Many people who wish to follow Jesus are repelled by the multitude of denominations and conflicting doctrines and practices taught by those professing to be Christians. Such distaste for denominational division is in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament. For example, the night before His crucifixion, we find Jesus praying:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21 )
Jesus prayed fervently for unity “that the world might believe”. I appreciate this concern of Jesus every time I try to teach Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, etc. The apostle Paul, also, was concerned with the problem of division, and spoke by inspiration against 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,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13 )
Sounds a lot like denominational division today, doesn’t it? But while some denominational leaders like to justify their existence, we know from the Scriptures that such religious confusion does not come from God! Consider:
For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33 )
Since God is not the author of such confusion, what is its source? The apostle Paul gives us a strong hint several times in his epistles. To the religiously divided church at Corinth, he said:
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? (1 Corinthians 3:3-4 )
Where religious division exists, “carnality” is at work! And Paul warns us in his letter to the Galatians that it is one of those things that can keep one out of the kingdom of God:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 )
The words “seditions, heresies” in the original Greek describe exactly the denominational world around us today!
But even so, is it possible for people today to simply be Christians, and not a contributor to the denominational division of today? YES! And Jesus shows us THE WAY OUT OF RELIGIOUS CONFUSION!
Notice Jesus’ own example in the religious climate of His day…
THE EXAMPLE JESUS HAS SET FOR US
When Jesus came to this earth, the Israelites were living under the Law of God as given by Moses. In that law, God had not made any provision for the division of His people into religious sects or parties. Yet, by the time of Jesus, the Jews had formed several distinct religious parties:
- Pharisees (somewhat conservative)
- Sadducees (very liberal, the “modernists” of their day)
- Essenes (radical isolationists)
- Herodians, Zealots (political religionists)
It was assumed that all who were serious about religion would be associated with one of these groups.
To which of these groups did Jesus belong? He belonged to NONE of these groups! Instead, He maintained a “non-sectarian” relationship with God to the very end. As an Israelite, living at a time when the Law of Moses was still in effect, He was simply an “Israelite”. In addition, He encouraged all to live by the Law while it was still in effect:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20 )
In other words, He encouraged all to simply be what the Law of Moses intended them to be (“Israelites”).
What would Jesus be today, if He were on earth? Would He be a Baptist, or Catholic, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, etc.? If He was simply an Israelite then, would He not simply be a “Christian” today? That was certainly what His disciples came to be called:
In any case, the example Jesus has set for us is clear: just be what God originally intended under the Law which is in effect. Since in the New Testament (the “law of Christ” cf. 1 Co 9:21 ) the disciples of Christ were called “Christians”, so we should be!
Not only should we be content with being “called” Christians, we should also be concerned with “just being Christians”. NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS! But how can we be sure that we are simply Christians, members of the church we read about in the New Testament?
It helps to see what the Bible tells us about the Lord’s church…
THE LORD’S CHURCH
Jesus promised to build HIS church:
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18 )
The word “church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA, which means “a called-out group, an assembly, a congregation”. Therefore, Jesus was promising to create His own group of people who have been “called”.
How does this “calling” take place? According to the apostle Paul, we are “called” by the gospel of Christ:
To which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:14 )
On the first day of Pentecost after the ascension of Jesus Christ, we see by preaching the gospel Peter “called out” those who were willing to express their faith in Jesus:
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. (Acts 2:38-41 )
Notice that those who gladly responded in faith, repentance and baptism were “added”. To what and by whom were they “added”? We find the answer in verse 47:
As the gospel spread, and people responded to it, groups of these saved people in various cities met together, and each group became known as a church in a “local” sense (in contrast to the church “universal” which is made up of all those saved throughout the world). For example, during Paul’s first missionary journey, we read:
And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23 )
By simply teaching the gospel of Christ, a local church was formed when those who obeyed the gospel joined together in their work and worship. Though united in Christ, these local churches were independent of any human association or federation of churches. Christ directed them through His inspired apostles, as they taught them how to worship and work together.
Sometimes, this teaching by the apostles was done directly, or by appointed emissaries:
For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17 )
Just as often, the teaching was done through the epistles or letters written by the apostles:
If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:37 )
These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15 )
To which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2 Thessalonians 2:14-15 )
And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. (2 Thessalonians 3:14 )
When we see what the Bible tells us about the Lord’s church, we learn that by responding to the gospel and then paying close heed to the “apostles’ doctrine” (cf. Ac 2:42 ), people in the first century were able to be Christians only, without all the confusion prevalent today.
But is it possible for us to do this today? YES!
AVOIDING DIVISION BY FOLLOWING JESUS
First of all, we can begin by obeying the same instructions that Peter gave on the Day of Pentecost:
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. (Acts 2:38 )
By repenting of our sins, and being baptized for the remission of our sins, we would then receive the same blessings as did the 3000 on that day: SALVATION! By being saved in this manner, we KNOW that the Lord truly adds us to HIS church just as He added them:
But as members of the Lord’s church, we should study carefully the New Testament description of that church. This description is found in the Book of Acts and in the Epistles which follow it. It is here that we will find instruction from the Lord’s apostles on HOW:
- To worship the Lord acceptably
- To be scripturally organized as local congregations
- To live and work together as Christians, spreading the gospel of Christ through word and example
Since the apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit, we may be sure their instructions were exactly what Jesus wanted them to be! If we duplicate the early churches by following the apostles’ instructions, we will simply be “Christians”, and we can be certain the Lord is pleased with us. As Jesus said to His apostles about those who would receive or reject their instructions:
“He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16 )
Simply being a Christian, and duplicating a New Testament congregation is not as difficult as one might think. There are literally thousands of such congregations throughout the world. THERE IS LIKELY ONE IN YOUR AREA RIGHT NOW! (Feel free to contact me if you would like to try and locate the nearest one.)
And so, by following the example and teachings of Jesus, as revealed by His apostles, we can be led out of the religious confusion that dominates the religious world today!
Do you want to be simply a Christian, a member of the Lord’s church we read about in the New Testament? If so, then I plead with you to first render obedience to the gospel of Christ as proclaimed by Peter and all the apostles (cf. Ac 2:38 ). You have the assurance of God’s Word that you will then be added by the Lord Himself to His church (cf. Ac 2:47 ).
Then, you have the responsibility to learn and follow the apostles’ doctrine and you serve the Lord Jesus in your life. As Luke recorded concerning the first Christians:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42 )
If you have not yet responded to the commands of the gospel as put forth by Peter in Ac 2:38 , why not let the reaction of those who did on the Day of Pentecost describe your actions today:
Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. (Acts 2:41 )