Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part 4): Church Names
NOTE: Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable. But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought. In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.
Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation left behind two great, albeit oppositional consequences: literacy and divisiveness.
We could read and fight…especially amongst ourselves.
A tour of any USAmerican town will produce countless church options. Roman Catholic. Greek Orthodox. Episcopal. Lutheran. Presbyterian. Mennonite. Quaker. Methodist. Baptist. Assembly of God. Nazarene. Evangelical Free. Church of God. Church of Christ. Christian Church (Disciples). Seventh-Day Adventists. Christian Missionary and Alliance.
Like the old parody on Scripture states, “Repent and be Baptist, for all have sinned and fallen short of the Assembly of God.” Of course that begs a new question: Which brand of Baptist? There’s only 94 flavors (and counting). American. General. Regular. Southern. Conservative. Fundamental. Free Will. Independent. And those are just the main ones. As for Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit knows no denominational boundaries. From Assembly of God to Church of God of Prophecy to Calvary Chapel to Hillsong, it’s like Burger King: you truly can have your charismatic gifts your way.
The problem is Jesus’ last recorded prayer on the planet was for his kids to get along. He prayed for unity: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21).”
So where did we get all these church monikers? Before we consider Scripture, let’s look at church history.
In 325 A.D. the Council of Nicea convened to create a standard Christian creed. The Nicene creed was slightly expanded and formally adopted five decades later at a second council in Constantinople (381 A.D.). The modified version contained a new phrase: a belief in the “holy catholic church.” The word “catholic” means universal (Greek: kataholis or “according to the whole”). Of course, later this “universal” church Romanized, creating the first ecclesiastical oxymoron: Roman Catholic.
Some Protestant church names reflect their founding fathers. Lutherans (Martin Luther). Amish (Jackob Ammann). Mennonites (Menno Simons). However, most monikers are rooted to a theological idea or practice. Presbyterians are “elder-led,” as the Greek word for elder is presbuteros. Methodists followed the spiritual “methods” promoted by George Whitefield, Charles and John Wesley. Baptists rejected infant baptism and subscribed to “believer’s baptism” only.
Some church names happen by strange incident. The Church of England was founded after Henry VIII couldn’t get his marriage annulled by Rome. It still operated like a Catholic Church but with Protestant spunk. The Anglican name carried considerable consequences during the Revolutionary War, so the “Church of England” in the United States was changed to the “Episcopal Church.” The “Free Methodist Church” originated in 1860 so you’d think “free” might refer to a northern preference for anti-slavery when, in fact, it was mostly a theological slap to Methodist churches who charged for pews. Quakers (Friends) got their nickname when founder George Fox was called before a 1650 tribunal for blasphemy and created a “trembling.”
Many church names are culturally or geographically sensitive. First Baptist or First Christian? These names were given to the first Baptist or first Christian church to arrive in town. In the 1800s, churches used the same tactics as banks to name their congregations. First National Bank. In Cincinnati, there’s Fifth Third Bank, a 1908 merger of the only surviving “fifth” and “third” banks. In most smaller towns, there never was a “second” church and so the number “first” was stuck to many churches. In the 1900s churches started naming themselves after their street, suburb or town. Ten Mile Christian Church. Deer Flat Methodist Church. Cornwall Church. Meridian Friends.
In the television age, church names became more visual. The Vineyard. Oasis. The Pursuit. Real Life. Others use biblical visual monikers like Christ The King Church. Solomon’s Porch. Mar’s Hill.
The irony? These “brands” reflect American consumerism, denominational heritage, geographical pride and legal necessity more than biblical ordinance. In the Scriptures you won’t find any particular church with any specific name. That’s because there were no denominational headquarters. No letters of incorporation. No promotional branding.
In the book of Acts, Christians are called “Christians” originally in Antioch, but this is several years after Pentecost (Acts 11:26). Plus, it’s probable this label was a derogatory nickname (like “Mormons“) because it’s so rarely used. In fact, the only other times in the New Testament “Christian” is used is within a derisive comment by King Agrippa to Paul (Acts 26:28) and when Peter admonishes his readers to “bear the name” with gratitude (I Peter 4:16). This suggests that even if “Christian” was originally derogatory, the name was later, perhaps begrudgingly, embraced as a badge of honor.
