If one searches for churches, whether by Internet or an old-fashioned phone book, we receive an onslaught of denomination information. Where should a person go? Which one is right? Can they all be right? Are any right?
The answers to these questions are shown beyond doubt in the Bible. They may not be what you are expecting, but they are there. If you are willing to read the Scriptures in this article to its conclusion, you will understand the answers to these questions: Why are there denominations? What is the Church? How can I avoid confusing the two? What does God expect of me?
We should not be surprised to find religious people separating themselves into different groups—it was happening 2000 years ago at the time of Jesus. Jesus did not look for the best group so He could join it. Rather, He taught the truth to all of the groups and had followers from many of them. As you read the list of groups from the Bible, below, think about all the Church groups you know about today.
The Pharisees are mentioned throughout the New Testament, from which at least Nicodemus and the Apostle Paul became believers (John 19:39; Acts 23:6). The Sadducees were the priests who controlled the Temple, but some of them accepted Jesus as messiah (Acts 5:17; 6:7). The Scribes are frequently mentioned; Jesus told them they were generally self-righteous and self-seeking, but found one who was "not far from the Kingdom of God (Luke 20:46-47; Mark 12:28-34). The Herodians supported Herod and the Roman taxation—but the tax collector Matthew and chief tax collector Zaccheus both followed Christ (Matthew 22:16-17; 10:3; Luke 19:2-9). The Zealots, the opposite of the Herodians, wanted to overthrow the Roman conquerors, but Simon came from their ranks to become an apostle (Luke 6:15). The Lawyers were another group that generally disliked Christ's message (Luke 11:45-53) but Zenas became a believer (Titus 3:13). Unfortunately, the problem of religious sects moved from the Jewish populace right on into the Church. Fortunately, we have the correction of the Apostle Paul on the matter, given to the church in Corinth. He did not declare those who were separating into denominations to be unbelievers, rather he simply showed them it was sin and told them not to do it:
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas [Peter]," or "I am of Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name (1 Corinthians 1:10-15).
For the past hundreds of years, Christianity has not heeded Paul, but changed the local problems he spoke of into institutions. The Roman Catholic denomination has essentially said "I am of Peter", being ruled by a succession of Popes who claim to have authority from Peter. The Greek and other "Orthodox" denominations have essentially said "we are of Apollos", maintaining the original language of the scriptures and some of the original traditions. Martin Luther arose in opposition to the opulence of the Papacy and some unbiblical doctrines, such as the sale of indulgences; his followers essentially said "I am of Luther" and formed a denomination in his name. Since Luther's time, liberal theologians have erroneously construed Paul's teachings to replace the moral teachings of the Old Testament and of Christ with "Pauline theology", creating multiple denominations along this line. And even more denominations have been created by teachers with a wide variety of dogmatic doctrines, claiming "I am of Christ", but too often simply wanting the power, prestige and wealth of running their own denomination (3 John 1:6).
While there have been people who sought God and His word in every denomination and who did Christ's work, this segregated leadership, sometimes with multiple denominations fighting each other, has not represented the Church well. Even today, most people who attend a denominational church somehow think of it as better than the others—and they can spend many hours telling you how. Yet, they use Bible translations, commentaries, other Bible-helps, music and other Christian material produced by people who were not in their denomination—and they know they receive spiritual benefit from it. The Apostle Paul understood the real reason why people separate into different groups:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 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(1 Corinthians 3:1-9).
All Christians ought to see each other as all servants of the same Master. They ought to treat each other as brethren, not judging them in areas where we have not been given judgment (Romans 14:1; James 4:11). Yes, there are times when the Scripture teaches us to withdraw from flagrant sinners or those teaching great evil (Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; 1 Timothy 6:5; 2 Timothy 3:5) It also shows that true brethren are at times wrongly cast out of meetings of the brethren (3 John 1:10-11). But these are not the majority of causes of division.
Most church-goers today—especially the younger people—cannot explain the doctrinal or operational difference between their group and other denominations. It is primarily the leaders who keep groups separated. This writer knows of two very similar church groups that had been divided for decades. Each sent representatives to a meeting to see if they could remember why, but then ended up agreeing that everyone who formerly explained it was now dead. They rejoined. So today, far more divisions are maintained by leaders who want to maintain their jobs rather than by clear scriptural reasons for separation. Sure, there are minor doctrinal differences, but are those a reason for separation?
