Reframing the Name “Church of Christ”

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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.

5 Responses

  1. The cofC put all its effort into getting church right, making sure they weren’t like any other denomination, and then telling everyone else how wrong they had been/were and that they were going to hell for being wrong. I went to the cofC for most of 38 years and never remember a sermon on Jesus. I can remember old preachers saying that you had to believe in the death, burial, and resurrection and “obey the gospel.” This was the only mention of all the material in the gospels. Meanwhile Paul’s missionary journeys and epistles could make 48 sermons a year. I am glad you are mentioning Jesus.

  2. We shouldn’t have to name ourselves something that we are placed into and exist in by virtue of being in Christ. If we look close enough we will find that the word “church” wasn’t used and the term ekklesia actually meant “congregation”, thus when we see the word congregation we see not a group or groups of groups, but those in Christ, whether in a town or in a region or in a house. But you don’t see sings that say, “congregation of Christ”, because
    The early congregation or those in Christ had no name as a group as opposed to another name as a group and if so this would have been discouraged on the same level that those people in Corinth were taking on names as opposed to other names.They were to be united in the person of Christ, not divided by names which showed who they were or what they were.
    But in reality, Paul didn’t have a problem with the names, but he did have the problem with the fact that they were being contentious over the names. It is just a fascination with names and labels and pride in that allowed people to see themselves as not just saints, but superior saints.
    One of the problems is making the church a physical thing bound by physical limitations.
    We don’t see the spiritual church that all saints are part of through Christ and are added to, we see a physical church that we become a part of, become a member of, enclosed within a building with a sign.
    We need to reframe not the “church of Christ”‘, but our understanding of the church in general.
    In reality it isn’t about the church, but about Christ, which makes us part of His people.
    The saint should not be focused on going to church and attaining Christ through going to church, but be focused on being a saints that is part of all others who are saints who are a part of Christ. We will stand before God not as a group or member of a group with a name, but as a person that is connected to Christ by being Christ like.

  3. We need to understand that by deciding to use the common name “Church of Christ” we have denominated ourselves and there is nothing wrong with that. I have heard countless sermons condemning “the denominations” but by virtue of our choosing to use just one name we have made ourselves a denomination, it is not a spiritual issue, it comes down to understanding the English language.

  4. M. Taylor, I do believe you are correct. When you take on a name…any name…you become a denomination, by virtue of what denominate means. And there is nothing wrong with that…technically.
    But as we read in I Cor.1-3 taking on of a name often results in breaking from others, spiritually, as we differentiate name wise. It is thus hard to see past names that you have named yourself for a particular reason. Often times we see the unifying part of Christianity as not Christ, but a particular group with a particular set of beliefs which is identified by a particular name by which you get to Christ.

  5. I believe you have hit the nail on the head. We are defined (by ourselves and others) by how we do our assembly. We condemn anyone who does otherwise. It seems that we have lost the meaning of discipleship. Truthfully, our christian walk is what we do away from our building. It’s important to remember only GOD decides who is in his Church. Only GOD decides who is lost or saved. That job is way beyond our paygrade. We are living dangerously when we judge others who don’t subscribe to our specific views. We should be able to disagree with others, without judging them as lost, and dividing the body of Christ.

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