On the Name of the Church

churchofchristI get emails —

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.

Thank you.

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Church of Christ Doctrinal Issues, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to On the Name of the Church

  1. Neal Roe says:

    Jay, you wrote, “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.” The part that continues to foster a thought of the only people saved is used here, “people will recognize US”. The letters are capped because we have beat the phrase into our heads and in the process hardened our hearts. The way there is an “us” at all is the point. Instead could it be the people of the Way or the people following the Christ or Messiah. We are so oriented that even here we are a club when discussing whether we have the Name right. You are giving us more than that here of course but it baffles me how ingrained in our consciousness self righteousness is. Keep calm and be bold.

  2. Alabama John says:

    When the old COC preachers that preached in the mid to upper 1800’s came to our town to hold a meeting they preached do it this way or go to hell.
    Some differed on small things, but on this they all agreed. Was always interesting to have one drop by visiting the churches they started from scratch when they were in their 80’s or 90’s to see their teachings on heaven or hell had not changed.

    Since there was no TV or computers, them holding a meeting drew big crowds, regardless of church affiliation or none. Had to remove more than one coming drunk. Some daytime preachings into a can were put on the old floor model radio. Given that as the only choice, heaven or hell, the church spread and grew amazingly fast.

    Now that we have so many choices no wonder there are so many factions and splits and as those meeting together disagree, they will split once again until only two or three will be meeting together in Jesus name. Why we are diminishing in size? Pretty simple.

  3. laymond says:

    Not only is the CoC diminishing in member numbers, believers in Jesus are diminishing in numbers as well. They are given a confusing message as to who Jesus was, then are given a confusing message from John which does not help.
    (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.”

    They are told that Jesus has been with God from the beginning, therefore the Father and the Son are one. and both are God. Then they are told that they are to be “just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” John’s teachings require more explanation than any book I can readily recall. And the leaders of the church are failing at the job they are given, To Teach. Over the past few years we teach our children at home and seldom attend church services , if and when we go it only brings up confusing questions.
    The younger generations are the most educated ever and they are not falling for the confusing sermons they hear from the pulpit. Sermons should bolster the bible teachings not bring in doubts as to whether the bible is truly the word of God. They read where God created Jesus through woman and childbirth and it is impossible to reconcile childbirth with deity. And that is just one thing that is hard to reconcile with the bible.
    Loosing membership in the church is not the fault of the young people put the fault where it belongs, people like me who did not fight hard enough, and people who fought hard for non-biblical change such as “The Trinity”.

  4. Dwight says:

    Jay, you are exactly right. I am working on an article that states exactly this. What we do is state on the onset that the church is the people, then we immediately switch to the church as the people who are assembling within a building at a certain time at a certain place with a certain name. We have taken an association with Jesus by people and narrowed it down to what we see in our limited scope. We redefine who is in Christ. We have taken a rather simple concept of being in Christ and subjected it and the people to our complicated rules for association ending up with a sectarian view. The church is the people who are in Jesus whether here or there or when or where and are secured before they get to an assembly. One of the main points of problems is that we usually convert through our assemblies and thus people know the assembly and the system and the name before they know Jesus.

  5. Mark says:

    Dwight, Part of that may have been so that many others could be excluded.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    Jay,
    I commented a little while ago before reading your interpretation of the use of a “c” or a “C” and the reasoning I was using seemed to be just the opposite of yours, by capitalizing the c I was in effect escalating the importance of the church. Therefore, not capitalizing it was placing more importance on Christ. As you have shown above when Paul used the term (church) interpreters very seldom capitalized the word. Should we understand then that anytime the term is used referring to the Body of Christ, the called out, those who are his it really should be capitalized, because it is his body?

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Larry,

    To nearly the entire English-speaking world, “church of Christ” or “churches of Christ” refers to the church universal — all saved people. It’s a unique body, and so it’s tempting to capitalize the “c” in “church,” but that would only confuse people who read Christian literature other than Church of Christ tracts.

    Just so, to nearly the entire English-speaking world, “Church of Christ” or “Churches of Christ” refers to a denomination with roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement, also known as the Restoration Movement.

    I prefer to speak of the “Churches of Christ” rather than the “Church of Christ” because the denomination is not a “church” as the biblical authors use “church.” For them, a “church” is either the church universal or a single congregation. It’s never used of a denomination. The Churches of Christ are churches but not a church, if that makes any sense. We are part of the church, and together certainly not the church or a church. Just churches with a common heritage and some common beliefs and some common institutions.

    In short, I would avoid unconventional capitalizations because it confuses people. And when we try to get clever, we usually make ourselves look uneducated. I mean, all these signs saying “the church of Christ meets here” really should say “a church of Christ meets here” unless the claim is to be Christ’s only congregation on the planet. And refusing to capitalize “church” in the denominational name does not make us look smarter than everyone else; it just looks like we don’t know basic grammar.

    And by the way, we speak English, not Greek, and in English, “church” can refer to a building. In Greek, yes, “church” never refers to a building, but I know of no one who reads “church” in an English Bible and gets that confused. We are constantly correcting an error than no one makes — all to show how much smarter we are than everyone else.

    It hasn’t worked — just like putting a cornerstone on a church building saying “Established AD 33.” No, the building was not established in 33 AD. The church was. Not the building and not the congregation. So why say it on a brick that’s part of a building? We can’t even get our own idiosyncrasies right. And the date most churches put on their buildings is the date the building was built or perhaps the date the congregation was founded, not the date their denomination was founded.

  8. Dwight says:

    I used to capitalize the c in coC, but went to small c because I believe the church is secondary to Christ, but also connected to Christ. Jesus can exist without the church, but not vise-versa.
    Jay, I think many who even see the coC, understand it in the denomination sense, because that is how you say it. Verbally there really is no difference between coC and CoC when speaking.
    I don’t think we get confused in the scriptures and yet we do translate the confusion beyond it.
    I had a preacher get up and first thing he say is, “the church is the people” and he admits that the scriptures talk mostly about the church as the people in a broad general sense, then immediately he starts talking about the church in the assembly sense and 40 min. of the lesson is devoted to that point, then as is done when closing down, the screen shifts and has the name “____ church of Christ” and behind the words is the building. We see one thing and move to the other.
    On the sign out front “the ______church of Christ” then you see the building, but except for three to four hours out of the week there is no one there. What we mean isn’t what we impress.

  9. Price says:

    The Banner over us (sign on the door) is Love… yep. good answer Jay.

Leave a Reply