The last book of the Bible contains vital understanding to every Christian who needs to know how to deal with differences and difficulties in churches. While most of Revelation is symbolic, the symbols of Revelation 1 are interpreted in chapters 2 and 3--and we receive seven very literal letters dealing with problems in seven churches in Asia Minor. We will not include both chapters here, but if you are not familiar with them, please get a Bible and read them.
Notice that every person with ears (hopefully you) is told to listen to every message to every church. We all need to see if we have any of the problems existing in any of those churches. Some of the problems were substantial: idolatry, fornication, a Jezebel leader, lack of love, lukewarmness. Some strong corrections were handed out: tribulation, sickness, death and rejection by Christ. In spite of all this trouble, the believers were not told to leave the worst churches and go to the best ones. They were told to individually repent of their sins or face consequences. And those who overcame, in every church whether good or bad, were promised a reward. The primary purpose of Church meetings is edification of the brethren (1 Corinthians 14:5, 12, 26; 1 Timothy 1:4). This can be done in spite of errors being taught (1 John 2:27). If there is sin in one's congregation, it is the responsibility of the mature believer to help recover those involved (Galatians 6:1).
So many preachers assure their congregations that those in their denomination are in line to receive the best reward in the judgment, first resurrection, heaven or whatever reward they often teach. But does the Bible ever teach that rewards are based upon one's church group, denomination, doctrinal statement or practice? To understand this, we can continue from where we left off in 1 Corinthians 3, above. Paul had just shown that it was "carnal" to affiliate with some specific church leader, then he does his best to show that we will each stand alone before Christ when it comes to each one's Christian work:
1Cor 3:10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Christ wants each believer to trust Him to develop spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Denominations, local congregations or organizations do not receive rewards or eternal life, but people do. Hebrews 11 tells about men and women of faith who will be rewarded by God. There are no eternal rewards promised to any group of ancient Israelites who were under a good king or prophet. The rewards go to those who surrendered themselves to God, whether they were under a good or bad administration. And so today, there is no promise of a special reward for a specific denomination. (Some teach that only their denomination will receive a reward, but there is no denomination on earth that has had the same beliefs and practices for 2000 years. They all claim to have grown through the years—so if God was patient with their lesser knowledge in times past, why we he not be patient with other denomination's "lesser knoweldge" today?) Believers should not be concerned which group they are in, but what Christ is doing in their lives!
The word Church is translated from the Greek, ecclesia, meaning an assembly of people. It began in the second chapter of the book of Acts, on the annual Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had miraculously come upon the group of 120 disciples gathered for that Feast and each person in the crowd surrounding their meeting place could hear the disciples speaking in their own native language (Acts 1:15; 2:4,8). Peter delivered a powerful message, convicting the people of their sins and showing that Jesus was God's chosen sacrifice, Messiah and way to salvation. How did the people respond? How could they become part of the Church? All of those questions are answered right here:
"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them...And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:36-41, 47).
It is that simple. Anyone whom God calls can acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Christ, repent of their sins, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. There is no requirement to be listed on a church roster, agree to a doctrinal statement, attend a group or give some amount of money or time. Now, the Holy Spirit may lead you to do some of those things in some cases, but they are not requirements to become part of the Church.
Now, some readers may already have some "doctrinal questions". Does one have to be baptized to receive the Holy Spirit? Does infant baptism count? The Bible contains no example of infant baptism—and infants cannot acknowledge Christ or repent of their sins. But it does recognize cases where people have received the Holy Spirit without baptism. We already mentioned the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:3), but there is also the case of Cornelius and his household. If God wants to place his Holy Spirit in someone who has repented and turned to Christ, He will—whether there is person, place or water to baptise them. Notice:
"To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins." While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days (Acts 10:43-48).
Our Father has not forgotten how to give His Spirit without baptism. When a person seeks Him, but has not read the Scriptures or has been misled on the Bible teaching, they may receive the Holy Spirit anyway—because our Father is able to make the weak stand (Romans 14:4). Even so, when Cornelius and his household had already received the Spirit, Peter had them baptised anyway. It is a symbol of dying to oneself and rising to a new life in Christ. Everyone could use that lesson. Even Jesus, who was perfect, was baptized (Matthew 3:15-17). This writer would encourage everyone who believes they have the Holy Spirit to be baptized—immersed—in water if they do not remember doing this.
