By Mike Willis
For several months now, I have been intending to write an article pertaining to the name of the Lord’s church. A number of articles have crossed my desk in which the writers have denied that the church has a name. I want our readers to see a sampling of these articles. These quotations are from the pens of young men who are presently preaching for conservative congregations.
“A brother in the Lord recently wrote an article on `The Identity of the Church’ an excerpt of which appears below: . . In this article, this brother states that one Identifying mark of the New Testament church is its designation.’ In stating this my brother undoubtedly Is sincere. I know that he is a man of integrity. However, I disagree with his belief that the Lord’s churches have a name (or several names for that matter). To state that `other names are attached to the church’ (as our brother does) Is to beg the question. I have learned, in discussing this subject with other saints, that most brethren assume that Jesus has given His churches several names and that it is up to each local church to decide which name its wants to go by. I deny that the Lord has given His churches any name whatsoever.”(1)
“Some are no doubt disturbed that we don’t have the `name of the church’ on the bulletin somewhere. But that’s just the point – does the church actually have a `name’? . . . Searching the Scriptures I find no warrant for lifting out any particular designation and elevating it to the status of `namehood.’ All this stuff about the `right name’ is a throwback, not to the first century, but to the Reformation era of Church History when men began to label their assemblies after the doctrines and practices of the theologise they followed. The Items in the New Testament that we call `names’ are nothing more than descriptive terms which identify a particular relationship between God and His people. It would have been s perplexed apostle who would have been asked, `What is the name of the church?'”(2)
“1. I have learned that Churches of Christ are quickly evolving toward denominational status. It is ironic that the `restoration movement’ (which many credit with establishing the `New Testament Church’ in the U.S.) which started as a plea centered in Jesus and a return to the Bible as sole authority has k crystallized into a sectarian consciousness which finds greater security in being in `the right church’ than in being in Christ Jesus. All of this is very subtle and unarticulated perhaps, but ultimately results in the same kind of denominational outlook that those venerated `restorers’ opposed so vigorously. `Our’ preoccupation with names, `identifying marks,’ unwritten creeds, and the like clearly take away the emphasis from Jesus as Head of the church, and the Bible as sole authority.”(3)
In a satirical article entitled, “Diary of a Church Building,” Brother Bruce Edwards, Jr. continued,
“The deacons put up the new neon sign today that lets all the townspeople know `who’ we are. They certainly aren’t a denomination! I hear that echoed within my auditorium often enough. Strange though. All the other church buildings in town have their `sages’ out front too, letting everyone know `who’ they are as well. I sometimes wonder whether those that drive by me think that the church that meets here is any more `distinctive’ than the other ones in town.”(4)
Some ten years ago, Ron Durham present editor of Mission, stated the same position regarding the name of the church as is being presently sated by some among us; he wrote,
“With but an isolated exception or two, we not only `speak the same thing’-we even put the same wording on our stationery and sign boards. This becomes wrong only when the exclusive use of the terns gives a denominational definition to the church . . . . Surely, when congregations of that one body adopt a singular public name exclusive of all others, the first step to denominating the church-in the wrong sense-has bees taken.”(5)
The statement of this position is not the exclusive property of a group of young preachers among us as the following citations from respected men who hold to Bible authority indicates:
“Mature Christians understand that the church does not have a name. It does indeed belong to Christ (Matt. 16:18) and local churches were called churches of Christ (Rom. 16:16). It is also the church of the Lord (Acts 20:281, sari of God (1 Cor. 1:2), is an assembly of firstborn ones (Heb. 12:231, and bears other distinctive marks of Identification. What the church is called simply depends on the relationship In which one views it.”(6)
“Brethren condemn sectarian names which distinguish the denominational bodies and then `denominate’ the church by exalting a descriptive phrase so that it becomes the official (or unofficial) nomenclature for the church. Many seem to be persuaded that the name of God’s people is `The Church of Christ.’ The truth of the matter is, the only name for God’s people is Christian (Acts 11:26).”(7)
With these quotations before us, let us consider whether or not the church has a name or names.
