by Al Maxey

Issue #536 ------- June 22, 2012
The true church can never fail,
for it is based upon a rock.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

True Church, True Name
Reflecting on Romans 16:16b

"This is not just another church. This is not just one of a family of Christian churches. This is the Church, the only true Church upon the face of the earth." Sound familiar?! What about the following quote? -- "Should you ask why we differ from other 'Christians,' as they are called, it is simply because they are not Christians as the New Testament defines Christianity." Many of "us" have heard such pronouncements from "our" pulpits since we were children (and our parents before us, and their parents before them). We, and we alone, are the "one true church" on the face of the earth. All others, though they may claim to be Christians, are no such thing. They are apostates from the "one true church." They are within "denominations." We, on the other hand, are in the "one true church," which is not a denomination. We are the only ones who worship God correctly; we are the only ones who truly understand the Bible; we are the only ones who are going to heaven. Yes, WE (in the group denominated "Church of Christ") have long been known for this type of thinking (and yes, we have indeed been guilty of it). The reality, however, is that this type of thinking exists in ALL the various denominations professing faith in Christ Jesus. The above two quotes, for example, do not come from "Church of Christ" leaders, but rather from leaders of the Mormon faith. The first quote is from The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (p. 164-165), and the second quote is from Brigham Young's Journal of Discourses (10:230). I could give quotes expressing the very same sentiments from the Catholics, the Baptists, etc. It is fallacious, factional thinking that is unique to no particular movement or sect, but which permeates them all.

An aspect of this pernicious permeation is the practice of "casting blame for the choice of name." We hear some condemned because they refer to themselves as "Baptists." Others are berated for declaring they are "Lutherans," or "Methodists," or, God have mercy, "Catholics." WE shake our heads at such "ignorance," saying, "Don't they realize that the Lord has already given the 'one true name' for the 'one true church'?" And just what is that "official name"? Well, it's right there in front of your nose, just as clear as day -- Romans 16:16b -- "The churches of Christ salute you" (KJV). Hey, the "one true Bible" even uses the lower case "c," so we know it must be right [Reflections #520 -- Sectarianism's C-ism Schism: Upper Case or Lower Case Church?]. Therefore, we, who are in the "one true church," also use the "one true name." Just further proof that we are right and every other so-called "Christian" group is not. Again, if you, like I, have grown up in this particular historical faith-heritage, you have most likely heard this argument about the "one true name" more times than you can count. "Romans 16:16" is even printed underneath "church of Christ" on countless church signs on and/or in front of our buildings, just to let passersby know that we have the "Scriptural" name (and, by implication, they do not).

What I find somewhat curious about this whole "one true name" argument, however, is the fact that the phrase "church of God" appears a great many more times in the NT writings than "church of Christ" (which, by the way, never appears in that form [singular], and only once in the plural form "churches of Christ"). A few years back, after a particular elder had made much of the "one true name," I asked him how come "we" didn't use "church of God," since it actually appears many times more often within the NT writings. He just stared at me like I had lost my mind, and then said, "Because one of the denominations took it first." I had to laugh, and then I really upset him when I suggested that if "church of God" is found far more frequently than "church of Christ," then perhaps their name is far more "Scriptural" than ours! Brethren, we have played this silly sectarian "name game" far too long. What appears on some sign in front of some building is of very little importance to me anymore. Such self-designations are only markers attesting to diversity of perception and practice among disciples of Christ. What matters to me far more now is the sign of the Spirit within individual disciples -- that's the "church sign" that truly counts. The reality is, our Father has children all around us, and we might actually begin perceiving more of them if we could bring ourselves to look past the "sign outside" to the "Spirit inside." I would urge you to go back and read my following study: Reflections #420 -- A Rose By Any Other Name: Is the Scent of a Disciple Determined by Denominational Distinction?

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). The numerous descriptive phrases in the NT writings simply convey (1) Ownership ... the church of God, the churches 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 it speaks of "the church that is in their house" (Rom. 16:5). None of these are official names or titles, but merely phrases that are descriptive in nature. To try and make more of them than that can quickly lead to the promotion of sectarianism, which inevitably leads to exclusivism and isolationism.

