About a month ago I was contacted by a couple of the readers of these Reflections. Each asked essentially the same question. A beloved brother in Florida, who is the father-in-law of one of the former deacons in the congregation where I currently serve as a minister and elder, asked if I would do an article "along the lines of considering the 'names' on our buildings, or what we 'tag' ourselves. The early church was just that -- some 'brothers and sisters' in Christ who met to help each other out, encourage each other, and offer homage to God. Now, we have a 'step by step' type pattern of worship, and have 'named' ourselves, and all of that is foreign to the Scriptures. This type of activity only separates us further away from each other and Christ! And the sad commentary is that each one thinks they are right!!"
In the year 1831, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "An established name is an estate in tenure." Poe has well articulated the mindset of many within Christendom. Sadly, the Lord's people have long been fragmented, with each group denominating itself by some distinctive, descriptive title. In the course of time these names by which they had come to be known became virtually "carved in stone." They have come to be regarded as "an estate in tenure," and woe to that man who dares to question or challenge the sacred name on the sign or above the door.
Some of these groups and factions, especially those who employ a dogmatic methodology in their hermeneutic, attempt to prove their name is the only "approved" name, and they typically do so by resorting to proof-texting. We have all seen the signs in front of the buildings which proclaim Church of Christ, with Romans 16:16 placed directly beneath. The message to those who walk by is clear -- "Our name is Scriptural." After all, Paul wrote, "All the churches of Christ greet you." That settles it, right?! The "approved" name for the church is Church of Christ. Any other name, therefore, is unacceptable. Those who chose other names have "denominated" themselves. We, on the other hand, have called "Bible things by Bible names" .... or so we proudly profess to all who will listen.
I am currently teaching a class on Biblical Hermeneutics on Sunday mornings. In preparation for this class I conducted a written survey of the congregation (about 250 members) regarding their perspectives on various matters. Statement #34 on the survey was: "In Romans 16:16 the apostle Paul speaks of churches of Christ. Thus, it is wrong to call ourselves by any other name than Church of Christ." Although 75% of the congregation responded "false" to this assertion, which was encouraging, it nevertheless surprised me that as many as 25% responded "true." In other words, one out of four people in this congregation believe it would be wrong to have any other name on the sign out front than "Church of Christ." I have no doubt this number would be much higher in congregations far more "conservative" than ours.
The problem here is obvious -- too many within Christendom are playing the name game. It is also woefully apparent that traditional misconceptions have won out over Truth for too many years. The result is that a significant number of saints have come to regard their group's name as the ONLY name approved by God. Thus, we denounce the "denominations" (which, of course, are all named groups but us) as being wrong, in part, because they haven't placed the authorized name on the sign on the lawn. An elderly brother and I were once discussing the beliefs and practices of another group in town, and he remarked, "It's really sad, isn't it?! They are so much like us in so many ways. It's just too bad they got the name wrong, otherwise we could fellowship them." How our Father must shake His head in disgust at our pathetic bickering over such nonsense.
The reality is: there are many descriptive characterizations of God's people within the pages of the New Covenant writings. Romans 16:16 isn't even remotely "Scriptural authority" for an "official name." If it is, then the name "Church of God" is many times more "Scriptural" than the name "Church of Christ," for the former appears at least eleven times more often (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:16, 22; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:5). Thus, if we're looking for a "Bible name" to affix to the people of God, Church of God has at least eleven times the "authority" of Church of Christ. Again, such thinking is sheer legalistic nonsense, and reflects a divisive, sectarian spirit armed with a dogmatic hermeneutic.
These numerous descriptive phrases in the NT writings simply convey (1) ownership ... the church of God, the church of Christ, or (2) composition ... the church of the Galatians (Gal. 1:2), the churches of the Gentiles (Rom. 16:4), or (3) location ... the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8), the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7). Sometimes the text merely refers to a person or persons, and then speaks of "the church that is in their house" (Rom. 16:5). None of these are official names or titles, but merely descriptive characterizations. Yet some have indeed taken mere descriptive phrases and elevated them to the "official name" of their group; even worse, they have then declared this name to be the ONLY name approved by God, and that it would indeed be sinful to use any other. That is not only sectarian thinking, it is denominational thinking ... literally!
Gary W. Summers, the minister for the Pearl Street Church of Christ in Denton, TX, recently published an article taking me to task for my teachings in these Reflections. He wrote, "We could disagree with just about every issue," however he chose to single out Reflections #19 for more specific and spirited condemnation. Among other things in his article, which is entitled The Art of Obfuscation (and which can be read in its entirety on his congregation's web site), Gary wrote, "He affirms that the 'Church of Christ' is a description rather than a title. This fact scarcely constitutes a new revelation. How many times through the years have faithful brethren preached sermons, pointing out the various phrases that the Bible uses to designate both Christians and the church? (Note that one ploy that liberals always use is to say something that we all believe -- but to try to make it sound as if his opposition either does not believe it or has never thought of it.)"
Perhaps Gary needs to get out more if he believes none take the position I have alleged! The reality is: there are a great many, probably within his own congregation, that DO regard the phrase "Church of Christ" as being far more than merely a descriptive characterization. Good grief ... 25% of my own congregation believe that! Just let Gary change the wording of this phrase on his sign out in front of the building and he will quickly discover just how many members in his own congregation believe this phrase to be the authorized, official, only-approved NAME of the church. Gary and I both know he would be strung up by his thumbs for such an egregious "error."
As Edgar Allan Poe affirmed, when our choice of "name" becomes established in our Tradition, it also is quickly elevated to "an estate in tenure." It is regarded as carved in stone by the very finger of God. To "mess with the name" is tantamount to sacrilege. Change the name on the sign out front? --- Never! Unthinkable!