Can a person be a part of the Church without the Holy Spirit? The Bible gives a rather definite "No" to that question.
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.... For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God (Romans 8:9, 14).
So how do we know who is in the church and who is not—who has the Holy Spirit and who does not? We do not always know. In the "parable of the tares" found in Matthew 13:14-30 and explained in Matthew 13:37-43, Christ taught that both tares and wheat would grow up together—the wheat being believers who bore spiritual fruit and the tares looking just like the wheat until it came time for fruit and there was none. When the servants of the Master asked if they should pluck out the tares, the master replied: "No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them" (verse 29). If Christ said that unbelievers would always be mixed in with the true believers, he is right! Almost everyone knows people—maybe too many people—who go to church and pretend to do what is expected, but live a very different life outside of church. It may even apply to the church leaders. Some people may be fooled, but God is never fooled. As the parable states, God will judge fairly, individually, in the end.
First of all, who is the head of the Church?
For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body (Ephesians 5:23).Do all wives believe their husbands are the head of the family? No. Even when wives do believe, do they always listen to their husbands? No. So it is with the Church. Many Christians officially look to their own leaders or councils for decisions, and even those who do acknowledge Christ as the head sometimes fail to put Him first. (This is not a statement that men are always right in marital disagreements—but a godly man should be the head of a Christian marriage.) So as a good husband will be faithful to his wife, even when she is not following his leadership, so Christ is faithful to his Church, even though she sometimes follows her own ideas rather than listening to His leadership.
How does Christ lead His Church? Does He use a hierarchy—appointing one man, who will appoint others, who appoint still others? And when the leaders die, do they appoint or elect a successor? If that were the case, Christ could have simply appointed the original apostles and taken a 2000-year nap! But He did not! He explains the oneness of His church and His hands-on management methods here:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore He says: "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men."
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:4-8; 11-16).
Christ states in the emphatic form, that it is "He Himself" who gives these various spiritual gifts. It is not a religious hierarchy, board or educational program that produces them. There are other lists of spiritual gifts given in the Bible (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-31; 1 Peter 4:8-11). All the lists are different, so it would seem that Christ is not limited by any list but gives whatever gifts are necessary at the time that they are needed .
Today, many well-meaning Christians will say, "Christ is not working that way any more. He now works through the organized church denominations." And He does work through them—not because He has changed His mind, but because he is merciful (Romans 3:23-26). At the same time, many Christians often wonder why the Church does not seem to have the healings, miracles and divine guidance of God that the New Testament records. Again, the Bible answer is simple: "...You do not have because you do not ask" (James 4:2).
We do tend to receive the gifts that we ask for. The above spiritual gifts lists mention administration, leadership and pastors—most congregations pray about those things and have those things. Teaching and exhorting are also on the lists. Many Christians pray about those and receive people in their congregations who do that. Giving is mentioned only in Romans 12:8, but is the subject of innumerable sermons and prayers. Church denominations as well as local congregations with monthly expenses and payrolls to meet extensively encourage much giving. But what about the other gifts? Have you ever prayed about those? Do you know others who have? How many messages have you heard encouraging the more "miraculous" gifts? What does the Bible say about asking for gifts?
But earnestly desire the best gifts... Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:39).
Prophecy is the only spiritual gift in all five of the lists. It is obviously the most important—but how many people have never prayed for this gift? How many have even known someone who had it? How many know someone who prayed for it? Prophecy is God divinely giving a message to someone—something that he or she would not know simply from reading the Bible or using their own wisdom. There is nothing in the Bible called a "prophecy" or "prophetic utterance" that is simply a Biblical teaching or exhortation. Prophecies come through dreams, visions, angels, voices from God, or clear revelation of the Holy Spirit.) This is how Christ directs His Church.
