Another reason that we in the Churches of Christ have trouble working things out amongst ourselves is our abuse of the language. In fact, a stranger to our publications would often be mystified by our use of words.
For example, we throw around “liberal” using a meaning for the term that is completely foreign to its definition. “Liberal” has a specialized meaning in religious circles. When discussing Christianity, “liberal” means someone who denies the inspiration of scripture and the incarnation of Jesus. For example, see the article on liberalism in the Catholic Encyclopedia and Jack Cotrell’s article on Protestant liberalism. Calling someone a “liberal” in a religious conversation is a very serious charge.
We, however, mean “someone who doesn’t bind a law that I think Jesus binds.” And sometimes we blend the two, arguing that the man who fails to read the Bible as we do must deny the inspiration of scripture to do so. Hence, if you have the audacity to disagree with me, you must be a liberal in the “denies Jesus” sense. But in reality, denying my understanding of divorce and remarriage or worship in the assembly is a far cry from denying Jesus — unless I consider myself of equal authority with the carpenter from Nazareth!
And so, we use the word contrary to its accepted definition. Worse yet, when we do so, we say things that communicate a much greater criticism than may be intended. Or sometimes we say much worse things than are deserved. And this is slander, which is sin.
It’s lately become popular to designate certain preachers and authors as “change agents,” and such people are spoken of in very harsh terms. Clearly, the term is intended to be an insult. However, outside the Churches of Christ, the term has a well-understood, highly complimentary meaning.
One website defines “change agent” as —
A person who leads a change project or business-wide initiative by defining, researching, planning, building business support and carefully selecting volunteers to be part of a change team. Change agents must have the conviction to state the facts based on data, even if the consequences are associated with unpleasantness.
A change agent is charged by management with making much-needed changes in an institution even when most people in the institution resist the change, often with underhanded tactics. The change agent is the good guy. Countless books, businesses, and seminars are dedicated to helping train people in the skills needed to effectively change businesses, government agencies, and such as management wishes.
Therefore, to call a preacher a “change agent” should be to accuse of him of working for management (God) to assert the facts (God’s truth) despite opposition from critics (church members who have weak faith or who misunderstand God’s will).
However, many within the conservative ranks of the Churches of Christ use the term as an insult, indeed, as an accusation. According to them, change agents seek to impose change contrary to God’s will. Thus, to someone not familiar with the peculiarities of Church of Christ jargon, the use of “change agent” as an insult comes across as, well, uninformed.
And so, I really don’t mind being called a “change agent.” I try to be one.
“Class, I want to show you something that has me really upset,” the teacher begins. He places a transparency on an overhead projector. “This is the ad in the Saturday paper that many of the larger churches in town runs spots in. Lots of visitors to the community use this to find a church to visit on the next day. And yet, we’re not in it!
“There’s a line item in our budget for us to be in this ad. I was at a deacons meeting where this was specifically approved — months ago. I yet we’re not listed! I don’t know if the paper’s messed up or if someone in the church office botched this, but — I tell you — I’m pretty concerned about this.” The teacher pauses to catch his breath and sees hands fly up across the room.
A woman on the front row is particularly animated and doesn’t even wait to be called on. “We are up there! Can’t you see!” Several other class members nod vigorously.
The teacher appears clueless. He stares at the projection and says, “I don’t see it. You’re going to have to show me. Walk up here and point.”
The woman obligingly points to the ad very prominently displayed under the caption “Churches of Christ.” The teacher looks shocked — shocked!
He says, “Oh!! I’m so embarrassed. I’m sorry I’ve wasted so much class time. You see, I was looking in the wrong place.” The class looks puzzled. “Well, didn’t you get confused, too?” The class looks more confused. The teacher continues, “I was looking under ‘Nondenominational.’ Where else would I have looked?”
The class laughs. The point’s been made. The teacher then leads a discussion about what how far removed we’ve become from the nondenominational ideal.
