THE NAME OF THE CHURCH
(Note: Periodically I write about the “name” of the church. It seems that such is necessary because there are those who want to give to the New Testament people of God a proper, patented, and official name to then be used in a denominational sense. Because of this, many view the church as a denomination, and many are only too glad to have it so. Please read and reflect once more on what the Bible says about the name of the church).
In our contemporary religious culture more and more churches are seeking to separate themselves from their denominational affiliation and to be non-denominational and independent. In attempting to do this they have come up with all kinds of ingenious names for their congregations. In the small city where I live there are many of these kinds of churches bearing such names as Godwhy Church, Agape Community, Celebration of Life Church, Freedom Church, Free Indeed Fellowship, Higher Ground Church, New Vision Ministries, First Apostolic Church, Truth Tabernacle Church, as well as various others.
None of these churches have been successful in separating themselves from their erroneous views and teaching concerning how one is saved from sin and incorporated into the one spiritual body (church) of Christ. They have not been successful in ordering their worship by the New Testament standard. They have not conformed themselves to the organizational pattern authorized by the New Testament for the church. The lifestyle of their members has not been appreciably altered into a more Christ-like image by the adoption of these intriguing names. Religious error is still religious error regardless of how it is labeled.
Names are important. Bible names of individuals often signified some important trait of the person bearing that name. At His birth Christ was given the name Jesus “for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NKJV). In fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) He was called Immanuel which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Luke, the inspired historian of the early church, said of the name of Christ: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). He later revealed that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (11:26). James spoke of those who “blaspheme that noble name by which you are called” (2:7). Peter wrote: “[B]ut if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God” (1 Peter 4:16, NASV). It is God’s desire “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). To argue that there is nothing in a name is irrational. That notion will not “fly” when it comes to applying for a social security number, a passport, a driver’s license, a marriage license, writing a will, opening a bank account, purchasing a piece of real estate, as well as a host of other matters.
What is the name of the church of which we read in the New Testament? Is there a single, exclusive, official name for the people of God set forth in scripture? The New Testament gives numerous descriptors for the church. The church (the aggregate of all who have been saved by obedience to the gospel) is the spiritual body of Christ, of which there is but one (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4). It is the spiritual temple of God, being composed of living stones (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5). It is the house (household, family) of God, with every child of God a member of it (1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:5-6). It is the kingdom of God’s dear Son, with every Christian being a citizen of it (Colossians 1:13).
In promising to build the church, Christ called it “My church” (Matthew 16:18). This is appropriate because Christ established the church, purchasing it with His blood (Acts 20:28), is its foundation (1 Peter 2:6), its head (Ephesians 1:22-23), and its Savior (5:23). A plurality of local congregations are designated as “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). At the same time, they also are described as “churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16), and the universal body of redeemed people is called the “church of God” (Verse 22). Salvation through Christ was in the mind of God “before time began” (2 Timothy 1:9), and the church, the aggregate of those redeemed by the blood of Christ, was “according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11). Therefore, the church is appropriately designated as being “of God.”
Geographically, the people of God are spoken of as the church at Jerusalem (Acts 8:4), the churches throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (9:31), the church of God which is at Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2), the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 1:1), the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2), the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 1:4), etc. Modern Catholic and Protestant names are noticeably absent from the New Testament, and came to be applied to religious groups arising well this side of the New Testament. None of the denominational names found in the religious world today were used in New Testament times to refer to the people of God either individually or collectively. There were no Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints, or Pentecostals in the first century of the Christian era, or for many centuries thereafter. The oldest protestant denomination, the Lutheran Church, is now only 500 years old.
Faithful churches of Christ today strive to be churches of the New Testament order. Churches of Christ do not profess to be a denomination, nor do they seek denominational status. The use of the biblical descriptor “church of Christ” is not intended as their exclusively proper and denominational name. Any biblical descriptor is acceptable. However, in our sadly divided religious world, it is practical to use rather consistently a descriptor that sets forth in a scriptural way those who are pleading for a return to the undenominational way of the Bible and who are committed to speaking “as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11) and earnestly contending for “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Clearly, it is possible to use a biblical designation for the church in a sectarian and denominational sense and, sadly, many today are doing that with the descriptor “church of Christ.” At the same time, to use this scriptural designation does not make those using it a denomination.
Many years ago, the late Cled Wallace made some insightful observations about the name of the church that we would do well to consider. He wrote: “Now I am somewhat of a stickler for calling the church anything and everything it is called in the New Testament and have said so over and over again in these and other columns . . . I am certain that the expression ‘church of Christ’ has been used in a sectarian sense, but not when it is applied to the right thing, however often it may be used. It is misused only when it is employed to cover too little or too much or applied to something that is not it at all . . . Brethren keep me more uneasy sometimes by what they mean by it than they do by how often they say it” (Bible Banner, Volume IV, Number II, September 1941).
Faithful followers of Christ are not “church of Christ” (viewed as a denomination) in their religious affiliation. Gospel preachers are not “church of Christ” (viewed as a denomination) preachers—no more so than they are church of God (viewed as a denomination) preachers, or body of Christ preachers, or kingdom of God’s dear Son preachers, or temple of God preachers, or any of the other biblical descriptors for the church that may be corrupted into a denominational name or employed in a sectarian sense.
At the same time, all who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and become Christians are members of God’s church, Christ’s church, the Lord’s church, the body of Christ, the household of God, the kingdom of the Son of His love (Acts 2:47; Colossians 1:13). People can be such without being members of any denomination. The word of God only will produce Christians only and the only Christians—just as it did in the first century (Luke 8:11). Local churches can be churches of Christ without being a denomination. There are many people who are Christians only without denominational affiliation, members only of what the New Testament most frequently designates simply as “the church.”
Hugh Fulford, March 10, 2020