As some examples of prophetic guidance in the New Testament: Mary and Joseph learned she would have a virgin birth, that he should marry her anyway, that they should flee to Egypt and that they should return when Herod died—and Simeon and Anna learned that they would see baby Jesus before they died—all by prophetic revelation (Luke 1-2). Caiaphas, the high priest, who did not even like Jesus, was still used by God to prophecy that Jesus would died for all the people (John 11:48-52). The holy spirit showed Peter that Ananias and Sapphira were liars and should not be in the Church(Acts 5:1-13). The Holy Spirit told Philip to teach Christ to the Treasurer of Ethiopia (Acts 8:27-30). The conversion of Paul was accomplished by coordinated revelations to Paul and Ananias (Acts 9:1-22) and the conversion of Cornelius's household had coordinated revelations to Peter and Cornelius. Agabus and other prophets foretold a famine in Jerusalem so the Church could bring them aid (Acts 11:27-30). Prophets often showed which men were to serve in which ministry (Acts 13:1-3; 15:32-40). Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). Agabus prophesied what would happen to Paul (Acts 21:10-14). Paul received an "abundance of revelations" (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). Timothy was given his spiritual gifts by prophecy (1 Timothy 4:14). By prophecy, John showed seven churches in Asia minor their strengths and weaknesses and what Christ expected for each (Revelation 1-3).
Some readers are hesitant to accept modern prophetic revelation because they have had experience with a congregation that sought the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. They were aghast to find people out of control, all talking at once, rolling on the floor or making animal noises. The apostle warned about this very thing (1 Corinthians 14:23). Christ warned that believers could get mixed up and seek the wrong spirits (Luke 9:54-55; Ephesians 4:26-27; 1 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 5:8). But simply because some religious groups misuse the money they collect, do all the righteous groups also stop collecting money for their ministry? The misuse of some does make life more difficult for the righteous. But the righteous must not give up. Paul gives a clear message on how to deal with prophetic speaking and maintain a peaceful church meeting.
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:29-33).
The problem with the above scripture seems to be that nearly all congregations ignore it—either have no prophesying at all or they have confusion. Yet this is Christ's means of guiding His Church. By contrast, nearly every denomination and local congregation has a humanly devised program that allows a person to become a pastor, minister, deacon or some other office after so many hours of schooling, sufficient grades on tests or so much training under an existing official. These systems are usually intended for good, but the Bible has no such program. It teaches us to desire to prophesy—His divine guidance! We can be sure that Christ still expects us to be led by prophecy today! Notice what the Bible says about believers at the time of the end—those invited to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb:
Then he [an angel] said to me, "Write: 'Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'" And he said to me, "These are the true sayings of God." And I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, "See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:9-10).
Now I, John, saw and heard these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel who showed me these things. Then he said to me, "See that you do not do that. For I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God" (Revelation 22:8-9).
Without church denominations to build buildings, where would the people meet? The Bible answer is again simple: "anywhere". Jesus and his disciples did not build buildings and try to get people to come to them. They went to where the people were. The Bible has over 100 references to teaching in the temple and about 70 references to teaching in synagogues. Sometimes they were welcomed, sometimes they were chased out or threatened with violence. The temple and synagogue service formats invited questions and alternative points of view (Acts 13:15). Whereas today, most church services only allow ministers of their own denomination to speak and do not encourage open questions. Fortunately, one can go to such services early or stay late and share godly edification with the people there. Also, many congregations sponsor Bible studies, "support groups" and other meeting formats where believers can use their gifts to edify one another.
After the church was established in the book of Acts, there were still many meetings in the temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:12, 20-25) and in synagogues (Acts 13: 5, 15; 14:1; 15:21; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 7-8; 19, 26; 19:8; 22:19). But there were also meetings in ordinary homes (Acts 20:20; 28:14-23; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:9; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2), at a riverside (Acts 16:13), in a school (Acts 19:9) or in a marketplace (Acts 17:17). The Bible mentions other Church meetings without giving the location. In Acts 20:1-11, they met in a place with many lights and a third story window—from which Eutychus fell out when the meeting went long. Meetings or the "coming together" of the Corinthians are mentioned five times in one chapter without telling us where (1 Corinthians 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34).
There is no specific command not to build a building for Church services. Indeed it was a common practice in the early rural USA to build one building for school, government and church meetings. Properly translated, James 2:2 shows that some believers were meeting in synagogues about 30 years after the death of Christ (the Greek sunagoge is often translated "assembly" here, but it is translated "synagogue" everywhere else in the New Testament). It is possible that everyone in an older synagogue had converted to Christianity, or it is possible that believers had been cast out of their former synagogue (Acts 18:4-6; 19:8-9), so they built their own building.