A sister-in-Christ who lives in Mississippi, and who has subscribed to my Reflections for a number of years, wrote, "Al, I'm happy to have you back, and am glad you had such a wonderful vacation, although I was sorry to hear that your visit to a 'false church' caused such an uproar on Facebook. I enjoy looking at Bible Gateway on the Internet and seeing how different translations show different verses. Romans 16:16 is interesting. I wish folks in the Church of Christ could understand that this verse is not stating the proper name for the church. I like the way the Complete Jewish Bible reads: 'Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the Messiah's congregations send their greetings to you.' Other versions show it clearly as well. It is so very simple, yet is being used as 'proof' by 'us' that everyone else is 'false' because they don't even use the 'correct name.' This verse has nothing to do with giving the church a certain name." Here are a few other renderings: "All of Christ's churches (groups of believers) say hello to you" [Easy-to-Read Version]. "All Christ's congregations send you their greetings" [New English Bible]. Dr. Hugo McCord, a noted scholar and leader in Churches of Christ, rendered this sentence in his translation as follows: "All of Christ's congregations greet you" [McCord's New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel]. "All of Christ's churches greet you" [Contemporary English Version]. "The greetings of all the churches I am in touch with come to you with this letter" [J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English]. "All the assemblies of Christ salute you" [Darby Translation]. "The assemblies of Christ do salute you" [Young's Literal Translation].

The word "church" itself is somewhat misleading, as it often conveys an idea to our modern minds not really suggested by the Greek word ekklesia, which simply refers to a gathering or assemblage of persons with some common purpose or interest (whether spiritual or secular). Those bound by a common faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and who congregate in various places and at various times to encourage one another, would be known as His assemblies. Indeed, the totality of such persons worldwide would constitute those called forth from out of the world to a relationship with the Father through the Son; they would be His "universal One Body" (the "church" He promised to establish -- Matt. 16:18 -- upon the "rock"/foundation of who He was and what He had come to accomplish). ALL who are in relationship with Him constitute this "one true church" of the Lord Jesus. They may gather together in countless locations, within vastly differing cultures, expressing their love and faith in vastly different ways, yet they are all part of One Family because they are begotten of one Father. Regardless of the descriptives these peoples may employ to characterize themselves to those about them, they are nevertheless united in Him; they are one Body (one "church"). The great tragedy down through the centuries is that God's children have chosen to dismember this One Body over their varying traditional and cultural and even doctrinal distinctives, rather than remaining united in Christ, bound together in love by the Spirit, celebrating their diversity.

The various "churches" of the first century to which Paul referred in Romans 16:16b were simply disciples of Christ Jesus in various locations, who undoubtedly were somewhat different in their convictions and practices (Romans 14), but who nevertheless were all part of that One Family of the Father. Thus, when he wrote to the brethren in Rome, he wanted them to know that they had many brothers and sisters in many different locations, and these all sent their greetings through Paul. "Paul's plan of visiting Rome at the first opportunity was well known, and therefore the Christians in all the cities that he visited commissioned him to remember them to the brethren at Rome. Thus, Paul sends greetings from all the congregations" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 2, p. 84]. "Desiring to encourage warm relations among churches as well as among individuals within them, Paul takes the liberty of extending the greeting of the churches he has founded in the East" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 166]. "The main point is the unity of all the churches, which includes that of Rome. It is this that Paul brings out and impresses on the Romans with his comprehensive salutation" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 913]. "This shows the communion of churches, and how they ought to wish and sincerely desire each other's welfare" [Dr. John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible].

It is sad that some have taken a statement reflective of union and communion, and have turned it into a "proof text" for "the one true name" of the One Body of Jesus on earth, thus turning a spiritual descriptive into a sectarian distinctive! In so doing, all they have truly done is denominate themselves, which only results in division. Paul seems to allude to this same practice when he said the following to the partyists in Corinth: "Some of you are saying, 'I am a follower of Paul'; and others say that they are for Apollos or for Peter; and some that they alone are the true followers of Christ. And so, in effect, you have broken Christ into many pieces" (1 Cor. 1:12-13a, The Living Bible). Yes, there were some who perhaps related better to the teaching of Paul than they did to that of either Apollos or Peter (and the reverse was also likely true). There were some who favored a Jewish "flavor" to their Christian practice, while other disciples clearly evidenced a preference for a Greek or Roman expression of devotion. Yet, in the presence of such diversity among disciples there was a unity of the Spirit. They were different, yet they were ONE. By focusing on the differences, however, they were jeopardizing their oneness, a danger Paul immediately exposed. Today we see the pitiful result of not heeding Paul's warning.

