Friday, August 20, 2004

The name of the church

It is difficult for many raised in the restoration movement tradition to remove the emotional stake they may have in the name "The Church of Christ." The name is generally identified with a number of beliefs, such as a cappella singing in the assembly, congregationalism, and the lack of affiliation with any human-derived institution. But it is our duty to take away the emotions and see clearly what the Word has to say on the subject. In this way we can cut through the human traditions we may have unintentionally invented which form a fog on our windshield.

It's apparent in reading the New Testament that there is much more scriptural precedent for the designation "The Church of God" if we are going to adopt a name for the church. However, the philosophies of men rush in quickly to trump that idea. "There is already a group calling themselves "Church of God." "We need to show Jesus' ownership of the church." "A bride takes on the name of the groom." "We have been called by a new name, and it has to be The Church of Christ." All of these make some sense in man's wisdom, but the New Testament writers, as moved by the Holy Spirit, saw fit to use other terms most of the time. That is just a fact. The only precedent for the proper name "Church of Christ" is in history books, and those precedents date back less than 200 years.

We have made the mistake of assigning a single proper name out of what was meant to be a description of fact. A proper name is defined as "The title by which any person or thing is known or designated; a distinctive specific appellation, whether of an individual or a class." Where do we find that the proper name of Christ's church is "The Church of Christ?" Tens of thousands of signs have been posted on the walls of church buildings in the last 100 years saying "The Church of Christ meets here" and quoting Romans 16:16 underneath, "the churches of Christ salute you." Is this proper authority for what we should name the church?

When I read the Word, I find His church called the following:

This list excludes, of course, the numerous references to "the church which is at" the many different locations mentioned in the New Testament. What makes any one of these references a proper name that we ought to capitalize and use as an exclusive appellation? Nothing. They are all descriptive terms.

When we take the descriptive language used in the Bible for the church as a proper name, we are denominating it--we are giving it a name where Jesus did not. Why do we name pets, people, cities, buildings, churches, etc.? The only reason for naming anything is to distinguish it from another similar thing.

    name n. 1. A word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others.

    de·nom·i·na·tion n. 1. A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy. 2. One of a series of kinds, values, or sizes, as in a system of currency or weights: Cash registers have compartments for bills of different denominations. The stamps come in 25¢ and 45¢ denominations. 3. A name or designation, especially for a class or group.

To name something is to denominate it. By naming the church, we have denominated it, whether we like that term or not. The popular myth that "to denominate" means "to divide" is not factually true. That is not to say that I favor denominationalism in the slightest. I'm simply pointing out what the definition of denominationalism is, which is to name or denominate something. It is only because we have accepted the notion that there are multiple churches that we have bought into the essence of denominationalism, forming our own faction with our own unique name, "The Church of Christ."

The answer is not to form another faction and give it a name, but to recognize no faction at all as standing in the place of truth. Factions and denominations come and go. The teachers within them come and go, just as the teachings of those teachers come and go. But each congregation of saints is made up of individuals who stand or fall before their own maker.

It is indisputable that we have made a "test of fellowship" out of that which the Bible makes no requirement of whatsoever. The designation "church of Christ" is used purely in a descriptive sense in the Bible, as is "church of God" and the other terms listed above. We could stop furthering the denominational concept if we stop speaking where the Bible is silent on this issue.

Jesus' church is not a denomination with an identifiable moniker on the door. The local ekklesia is simply a group of believers that assembles to worship God and edify each other to the best of their understanding and abilities. But this simple fact takes a lot of guts and self-examination of long held beliefs to fully appreciate.

The first century church had no formal name. All of the terms used to describe the church [the church of God, the general assembly and church of the firstborn, etc.] are descriptive references, never used as proper nouns. It is the difference between saying "I have a black cat" and "My cat is named Black Cat."

If we insist on our own unique, uniform "identifier," we are deviating from the New Testament pattern. Whether that's right, wrong, or neither, can be debated, but the fact remains that we're doing something that they didn't. If we are to speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where it is silent, then we cannot insist that other believers call themselves the "Church of Christ." Will this mean that some congregations presently denominating themselves "Church of Christ" will eventually shed that name? Perhaps. It has happened before, and I assume it will happen again. But we ought not fear that God will no longer recognize brethren as faithful if the name over the door of their meeting place changes. A name change is not a departure from "the truth" because the absolute truth is that the church has no name. There is no denying this fact. So when someone asks what church we go to, perhaps the best response is that we just meet with other Christians to follow the New Testament to the best of our understanding and abilities. That, also, is the absolute truth.

Since the words "churches of Christ" are found in the Bible, I don't particularly mind having them somewhere on a sign for brethren who may be looking for a congregation to meet with. But it is certainly not a Biblical requirement that we can insist upon. The bottom line for me is that we shouldn't arbitrarily name ourselves if the New Testament didn't. And if we do, as individual congregations, decide to put something on a sign, let's at least acknowledge that it is a rather arbitrary expediency, not a test of fellowship.