Undenominational Christianity (Part One)

I have recently finished reading J.N. Armstrong’s book Undenominational Christianity.  Armstrong was the first president of Harding University of which I am a semi-alum.  The copy I read was one that I found at camp about seven years ago, but have just held on to since then. 

I hesitate to say anything more than it was “good” or “interesting” but I must admit to having deeper thoughts than that on this issue.  Armstrong’s book is a well-stated case for his position and is also a great representation of the very clear and concise views that many men in the early stages of the Reformation Movement held. 

The book is a call to people residing in denominational churches (i.e. Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Anglicans etc.) to leave those buildings and join together to form nondenominational churches and just be churches of Christ.

His call makes several claims 1) Christ established a single church on earth of Christians (therefore not Baptists, Methodists, Catholics), 2) Christ wants our churches to be Christian churches, not divided denominational churches, 3) People who perpetuate denominational divisions are fighting against the will of God, and 4) What we have to do is leave these denominational churches and become undenominational believers, simply Christians.

Now, I can get behind a lot of that.  I do think that Christ wanted a unified body of believers with “no divisions among [us].”  I do think that division among us is counter productive to us working and cooperating together as “one body.”  And I do think our main loyalty should be to Christ, not our denominations.  So, Mr. Armstrong, I am on board so far.

The problem with the Reformation and any religious movement is this:  Calling people away from their religious bodies to come form a new religious body only perpetuates the problem.  You have not fixed anything, you have not healed division, you have only created more division.

“But Coleman,” some may say.  “The difference is that our division is right…”  Everyone in the history of religion thinks that they are right.  Marcion the guy that believed that there were two Gods: an Evil Old Testament God and a nice New Testament God, thought he was right.  Martin Luther thought he was right.  John Calvin thought he was right.  The Wesley’s thought they were right.  Jonathan Edwards thought he was right.  You know what all those guys did?  They called people away from the “wrong” way to the “right” way, creating further and further division. 

I should say here that I am an attendee of a Church of Christ.  I belong to the ideas of the Reformation Movement that J.N. Armstrong was a part of.  I agree with all of his points that I listed above.  Perhaps my discontent lies in the method.  Perhaps the answer to ending denominationalism isn’t creating another denomination (which is what ultimately has happened). 

Armstrong almost prophesied that in this book with the following quote:

“Suppose that a dozen such Christians began to work and worship as a congregation of believers, claiming non-fellowship with any and all denominations.  Even if they claimed to be Christians and only Christians, members of the church of Christ and only that, the inevitable would happen:  Without investigation, they would be labeled a denomination.”

This is true.  It is what has happened.  Just as Armstrong predicted, our movement has become a denomination.  We are not largely looked at as Christians and that only, but as members of the Church of Christ denomination.  I think largely we look at ourselves that way, and we are looked at that way by others. 

 This is obviously going to be a multi-parter.  I think in my next several posts I will talk about other possible ways to go about achieving “One body” again.  First that starts with having one body ourselves.


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About coleyoakum

My name is Coleman Yoakum. I am formerly a student at Harding University. Today you can find me in Detroit Michigan doing what I can to expand the Kingdom of God and preparing to start an intentional community in Pontiac. I enjoy reading, writing, photography, music and politics. I am sure that all of these things will find their way to this blog from time to time. Twitter: coleyoakum Facebook: Coleman Yoakum Email: coleyoakum@gmail.com Flickr: flickr.com/photos/coleyoakum/

7 responses to “Undenominational Christianity (Part One)”

  1. Aaron J. Rushton says :

    I agree with what you’re saying here, and I think about this a lot. I’ve been filling out some applications and surveys and whatnot lately that all ask what my religious preference is, and – for as long as I can remember, I’ve been doing this – all I put down is “Christian.” When I was in high school, discussions of religion among my acquaintances (all of my actual FRIENDS were heathens) would begin with a statement like “I’m Baptist” or “I’m Pentecostal”, where I simply tried to maintain “I’m Christian.”

