An email about the name “Church of Christ”

I get emails.

My question is could we break down our fortress walls among people by taking down signs that mislabel buildings etc. and put up simply “A PLACE OF WORSHIP”? (and times when people gather?)

This Church of Christ business has been a thorn in my flesh for a long time now. Isn’t “church of God,” used 8 time when referring to a particular congregation in scripture where as “Church of Christ” is not? My favorite is “church of the living God.” Why do Church of Christ advocates seem to semi-worship “Church of Christ”? Help me out with this. 

Well, it’s complicated but not all that complicated. These are the assumptions underlying our relationship with our denominational name:

  1. The 20th Century Church of Christ doctrine required that churches have a “scriptural name” on penalty of damnation.
  2. “Churches of Christ” is found in Rom 16:16 (as a common noun and not a denominational name, of course) and so is “scriptural.”
  3. But, it is commonly taught, any other scriptural name would do just as well. Many a tract has a long list of names of the church that would be perfectly scriptural and acceptable.
  4. But most of those scriptural names have been taken over by other denominations. “Church of God,” for example, is taken by several denominations that are not us. Call yourself something like “the Church of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 2:14) people will think you’re Pentecostal or a cult or something. So the best remaining choice is “Church of Christ.”
  5. By far the most common name for the church is “church.” But that would really confuse visitors to town looking for you in the Yellow Pages. “Eastside Church” could be any denomination at all! (not that we’re a denomination, so I should say “fellowship” or some other euphemism for “denomination.”)
  6. If you drop “of Christ,” some of your members will accuse you of denying the name of Jesus. No, really. I’m serious. Done that; been there.
  7. We are wedded to the name. It’s kind of our identity, and who will know what we believe if we don’t wear a distinctive name as a distinctive people?

In other words, we’ve insisted that the name must be authorized, which allows us to treat Baptists and Methodists as bound to hell because they’ve picked unauthorized names. Then again, we’ve come to realize that the NT never, ever authorizes a proper noun designation of the Lord’s church. Therefore, many congregations prefer a lower-case “c” — “church of Christ” — but we can’t help but use it as a proper noun, making us appear ignorant of 5th grade grammar.

True story. It used to be that the churches in Tuscaloosa all ran a Saturday ad in the local paper, sharing a page so that visitors to town, especially for football games, could buy a paper and find a church to visit. Brilliant marketing by the Tuscaloosa News. No one wanted to be left off the list. (The Internet has mooted this, of course.)

This was back before PowerPoint. I taught a Bible class and projected that page on the classroom wall using a opaque projector (remember those?) It was a good 10′ tall, and each listed church was listed under its denominational caption.

I asked the class to look at the ad and then made an impassioned speech about terrible it is that our elders failed to list us in the ad. Evidently they didn’t appreciate how hard it is for a visitor to find a church home! It wasn’t that expensive. Why I would personally raise the money to buy the ad! And on and on I went.

As I ranted, the class grew very uncomfortable and several raised their hands, and I refused to call on them — I was so upset. Finally, when they were about to shout me down, I called on one. He said, “We’re listed in the ad! Don’t you see it?”

I said, “No, come up here and show me.” And so he did.

Well, what could I do? I apologized to the class and elders. “You see,” I said, “I was looking in the wrong place. It just never occurred to me to look where our ad appeared under “Churches of Christ.” I was looking under ‘Non-denominational'”! Silly me.

I asked, “Are we denominational or non-denominational — in terms of how we behave? I mean, this ad’s been running over a decade. Surely someone else has noticed that we’re not under ‘Non-denominational.'”

The class responded, “The other churches in town are all under ‘Churches of Christ’ and would take offense if we listed ourselves somewhere else.”

“But,” I said, “that’s contrary to what’s in their tract racks. And I fail to see how peer pressure has anything to do with whether we comply with a doctrine that says we aren’t to act like a denomination. So we just need to confess to being a denomination and stop pretending otherwise.”

Great times …

The heart of the matter is, of course, our sectarianism. Many among us believe we are the only ones going to heaven and so they feel obligated to be named something different to distinguish themselves from those who are damned and going to hell. And the name thing is a debating point from the early 20th Century used to damn Baptists for having an “unscriptural” name, although we use the name in a way that is just as unscriptural. We use it to mean “Church of Christ (and you’re not),” which violates more scriptures than I can count.

The result is that the name has drawn very negative associations in many parts of the country (I’ve seen privately commissioned surveys. It’s true.). Therefore, some congregations attempt to rebrand themselves as the “Westside Family of God, a church of Christ.” I’m not sure how well that works, but I understand the motivation.

Others go with “church,” as in “The Central Church.” Which is closer to the scriptural usage and drops all denominational associations — and draws criticism for leaving the Church of Christ identity and club. Indeed, I’ve had preachers for such churches share with me their fear of being cut out of the lectureship circuit and other events for Churches of Christ due to their name change.

I mean, with strict congregational autonomy, just who is a Church of Christ if the name is dropped? Who gets listed in the national directory (previously called “Where the Saints Meet”)? I mean, how can you drop the denominational name and yet continue to act as a denomination? And if you really want to act like a denomination — with your own publishing house, own universities, own lectureships, you get the idea — why pretend that you’re not a denomination?

And yet there are real advantages to being a denomination. I mean, don’t I want to support missionaries who believe what I believe about weekly communion, baptism by immersion for remission of sins, etc.? Even if I think the other churches aren’t damned?

