Denominationalism

 

Have you ever wondered what this nation would be like if newspaper editors, columnists, reporters and television pundits were in charge of our national and state governments? Since they already have all the answers to our financial, political, social and moral questions, all they would have to do is simply enforce what they already know. There would be no need for conducting surveys to ascertain what the American people believe or desire. Since the experts in the media already know what we should do and how we should do it, there would be no need to hire experts in various fields or departments. If you think I might be exaggerating, listen carefully to the radio and television talking heads and read the editorials in your daily newspaper. You will not have to think about our nation's problems and opportunities. Just pay attention and do what you read in the newspapers and hear on radio and on television. How can you go wrong with such brilliant and infallible guides?

 

Frank Ritter, a columnist for The Tennessean, recently wrote an article with the heading, "Religious denominations often do more to divide than unite." The article appeared in the newspaper Tuesday, October 26, 2004. It bothers me to have to say it, but the title of the article betrays a serious misunderstanding of denominationalism. The word involves devotion to sectarian principles or interests. The term refers to organizations that emphasize the denominational differences to the point of narrow exclusivism. Some dictionaries list the word "sectarianism" as one of the synonyms of denominationalism.

 

But before I review some of the points Frank Ritter makes in his article, I shall read two statements from the book, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), by Dr. George Eldon Ladd, a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Ladd wrote very perceptively: "...the idea of denominations would be abhorrent to Paul. The nearest things to denominations were the sectarian groups in Corinth that Paul heartily condemned" (p. 532). You do not have to be a biblical scholar to know that Dr. Ladd is correct. There were no denominations in apostolic times. The reason Paul heartily condemned the nearest thing to denominations—the sectarian groups in Corinth—were because denominations were contrary to our Lord's prayer in John 17. Do you remember the Lord's prayer for his disciples? "Neither pray I for these alone (that is, his immediate disciples), but for them also who shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:20-21).

 

Two comments on his passage are in order. The unity Jesus desires for those who claim to be his followers is not a kind of generic unity. It is the unity that exists between the Father and the Son. It is not possible modern denominationalism can harmonize with the intent of the Lord's prayer. Furthermore, one of the goals of unity is the influence such unity will have on unbelievers. Jesus prayed that we might be united "that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." The division that exists among the professed followers of Jesus Christ has to be confusing for men and women who may be seeking to know the truth. Tragically, most modern denominations promote plans of salvation that cannot be found anywhere in scripture. How absolutely discouraging to sincere seekers after truth!

 

Frank Ritter tells in his article about a wedding that took place in December of 1905. The announcement of the marriage simply stated: "Oak Grove Church." Ritter said that the announcement did not mention whether the church was Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, not even Quaker, Muslim, or Buddhist— "just church." Ritter expresses the hope that the day will come when the word "denomination" is erased from the dictionary and from all religious treatises. He asked why he would make such a statement. His answer: "Because it doesn't do much more than cause dissension" (p. 11-A).

 

Frank Ritter says he is proud of his denomination. It is that attitude that has promoted sectarianism and denominationalism in the world. If every religious group would simply refer to themselves as "the church of the Lord," "the church of the living God," "the church of Christ," "the body of Christ"—and oppose all denominational titles, that would be a step in the right direction, but it would not be adequate. All groups would have to give up their denominational distinctives, such as, the doctrines they preach, the way they worship God, and other features of modern denominations. Just sacrificing denominational names would make little or no difference unless all groups agreed to abide by the teaching of scripture. Paul instructed the sinfully divided church at Corinth: "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, that there be no divisions among you; but that you be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). How can we speak the same thing if we do not follow the Bible?

 

Frank Ritter provides some insight into his thinking about denominations by the following example. He mentions that some groups sprinkle for baptism while others totally dunk them under the water (p. 11-A). The expression, "totally dunk them under the water," is not a very helpful term.   The word, "dunking," reminds one of dunking donuts in coffee or hot chocolate. Maybe Frank Ritter does not know—which is inexcusable since he raised the topic—but sprinkling is not baptism. If a person is going to discuss a controversial topic, he ought to have done the necessary research to be able to discuss it intelligently. Frank Ritter has not done that or, if he has, his article gives no evidence of it.

