Growing up in the churches of Christ, I often heard the argument about how wrong the Baptists, Methodists, and others were because they used a name for the church not found in the Bible. The denominational Church of Christ argued that at least their name could be found in scripture. While I agree with that argument in principle, I have problem with agreeing in fact. The church is not given a name in Bible. There are several designations for the church, but these are more in the nature of description than name. That may be a fine distinction, but important.
The church has no name. A name implies it is a distinct entity. My children have names because they are separate from me. My feet do not have names, because they are part of me. In the same way, the church is part of the body of Christ, and so has no name. My feet are simply Tim's feet. That is not a name but a description. The church is the body of Christ. That is not a name but a description.
That said, the church has several descriptions in Bible. It might be instructive to look at some of these to learn more about what the church truly should be like.
One designation for the church in scripture is “this way.” Even some outside the church apparently called it the way. “And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether theyOne can hardly distinguish between the faith in broad terms and “the faith” as descriptive of the church. were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:2) “And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” (Acts 22:4)
If the church is the way, to what is it the way? What kind of a way is it?
Foremost, it is the way to God. Since the church is the body of Christ, it is the path of right. “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)
Can one come to God without being in the church? People argue, “I can follow God just as well by myself as in the church.” An old catch-phrase was, “Jesus yes; the church no.” How does Jesus feel about that? Can we come to God as well without being in the way? Can one be in Christ without being in his body?
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (Jn 15:4-6)
Anyone who chooses not to walk in the way becomes fruitless. He is good for nothing but burning.
The church is the way of righteousness. John was shown a figurative representation of the church in Revelation 21 and 22. Of that church he was told, “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” (Rev 22:14-15)
Peter also knew of the church as the way of righteousness. He warned against leaving that way.
For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. (2 Peter 2:20-21)
Of all the descriptions of the church, the most common may be “the faith.” Paul uses the phrase frequently. Sometimes it is used in reference to the system of faith in general, but even then, one can hardly distinguish between the faith in broad terms and “the faith” as descriptive of the church. You can’t have one without the other.
Referring to the faith implies one corollary and one result. By making reference to “the” faith, with the definite article, one necessarily states that it is the only valid faith. It is not one among many; it is one and only. That has far-reaching consequences for the church. If there is but one faith there are not “many roads to God.” Peter said, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Since the church is the body of, and wears the name of, Christ, there is no other way to salvation. This is not a popular idea. Some even accuse God of exclusivity. It is true, though that the church is exclusive as well as inclusive. It excludes in that there is no other way to God. It includes because anybody may choose the right path; nobody is turned away that chooses to come to God.
The consequence of the idea of “the faith” is a commonality of purpose. Any organization exists for a purpose or it dies. If its members do not share at least the purpose of the organization they leave. It is the same with the church. We share the faith. It is a body with the commonality of a saving faith. We may have many differences: racial, political, economic. Nevertheless, we have something overridingly in common. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
The term “the church” relates to the manner of gathering: it is an assembly. Some people ask, “Do I have to go to church?” The common answer relates to the previous point: if you have a common faith why would you not want to assemble together? Another answer, though, is that if you don’t “go to church” you cannot be part of the church. If a church is a body called together in an assembly, one who chooses not to be part of that assembly cannot be part of that church.
Each Greek city-state had its own assembly. When city business was to be conducted, all the citizens were “called out” to the town square or another gathering place. Decisions were made based on the majority of people present. The old idea (ancient, really) is that if you don’t vote you don’t have a right to complain about the results. It was true then as well. If you did not show up for the assembly, you had no part in the government. The church is the same. If you are not present, you are not considered part of the body. You have cut yourself off from Christ and his body.
Another, incidental, implication is that each congregation is independent of all others, just as each Greek city-state was independent. A resident of another town could not vote in a city not his own. Although we are part of one body, yet each congregation is made up of, responsible to, and responsible for, its individual members in attendance. The only hierarchy is the head, which is Christ.
Churches of Christ
The designation “churches of Christ” appears only once. “The churches of Christ salute you.” (Rom 16:16) It is used to show the ownership of the church. It is not a name, just as “Tim’s feet” (or, to put it in this format, “the feet of Tim”) is not a name. It states simply that the church belongs to Jesus the Christ. It is distinguished from the church that belongs to a method, or another person, or a doctrine. In that sense, my old teachers had a point. A congregation that calls itself the “Campbellite Church” would be saying they belong to a man named Campbell. A congregation that calls itself a “Baptismal Church” would be saying that they belong to the doctrine of immersion. While immersion is a good thing, and a person named Campbell may have been a good teacher, they are not the purpose of or owners of the church. Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build MY church.” (Matt 16:18, emphasis mine) He wants people in his church, not in someone else’s or something else’s churches.
It may also be significant that Paul used the plural in Romans 16:16. Again, each congregation isIf you are not present in church, you are not part of the body; you have cut yourself off from Christ. autonomous (independent). Each congregation may have its own elders. Other congregations are not subject to the elders of any congregation but their own. If a man, such as Diotrephes (3 John 9), gains control of a congregation for his own ends and refuses to recognize a man, such as Gaius, as a Christian, that does not mean that any other congregation has the right, without independent evaluation, to refuse a Gaius. If a congregation falls prey to false teachers, that does not mean that other congregations must follow suit. In this it is like the difference between a picture window and a lattice window. A picture window is one large pane of glass. If someone throws a rock and puts a hole in the window, the whole pane of glass has to be replaced. A lattice window has many smaller panes. If a rock breaks one, that is the only pane that has to be replaced. The rest of the window is sound. If one congregation teaches error, only that congregation needs to be corrected. The rest of the church remains sound.
Although these are only descriptions, the church does have a name. It bears the name of him whose body we are. We are his hands and feet, but in this world our name is Jesus.