During his final days on earth, Jesus declared, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5). What does he mean? Some take this verse as an endorsement of denominationalism. They say that Jesus was describing himself as the vine and the various religious denominations as branches from him. If that is true then there must be nothing wrong with dozens of such denominations in every city in the world. But the wise Bible student will inquire deeper and try better to understand what Jesus is saying.
The Immediate Context
We have said often that Scripture must be understood in the context in which it is spoken. One must never pluck a verse from its surroundings and make it say something the Holy Spirit never intended. I fear such has happened with John 15:1-11.
The immediate context shows Jesus was talking about individuals, not churches. The language he uses is specific. In verse 5, the word translated “you” is originally in the second person, plural. Such words refer to people, individuals, to whom the speaker was addressing at the moment. He is addressing a group of people and telling that group that they are the branches. “You” is a pronoun which refers back to the apostles gathered with him for the Last Meal in the Upper Room (John 13:1 ff). Branches are individuals. Branches are people who must remain in Christ for their strength and sustenance. There is no survival outside of Christ for it is his body that is saved (Ephesians 5:23).
We should also note what is missing from the immediate context. There is no mention of a church, no mention of a denomination and no mention at all of any assembly or grouping. To find support for the idea of denominations here one must craft the idea out of a fertile imagination. The immediate context does not support denominationalism.
The Remote Context
Every Bible verse must harmonize with every other verse in Scripture. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:43). But the Bible argues against division and, thus, against denominationalism. If that is true we have even more evidence against the interpretation of John 15:1 ff as supporting denominations.
Two chapters later Jesus prays for unity among his believers. Jesus prayed, “that they may all be one, just as you father are in me, and I in you…” (John 15:21). His apostle, Paul urged Christians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). He reminded them that there was only “one body” (Ephesians 4:4). He rebuked the Corinthians for incipient denominationalism that was forming in their congregation (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). He reminded them that the many members of the church are in a single body, Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12). This passages harmonizes perfectly with Jesus’ own vine and branches analogy of a single vine (Christ) with many branches (members). To the Colossians Paul called for “perfect harmony” in “one body” (Colossians 3:13-15).
Given that we Christians are all part of “one body” (Ephesians 5:30), and given that the body is composed of many individuals members, and further given that “perfect harmony” is to exist within that body, can we truly claim that denominationalism is a good thing? Or is it truer to say that denominationalism is wrong, even sinful? Isn’t it true that denominationalism shatters unity and is a horrid expression of the will of Satan and not of God?
Denominational teachings are all over the map. There is no unity within broader Christendom. Individual denominations teach doctrines that are so opposed to one another that both cannot be correct. Denominationalism is a scourge to be fought and destroyed.
The only answer is a return to God’s Word alone. Let us throw away creeds, statements of faith, confessions, books of discipline, church councils, synods and any device which separates us. We all claim to love and trust the Bible. Let us prove it.