 

What Frank Ritter probably did not know—although he should have made an effort to know—is that the Greeks used two very different words for "sprinkle" and "baptize." The Greek word for "sprinkle" is rhantizo. The verb form appears four times in the New Testament and is almost always used of the sprinkling that occurred under the Mosaic law. For example, "For if the blood of bulls and goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God" (Heb. 9:13-14)? The noun form of the word, rhantismos, is also used of the sprinkling of blood (Heb. 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2), The New Testament never—I repeat—never uses the word for baptism. In fact, it was several centuries after the church was established before any group substituted sprinkling or pouring for baptism. Does that fact not tell you that changing the name of religious groups matters little or not at all unless they also change their teachings and practices?

 

The word "baptize" (baptizo in the Greek) means to immerse, to submerge, to overwhelm, to dip. W. E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Company, Inc., 1940) says the word "was used among the Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into it." The Greek biographer, Plutarch, used the word of the drawing of wine by dipping a cup into the bowl (p. 97). Most denominational scholars readily agree that the word "baptism" means immersion or submersion. But then they illogically argue that it really does not make any difference how a person is baptized so long as he is truly penitent.

 

Would Frank Ritter be willing to say: "I accept the Bible's teaching on baptism? I am willing to use my talent and time to promote what the word of God teaches and only what the word of God teaches?" If he and all others were willing to do that along with dropping his pride in his denomination, that would be a very significant step in the direction of unity. I have no idea if he would take that bold step, but until all who are involved in denominations have that kind of faith and courage, unity will not be possible. We know Jesus prayed for unity (John 17:20-21); we know Paul pled for unity (1 Cor. 1:10) and we also know Paul gave a plan for unity (Eph. 4:3-6). And how can we forget the words of the inspired Psalmist: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (Psa. 133:1)?

 

Frank Ritter raises the issue of communion or the Lord's supper. Should we take it once a year or every Sunday (p. 11-A)? There is almost universal agreement among reputable scholars that the early Christians took the Lord's supper every Lord's day. Please think of this analogy. God commanded the Jews under the Mosaic covenant to remember the sabbath day and to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8). Which sabbath during the year were the Jews required to remember and keep it holy? Would they have pleased God had they observed just one sabbath during the year? The early church met on the first day of the week to observe the Lord's supper (Acts 20:7). It ought to be obvious that we are to take the Lord's supper during every week that has a first day—the day on which our Lord was raised from the dead and on which the Lord's church was established in Jerusalem. If every church would take the Lord's supper every Lord's day and teach the necessity doing so, one barrier to unity would be removed.

 

Frank Ritter mentions the use of instrumental music and dancing as acts of worship. Does he have any idea what the scriptures teach about worship or is worship just what people feel like doing?  Does it make any difference what worship activities God authorizes? For the benefit of Frank Ritter and those who think like he does, I must say as forcefully as I am able: There is not a man alive or a woman either who can find scriptural warrant for using mechanical instruments of music in the worship of the New Testament church. Does he have any idea what the scriptures teach about worship?   Does it make any difference what worship activities God authorizes? Anyone who thinks he can find instrumental music in the New Testament is hereby challenged to do so.

 

It is tragic that many churches do not seek scriptural authority for what they do in their worship services. They may simply do what they have always done. After all, tradition is a powerful influence in religion. Or they may do what they like. One response to our speaking against instrumental music has been on occasions: "But I like instruments of music." So do I. Does that mean that you and I have the right to decide what the Lord should accept in our worship? I like sirloin steak, but who would be so blatant as to offer it on the Lord's table?

