The word “denomination” means “designation” or “to give a name to;” it is a formal classification of something. When it comes to the religious realm, “denominations” denote different named sects of “Christendom.” I put that in parentheses because the New Testament does not speak of different named sects that cumulatively make up the worldwide body of Christ. There are different local congregations named in the New Testament, such as Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth and others. These were “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16), but they were separated only geographically, and perhaps by the cultural background of their members (cf. “churches of the Gentiles” Romans 16:4). But “denominations” such as Baptist, Lutheran, and Methodist are nowhere found in the Scriptures; these are separated by doctrine and practice, divisions not tolerated among first-century churches (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:1; Col. 4:16; 1 Tim. 1:3).
The New Testament uses the word “church” in three senses:
1) The Universal Sense indicating the entire body of Christ worldwide (e.g. Colossians 1:18).
2) The Local Sense indicating a group of Christians in a given locale comprising one congregation under one autonomous leadership (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:2).
3) The Assembly Sense used to denote the gathering of a local congregation for the purpose of worship (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:34).
A group smaller than the universal church, but larger than the local church which claims to be is a division of Christ’s body is nowhere found in the New Testament. Moreover, when people denominate themselves by the names of men, such as “Lutheran” or “Wesleyan” it smacks of the factious attitude of exalting men that the inspired apostle was quick to censure when he saw it crop up among his converts (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). Thus, when I am asked what “denomination” I am a member of, I cannot easily let it pass by. I am aware of the frame of mind the questioner has. I am not trying to be difficult. I know that the trend in modern America is to regard oneself as part of a “denominational family,” that is one of many such families that are on different paths but supposedly all destined for heaven. But the New Testament does not teach that I am to be a member of Christ’s universal church and also a fragment group that has a particular name, particular beliefs, and particular practices. I am simply a member of Christ’s universal church (Acts 2:47); I am part of the local flock in my area that submits to the local shepherds (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Pet. 5:1), and I come together with other Christians in the assembly of the saints (Heb. 10:25; James 2:2). Hence, I feel obligated to say, “I do not belong to a denomination.”
When I tell them I am a member of Christ’s church, or more euphoniously, the “church of Christ” (Romans 16:16), I know that they will likely assign this as the name of the denomination. This is because similarity has been confused with identity. Though I am by this name trying to indicate the identifiable features of the church which may distinguish it from many other practices extant in the present religious world, I do not mean to indicate that it is a denomination. In the first century, Christ’s church was identified by the uninformed as another sect of Judaism, “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5; cf. 28:22) because of some similarities it shared with groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes; however, it was absolutely not a sect of Judaism, just as Christ’s church today is not a denomination. Paul was sure to point out that it was his accusers, no he, who called the way he followed a sect (Acts 24:14); we endeavor to show the same.