Having grown up in Churches of Christ, I am well aware of our quirks and idiosyncrasies. I am sure many of you are as well. We have traditionally used all kinds of phrases that are not found in the Bible to talk about things found in the Bible. For instance “we use Bible names for Bible things” and we “speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” Ironically the two statements stand against each other because the Bible never speaks on if we have to use Bible names for Bible things. The second statement is self-contradictory because the Bible never instructs us to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent (which no one really does anyway).
One of the philosophical underpinnings of calling Bible things by Bible names is the pattern of the New Testament church. This is the idea that the first century church in its most ideal form (which actually never perfectly existed – remember, Paul’s letters were all written to churches that had it wrong) is a pattern for us to follow today. What was true for them will be true for us – there was no perfect New Testament church. We are attempting to restore an ideal. I think we need to speak with humility on our success in accomplishing an aim that even the first Christians couldn’t seem to accomplish. I am not so sure the first century church aspired to be a first century church. That would have been a foreign concept to them. I am quite certain they aspired to follow Jesus. I will come back around to that in a moment. But for now let’s continue talking about the pattern and calling Bible things by Bible names.
If you are going to name a congregation, as in put a sign out front (which they didn’t do in the first century but for some reason is pretty much mandatory today) then, according to pattern theology,, you go to the New Testament itself and find things Christians and Christian assemblies were called. They were called things like the “church of God” or “The Way” or the “Church of Christ.” These terms were never used as we use them but if you are going to go look for something hard enough you will eventually find it. My opinion is if you are going to pick from these three I would personally settle on “Church of Christ” because I think that gets at the heart of who we are as God’s people. But I believe the byproduct of our label has come with its own set of baggage in our focus.
Why do we need to reframe the name “Church of Christ”?
It isn’t so much we need to change our name. We need to think about how those words affect the way we see ourselves.
We have put “church” before “Christ.” I don’t mean this in a nitpicky, grammatical way (although the exact same meaning is expressed in “Christ’s church”, putting Christ before church). No. I mean this from a more theological and ecclesiological (church) perspective. We have put church before Christ. We identify ourselves with the kind of church we are rather than the kind of follower of Jesus we are. When I say what kind of church we are, I mean how we worship on Sunday for one hour and how that differentiates us from people who do any aspect of that differently than we do because they aren’t “holding to the pattern.” That is problematic.
I believe this occurred because we were formed out of a culture and time that was heavily churched. It wasn’t about who did or didn’t believe in God or Jesus in the Western world of 18th and 19th century America. It was about distinctiveness among people who believed in Jesus – to finally get right what everyone else seemed to have gotten wrong.
I am fine with the name “Church of Christ” but I think ultimately we need to keep Jesus first and church second. The two are inextricably linked, as they should be. If you aim for church you can miss Christ but if you aim for Christ you will always end up with church. It is a change in our focus. Well, it is more than that – it is a change in the way we conceive of our own identity – Jesus’ people, rather than the church that says they are the only ones doing it right and therefore the rest cannot be Jesus’ people at all.
How do I know we have done this…that I am not just blowing hot air? Look at sermon titles and topics around our fellowship and see how many focus on Jesus and the Gospels and how many focus on getting church right with little mention of Jesus? Look at how this is reflected in some of the most popular books in our movement over the years. That needs to change.