By Johnny Stringer
In referring to God’s people, the New Testament uses several different terms which describe us from different standpoints. We are called saints (1 Cor. 1:2, 16:1) because we have been sanctified – that is, set apart unto the service of God. We are called disciples (Acts 11:26), for we have dedicated ourselves to learning and following the teaching of Christ. Inasmuch as our lives are devoted to God’s service, we are called servants (Rev. 1:1). In reference to the relationship that exists between us and God, we are called children (1 John 3:1); being children of the same spiritual Father, we are referred to as brethren (Gal. 6:1). Having submitted ourselves to King Jesus, we are described as citizens in His kingdom (Eph. 2:19). When God’s people are pictured as constituting a body comparable to the physical body, the New Testament refers to us as members of the body (Rom. 12:5). Since we are engaged in warfare against the forces of evil, we are appropriately described as soldiers (Philemon 2). The name which most specifically identifies us as whose religion we practice, as to the Leader to Whom we are devoted, is the name “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 26:28-29; 1 Pet. 4:16).
Some have questioned the divine origin of the name “Christian,” arguing that it was an epithet given to the followers of Christ in derision by their enemies. The scriptural evidence, however, leads to the conclusion that it was God who gave the disciples the name “Christian.” In presenting the earliest history of Christianity, Luke says that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word which is translated “called” is chrematizo. It is found eight other times in the New Testament (Matt. 2:12, 22; Lk. 2:26; Acts 10:22; Rom. 7:3; Heb. 8:5, 11:7, 12:25) and is translated by the terms “warned,” “called,” “revealed,” and “spake.” The significant point is that, in each of these eight verses, the word has reference to a divine utterance. It is clear, therefore, that if chrematizo is used in Acts 11:26 in the same way that it is used every other time it occurs in the New Testament, God is the one who called them Christians. There were inspired men there (Paul and Barnabas) through whom God could have spoken in revealing this name for His people; the fact that they were called Christians is mentioned in connection with Paul and Barnabas’ work with them. Moreover, the fact of their being called Christians is simply stated as a significant point in the history of God’s people, without even the slightest hint that the name was without divine approval or not of divine origin. It should also be noted that when Agrippa spoke of being converted, he referred to it as becoming a Christian; Paul’s reply indicates that he found nothing objectionable to that terminology (Acts 26:28-29). Finally, Peter endorses the name “Christian,” and shows that it is a name we can wear without shame (1 Pet. 4:16).
It is scriptural and right to call ourselves by the various designations found in the New Testament. However, there are many who claim to be followers of Christ, H ho call themselves by names not found in God’s word. The reason for this is simple. Those who claim to be Christians have divided into hundreds of factions. Denominational bodies have formed, and each denominational group has given itself a name to distinguish itself from every other denominational group. A member of such a denomination cannot simply refer to himself as a Christian, for people in other denominations claim to be Christians, too. Hence, in order for people to know his religion, he must identify himself by his denominational name (such as Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran).
It is contrary to God’s will for Christians to divide into factions and to distinguish themselves from other Christians by sectarian names. Paul rebuked the saints in Corinth when they began to form factions and call themselves after certain human leaders so as to distinguish one faction from another. In I Cor. 1:10, he urged them to have no divisions among them. In verses 11-12, he described the situation which reportedly existed in the church at Corinth. Various factions were calling themselves after various prominent men. In response, Paul made the point that Christ is not divided, hence could not be the head over many different factions. He then sought to impress the Corinthians with the fact that it was Christ who had been crucified for them, and that it was in Christ’s name that they had been baptized; hence, their loyalty should not have been to anyone other than Christ (v. 13). How sinfully inappropriate it was, therefore, to call themselves after men, thereby exalting men rather than Christ. If all would be utterly loyal to Christ, then all would be united in following Him, the factions would cease to exist, and all would simply be Christians.
Sectarians today who wear names to identify themselves as to which faction they belong, do so in violation of the principle established in 1 Cor. 1. Some identify themselves as “Baptists” because they believe in immersion; some identify themselves as “Presbyterians” because of their form of church government; some identify themselves as “Methodists” because of the methodical practices of the group from which their denomination arose; some call themselves “Lutherans” after the human leader whose work resulted in the development of their denomination. These are just a few of the many sectarian names worn by people who claim to be followers of Christ. The outrageous thing about the whole situation is that many actually defend such factionalism as good! Those who defend this pitiable condition among professed believers must completely ignore our Lord’s prayer for unity among believers (John 17:20-21), Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians for the division among them (1 Cor. 1:10-17), and Paul’s plea to the Ephesians that they maintain unity (Eph. 4:3-6).
