Q: #334. What is a "non-denominational" church?
By: Steve Shirley
A: Christianity is the largest "religion" in the world (several other major religions being: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism). Within Christianity are denominations. Some of these are: Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and more. Webster's Dictionary defines a denomination as: "a religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body a number of local congregations." I also think it is also helpful to look at Webster's definition for "denominationalism." This is "#1. devotion to denominational principles or interests. #2. the emphasizing of denominational differences to the point of being narrowly exclusive."
So, in short, denominational churches primarily have
a centralized governing authority that establishes the doctrine, policies,
worship, and teaching of the churches and congregations under its authority.
Some examples of these doctrines and policies are:
What does it mean to take the Lord's Supper, how should it be taken, and how often?
Who should be baptized, how should they be baptized, and does it play a part in salvation?
What does a person need to do to be saved?
Then, we have "non-denominational" churches. Non-denominational churches in general do not have a "centralized governing authority" (although some churches that call themselves "non-denominational" [i.e. Calvary] kind of do). Instead, most non-denominational churches are self-governing, most often being lead by a "board of elders." These elders establish the doctrine, policies, worship, and teaching of their own individual church. However, a KEY component of nearly all non-denominational churches, and the reason why most are not a part of a denomination, is that they do not want to be tied to the numerous doctrines and "rules" found in the different denominations that are not foundational (essential doctrines) to Christianity.
Most non-denominational churches believe that Christians need to be united on "essential doctrines," but on secondary issues there should be "liberty." For example, on the issue of the Lord's Supper, if a person is a believer in Jesus Christ, he/she is allowed to take it in most non-denominational churches, as opposed to say Catholicism where one must be a Catholic to take the Lord's Supper in their church.
It should also be noted that the concept of "denominations" is really not Biblical. The early church generally met in houses, and each was self-governing. They did not report to any "centralized governing authority," but rather, to God Himself. These churches were lead by "elders" (Gr: presbuteros) (Acts 14:23)(Acts 20:17,28)(1 Pet 5:1-2)(Titus 1:5)(1 Tim 5:17). Several prominent Christian theologians (Luther, Wesley, Spurgeon) have also argued against denominations (you can find quotes from them online).
Today, non-denominational churches are growing very quickly while traditional "denominational" churches are slowly dying. This is good and bad. Non-denominational churches are leading the way in some crucial areas. They are welcoming into their church people from all denominations, people who have been hurt by churches in the past, and people who have never even been to church before. They are leading people to Christ. They are reaching out to youth and young adults with contemporary music, more casual and unstructured services (i.e. no ritualistic reading of "creeds" and "statements of faith") and programs designed to help them specifically to grow in their faith.
Unfortunately though, with a lack of proper oversight, some non-denominational churches out there teaching things clearly contrary to the Bible (See: What is a "seeker friendly" church? for an example). These churches should be avoided.
It is important to understand that God is not a Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, etc... Denominations mean nothing to Him. Any person who has given their life to Jesus Christ is a part of His "church" (the universal church) (Acts 2:47)(Acts 20:28)(Eph 1:22-23). As the ancient quote goes, what God wants is: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity."