without knowing the scriptures regarding those issues.

    It is always my prayer that this mindset expressed here that is willing to talk (and not just close the issues down and treat them with silence) and come to unity of mind will prevail in the Church again!

    • parklinscomb says:

      Hi David, great to hear from you. And, yes, unity comes when we 1) really know the Bible and 2) agree to obey it. The problem are old ones: biblical illiteracy and letting “my position” become more important than submitting to God—that is, more concern about “Who is right?” rather than “What is right?”.

  5. 0nesimus says:

    PS- Park, by the way, this is David Istre!

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