 

More than 115 years ago, Dr. John L. Girardeau, a professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary—a conservative Presbyterian theological seminary in Columbia, South Carolina—published a little book on instrumental music. His students asked him why he opposed instrumental music in public worship. The book, Instrumental Music in the Public Worship (Fayetteville, TN: International Gospel Hour, n.d.), was his response to their questions. Incidentally, the International Gospel Hour has recently republished Dr. Girardeau's book. The very first paragraph in Dr. Girardeau's book sets forth the argument he uses to show that instrumental music in the worship of the New Testament church is not authorized and therefore should not be practiced. Please listen to that paragraph. "Attention, at the outset, is invoked to the consideration which serves to establish the following controlling principle: A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence from their statements, is forbidden" (p. 15).

 

One of the biblical stories Dr. Girardeau uses to illustrate the principle he has outlined is that of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16). God himself decided who would be his priests under the Jewish covenant. The high priests were to be the descendants of Aaron and the other priests from the tribe of Levi. Korah was a Levite, but Dathan and Abiram were the offspring of Reuben. Those three men objected to the authority God had given to Moses and Aaron. The men rose up against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, seeing all the congregation are holy, everyone of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the Lord" (Num. 16:1-3)?

 

In your reading of the Old Testament, have you ever found where God said to the Jewish people, "Only those who have specifically been chosen for the priesthood can serve in that capacity?" When God gave the command for the sons of Levi to serve as priests, did he have to say, "The sons of Judah, the sons of Reuben, the sons of Zebulon and others cannot serve as priests?" When he authorized the sons of Levi to be the priests in Israel, that eliminated men from all the other tribes. What was God's reaction to the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram? "The earth opened up her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from the congregation. And there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense" (Num. 16:32-35). The two hundred and fifty men were co-conspirators with Korah, Dathan and Abiram.

 

Jude, our Lord's physical brother, warns false teachers. "Woe unto them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Korah" (Jude 11). The word "gainsaying" means answering back. It can involve either words or actions. The English Standard Version renders the Greek "rebellion." What was the Holy Spirit's reason for recording the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram? Does he want us to seek authorization for all we do in the work and worship of the church? Dr. Girardeau also discusses Cain and his offering (Gen. 4), Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-3), the disobedience of Moses in smiting the rock (Num. 20) and other Old Testament examples. These stories are recorded for our learning (1 Cor. 10:6, 10; Rom. 15:4). Every one of these great stories teaches that we must have divine authority for the work and worship of the church.

 

Frank Ritter also mentions dancing, faith healing, tongues-speaking, women preachers and auricular confession. Not one—not even one—of these practices can be sustained by a correct interpretation of God's word. I do not have the time today to examine these practices. I have discussed some of these practices on this program and will try to examine the others at a later date.

 

Frank Ritter makes a plea for the professed followers of Christ to cease their bickering about God and how to do the worshipping (p. 11-A). Does not Frank Ritter understand that some people may consider his thoughts as "bickering" about religious differences? Is he arguing that we should not disagree or debate religious differences? He says he reads the book of John—a beautiful book all of us should read regularly. Does he know what Jesus taught the woman whom he met at Jacob's well in Sychar, Samaria? The woman asked Jesus about the worship of the Samaritans and that of the Jews. She said to Jesus, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and you say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Why did not our Lord tell the woman: "It is time that we end this bickering about God and how to do the worshipping?" That, apparently, is what Frank Ritter would have told the woman. But in the Lord's view, there was a right way and many wrong ways to worship God. So he said to the woman, "You worship you know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:19-20, 22). When Frank Ritter reads the book of John, does he understand what Jesus taught the Samaritan woman?

 

Ritter's article betrays rampant relativism, at least, as it applies to the worship of the church. He may reject the term "postmodernist," but there is hardly any doubt he belongs in that category. Does he believe we cannot know what God expects of us? Does he believe it does not really matter what churches teach and practice? Tragically, what Frank Ritter has written in his article seems to be gaining ground among religious people. It is a sign that we have departed from God's pattern for his church. His views also destroy the foundation for biblical moral values.   Such ideas deeply trouble me. I hope they also trouble you. If you are not troubled about them, I am troubled about you.

 

Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334