Over the past couple of weeks I've been in an online discussion about first-century denominations. All my life I've been assured, and persuaded, that there were no denominations in the first century church; 1 Cor. 1:10ff was the proof-text that denominationalism was wrong.
But when the text is approached with an open mind and common sense, one may come to a different conclusion. In the past few weeks, I have come to that different conclusion.
As part of the discussion, the term "denomination" was defined in various ways:
1. a sub-group within a larger group.
2. having distinctive names.
3. having a distinctive name, distinctive doctrine, and separating from others of similar faith.
There were some other definitions also, including textbook dictionary definitions.
But after all has been said and done, it seems to me that what we would refer to as a "denomination" in the 21st century is what we can see in the first-century church. The result is that I now understand that there were at least two "denominations" within the first-century church (both of which I've discussed previously):
- the Torah-keepers; denominated by the names "Jews [who have believed]" (Acts 21:20), "circumcised" (Rom. 3:30), "the circumcision" (Gal. 2:12)
- the non-Torah-keepers; denominated by the names "Gentiles [who have believed]" (Acts 21:25), "uncircumcised" (Rom. 3:30), "Gentiles" (Gal. 2:20).
But it's not their distinctive names that denominate them so much as it is their distinctive doctrines. The first group was saying, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!" (Acts 15:1). And this first group was separating themselves off from the second group (Gal. 2:12), a practice condemned by Paul.
It was this issue which spurred the Jerusalem Conference, discussed in Acts 15. The result was that the Holy Spirit itself revealed that there was no problem with having two groups, going by two different names, having two different doctrines concerning salvation; the problem was when one group insisted that the other group do things the same way as the first group, and/or when one group ceased fellowshiping with the other group.
In other words, the Holy Spirit gave approval to "denominationalism" within the first-century church, but within limits.
On a related note, the Internet discussion morphed from there into the topic of names for the church, and the general consensus seems to be that most of us have concluded that there is no such thing as a Biblical name for the church; there are only descriptions. And when we elevate one "name" over another as THE name of the church, we have gone beyond what is written, and have contributed to the denominationalism so many of us have railed against all our lives.
It's been a very challenging discussion. And hard. It's hard to challenge your life-long-held beliefs.