What Is A Name?
Believing that a proposition properly defined is half argued, let me give some attention to the definition of “name.” Beside the word “name.” when used as a noun, Webster listed seven definitions of which the first two are pertinent to our discussion; they are as follows:
“1. a word or phrase by which a person, thing, or class of things is known, called, or spoken to or of; an appellation; a title. ” 2. a word or words expressing some quality considered characteristic or descriptive of a person or thing.”
Most of the confusion relating to our subject centers around the accurate definition of the word “name.” Those who protest that the church has no name assert that phrases such as “church of Christ,” “church of God,” etc. are “descriptive terms” rather than “names.” However, if a person will carefully consider the second definition of “name,” he will see that a “descriptive term” is a “name”! Hence, the confusion is caused by giving to the word “name” the exclusive definition of “proper name” (the name of a particular person, place or thing). This constitutes an unjustified limiting of the definition of the word “name.” Actually any noun is the “name” of a person, place or thing. Hence, if any noun is used to describe God’s people, God’s people are named.
The distinction supposed to exist between a “descriptive term” and a “name” is neither grammatical nor scriptural. (Notice that I did not deny that a distinction exists between a proper name and .a descriptive title.) The descriptive term “son” was called a “name” (onoma) in Heb. 1:4,5. Hence, those who have tried to distinguish. descriptive terms and names have made much ado over nothing. If what they are trying to distinguish are descriptive terms and proper names, then they should say so.
Thus, in the consideration of whether or not the church is named, let us observe that I have no obligation to prove that the church has one, exclusive, proper name in order for it to be considered to be named; it can be “named” by the usage of descriptive terms.
The Word “Church” As A Name
One of the most obvious points to be observed in connection with our subject is that the word “church” itself is a name! The word “church” is persistently applied to groups of Christians; it is a name used by inspired writers to designate a collectivity of Christians. The word “church,” with its attending prepositional phrases (of God, of Christ, etc.), is used in such a way as it might be properly called a “name.” For example, when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he addressed it to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). In the city of Corinth, there were a number of religious collectivities such as the synagogue of the Jews, the Temple of Aphrodite, and others. The appellative “church of God” designated to whom the letter was addressed; it was a “name” which distinguished the recipients of the letter from all other people in Corinth.
Again in 1 Cor. 10:32, Paul wrote, “Give no offence either to Jews or Greeks or the church of God.” No one would deny that “Jews” and “Greeks” are “names” of classes of people. However, “church of God” is placed beside these words in a parallel construction; if “Jews” and “Greeks” can be properly designated as names, then so can the phrase “church of God.” The word “church” designated a group of people just as certainly as did “Jews” and “Greeks.” It named them. And, by today’s rules of grammars, it could probably be called a proper name. The word church itself is a name! Those who protest that the church does not have a name must face up to the fact that the word “church” is a name!
Abuses of the Name
For as long as I can remember, brethren have been teaching about abuses associated with the name of the church. Preachers have been informing members that there is no one exclusive name by which the church is called. Yet, we should not allow abuses of an item to cause us to reject it, if it is scriptural in itself. The fact that the Mormons call their young men “elders” does not stop us from calling those men who fill the qualifications of 1 Tim. 3 “elders.” The fact that the world uses the word “church” in an unscriptural sense has not yet caused anyone to throw it out of his vocabulary. Hence, I do not believe that just because the world views us in a certain way because we uniformly use the term “church of Christ” is justification for ceasing to use that term anymore than their misconceptions concerning baptism should cause us to quit using the term “baptism.” Rather, it simply means that we must teach the world the proper meaning of these words. The fact that several are rising to protest the scriptural usage of a scriptural phrase is no reason to abandon its usage. The right to choose what goes on the sign in front of the building, the stationery, advertisements, etc. belongs to the local church. So long as it chooses a Bible name, no man has the right to criticize them. To do so is to legislate where God has not legislated.
