I grew up in — and still happily attend — independent Bible churches, which for those of you who don’t know, is a bit like independent Baptist churches, with a small variation in spelling. To be fair, the Bible churches have sometimes also left behind a certain amount of legalistic drivel that the independent Baptists have, in my experience, largely kept. These things aside, they’re about the same.
Except for one thing. We claimed no larger family affiliation. People would ask, “What denomination are you with?” We would say — rather proudly, to be honest — “None. We just study the Bible and believe what it teaches.” This was, presumably, different from those denominational folks, who believed in the Bible and their denominational distinctives (and, we thought, tended toward the latter in the event of a conflict).
Which is to say, we just followed Christ, and never mind Martin Luther, or John Wesley, or Menno Simons.
Paul once wrote to people who thought very similarly. He castigated those who followed one human teacher to the exclusion of others — they would say ” I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” or “I am of Cephas,” and Paul shot back, “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” A little later he says,
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.
“Exactly,” we would say. It wasn’t about the human teacher at all; it was about following Christ. And that’s just a lot holier, isn’t it?
Not so fast. While there were those in Corinth who would say “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos,” there were also those who would say “I am of Christ.” And Paul had a rebuke for them, too: “Is Christ divided?”
When we claim to follow Christ, but we find ourselves constantly divided from our brothers, something is wrong. If it is our very devotion to Christ that seems to be dividing us from the rest of His Church, then we need to consider whether we are in fact worshiping Christ, or ourselves.
“But the Church is filled with apostasy today,” we say. “Of course we have to separate ourselves from that.”
As if the Corinthian church were some sort of paragon! Paul wrote this rebuke to a church that was corrupt to the core. Their services were a mess, their men consorted with prostitutes, they didn’t practice church discipline, they sued each other in secular court, they got drunk at the Lord’s Table, they tolerated heresy and every sort of license…let’s face it, what the Lutherans down the street are up to is apt to be pretty mild by comparison. Yet even with all that going on, Paul doesn’t treat sectarian divisions as a solution, but as yet another problem — and the first one he tackles, at that.
It’s pretty simple, really: if we are following Christ, we’ll find ourselves drawn toward His people. If His people have gone astray, we will find ourselves seeking to return them to the Shepherd, not just avoiding them…again, if we are really following Christ. When we find ourselves dividing from His people then we are not really following Christ, no matter what it says on the church sign or the doctrinal statement.
Denominations exist because believers wanted to band together, and as long as the denomination is a force for unity, glory to God for all of it. There’s nothing wrong with being nondenominational, either, if in your particular circumstance that doesn’t hinder unity. Conversely, if your affiliation, or proud non-affiliation, becomes a point of division from your brothers instead of an occasion for unity with them, then you’re warped and sinning, no matter what the affiliation or lack thereof.