The fact is, the name on the sign in front of the building is hardly determinative of the spirit or Spirit dwelling within the hearts of those who assemble and worship therein. The sign out front merely reflects, at best, the traditions and teachings of a particular faith-heritage, adherents of which gather within. Such descriptive, denominating phrases are indeed helpful in assisting people to locate an assembly of believers with similar preferences and traditions, and there is nothing wrong with that. If there are those who prefer a cappella singing, for example, then what is wrong with announcing to a community that those who assemble here at this location are of that persuasion? The same could be said of countless other traditions and practices. There is nothing wrong with disciples meeting in various locations. There is nothing wrong with differing perceptions and practices and heritages. What IS wrong is when disciples allow such matters to divide believers into warring camps. When our "names," as well as other traditions, become rallying points for religious combatants, rather than descriptive characterizations, we embrace and exhibit sectarianism.
The seeds of "denominational" thinking were being planted in the church in Corinth only a few short years after the establishment of the One Body. "Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, 'I am of Paul,' and 'I am of Apollos,' and 'I am of Cephas,' and 'I am of Christ'" (1 Cor. 1:12). This was factional thinking, even among those who were professing Christ to the exclusion of their brethren!! Paul, incredulously, had to ask, "Has Christ been divided?" (vs. 13). Well, they were certainly trying, weren't they? They were beginning to "denominate" themselves, and this practice will always lead to deadly, destructive division in the One Body.
I personally long for the day when we become so united in Christ Jesus that there will be no need for any "name on the sign out front." If only we could all simply say, "Christians Meet Here!" That is so foreign to man's thinking these days, however, that I doubt we shall ever see it. Nevertheless, we should continue to work toward that goal. Let's continue to break down the barriers that divide us, and let us never become so enamored with a name on a sign that we burn bridges between brethren and castigate those for whom Christ died. As Juliet said, in Shakespeare's play, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Whatever name is on the sign out front, if there be brethren inside then their worship is just as sweet to the Father!
From a Reader in Florida:
Right on, Al!! Very well presented!! One of the things that is often easiest for us to lose sight of is the fact that God is about transformation for His people. He wants His people to be a transformed people. The Law did what it was designed to do ... get people to see and acknowledge the need for grace. When we have ourselves been transformed and healed by God through His grace, only then can we begin to touch other people's lives in a way that God has touched our lives. This healing touch can only come from a source much richer and deeper in understanding than us. The Master Physician. He is the Doctor and His medicine, ointment and anointing is the Holy Spirit. Water can not bring about this healing. Only God Himself can. And He can only begin to do this to a person that has immersed and submerged himself into the life and mind of Jesus Christ. This is dying to the old and becoming new. It is transformation!! I have all too often seen people go through the process of water baptism .... with their life not being affected or changed in any way. This in no way helps our plea for water baptism .... it does more damage than good. We must begin to touch people's lives not with our positions and beliefs or pleas, but with the healing that God has begun in us.
From a Reader in Nova Scotia, Canada:
Dear Al, I am so impressed with your work. The way you write. The level of understanding God has entrusted to you. He gave you a wonderful gift. The ability to shed light on darkness, especially that darkness that is made to look like light.
So often I thought I knew the truth, but I was teaching a darkness that kept people enslaved to their past. Guilt was the trail left behind after the day's events. I had such high expectations of myself and everyone else. I left little room for failure or even mistakes. Life was such a pressure cooker. Do it once, and do it right. Then I would preach that we are free. My supposed light was really darkness. Not because I wanted to mislead or deceive anyone. But, by not knowing the truth, I taught false doctrine. God did not bless me with the ability to see the depth of His grace that you see. I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I never wanted to present God in an inappropriate way, but I know that I have driven people away from the church by my lack of Christ-likeness and a failure to see the God who is love.
Even as I write I feel the guilt of what I have done. I still know that I really don't feel the level of freedom that the Father wants us all to enjoy. I can't do much to change the past except try to learn and open myself to new understanding. Learn from people like you whom God has gifted with wisdom. I get goose bumps now by the things God shows me in the Scriptures, things that I never saw before. Then I get an article from you and the door opens even more. The light of God just pours in the doorways that He now opens. I am seeing a gospel that is so simple. The rules are less and less. The do and don't things that were once at the top of my list have been replaced by Jesus. Yet with great freedom comes great responsibility.
Thank you, Al. You have given me hope. You have exposed the flaws in my faith and understanding. You have helped me to feel the embrace of a loving Father. I now have an anchor: Jesus. Thank you, Al. You have unlocked a treasure chest of blessings. The doom and gloom of the past are slowly giving way to the joy of knowing Jesus. You are a good man. God chose well in picking you to be a voice, and a revealer, of His Word. Thanks!
From a Reader in New Mexico:
Excellent! People have to "hit bottom" to realize that apart from the divine favor of God we are lost without hope. It's a point that needs to be made, and you've made it well. People toss the term "grace" around like a basketball, never quite catching its meaning. Without God's grace, there is no hope no matter what anyone does. Peter clarifies the role of baptism as an appeal to God, or an appeal coupled with a pledge of faithfulness. It's a plea for rescue from the due consequence of our sin, which is death. Keep up the good work, Al.
From a Reader in Missouri:
We must always remember that Jesus Christ is the most important figure in our salvation. All else emanates from that central truth and not vice-verse. I too believe that we have gotten so caught up in a work of merit type of salvation that we have lost sight of the true essence of salvation by grace through faith! Believing, Repentance, Confession and Baptism are nothing separate and apart from Jesus Christ. Salvation is by atonement not attainment, by believing not achieving! Baptism is our response to Him and His resurrection.
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