An Identity Problem

By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.

Mistaken identity has affected most of us, either as perpetrators or victims. The results may have ranged from amusing, to embarrassing, to frustrating or even to disastrous.

A brother followed his wife into the auditorium one Sunday. From behind, he mistook another sister for his wife. Only after sitting down beside the sister and putting his arm around her did he realize his mistake. It amused us who watched but embarrassed them.

The recent shooting down of a passenger plane, mistaken for a fighter plane, over the Persian Gulf is an example of how disastrous misidentification can be.

I have been frustrated several times by mistaken identity. I was once delayed in Nashville by a police road block simply because my car and I met the description of a man and his car who had robbed a bank a few minutes earlier. I thought it was inexcusable, given my honest face and all.

We have lived in three towns near people with names similar to ours. People constantly confused us with them. A TV cable company threatened to disconnect our service. A furniture company called demanding payment for furniture that we did not have. We also had to combat a rumor potentially harmful to our reputation. All of this because of the deeds of a man with a similar name.

In another town we received telephone calls from members of a Baptist church with a preacher with a name similar to ours. At times we heard some interesting things before we and the caller realized they had the wrong number.

At another place a man with a similar name ran a country store. We received calls at all hours from folks out of gasoline wanting road service. Shortly after moving from there we received an insurance settlement check made out to the store owner and forwarded to us by the Postal Service. Oh, yes, we sent it back though we felt like keeping it to repay for all those times we were awakened to phone calls meant for him.

I must confess that there were a few times that we felt like changing our name. I suspect some of them felt about the say way. However, we had second thoughts. If a name as rare as “Bragwell” could be so easily confused with another, what name could we use that would solve the problem? So, I have just kept on being me and keep on explaining that I am not “Bagwell,” “Braswell,” “Bradwell,” “Broadwell,” etc., or even “that Bragwell.”

We are having a similar problem religiously in calling ourselves “Christians” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) or, collectively, “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). There are people who call themselves “Christians” and churches that are called “churches of Christ” with whom we had rather not be confused. The problem is becoming so acute that some good brethren are suggesting that maybe we should start identifying ourselves differently. Some even make a concerted effort to avoid being identified as a “member of the church of Christ” as they do personal work in their community.

The problem stems from the fact that these scriptural terms have been perverted, abused and used to identify people and groups who have little in common with what the New Testament teaches about these terms. Here in the Birmingham area recently there was a full-page article about the “Birmingham Church of Christ” (associated with the cult-like Boston/Crossroads movement). In spite of our having so little in common with those folks, some thought we were all of the same persuasion.

A preacher friend was asked, “What does the church of Christ teach” on a particular subject? He replied, “Just about any thing you can think of.” He then went on to explain that no matter what the view is, you can likely find some claiming to be members of the church teaching it and churches claiming to be “of Christ” supporting them in it.

Sound teachers have no monopoly on the use of scriptural terms of identification. Nearly every crime known to man has been done by those who identify themselves as Christians. Some even saying they do them because they are Christians.

Yes, there are many “churches of Christ” with whom I do not want to be confused. There are many who claim to be just “Christians” that I had rather not have folks think that I am associated with. They teach and practice things that abhor.

What is the solution to this dilemma? Shall I carefully tip toe around so as to avoid referring to myself as a Christian or as a member of the church of Christ? Shall I avoid referring to myself as a Christian or as a member of the church of Christ? Shall I avoid using good scriptural designations simply because someone claims to be the same thing but is not? Should Paul, or Peter, or any other apostle (1 Tim. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1) have quit referring to himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” because of those who “call themselves apostles, and they are not” (Rev. 2:2)?

Really, brethren, any scriptural way that we identify ourselves will leave us with the same identity problem. I know of no scriptural term that has not been associated with doctrines and practices that are totally unscriptural. No matter what scriptural terms one uses he is going to have to further identify himself in some way to those not familiar with New Testament terminology.

If a group puts up a sign simply reading, “Christian’s meet here … .. The Lord’s church,” etc., it will still have to prove that the sign is telling the truth by its teaching and practice. They will still be confused with folks with whom they had rather not be identified. They will still have to constantly be explaining who they are to the people of the community. There are others who claim to be “Christians” and the “Lord’s church.” In fact, such terminology in many communities is associated with the Pentecostal movement. So, why further confuse the issue so that even good brethren looking for a place to worship will have trouble finding a starting place for identifying them?

All this reminds us of an old “Theophilus” cartoon by Bob West. (We were unable to locate our copy of it that we so carefully filed away.) A sign painter was working on the sign in front of a denominational church building with the local “pastor” looking on. The “pastor’ ‘ ‘ first objected when the painter lettered, “A Church of Christ” on the building. He then objected when the painter changed it to “Not A Church of Christ.”

The term “church of Christ” is both scriptural and familiar to most New Testament Christians of this generation – so why abandon its use? Most members of the church know that not all who claim to be “churches of Christ” are indeed “of Christ.” Yet, when they see the term on a sign it furnishes a good starting point for investigating it for other aspects of scripturalness.

Too, any church of Christ bent on identifying itself in some novel or unique way (especially in an area where scriptural churches of Christ have met for years) needs to ask itself if it is not really trying to disassociate itself from admittedly scriptural churches of Christ. Could such be born of an inordinate desire for independence and uniqueness? If there is really no difference, then why unnecessarily make the appearance of difference? Especially, since such re-designating does not really solve the identity problem in the community and creates one with brethren in the area.

Brethren, we need to remember that no matter how we scripturally identify ourselves, we will still need to supply much more information in word or deed before we will be properly identified by people in the community. One may scripturally call himself a “Christian,” a “saint,” a “believer,” a “child of God.” When he does he will likely be confused with unscriptural folks who call themselves by the same terms. A church may call itself a “church of Christ,” a “church of God” or simply a “church.” One should not be afraid or ashamed of any of these terms. Yet, when using any of them, we will need to spend much time in teaching and demonstrating to the community what a “Christian,” a “believer,” a “saint,” a “church of God,” a “church of Christ,” or a “church” really is – from the scriptural point of view.

Think about it, brethren.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 5, pp. 129, 151
March 2, 1989