As we continue our noble quest for authentic, new covenant Christianity, and what that looks like in today’s world, we need to be aware of the fact, dear child of God, that intentional division—denominationalism—within the body of Christ is dealt with quite severely in scripture. The Apostle Paul writes:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you 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. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name.
(I Corinthians 1:10-15, NASB)
Paul condemned the religious pride that caused people to rally around various names and that fueled division within the body of Christ. He was so adamant about the seriousness of this offense that he even gave thanks to God that he had not baptized very many people in the city of Corinth, lest they should rally around him and start wearing his name. And yet, in today’s world, it is a well-accepted and common practice for churches to brand themselves with all kinds of labels and names; and for people to rally around these names and take pride in their various denominations.
While this widely accepted practice may look harmless on the surface, it provides a fertile breeding ground for false teaching of every variety. It seems as if whenever a group of people separate themselves from everyone else by forming their own little fellowship, and branding it with a unique label or name, it soon begins to take on a peculiar identity of its own. Soon the organization begins to celebrate its separate identity and alleged uniqueness. People then begin to take pride in the organization and their association with it, and see themselves as something special, separate, and distinct from Christianity at large. In the end, the organization itself becomes more important that its individual constituency and begins to hold its adherents accountable to its own doctrines and practices. When any religious organization gets to that point, it has, in essence, effectively supplanted Jesus as Lord and has become something of a demigod in its own right. This popular glorifications and celebration of man-made religious institutions is the very epitome of idolatry.
Even in the 1st century, the ekklesia had to be aware of various groups within the early Christian movement that were already changing the message of the Gospel to suit their own desires. The Apostle Paul had to warn the ekklesia in the region of Galatia saying:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.
(Galatians 1:6-10, NASB)
Again, the Apostle Paul warned the young evangelist, Timothy, while he was ministering among the ekklesia in the city of Ephesus, saying:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
(2 Timothy 4:3-4, NASB)
Later in the 1st century, the Apostle John was moved by the Holy Spirit to warn the ekklesia of false teachers moving among them, saying:
Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
(2 John 1:9-11, NASB)
Notice that, in the above passage, the Apostle John was so adamant about combatting the denominationalism of his day that he even went so far as to warn the children of God not to even give a greeting to people who advocated doctrines that were not in accordance with the teachings of Christ. Well, so much for the “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay” mentality that fosters and perpetuates denominationalism and the various doctrines and practices it spawns. It may make me feel good to think that way, but I need to remember that authentic Christian unity can only be achieved by tearing down the denominational walls that separate and divide people from one another; not by reinforcing them.
I know that the ekklesia—the called out body of Christ that I read about in scripture—is still here, alive and well, on planet Earth today. It exists among all the authentic, new covenant children of God worldwide—those who simply want to follow the teachings of Christ as set forth in the pages of the New Testament, free from all the denominational doctrines and traditions of men. But then, I am also aware of Satan’s substitutes; and they are many. These multitudes of denominations are meant to mimic the authentic body of Christ as they not only multiply their erroneous teachings, but supplant the worship of Christ; redirecting unto themselves the dedication and adoration in people’s hearts that should only belong to Christ.
How to tell the difference between the ekklesia and Satan’s substitutes is not always easy, especially for someone who has just recently been “born again” into the family of God and who is just beginning his or her new walk with the Lord. We want to think the best of people. If folks are kind, if they seem compassionate and nurturing, if they appear to us as sincere, knowledgeable, and dedicated to the word of God, then we are more than likely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt; so much so that we tend to forget the Apostle Paul’s warning that, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness…” (2 Corinthians 11:14-16, NASB). You can bet that some of these man-made religious institutions look very similar to the real deal.
So then, just how is the new Christian, or any of us, supposed to know whether or not a particular religious group really is the ekklesia—God’s new covenant children—that we read about in the Bible? Thankfully, God has not left us without guidance. The New Testament clearly sets forth the seven essentials of the Christian faith; and, in his letter to the Christians living in the city of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul appeals to these seven essential precepts as the foundation of Christian unity, saying:
… walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:1-5, NASB)
I submit to you, beloved, the idea that, if the kingdom of Christ on earth—God’s forever family, the ekklesia—has the faith, the love, and the humility to agree on these seven essentials of the Christian faith, then we can have the unity that Jesus prayed for, that the apostles commanded, and that God’s people experienced back in Bible times; prior to the wholesale division—denominationalism—that plagues Christianity today. These seven essential truths serve as a foundation for cultivating community within and among the ekklesia, and for identifying the people with whom we are called to share our Christian walk:
- One body – the ekklesia, the saved body of Christ: Jesus said, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16, NASB). Later He prayed, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (John 17:22-23, NASB). Due to the influences of Western capitalism, we live in a world today that pulses to the beat of trademarks and branding of every kind. However, when it comes to authentic Christianity, these things ought not to exist. Those who advocate for denominationalism—separate and distinct religious organizations, each with their self-identifying labels and practices around which they rally—are not adhering to the concept of the “one body,” and are working against Jesus’ prayer for unity.