    I do not claim to be some extensively learned (please read that as learn-ed, I think it sounds cooler) scholar of the Bible. I don’t claim to understand everything that I’ve read, and I can’t honestly claim to have read every single word of the Word. (Skipped over LOTS of Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, for starters…) But I have made a point in my own life to live my life “sola scriptura” as John Locke said, and that’s what I try to encourage others to do.

    That being said – I think we’ve screwed up church entirely. Denominationalism is the least of my worries at this point. The model of communal singing is about the only thing I think we’re hitting on the head these days. We don’t make prayer an interactive, communal thing, nor do we have open discussions en masse of what our spiritual struggles are. My understanding of what the first century church REALLY was leads me to believe that the church was a place for people to come together and say, “Hey, I can’t do this on my own. I really need your help in seeking His help.” There’s too much of this idea of “how we should behave in church” going around, and I believe it is actually stifling our spiritual growth. The whole reason Jesus established the church in the first place was that we come together and share each other’s loads, share each other’s lives, and share each other’s loves. We should be asking questions. We should be discussing answers. We should be intimately involved in each other’s lives on a level that connects all the way down to the soul itself, interwoven by the same Holy Spirit that we all share.

    I don’t know if I’m putting the cart before the horse here, but I think that’s the move we need to make first. If we focus on making the church we already attend – whatever denomination it is or isn’t – what the Family of God, the Body of Christ, ought to be, then the walls of denominationalism will fall on their own.

    (BTW, I’m gonna Ctrl+V this to Facebook, just to keep the discussion going in both places.)

  2. rey says :

    “Marcion the guy that believed that there were two Gods: an Evil Old Testament God and a nice New Testament God, thought he was right. ”

    And he was. You can see the evidence in the NT if you actually look. Whenever the OT is used in the NT it is twisted and taken out of context, especially in the first two chapters of Matthew and in Romans. It is clear this mangling of the OT is inauthentic and was added during the Marcionite controversy by proto-orthodox editors. Jesus teaches the Marcionite denial of his own birth in Matt 11:11 and John 6:51. And throughout John the notion that Jesus announces a God never seen before (Jn. 1:18; 5:37) and in the synoptics that nobody knew the Father but Jesus (Mat 11:27;
    Luke 10:22) point Marcion’s direction.

  3. Aaron J. Rushton says :

    rey –

    Marcion himself denied the accuracy of the gospels as we know them, allowing only “The Gospel of Marcion” into his canon. It’s pretty solidly agreed that Marcion’s gospel was a heavily edited version of Luke.

    The biggest hole in Marcion’s theology is that his primary source for his thinking is Paul, and yet Paul himself would have labeled Marcion a heretic.

    There is no question that there are hard things in the Old Testament, especially in the light of the grace of the New Testament.

    But to dismiss the God of the Old Testament as anything less than or different from the God of the New Testament is taking the easy way out, and the easy way out is never the holy way out.

    The marriage of Yahweh and God the Father is not an impossible one, but it is one that takes a lot of deep questioning and sincere faith.

    From the beginning of time – specifically, from the calling of Abram in Genesis 12 – God laid out His educational eschatology for mankind. By meeting Abram where he was, introducing a new idea that could still exist within Abram’s world view, God allowed Abram to take a step – several steps – on faith and become Abraham.

    Through Abraham, we have the covenant that extends to the very arrival of Christ.

    Through Jacob, or Israel, we have the covenant of the Promised Land.

    Through Moses, we have the Law. The Levitical law is the conditional text for the Promised Land. Adherence to the Law teaches Israel the right way to behave. Disobedience to the law, however, brought punitive invasion by other countries. Prosperity was directly tied into morality. This provided a carrot and a stick for Israel’s long, slow, troubled, futile march towards holiness.

    Now… By the time the Law has become so ingrained into Israelite society that it is no longer a foreign idea but is in fact an identifying idea – the thing that sets Israel apart from all those around her IS the Law, through God – God can take another step forward in His trajectory.

    That’s where Jesus came in.

    By the time Jesus was born, the idea of obeying God because He would make you rich if you did was less prevalent. Now, obeying God took on the meaning of simply obeying God. This meant obeying the law. Hence the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

    Jesus comes to say that simply obeying the law is not good enough. The desire must be an internal one, searching not after law-keeping, but after internal righteousness, holiness that focused on the God who wrote the law, not on the god that law had become.

