*WARNING!! This is a very long blog (for me). But, since I've been so infrequent lately, I figured a long one might help me catch up. I'd appreciate any comments you may have!
Being raised in an ultra-conservative wing of the Churches of Christ, I quickly learned that one of the most cherished doctrines of my church was that "We are not a denomination." I was taught it and, for my first few years in ministry, I taught it as well. In fact the segment of the Churches of Christ with which I was associated taught that those who considered the Church of Christ to be a denomination were false teachers.
I even wrote an article in the local newspaper at one point condemning many denominations for their status as denominations, while encouraging people to come and be a part of the Churches of Christ since we, of course, could not be characterized in that way. A gentleman in the community who had a background in the Churches of Christ called and requested a Bible study dealing with the things I brought up in that article
When I sat down at this man's dining room table, he placed in front of me a dictionary opened up to the word "denomination." The entry read very similar to the following, which I quote from here:
de·nom·i·na·tion [di-nom-uh-ney-shuhn]The man I was studying with focused on a definition that resembled both #3 and #5 above. In his dictionary, it read something like: "a group that takes an exclusive name for itself." He accused my beloved Churches of Christ of fitting this definition.
1. a religious group, usually including many local churches, often larger than a sect: the Lutheran denomination.
2. one of the grades or degrees in a series of designations of quantity, value, measure, weight, etc.: He paid $500 in bills of small denomination.
3. a name or designation, esp. one for a class of things.
4. a class or kind of persons or things distinguished by a specific name.
"denomination." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 09 Mar. 2007.
5. the act of naming or designating a person or thing. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/denomination>.
But I was prepared! I confidently responded, "Well, we just call ourselves 'Church of Christ' as a matter of simplicity. We would be just as happy being called the 'household of God' or the 'body of Christ' or the 'bride of Christ' or any other name that can be found in the Bible."
His response utterly defeated my claim that the Church of Christ is not a denomination. He said, "Jeff, what would happen if you told your congregation next Sunday that you were going to go and worship with a new church in town called the 'Main St. Family of God' or the 'Main St. Body of Christ,' etc.?" I sat silently because I could see where he was going with that and I had no response. He said, "Your church would draw the conclusion that you were planning on worshiping with a group that was NOT really Christian. You would be 'fellowship with darkness.' And it would be based not on the teachings or practices of the group, but on the fact that the sign in front of their building said something OTHER THAN 'Church of Christ.'"
He had me! He could not have been more correct. The conclusion from was that my fellowship had DENOMINATED itself by choosing to take a name EXCLUSIVELY for itself. When we draw conclusions about someone else's degree of faithfulness based on whether or not they wear the same name as us, we are, by definition, a denomination!
This realization forced me to do some reexamination of the name "Church of Christ." My earlier thought processes defended its use based on the following arguments, to which I will respond.
Argument #1: Names are important to God. In fact, names were so important to Him that He often CHANGED the names of people (i.e. Abram & Sarai to Abraham & Sarah; Saul to Paul). etc.) Furthermore, Colossians 3:17 says that everything we do should be done "in the name of the Lord."
Response: Indeed, God changed names. However, it wasn't because the NAME ITSELF had any special value, but because the CHANGE that the name SIGNIFIED was important! The name change signified a spiritual change! Certainly, God has given us a new identity (1 Peter 2:9-10), which He signified with a new name -- Christian (Is. 62:2; Acts 11:26). CHRISTIAN is the only name given to followers of Christ, and it isn't even bound on us in the sense that we can go by NO OTHER name! I can call myself a "follower of Christ" just as biblically as I can call myself a "Christian." The Col. 3:17 argument is just a terrible misunderstanding of the meaning of the phrase "in the name of" as used in the Scriptures.
Argument #2: Romans 16:16 uses the name "Church of Christ." Therefore, we should use it, too.
Response: I have no objection to a group referring to itself as the "Church of Christ." However, by claiming this name EXCLUSIVELY, and by using the NAME as a way to CONDEMN/JUDGE others, we have taken a perfectly good description of Christ's people and turned it into an instrument of division, which is contrary to Christ's desires (John 17). Furthermore, if we choose this SINGLE reference as our proof-text for our exclusive name, we must decide how to explain why we didn't choose the MULTIPLE references to the church as "the body of Christ" or any other reference that appears more than ONCE. Finally, I believe this argument is based on a legalistic reading of scripture which insists that it is not just the theology of Scripture is binding upon us, but also the EXACT WORDING of Scripture. (Then you have problems with which version and whether English is even the "exact wording" after all!)
Argument #3: The name "Church of Christ" gives glory to Whom it belongs -- Christ! While other "scriptural names" of the church do the same thing, most of the names that denominational groups claim do not. They give glory to a distinctive doctrine of that denomination (i.e. Baptist, Methodist) or the group's founder (i.e. Lutheran, Wesleyan). When people see the name "Church OF CHRIST" they know up front Whom we serve. For a well-written defense of this argument, see the tangat blog.
Response: I actually find a lot of merit in this argument. I certainly believe that the way we refer to ourselves should reflect our devotion to our Master. If we have to choose a name (and I don't believe we do) I would much rather it explicitly give glory to God. Unfortunately, in many communities in this nation, people no longer see the "Christ" in our name because they are focused on their perceptions of and experiences with the "Church of Christ." So, while well-intentioned, the whole of our name often communicates something altogether different than the sum of its parts. Many people see "Church of Christ" on our signs and, rather than thinking, "There is a people devoted to Christ," they often think "There's that group that thinks they're the only one's going to heaven, condemn everyone that doesn't agree with them, and think instruments send you to Hell." Can their be anything more opposed to the message that SHOULD be communicated by the words "Church of Christ?"
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
Why must we have a sign with a name on it? I believe it is a direct reflection on the capitalism surrounding us. We must have, popularize, and sell our "brand," and what's a brand without a name? I can't imagine Paul traveling to Corinth for the first time and looking around for a "brand name." I certainly can't imagine him making judgments about other Christians based on their use or non-use of any particular description of followers of Christ!
If we have to have signs, why not something like "Christians meet here" or "All are welcome" or "Praise God with Us!" Or better yet, lets start drawing conclusions about others based on what they TEACH and PRACTICE rather than what their SIGN says!