The overwhelming teaching of the New Testament is that believers can meet together anywhere. There is no need to build any kind of special building or to meet in any certain kind of place. Today, the modern world is full of buildings available for rental use. Indeed, this writer knows of many individuals who have opened up their homes or rented space with their own funds to host a congregation of substantial size. It is a lot easier to find a meeting place than it is to find a group of people full of the Holy Spirit wanting to live by the Scriptures.
There is no doubt that much if not most good Christian work through the ages has been done by denominations. They build church buildings, they establish places of learning, they translate and distribute Bibles, they publish many Bible helps, they are for the poor and needy, they establish foreign missions, etc. But just because most of the houses in the world have been built by hand does not mean that is the best way to build them. A house can be built better and faster with power tools— and the Church can get much more work done through the power of Holy Spirit and prophetic guidance than in the hands of men. Look how the early apostles changed the world with just a few people and almost no buildings or organizational structure.
Indeed, there are many people who are members of denominations that have spiritual gifts and who use them. They have written many works inspired by the Holy Spirit, have taken the Gospel to much of the world and have exhibited the love of Christ to many who are needy. These are good things for which God will reward them (Matthew 10:42). But we must also realize that the scribes and Pharisees were commended for teaching Moses to the people (Matthew 23:1-3), but were condemned for many of their other actions (Matthew 23:3-39).
Church denominations can essentially become self-seeking political parties or businesses‐existing mostly to increase their membership and income. While their doctrines all have biblical or philosophical arguments in favor of them, often such arguments are simply so long and complicated that many people cannot follow them, so they give the benefit of the doubt to their own side, and conclude they must be right. Each denomination usually has religious schools where the theologians largely must write books and papers that support their denomination's existing doctrines. They can develop so much pride in their own truth that they begin to "smite" their fellow Christian servants (Matthew 24:49;Luke 12:45-56). There are many prophecies of bad leaders in the Church (Jeremiah 23:1-3; Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1).
Some church groups devote much of their efforts to assuring their own members that they have the truth and are on their way to their heavenly reward as long as they keep attending and contributing to their denomination (1 Timothy 6:4-5). They may go to great extent to describe how bad other groups are—even stirring up hate and animosity—mostly to make their own group look good. But people do not grow in a "just sit and pay" environment. They need trials and tests to help them grow and learn to trust God. And Christ promises to give them some:
"Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing' — and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked — I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne" (Revelation 3:17-21).
These verses are certainly a spiritual analogy‐talking about Christians that believe they have great spiritual wealth and righteousness, but need trials—fire (1 Peter 4;12)— to bring them real white garments, which are true righteousness (Revelation 19:8). The beauty of Christ's personal leadership here is that if one recognizes that they have been too proud of their denomination's beliefs, one does not need to wait for their denomination to repent—they may accept Christ's personal invitation, repent and receive His reward.
If the Church consisted of millions of believers and local congregations, with no denominations, Christ would know how to lead it. He would do it through the spiritual gifts He promised. He could send teams of two (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1) or much larger groups as needed (Acts 13:44). The Bible certainly encourages brethren working together, but not when leaders set themselves up as having spiritual authority over what others believe and do (2 Corinthians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 5:3).
A person might rightfully ask, "How dare I propose such a radical change?" This article is suggesting the undoing of religious denominations that are hundreds or thousands of years old—and this writer has been involved in non-denominational ministry for only 20 years. Who would ever listen to this? And what percentage of Christianity do I think will ever read this article, let alone do it? And if by some miracle, every Christian read and tried to implement this article, how would all the work presently done by denominations suddenly switch to local ministries and groups?
The answer is, no one person has to know the answers to those questions. Christ has the answers. This article is simply assuring its readers that if we seek the gift of prophecy, if we seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit, that He will do what He has promised, and lead his Church. No man has to set himself up as a sort of idol between God and His People. We need to teach people to go to God in prayer for their needs, and go to God's word so they know His will, how to live and what to do.
Even so, many will still ask, "Suppose I really want to do this?" "Where should I go?" "What should I do?" "Should I resign my church membership?" Paid ministry might ask, "Should I quit my salaried church job? What would happen to my ministry and all the people who depend on me?" Again, this writer does not know the answers to all of those questions for each believer. But Christ does! And he is ready to reveal them to those who seek Him.