We do not read in the New Testament about any of today’s denominations and denominational names. We do not read of one group of congregations being organized into one denomination and another group of congregations being organized into another denomination, so that an individual had to call himself by a denominational name in order to identify his religious affiliation. The Christians we read about in the New Testament formed local churches (congregations) as saints in a particular locality would band together to worship and work as a unity; no local church was affiliated with any denominational system. Being united through their common loyalty to Christ and His teachings, all of God’s people were simply Christians. One man was not one brand of Christian, while another man was another brand of Christian.
Is it possible to be just a plain, simple Christian today, without being a part of a sect and therefore having to wear the name of that sect? It most assuredly is. In fact, not only is it possible, but it is the only scriptural thing to do. There are people today who have avoided all denominational structures and are simply Christians. They have become Christians by complying with the terms of Acts 2:38. Such people in various localities have banded together to form local churches, just as the Christians did in the New Testament. These local churches are independent, not affiliated with any denominational group – just like those we read about in the New Testament. The church of which I am a part is such a group. We are just a group of plain, simple Christians, such as the one at Ephesus, the one at Philippi, and the others we read about in God’s word. We have no ties with any denominational structure; hence, we wear no denominational name to identify us as such.
Hence, if I am in a conversation in which people begin giving their religious affiliations, and one person says he is a Presbyterian, another says he is a Methodist, and another says he is a Catholic, I will simply say that I am a Christian. Some might think I should say that I am a “Church of Christer.” It is true that the local congregation of which I am a part refers to itself in its advertising as a church of Christ. However, this is not because it is a member-congregation in a denomination by that name. We are not affiliated with a denominational organization by that name. We use that name simply because it describes what we are – that is, a local church belonging to Christ. The local churches in the New Testament were described in that way (Rom. 16:16). Therefore, in the conversation in which people are identifying themselves by sectarian names, it would be wrong for me to chime in with the announcement, “I’m Church of Christ,” thereby implying that I am a part of a denomination by that name and that the name “Church of Christ” is nothing more than a denominational name to distinguish my sect from other sects. Rather than thus using the phrase “church of Christ” in a denominational sense, I will simply say that I am a Christian. Their response may be to affirm that they are Christians, too, but they want to know which particular denomination I am in. To that, I will reply that I am in none of them, that I am a part of a local church which is independent, not connected with any denominational body, that I am simply a Christian, and that I have maintained my undenominational status because such was the practice of local churches in the New Testament. This will open the door for further teaching.
Sometimes we have forms to fill out in which we are asked to give our religious preference. We are asked to check whether we are Catholic, Jew, or Protestant. In case we are neither of these, we can put a check by the word “other,” and then state what we are. I would not check Catholic, for I surely am not that; I would not check Jew, for I am not a Jew; and I would not check Protestant, for I am not a part of any religious body that grew out of the Protestant Reformation. I would check other, and then write simply, “Christian.” That is all I am. That fully identifies me as to Whose teachings I believe and practice. I am a member of no sect, hence I have no sectarian name by which I must identify myself. How wonderful it would be if all who profess to follow Jesus would truly follow Him and Him alone, giving up all denominational affiliations and denominational names, practicing pure, simple, undenominational Christianity, so as to be nothing but Christians.
We leave you with the words of two of history’s best known theologians. Martin Luther pled,
I pray you to leave my name alone, and call not yourselves “Lutherans,” but “Christians.” Who is Luther? My doctrine is not mine. I have not been crucified for anyone. St. Paul would not permit that any should call themselves of Paul, nor of Peter, but of Christ. How, then, does it befit me, a miserable bag of dust and ashes, to give my name to the children of Christ? Cease, my dear friends, to cling to these party names and distinctions; away with them all; let us call ourselves only “Christians” after him from whom our doctrine comes.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the most famous and highly esteemed Baptist preachers ever to live, said,
I look forward with pleasure to the day when there will not be a Baptist living. I hope they will soon be gone. I hope the “Baptist” name will soon perish, but let Christ’s name last forever.
- Name several terms used in referring to God’s people and tell what ideas each implies.
- How many times and where is the word “Christian” used in the Bibles?
- Why do some who claim to be followers of Christ call themselves by names not found in God’s word?
- Where is it recorded that Paul rebuked saints for calling themselves after certain human leaders?
- What practices are identified by the use of the name Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist?
- How can one become just a simple Christian today?
- What were the thoughts of Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon concerning the wearing of denominational names?
- How can Christians today use the phrase “church of Christ” in a denominational sense?
Truth Magazine XXIV: 2, pp. 43-44
January 10, 1980