Brethren, I am convinced that there is nothing inherently wrong in disciples being different. Indeed, we should rejoice in and celebrate our diversity. What we have done, however, is divide over it. There is nothing wrong in employing various descriptives to inform our fellow disciples of the nature of our personal distinctives. For example, if someone is uplifted by acappella singing in an assembly of believers, then what is wrong with using some characterization to let others know that this is our tradition? Others may benefit more from observing the Lord's Supper with one cup and one loaf. Is it wrong to indicate such a preference to the public in some way so that others, who may share that preference, can locate those of like conviction? I have no problem with "names" that reflect one's perceptions, preferences and practices, or even one's religious history. These can be very helpful. Where they become very hurtful is when they are elevated to something they were never intended to be. When one's descriptive becomes determinative of faithfulness (when personal preference is seen as divine decree; when tradition is elevated to Truth), and all who differ are "damned," then we are deluded, and therein lies defeat.

I am a part of the Family of my Father; I am a part of His universal One Body; I am a member of His Church; I am a soldier in His Army; and I am a brother to, member of, and comrade-in-arms with ALL others who are thusly united with Him and His eternal purpose. I may be different in many respects from many of these fellow believers, but those differences in no way alter the fact of our oneness in Him. My association is with that wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement known as the "Church of Christ." That's the faith-heritage of my family going back generations, so I was born into this group and was raised up following their traditions. As a young man, however, I came to realize that the Family of God was much vaster than my own little wing of a religious movement. I had brothers and sisters in many, many other movements and faith-heritages. It took a while, but I finally came to realize that our various differences in perception and practice and preference were NOT determinative of either fellowship or salvation. I came to realize that it was okay to be different; one didn't have to be my twin to be my brother or sister; we only had to have the same Father. I also came to realize that it was okay to continue associating with those who shared my traditional preferences ... and that it was also okay to associate with those who did not!! Thus, I can cherish my traditions, but I can also love and respect, and even fellowship with, those who cherish theirs. Why? Because we're FAMILY, and that's what family does when they love one another! They accept one another; they don't judge one another. I no longer play the "name game." I'm beyond that silliness! There is only "one true name" that matters to me now -- JESUS. All who wear it are in His "one true church." On this truth I take my stand, and invite all others to do the same. Let's abandon our factional foolishness and start acting like Family!! We not only owe it to the Father, we owe it to one another!

Help Them Be One
Al Maxey
April 19, 2004

Alone in a garden, His work nearly done,
He prayed for His people: "Lord, let them be one!
Protect them from evil, guard them with care,
Never desert them, always be there."

A blood soaked brow pressed by a crown;
Briars and thistles brought walls tumbling down.
Slave and free, Greek and Jew;
Factions made futile, family made new.

"Father, forgive them," He whispered above,
Looking on hatred, pouring forth love.
Agony and suffering, misery and pain;
Stripes for our healing, death for our gain.

A criminal's cross, a rich man's tomb,
A stone at the door, deepening the gloom.
The heavens went dark, the earth felt a quake;
God came to man, gave His life for our sake.

I view His passion through eyes filled with tears,
Yet know His gift will endure through the years.
'Twas for freedom He died, thus in freedom I live.
To see others free, my life would I give.

Liberty is costly, the price was God's Son.
A life given freely; a victory won.
My pledge to the Father, my pledge to His Son:
I'll work with Your people, I'll help them be ONE.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Immersed By One Spirit
Rethinking the Purpose and Place of
Baptism in NT Theology and Practice

(A 304 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE and NOOK

Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Tennessee:

I'm glad to see you back from your vacation. I missed your weekly Reflections. Although I did not take the time (or waste my time) reading what your critics wrote in Facebook about your visit with your son and family at his congregation in North Carolina, I admire you for your stand and for making that visit. The view that "we" have restored the NT church is a sad commentary on our movement. Those who boast the loudest are woefully far from accomplishing what they brag about. Their spirit isn't even close to actual restoration, unless it mirrors that of the Laodiceans. I pray that God's grace is larger than even I think it is. Although the church of Matthew 16 is made up of the saved, not one single person who has ever been in that number ever reached perfection. Some, who talk about restoring the NT church, stake their salvation on how well they DO "sound doctrine." Reality will one day hit them and they will realize that they placed their faith/trust in the wrong person -- themselves. If "soundness" means we have perfect knowledge coupled with perfect practice, then we all woefully miss that mark. JESUS is our answer, NOT how well we DO church!!