Church of Christ writers often make a point of distinguishing us from “the denominations” and insist that we are not “a denomination.” Whether these statements are true depends on what “denomination” means. And as is so often true, our use of the word is contrary to the conventional use of the word. A thoughtful discussion of the word is found at www.reference.com —
A denomination in the Christian sense is an identifiable religious body, organization under a common name, structure, and/or doctrine.
Christianity, in modern times, exists under diverse names. These variously named groups, Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, etc. are called denominations. …
Comparisons between denominational groups must be approached with caution. For example, in some groups, congregations are part of one monolithic church organization, while in other groups, each congregation is an independent autonomous organization.
By this definition, which closely tracks most people’s use of the term, the Churches of Christ are a denomination. We are certainly identifiable. Indeed, we usually merit our own special section in the Yellow Pages. And we routinely insist on being listed there rather than under “Nondenominational”! We have a common name, we are consistently autonomous in structure, and we have very uniform doctrine (although this is becoming less and less true). Indeed, the very fact that your author can say “we” and expect to be understood as referring to those people who advertise themselves as the Church of Christ in the Yellow Pages proves that we meet this definition.
However, within the Churches of Christ, we take great pride in not being a denomination while asserting that all the other churches are. One argument is that a denomination claims to be only a part of a larger church of Christ. As we refuse to divide ourselves from the entirety of the church of Christ, we insist on not being a denomination.
This is a noble aspiration. We shouldn’t divide the body of Christ. But this is simply not what “denomination” means. Some denominations claim to be part of the larger body of Christ. Others claim to be the only saved people. In fact, there are countless denominations that claim to be the only saved people. The Catholics and Eastern Orthodox being two very large examples.
The confusion likely stems from the word “denominationalism,” which does indeed refer to the belief that all denominations are going to heaven. Someone somewhere likely failed to realize that denominationalism is not the same thing as being a denomination. It’s an understandable mistake.
Another claim is that “denomination” means a body of people practicing error. And in my experience, most members of the Churches of Christ, when they insist we are not a denomination, mean that we are not guilty of error, at least not so much error that we’ve lost our souls. By that definition, we certainly don’t want to be a denomination! But this is just not what the word means to anyone outside the Churches of Christ.
One example of this approach is to argue that the denominations insist on adopting unbiblical titles: Methodist, Baptist, or the like, while we use a biblical name only. But this doesn’t explain why we consider the Church of God or Assemblies of God, for example, denominations even though their names are found in the Bible (“assembly” is a perfectly good translation of ekklesia, also translated church). And again, “denomination” simply doesn’t mean “a body of people with an unscriptural name.”
More subtly, some argue that a denomination is a church with a national or state office. Hence, the sin of being a denomination is to violate the Bible’s teachings on church autonomy. The trouble with that position is that there are a great many denominations out there that teach and practice congregational autonomy. And yet we insist on referring to them as denominations, too.
To refer to the Churches of Christ as a denomination is not to accuse us of error or of having a denominational hierarchical organization. It doesn’t describe us as lost, and it doesn’t imply that the other denominations are also saved. It just means that we are separate from the others by name and doctrine, and indeed we are.
Now the argument is much broader than these particulars. If we expect the world that surrounds us to understand us, we need to know how to speak the common language. If we give terms meanings within the Churches of Christ that differ from their use outside, we become insular and out of touch, unable to effectively tell the lost of the world who we really are and why they should join us.
We are at risk of becoming as foreign and incomprehensible to the world as the Catholics were when they insisted on always conducting church in Latin. Indeed, we are repeating the mistake of the medieval Catholic Church that refused to allow the Bible to be translated into the vernacular — we make it unnecessarily hard for people to understand us when we try to teach them the good news of Jesus!
If we love the lost of the world, then we’ll endeavor to avoid usages and definitions that make us hard to understand. In fact, there are times we think we’ve so confused our language that we have trouble speaking to each another!
And, I should add, our abuse of the language often causes us to argue wrongly, because we assume that words mean things they simply don’t. Jesus spoke in the common language of his time and place. We should try doing the same.
 Manoj Bhardwaj, iSixSigma Quality Dictionary and Glossary (Mar. 13, 2003) (typographical errors corrected).
 Typographical errors corrected.