- One Spirit – the Holy Spirit of God: “… that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:17, NASB). The Holy Spirit is given as a gift when we are baptized (Acts 2:38). He dwells in us (I Corinthians 6:19, Romans 8:11) to help us “put to death the deeds of the flesh” (Romans 8:12-14, NASB), to “help our weakness” and “intercede for us” in prayer (Romans 8:26-27, NASB), and to help us grow in all the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23, NASB). He is the guiding source of inspiration behind all scripture: “for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (I Peter 1:21, NASB). Jesus called Him, “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26, NASB). The Apostle John tells us that “the Spirit is the truth” (I John 5:6, NASB). The world may be filled with people who are deluded by false spirits continually propagating “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NASB). But the children of God are “filled with Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, NASB), and are “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14, NASB). And so, with eyes set squarely on the inspired word of God—the Bible—they are able to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1, NASB); and will only submit their hearts and lives to the truth delivered to them by the one Spirit, while rejecting all others.
- One hope of your calling – our eternal, life-giving, personal relationship with God made possible through the sacrificial gift of His only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus: That for which we live, and the means by which we are able to attain it, can be summed up in Jesus’ words:
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.
(John 14:1-3, NASB)
People may seek to put their eternal hope in the various belief systems and religious teachings of men. Some even say it doesn’t really matter what one chooses to believe because “there are many avenues to God”; or that “regardless of the road we’re on, we’re all going to the same place anyway!” But Jesus said, “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5, NASB). The new covenant children of God hear the voice of their Shepherd and know that His voice is only hope for all humanity. For Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6, NASB).
- One Lord – Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the only true and living God: The Apostle Peter stated it well when he said, in his first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, NASB). Later, the Apostle Paul would say:
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:9-11, NASB)
- One faith – as presented in the good news—Gospel—message of Jesus Christ: The apostle Paul said:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’
(Romans 1:16-17, NASB)
Paul also said, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17, NASB). Concerning this one faith we share, which is the result of the “word of Christ,” the prophet, Jude, says:
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.
(Jude 1:3, NASB)
From this statement we learn that the “one faith” is both singular and distinctive; it can be identified from the many and varied faiths to which people adhere. Furthermore, “the faith” of which Jude speaks is not some massive collection of religious beliefs whereby some particular denominational institution can be identified. “The faith” is that which lies at the very center of every authentic disciple’s heart—a profound trust in, and surrender to, the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. I know this is true because, in writing to the people at Corinth, Paul said, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2, NASB). Jesus, and His sacrifice for us, is the heart, the core, the essence, indeed, the very substance of the “one faith” set forth in the Holy Scripture. Paul went on to remind the Corinthians, and us as well:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
(I Corinthians 15:1-4, NASB)
From this passage we’re reminded that our faith is altogether focused on Christ and what He has done for us. And, while a living faith works, our faith is never in our works. Our faith is not in our religious beliefs, doctrines and creeds. Our faith is not in our church or any religious institution among men. The “one faith” for which we contend is nothing more or less than the finished and complete work of Christ.
- One baptism – the baptism commanded by Jesus when He said: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16, NASB). It is the baptism exemplified by the Ethiopian eunuch when, after hearing the Gospel, he cried out, “‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ … and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36-38, NASB). It is baptism “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38, NASB) in that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death” (Romans 6:3, NASB). It is baptism of, by, and into the Holy Spirit, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:13, NASB). It is the baptism that “now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 3:21, NASB). It is not some outward, legalistic work of law or religious regulation; but rather an expression of our personal faith in that we were, “buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12, NASB). It is the outward manifestation of our new birth into the family of God; as Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, NASB).
- One God and Father – the only true and living God, creator of heaven and earth, giver and sustainer of life, Who: “… after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2, NASB); “and without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6, NASB). The Apostle Paul said, “For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him” (I Corinthians 8:5-6, NASB).
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