The most common first-century name was clearly “disciple” or “learner“ (Acts 6:1-2,7; 9:1,10,19,26,36-38; 11:29; 13:52; 14:20-22,28; 16:1; 18:23,27; 19:1,9,30; 20:1,30; 21:4,16). The use of “disciple” is interesting as it defines not just WHO but WHAT a follower of Christ does: learn. A learner is someone who’s continually growing in insight, attitude and lifestyle. A disciple is a student, pupil and learner “following” his or her teacher. Maybe that’s why another more ambiguous early moniker is “follower” (Acts 5:36-37; 9:25; 17:34; 22:4; 24:14).
A second common label throughout the book of Acts is “believer” (Acts 1:15; 2:44; 4:32; 5:12; 8:15; 9:31,41; 10:23,45; 11:1-2; 15:1-3, 5, 22, 23, 32-36,40; 16:2; 17:6,10,14; 21:25). This general moniker occurs widely throughout the New Testament, including 1 Corinthians 6:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Timothy 4:12; James 1:9; 3 John 1:10). In a couple instances the word “family” is an added description (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:17; 5:9).
Collectively, in Acts, the primary term used to describe or brand these followers, believers or disciples is “the Way.” Paul is described as persecuting those who belonged to “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 22:4; 24:22) and clearly defined them as a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:14). Perhaps this label is rooted to the descriptive path of being a true disciple of Jesus who taught He was “the Way” (John 14:4-6). Later disciples Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos “the way” of Jesus (Acts 18:26; 19:20).
Another collective and general term is “church” (ekklesia or “assembly”). Surprisingly, the word “ekklesia” appears only twice in the gospels (both times in Matthew’s gospel) and are direct quotes by Jesus. “Church” is also a popular expression in Acts (23 times) and 1 Corinthians (21 times) and Revelation (19 times). The word “ekklesia” literally means “called out ones” and was a political term for Roman assemblies. When an emperor or high-ranking Roman official traveled through a town, the people would “ekklesia” (assemble) to pay homage by shouting “Caesar is Lord.” In first century Palestine, a political hot spot was Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps one of these ekklesias had just happened when Jesus turned to his disciples and asked “Who do people say that I am?” Upon Peter’s confession that He was the Messiah or “Lord,” Jesus announced it was upon this rock-solid profession that He would build his ekklesia or assembly (Matthew 16:13-18).
To summarize, the terms “follower,” “believer” or “disciple” are the tags revealed in Scripture to describe adherents to the teachings of Jesus Christ. “Christian” is also acceptable. However, there is no other “party” or “denominational” or “sectarian” name. In the Kingdom of Christ, there are no Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, charismatics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Adventists, Quakers/Friends, Amish or Mennonites. You’re either a “believer, follower, disciple” or you’re not. Too many Christians tragically follow in the “way” of their denomination, geographical location or a marketing plan rather than simply following in “the Way” of Jesus.
It’s also a concern when we redefine “church” into a place or time (the subject of a future blog). “Church” is not a facility, a service hour or any other place we go to. A “church” happens whenever two or more believers gather (assemble) at any time in any location. Furthermore, the True Church cannot be denominated by creed and all who follow “the Way” (teaching of Jesus Christ) are included. In fact, the only creedal statement that distinguishes a follower of Christ from all others is found within a Pauline desire for unity (Ephesians 4:4-6):
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
I believe this early doctrinal statement is most likely the curriculum plan the Way employed “to equip people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).”
Christians generally believe one day all labels, monikers and names will dissolve into ONE Name and one day all denominations, sects and brands will become ONE Body.
But I ask why wait?
If those who follow Jesus the Christ would simply follow Him without personal agenda, denominational/pastor loyalty, selfish desire or divisive spirit…then perhaps Jesus’ prayer might be fulfilled even yet…even still..today.
At least that’s my prayer.