As a personal example 22 years ago, when this writer wanted to know if it was all right with God if he left his denomination, he earnestly prayed for God to send the answer to a modern day prophet in a dream or vision—realizing that such things were done in the New Testament. The next morning he awoke with a startling dream that gave him the answer. Part of the interpretation of the dream was understood immediately, the rest was not understood until years later. But Christ led him to make the necessary decisions at that time. He has since had about 50 more dreams, some helping to make other ministry decisions, some about personal correction and some which he was not able to understand.
This writer is not alone in this. He has met many others who seek direct Guidance from Christ and recieve it. Please realize, though, that neither this writer nor most of the others he has met have any means of receiving Christ's answers to any question. Nobody owns God! There are many times when one prays and does not receive any answer—because Christ in His wisdom knows what we need to know, and knows when we cannot handle the truth (John 15:5). We simply learn to develop faith to know that He will answer when we need an answer. Having Christ guide one's own life and ministry is much different than being a prophet to the nations or the Church, as we see in the Bible. In this writer's experience, he only knows of a very few cases where someone was told by God to take a message to someone else.
Remember that God does not work the same with everybody. Daniel and Ezekiel were prophets during the same general time period. Daniel had an important position in the king's palace, and Ezekiel was a not-so-prominent slave. We have already cited the scriptures about the Church being a body with many members. God may leave some members in the church denominations for a while to finish the work he is doing there. Others, he may bring out quickly for a new mission. This writer has spent 20 years within a rather exclusive church denomination and 20 years without. Valuable lessons were learned in all of it: much study of the Scriptures and their background, examples of things that work and things that fail, lessons in faith to trust Jesus Christ to do what he has promised to do.
The pair of scriptures, below, is very helpful when one begins to work among Christians of multiple denominations. At first they may seem contradictory, but they are not. The context of the first actually begins in Matthew 12:22 where Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the prince of demons. Jesus decides to issue a strong warning to this erroneous religious groups badmouthing a righteous work:
"He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad (Matthew 12:30).
But suppose that another religious group is not a part of our efforts, but are not being critical of us at the moment either. What should our approach to them be?
Now John answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us." But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea" (Mark 9:38-42).
There is no reason to try to stop the efforts of another Christian group that is not opposing a true group at the present time. If they do even a little bit of good, they will receive a reward. But when Christian groups fight other Christian groups, that can cause new believers—little ones—to stumble. That is not good. In this writer's experience, one of the major reasons people give for lack of interest in God is the bad behavior they witnessed from "Christians".
The Christ-led believer can speak positively about the good things done by other denominations and ministries, even if all they seem to do right is give out "cups of cold water". One can work in their ministries to the poor or other programs, provided they do not require compromising one's own scriptural values. For example, this writer had participated in home-school groups when his children were younger. Some required participants to sign a "statement of faith" at the beginning—even though there was no reference to it during the year's activities. Some groups allowed a member to alter that statement in accordance with his belief's, others did not. When they did not, God provided an alternative. Christ is an active leader. When some doors close, He opens others.
A believer should always seek to fellowship with other believers, to encourage good works and edification (1 Corinthians 14:12; Hebrews 10:24-25). Meetings and ministries are always for the dual purpose of being edified, and also edifying others. We do not always know how that will happen, but we can ask Christ to show us as we go.
Lastly, most believers will ask, "Won't there be confusion with one believer thinking Christ has revealed one thing to him, while another believer thinks Christ has revealed something else?" Sure, there will be some. This is why the Scripture says, "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge" (1 Corinthians 14:29). There will be arguments among Christian leaders, just like there were in the scriptures (Acts 15:37-40, Romans 14, 2 Corinthians 11 & 12). But individuals who are in disagreement on what Christ has revealed to individuals are much better off than whole denominations in disagreement on what Christ has revealed to denominations. The majority of Christians are trapped inside those denominations. They usually do not learn directly from Christ nor from their own ministry, whose doctrinal statement may have been fixed dozens or hundreds of years ago.
We can trust Christ. We can look to Him to direct each one of us individually, as well as our local congregations through the spiritual gifts that He grants. It may feel scary to step away from the predictability of a denomination to reliance on our own relationship with Christ. Though we should try not to, we may upset our friends—we may upset our familiar denomination. But it cannot be any more scary than the situation the Apostles faced in Acts 4. They had just been released by the government authorities, having been threatened for preaching in the name of Christ. They responded with a prayer for miracles—and received them.
So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: 'Why did the nations rage, And the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the LORD and against His Christ.' For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:24-31).