I’m a born and bred Church of Christ girl. The church you describe from your childhood is my story. I enjoy all your writings.
I have a question . I can see how people can translate some things in a different way but the name of the church seems pretty straight forward to me. Any suggestions. Romans 16:16
I’m planning to address the future of the Churches of Christ, and the name of the church is pretty important topic in terms of strategic planning. So let’s talk about the name.
(Rom 16:16 ESV) Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
“Churches of Christ” translates ἐκκλησίαι … τοῦ Χριστοῦ, that is, ekklēsiai … tou Christou, meaning “churches of the Christ.” But that is only one possible translation and not likely quite what Paul’s readers understood.
Ekklēsia did not mean “church” as we use “church.” To us, “church” means a community of Christians that periodically gathers for worship. To First Century Jews, the “church” was the assembly of Israel. To a Greek, the word referred to any gathering, assembly, or even a mob. Hence, Paul’s readers likely thought of ekklēsia as “assembly” or “gathering” rather than “religious group.”
Just so, “Christ” to us means “Jesus,” but to Paul’s readers, the word meant Anointed One. It was a reference to Psalm 2 —
(Psa 2:1-7 ESV) Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
V. 2 in the Septuagint translates Christos as “Anointed,” a metaphor for King. The Jews installed a man as king by anointing him with oil.
Hence, ἐκκλησίαι … τοῦ Χριστοῦ could be more precisely translated “assemblies of the King” or “assemblies of the Anointed.” But most Americans wouldn’t understand “Anointed” to mean king, and so I’d go with “assemblies of the King.”
Now, translated this way, Paul’s words change meaning. It’s not about choosing the right name for one’s assembly, but recognizing who is King. In fact, in the Roman Empire, the language is more than a little seditious because it threatened the claims of Caesar to be the highest king, the only power that a Roman should answer to. Paul was declaring Jesus to be king of kings, lord of lords, and higher than even Caesar!
For an assembly to wear the name of the Christ is to confess a loyalty above all national and political claims. We serve Jesus first and only. We are not American Christians or Republican Christians but Christians who live in America while serving Jesus as King. Our politics are the politics of Jesus. Our allegiance is to Jesus. Only.
Χριστοῦ (Christou) is genitive and so usually translated either “of the King” or “the King’s.” Genitive is typically possessive, and in English we usually put the possessive first: “Christ’s churches” or “the King’s assemblies.” And when it’s written this way, we English speakers more clearly see that the phrase is about ownership or belonging. We submit to Jesus as King so that we belong to him. We are his.
So there’s much more in the phrase than just a name. But it’s not really a name. “Christ” is a name. Well, a title really. But “churches of Christ” is a description, not a proper noun. To Paul there was and is but one church. There was no need to name it to distinguish it from competing churches. And this is why his favorite name for the church is simply “church.”
Sometimes Paul hangs a modifier on “church,” such as “of Christ” or “of Cenchreae” or “of God” or “of the Thessalonians.” By far, his favorite is simply “church” but his second favorite is “church of God.”
It wasn’t until the church began to divide into mutually damning factions that we felt the need to give each faction a special name: “Catholic Church,” “Orthodox Church,” “Reformed Church,” etc. Originally, these factions claimed to be the only saved people and so the only real church. And so it became necessary to give each claimant to be God’s people a distinctive name.
If we recall that “church” is used by Paul to mean “all saved people,” then when we claim to be part of “the church of Christ,” we are saying we are the only saved people. This is why I insist on capitalizing the “c” in Church — to avoid implying that we in the Churches of Christ are the only ones going to heaven.
Some who prefer the little “c” intend to say that they are indeed the only saved people, that the Church of Christ denomination is the very same thing as the church for which Jesus died — and that only those who wear the denominational title will be in heaven. And this is very wrong.
In Acts 2:38, Peter urges his listeners to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ,” that is, King Jesus. We are baptized into the name of Jesus, but not into the name of his church. His church is not our savior; Jesus is. The right “name” is “Jesus.” Or “Christ.”
It’s not about picking the right church. There is only one church. It’s about choosing the right King to follow. Jesus commands, “Follow me,” not “Join my church.” But to follow Jesus is to become a part of the assembly of people who follow him. We follow him together, and so we are a gathering. But we are not gathered around a denomination or a title but a person: Jesus of Nazareth, anointed as King of the universe.
Interestingly, in Acts, Luke refers to the church as “the Way.”
(Act 9:1-2 ESV) But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Obviously, the Spirit inspired the NT authors to refer to the church by many different terms. “Churches of Christ” is used but once, whereas “the Way” is used several times in Acts.
So here are some conclusions:
1. The body of believers in Jesus — saved persons — is called many things in the NT: church, church of God, the Way, the body of Christ, the household of faith, etc. By far, the most common term is “church,” but Luke in Acts prefers “the Way.”
2. Each term is a common noun, that is, a description more than a formal title. The closest to a proper noun is “the Way,” which is why most modern translations capitalize it. If we must use a biblical proper noun, this would seem to come closest.
3. “Churches of Christ” in Rom 16:16 is a description of the body of believers, not a name and not a proper noun. The emphasis is on “of Christ,” that is, “the King’s.” We are the King’s churches because our allegiance and loyalty belong entirely to him and to no other.
4. The name hung on a signpost is not a “mark of the church” or otherwise an indicator of who is saved and lost. Rather, the scriptures plainly tell us how Christians are to be marked:
(Joh 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
If we love one another as Jesus loves us, that is, sacrificially and selflessly, people will recognize us as the people who belong to the King. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what title we wear on our buildings or list ourselves under in the Yellow Pages.
(Joh 17:20-21 ESV) “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Indeed, if we want the world to believe in Jesus and that God sent him, we must be united with each other. And “we” refers to “those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus’ prayer is that all believers in him be united.
And so long as we insist on dividing from each other based on denominational names, even when those names happen to be found in the Bible, we are frustrating Jesus’s prayer.
There is but one name that saves, and it is the name of Jesus.