From a Reader in Texas:

We would love to have a signed copy of your new book Immersed By One Spirit. Enclosed you will find our check. We are enjoying reading your thoughts online, and we look forward to reading this study as well.

From a Minister in North Carolina:

Al, you continue to bless me and so many others through your work online. I have an archive of your Reflections saved dating back a good way. Thank you again for your good work!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I'm so glad the God of grace doesn't treat us the way we treat each other. Great job dealing with the Facebook critics, Al. We're so proud of you and your commitment to what really matters.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

I have continued to read your Reflections for many years, and I would like to make a suggestion. I am a retired Psychiatric Social Worker, and I just do not like to see you constantly abused by the "air-heads." One of the principles of psychotherapy is that behavior that is rewarded will tend to increase. On the other hand, behavior that is ignored will tend to decrease. I know you are well aware of this principle and that it is relatively effective. Al, just ignore all this rude criticism you get, and you may find peace. I, for one, do not even read their legalistic trash. Will you give this suggestion some serious consideration?!

From a Minister in Alabama:

Thanks for your article "The Preacher-Pastor Paradigm." This has been on my mind a lot lately. I appreciate reading what others have to say about this matter.

From a Minister in California:

The whole Facebook flap, about which you wrote in Reflections, was a real tragicomedy!! So many, so clueless, so comical, so sad. But you are a ray of light, brother; a savior of sorts to so many newly-liberated souls. Rock on, bro! I'm proud to be both your friend and brother. God is good and full of grace!

From a Reader in California:

Oh, my brother! "Factional Face-off on Facebook" is a good one!! I enjoyed this so much. I confess I was actually laughing out loud at times, partially due to the silliness of it all, and partially because of your easy-going and sharp-witted response to it all. Wow, did I ever miss out!! I'm going to Facebook right now and "friending" you so I can read that whole exchange. Truly, this whole thing is a sad testimony to our faith-heritage. Thanks to God that many of us are coming through it. So many in the Churches of Christ are now able to see things through the "lens of love," rather than the traditions of the "Church of Christ" group. And thanks to you, Al, for helping us along!! Good teachers are hard to find, and you are one of the best!! God bless you.

From a Minister/Elder in Mississippi:

Excellent article, Al. What you presented (pro and con) about preachers serving as elders is consistent with my entire experience with this question. Those opposed have legitimate concerns, but, as covered in your article, it's really a character-of-the-man issue, not one of biblical prohibition. Overall, since now serving as both the preacher and an elder for our congregation, my positive view has been greatly reinforced. May more preachers get the idea that they must also shepherd the flock (whether they get the "title" or not). Love you, brother!

From a Reader in Arizona:

I have read "The Preacher-Pastor Paradigm," and I appreciate you sharing words from a spectrum of understanding among believers. I was hoping that you would mention the concern that some of us have about the clergy-laity divide that we have all inherited. Although Acts 20 and 1 Corinthians 14 clearly indicate dialogue -- with Paul participating or encouraging it -- dialogue is now unknown in most assemblies. The distinction between "classes" and "the worship hour" is clearly not found in Scripture. You called attention to the concerns of many about power and control, and you mentioned Diotrephes as a negative example. The practice of dialogue may be the strongest guard against that kind of abuse. Freedom to speak by the Spirit is always powerful against tyranny. It is ironic that in the USA, where freedom of speech is so highly prized, that it is notably limited in churches, where one primarily finds monologue. The priesthood of all believers is minimized by the absence of dialogue. Malachi 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:31; 2 Cor. 4:13; 1 Thess. 5:19-20 -- these need to be heard and implemented. In many churches they seem to be unknown.

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