While we are discussing abuses related to names, perhaps we should consider the virtues of wearing a multiplicity of names. Will the world judge us to be less denominational if we wear a variety of names? I think not! The Christian Churches have already tried that experiment. Their groups are called “Disciples of Christ,” “Christian Church,” and “Church of Christ.” Yet, who would assert that the wearing of this variety of names has kept them from being considered a denomination in the eyes of the general public? The alternative of each congregation wearing a different name has absolutely no advantage over a uniform name; it would not prevent the tendency of the world, or of some ignorant brethren, to consider the church a denomination.
Does insisting upon the church wearing “the right name” take away from Christ as Brother Bruce Edwards, Jr. has charged. He said, ” ‘Our’ preoccupation with names, ‘identifying marks,’ unwritten creeds, and the like clearly take away the emphasis from Jesus as Head of the church (note his usage of “church” as a name for God’s people-MW) and the Bible as sole authority.” Is this so? I think not! The insistence upon a scriptural name emphasizes that Jesus’ word must govern even the choice of the name in front of the building. How can one preach the necessity of having a Bible name without exalting the authority of Christ which rests in His word? Bruce’s charge is not proven; it is an unfounded assertion, nothing more!
Although there are several who are writing extensively on the subject of the name of the church in which they are saying that the church has no name, everyone of the churches for which these men preach still identify themselves as a “church of Christ.” It seems to me that these men should at least clean up their own backyard before they set out to reform the brotherhood. If the wearing of a name is wrong, should not these men begin their work by persuading the congregation with which they work to straighten up? Should not they lead the way by showing us what we can scripturally use in advertising our meetings, location and time of services, and on our publications without being guilty of latching on to one name to the exclusion of all others? Brother Bruce Edwards made such an attempt on his bulletin for a short period of time, although I notice that for some reason he has already reverted to using the word “church” instead of “Christians.” Bruce, is there any scriptural difference in saying, “Published by the church that meets at . . . .” and “Published by the church of Christ that meets at . . . .”? Would we be better off to follow your example? If all of us did as you do would we be just as guilty of making “church” an official name? Those who are making much ado about the name issue need to face up to the fact that they have not yet suggested a reasonable, workable alternative which will avoid the pitfalls which presently exist with reference to a uniform name!
In conclusion, let me state that I can see nothing unscriptural or anti-scriptural in the churches wearing a uniform name. However, we must be careful to teach that this is not the only, exclusive name given to God’ people. We must teach the members that the prop name is not the only identifying mark of the Lord church and that is not more, or less, important then an other identifying mark. I think that the fact that ever preacher with whom I have ever had any acquaintanc has been doing that for years is worthy of notice. Hence, some are making much ado about nothing. I at wondering why such a fuss is being made.
Although I cannot be a judge of the motives of the men who are writing about the name of the church, I can judge the fruits of their works. A small, struggling church in the South came under the influence of one who makes a big to-do over the name. As a result, the sign in front of the building was changed from “Church of Christ” to “Christ’s Church.” (Notice how much more scriptural is the latter than the former!) Shortly thereafter, some liberal brethren and members of a local Christian Church joined hands to begin a church; they called it “Christ’s Church.” Needless to say the small struggling church had to change its sign again. (Wonder what the people in their neighborhood thought of the indecision about what to call themselves?) The preacher who pushed the change in names continued to harangue about the sectarianism and traditionalism in the church of Christ to such an extent that tension between the congregation and other local congregations were created. The young preacher who was so vehement over the name has become more and more disillusioned because he cannot arouse brethren from their “lethargy” and “traditionalism” with reference to the name. He
recently visited the services of a Pentecostal group and commented something to this effect: “I got more good out of this than anywhere I’ve been.” Needless to say the family and friends of this young man are much concerned about his spiritual future.
The creating of needless confusion over matters of judgment is sinful. This is the fruit of the labors of those the who are making much ado about the name. Unless these men are willing to teach that our current practice will send men to Hell, they need to shut up. Why create needless confusion over matters of judgment?
Truth Magazine XXI: 8, pp. 115-118
February 24, 1977