"Is The Church of Christ A Denomination?" - 2
In last month's article we pointed out that before we can answer the above question, we must understand clearly what is meant by "denomination." We learned that a religious denomination consists of an "association of congregations" which have a common heritage. A denomination, by definition, is a part of something larger than itself. But the Bible is clear that the church Jesus came to establish (Matthew 16:18) is the one body of Christ (Ephesians 1:21-22; 4:4). It is not a part of anything else. Therefore, it is not a denomination. This was the substance of the previous article. Please get a copy of that article if you have not read it.
The key element in every religious denomination is that the congregations of which it consists are tied together under some kind of organizational umbrella which is distinct from the congregations themselves. Yet, in the New Testament, each congregation was self-governing (autonomous) under the direction of its own elders or bishops whose oversight was limited to the local flock of which they were a part (See Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:2). We search in vain in the New Testament to find the authority for any kind of intra or extra-congregational organization which planned or coordinated the function of those congregations. Even some denominational authorities acknowledge that denominations did not originate in the Bible. Dr. Donald G. Tinder, in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, points out that there has been very little theological writing on the subject of denominationalism. He suggests that the simplest explanation for this omission is "that the Bible in no way envisages the organization of the church into denominations. It instead assumes the opposite..." (p. 310).
Where, then, did this denominational concept of the church originate?
Even in the First Century, apostles were predicting an apostasy among the churches (Acts 20:28-30; 1 Timothy 4:1-4; 2 Timothy 4:3-4). Historical records verify that such apostasy did indeed come to pass. Not long after the First Century ended, local congregations began to set one man forth among the elders as "THE bishop". Before long, the eldership was replaced entirely by the one-man bishop system. The "Bishops" of the large metropolitan churches began to exercise greater authority even beyond their local congregations.
History of Christian Church, George P. Fisher, p. 51: "After we cross the limit of the first century we find that with each board of elders there is a person to whom the name 'bishop' is especially applied."
Beginning in the 2nd Century the "Bishops" of churches in various provinces began meeting to deliberate on doctrinal issues and to coordinate provincial activities among the churches. "These councils - of which no vestige appears before the middle of this [2nd] century - changed nearly the whole form of the church." – Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History I:116-117.
The first "Universal" (Ecumenical) Council was convened by the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine in Nicea, in 321 A. D. This was the Council of Nice, at which the "Nicene Creed" was produced.
Fisher, op cit., p. 104: "The bishop of the chief city of each province was called the metropolitan." By the 4th Century, the "Metropolitans" of the four leading cities of the empire, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria were competing for universal power. At the end of the 6th Century, Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, denounced John the Faster (Patriarch of Constantinople) for his assumed title of "Universal Patriarch". But by the 7th Century the Bishop of Rome began to be recognized as the "Universal Bishop" (Pope) over all the churches.
Thus, the move was complete from the simple New Testament organization of the autonomous local church to the universal structure now seen in Roman Catholicism. This denominational structure of the church involving a governing and coordinating authority for all the congregations took several centuries to develop. Denominationalism, as we know it today, is the illegitimate fruit of the apostasy which culminated in Roman Catholicism.
In the next article we shall trace the historical connection of the denominational concept of Christianity down to our present time.