    The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the very same God of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. The world God operated in had changed, and God – like all good teachers – changed His lessons with it.

  4. rey says :

    “The biggest hole in Marcion’s theology is that his primary source for his thinking is Paul, and yet Paul himself would have labeled Marcion a heretic.”

    The Catholics said Marcion removed Paul’s OT-based arguments to form the Marcionite version of the Pauline corpus. The Marcionites said that the Catholics made up this OT-based argumentation and inserted it into the Pauline corpus. A careful analysis of this material will show that “Paul” misuses, twists, and takes out of context the Old Testament to build rather dubious and sometimes wholly ridiculous arguments. A good example is Romans 3 where “Paul” takes a verse out of the context of Psalm 14 which is about atheists and uses it as though it applies to all men, along with several other verses from Psalms and Proverbs mistreated along the same lines. Such material is proof that the Marcionite version of Paul’s epistles which lacked OT-based argumentation was the more authentic version. In our Catholic-Protestant version, Paul is found to be a twister of the OT precisely because some ignorant 2nd century proto-orthodox (or ‘Catholic’) editor is responsible for the creation of all the Old Testament based argumentation in Paul’s letters as we have them.

  5. rey says :

    “The marriage of Yahweh and God the Father is not an impossible one, but it is one that takes a lot of deep questioning and sincere faith.”

    Accusing the heavenly Father who so loved mankind that he sent his Son to save us of being the malevolent god of the OT who commanded genocide right and left (including a combo of genocide and child rape in Numbers 31 “kill everyone but the young girls–keep them for the post-genocide orgy”) is by no means “sincere faith.” It is blasphemy of the highest order.

  6. Aaron J. Rushton says :

    rey –

    I would really like to continue this discussion, but my only response would be way, way, WAY too long for a comment box. I am probably going to put this up on my blog very soon – but I only update once a week, and my new update was this morning.

    I don’t want to say that I think I can prove you wrong, because that’s a terrible place to enter a discussion. I really want this to be a dialogue and not an argument. So if you would like to e-mail me, please do. aaronrushton [at] gmail [dot] com, and please feel free to click through to my blog and leave any thoughts you have there, I would seriously appreciate your input to any degree.

    I disagree with you vehemently, but I tremendously respect the knowledge you have displayed in these comments, and would be most interested in your opinion, especially in further discussion of this idea.

  7. Mitch Rhymer says :

    Just an answer for you concerns about the denominational ideas presented in the book and in your mind.

    The idea of division is inherent in the concepts of truth and false. Because there exists something true then all those things which are not true then are divided against truth. What I am saying is that if one were to go back to the very beginning and have everyone belong to the “church of Christ” there would still be division. That division is founded upon the fact there is inherent truth in the “church of Christ.”

    Consequently the ideas you are pondering over have nothing to do with the inherent truth of the “church of Christ.” Your pondering is founded in perception of division found outside the realm of inherent truth. You seem to be of the mindset that because someone thinks it then it must be true. Reality is not founded upon perception, unless you are an Idealist. Nevertheless the concepts of there still being division in the area outside the inherent truth of the “church of Christ” is the point of undenominational Christianity.

    The division of which Armstrong spoke was about the idea that people think they have the truth when in fact they do not. Therefore, the matter Armstrong focused upon was getting people to understand that truth is truth regardless of what someone thinks. Therefore, the common ground upon which these people of the denominational world will have is not my perceived beliefs about something but what is truth outside of my own beliefs.

    The purpose of healing was not for the church at large. The purpose of healing was for a soul who though he was saved but in fact not because he was not added to the church by the Lord. The healing of the divided soul was that he was deceiving himself and needed to understand that the division existed in the world he though he understood as Protestantism. The purpose of getting people into the “church of Christ” is to get people to understand that undenominational Christianity is not about having no divisions in religious belief but about having no divisions in the “church of Christ.”

    This is where I think you have erred in your understanding of the book.

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