Then again, if we’re all going to be in heaven together, maybe I should put denominational things behind me. And, indeed, there is a real trend for the more progressive Churches of Christ to be more evangelical than Restoration Movement in many ways. For example, I suspect (can’t prove) that one reason attendance is down at the Tulsa Workshop is that many of our younger ministers are attending evangelical events such as Passion or Catalyst instead — with little thought as to the impact of their decision on Church of Christ institutions.

Just so, we’re seeing that many of “our” universities actually have fewer than half their students from Churches of Christ. Think about that one.

So that’s kind of it. Some of us want a standardized name because we actually believe that the name impacts our odds of salvation. Some of us just want the benefits of mutual support and fellowship that come with a denominational identity (even while we vigorously deny it). Some want to be attractive to Church of Christ members moving to town or unhappy with their local congregation. They “grow” by being a better Church of Christ. Some have members who would leave if the name were changed.

And others see the evangelistic challenge presented by the name and are looking for ways to drop the name while keeping the benefits of being part of a denomination. And some of those benefits are very real. And some are leaving the denomination to escape the name — seeing evangelism as far more important than the advantages that come with having a label.

The next generation of elders will face very different challenges.

PS — “Place of worship” would be very problematic for us because even some very conservative churches recognize that the NT concept of “worship” is more about daily sacrificial living (Rom 12:1 especially but not only). Hence, many are  uncomfortable calling the Sunday gathering “worship.” And yet we then preach on Five Acts of Worship.

Hence, Churches/churches of Christ tend to go with “meets here” rather than “worships here.” But that’s a topic for another day.

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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.
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7 Responses to An email about the name “Church of Christ”

  1. David Himes says:

    While I have no expectations that anything will change in the next few generations, I would personally favor name the buildings as “chapels” with the old line “the church of Christ meets here.”

    Since we always say “the church is the people”, that is at least a more consistent tactic.

    But at the same time, that just gets us into the debate over the “scriptural” basis for “buildings” at all! Let’s pick that one up again, just for fun.

  2. “The next generation of elders will face very different challenges.” Some may not because in many coCs, (though they set up a process to make the members think otherwise) elders make sure they choose the next elders, ensuring that only men who look and believe exactly as they do become that next generation. This perpetuates dealing with the same questions, issues; never progress toward dealing with the important issues of the church in the 21st century.

  3. Dwight says:

    In a lot of the congregations I have been to I have often heard the preacher lament that it might be better if we placed a “Christians meet here” sign out front, but of course that never happens for the 7 reason you mentioned.
    This would of course allow us to blend into the whole of Christendom, so we don’t want that. We want to stand on a hill and be THE light, because we are THE light bearers and others aren’t.
    But since tracts have been put out and are still being put out that declare “church of Christ” as the scriptural name and all others as not, it is hard to go back against that rhetoric.
    I have heard many lessons that start out arguing that in the NT there were many descriptions for the church, among the most used,,,the Way, and then minutes later we are saying that all other names are man made, except church of Christ.
    And we definitely cannot go to a church that has a human name on it, because then you are not following God. Poor Israelites, who named themselves after Israel, and not God.
    The biggest thing though is that I don’t think many want to disfranchise themselves from the only Godly franchise, which is the church of Christ. A name change would confuse those we link to and then where would those people go who are moving into town, when they can’t find “their church name”. The sillyness of this is that we teach it is what is inside that counts and not what is on the outside, but if you are no longer go by the name, then you immediately change for some reason on the inside.

  4. Vicki says:

    I like “The Way” myself

  5. Chris says:

    Is a name a barrier to fellowship with other fellow believers? How about having to explain to almost every non-COC Christian that you meet that the COC you attend and its members aren’t like the COC person or members that offended them in some capacity. I almost decided to print some cards with the disclaimer. Well, I had to explain too many times, and decided that it wasn’t worth it. Yep, too many folks had such a bad experience, (I’ve even had one myself years ago), that you don’t talk about Jesus, you end up feeling compelled to apologize for the offense that someone else committed that you had nothing to do with.

    I don’t care to be an apologist (in more ways than one, for any denomination). It’s a shame that Christ gets lost in the fog due to the stereotyped name on the outside of the church.

  6. Chris says:

    Vicki, if I understand correctly, the name “The Way” has already been copyrighted by a church group and they will sue if anyone uses that name other than them.

    I’ve always been fond of Christ Community Church, because you keep the name Christ and you’re part of that particular community.

  7. Dwight says:

    Chris, the problem with any name is that usually it eventually becomes a stumbling block. You take on one name, no matter how benign, and then let’s say you grow and then there are others like you that have the same name, then there are groups with the name, who don’t have the name of the other person over there.
    Denominations aren’t always sectarian, but sectarians are almost if not always a denomination.
    Even though the Christian movement was known as the Way, this wasn’t taken on by command, much like Christian wasn’t. The Way and even Christian was a description of a movement and a saint, but wasn’t initially a designated name, until it become more common and then adopted. Those of the Way followed Christ, who was the Way, the Truth and the Life and the Light.
    And many of the stereotypes are well earned and are still being built on today.
    While we might tell people that we aren’t the only way to God, this isn’t largely what we believe and tell ourselves in the assembly.
    Our argument seems to be, “We aren’t always right, but we are never wrong.”

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