What’s In A Name?

Perhaps one of the most elemental contradictions that the Restoration Movement produced was the way that concern about denominationalism turned into a petty contentiousness about names.  The issue was not, as I understand it, initially about names.  Alexander Campbell himself would frequently reel off a list of names and labels, proclaiming loudly that he cared not what a Christian was called, so long as he would unite on the common ground of a literal and logical reading of Scripture.  That plea, with Scripture at its foundation, naturally pushed its subscribers toward the use of names found only in the NT.  The name of the Church therefore became one of the many forms that the RM attempted to restore, once the historical turn toward patternism was fully effected.

Names are among the most immediate issues between any two groups, so the Church of Christ of my youth often led with the quite insubstantial argument that a given church was clearly not a biblical church on the grounds that they didn’t use a biblical name.  That accusation was implicitly double-edged for insiders.  It claimed, on one hand, that such a church was condemnable because it did not subscribe to the patternism that constituted the truly “biblical,” and it claimed, on the other, that such a church was engaged in the blasphemous rebellion of denominationalism, that is, name-ism.  Denominationalism shifted conceptually, then, from the “party spirit” decried by the earliest RM leaders to mean simply the use of a scripturally unapproved name; from substance to patternism.

With the passage of time, denominational names came to denote particular (if generalized) sets of doctrinal positions.  Thus, in regular usage, the accusation of denominationalism became shorthand for doctrinal error in general.  “That church is a denomination” communicated “That church is unbiblical by any number of doctrinal standards” simply by virtue of being a particular group that is not us.

The fact that “denomination” in common American English meant something very similar to “a particular church group” meant that RM churches had an increasingly difficult time maintaining that they were not a denomination.  Sociologically and, more simply, semantically, they were.  The claim that they were not continued to signify that they intended to be a NT pattern church over against a denomination, but only to insiders (ironically confirming the sociological particularity of the group).

This side of a decades-long scholarly and grassroots critique of the RM’s rather myopic claims, it is less and less common to hear anti-denominational language in Churches of Christ (I can’t speak for other groups).  Yet, the issue of self-definition is still with us, as we are no less awash in a great many sets of particular doctrinal positions.  In a world where an array of very distinct options presents itself—everything from Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness to Catholics to Methodists and Presbyterians to Evangelicals and Baptists to Charismatics and Pentecostals—we must still answer the question, “Who are you?”

I believe the best starting point is to return to the firm conviction that names are irrelevant.  At the same time, we can never ignore that, linguistically, a name continues to function as a symbol that broadly and quickly designates the identity of a group.  I believe we are now, as much as ever, at a time when Christians must be very intentional about communicating their identity in terms of Jesus.  Neither apathy toward the message that identity in any other terms sends nor fixation on the issue of “denominationalism” will do, because both distract us from the points of our identity that are most important.  Neo-restoration includes a plea to find historical party names to be inconsequential just as much as did the early Restorationists.  There is a vital difference, though.  Where the RM called Christians to stand on the common ground of a particular hermeneutic, NR calls calls us to the common ground that is discipleship to Jesus.  I say “discipleship to Jesus” rather than just “Jesus,” because while we need Jesus as the center of our unity, objectifying him and pretending that at last he is what we all agree upon is the kind of reductionism that deposits us right back where we started.  It is the journey, the road, the way that we share in its variation, a dynamic common struggle to follow behind him, understand him, and imitate him.  This must always bring us back to the biblical text, as the story that gives us access to Jesus.

In the context of my own mission work, it has become more and more evident that the only answer to the identity question that does justice to our mission and our God is to say that we’re simply followers of Jesus.  The purpose is not to obscure our own tradition or baggage or social particularity.  Indeed, since names work the way they do, that response usually produces a clarification of the question: “Yes, but what is the name of your church; what group are you with?”  This is the reality of post-Christendom.  The first answer is no less true for the need of clarification, yet there is a need, so how should we respond?  That depends on the question we’re actually trying to answer.  Sociologically, we are missionaries of the Churches of Christ (of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement).  Those who know that name can identify the niche and move on with the conversation.  For those who do not, the name still means little.  I usually answer, “La Iglesia de Cristo” (The Church of Christ).  We are totally unknown here, and most people are trying to determine who we’re not and then establish a general niche for who we are.  So, to meet those communicative demands, the conversation usually goes:  “Are you Mormons?”  “No.”  “Jehovah’s Witnesses?”  “No, we’re kind of like evangelicals.”   “Oh, okay.”  Why answer that way?  Because those are the categories they’re working with, and it satisfies the need.  But what if that’s not the question we want to answer?  What if challenging that question’s assumptions is important enough to bother complicating the conversation?  I believe that it is, so my answer goes something like this: “We’re known as the Church of Christ, but names aren’t really very important.  We’re just trying to be followers of Jesus.”  I answer this way because I’m a restorationist, and I think restorationism should be about calling all Christians to understand themselves in terms of following him far before anything else.  Launching into an explanation of why our name is important or defensible because it’s found in Scripture or because it expresses “who the Church belongs to” or because we’re “not a denomination” or anything else whatsoever miscommunicates what really defines us.

There are no few aspects of the Churches of Christ that lend themselves to this disposition, because the earliest versions of the restoration plea were far closer to a call to Christ-centeredness.  The emphases that subsequently emerged were in many ways a corruption of that plea that left forms without substance, as I discussed briefly above, with the upshot that the forms can still be very practical.  For example, the facts that we have no grand denominational structure; that we regard creeds, canons, statutes, or any kind of organizing document with suspicion; and that we use the most generic name imaginable all lend themselves to the attempt to define ourselves in terms of something else, something basic: the way of Jesus.  Those rather helpful forms can never constitute neo-restoration, however, because its substance is a call to discipleship, not a call to reject things that can convolute our identity.  The rejection of such things is merely incidental to neo-restoration’s proper plea and not to be confused for an essential.

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