What’s In A Name?: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
So, over this last month I moved my mother into assisted living. That has meant clearing her house to prepare it to put on the market. There are a few different routes that will get me to her house in a brief fifteen minute journey – a journey I’ve been taking multiple times. Each route is filled with churches. At least, I assume that they are churches as the vast majority have names emblazoned on signs that seem to say everything but “church”.
Driving, I pass “The River”, “The Crossing”, “The Encounter”, “New Horizons” and “Common Ground”. Taking a different route, I find myself seeing “The Vineyard”, “The Journey”, “The Well” and “Healing Streams”. This, of course, is not to mention those I drive by on various errands, such as “These Are They”, “The Father’s House”, “Destiny Center”, “Glory Point”, or indeed, one that I occasionally visit, “The Table”.
Also noticeably absent from the buildings housing these assemblies was any sort of recognizable Christian iconography. I did see one stylized Celtic cross among the various graphic representations of clusters of grapes, rivers, sunrises, winding roads and all the rest.
I wondered, “How does this all fit in with the Christian tradition?”
While some Roman Catholics consider the Upper Room to be the first Christian Church, I began to look for something more tangible. My friend, Prof. Dennis Groh, pointed me in the right direction. It would seem that the earliest church that we know of is that of the Dura-Europas in Syria, although it seems to have originally been used for another purpose before it became a church. (There is also an early house church associated with the Roman army town of Megiddo.) Nevertheless, Dura-Europas dates from c. 250 and is replete with Christian imagery. Additionally, important texts were discovered there, including some with eucharistic prayers closely related to the Didache. These, however, were house churches. The first purpose built Christian church of which we have evidence is that of the Aqaba Church in Jordan. It is considered to date from between 293 and 300, therefore predating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Originally built to accommodate about 50-60 people, there was evidence of lamps, a screen dividing the altar area from the congregation and the fragments of a bronze cross were found. It was distinctly Christian in form and use.
As I began to look at other early churches that have survived from the patristic era, the names of the churches were fascinating. Some (as mentioned above) were named for their location or to mark the place where an event in the life of Christ took place. Many were named for a particular martyr, often because the church was raised near to the martyr’s grave. Many, if not most, of the other extant fourth and fifth century churches were named in honor of the apostles or of the Virgin Mary. Some were places of pilgrimage, such as the so-called House of Peter in Capernaum, which became memorial churches in due course. Moreover, these churches were replete with Christian imagery and iconography. While often plain on the exterior (perhaps a holdover from the era of persecution) the interiors contained frescoes, mosaics and much more that is now lost. They were distinctly Christian. Moreover, they were distinctly Christian in the culture of late antiquity that considered Christianity to be somewhat of a novelty. They wished to be known as “church” and to invite the world in which they lived to become of part of the tradition which they had inherited.
Now, many of the modern churches with interesting names are not interested in being a part of any tradition, although in reality many are now a part of a non-denominational tradition of musical performances, followed by a lecture with the addition of extemporaneous prayers and, perhaps, a song or two before dismissal. More problematic, at least in my opinion, are those churches who claim to be part of a tradition, or are desiring to be part of a tradition, who clearly do not seem to wish to be identified as a “church”. The designation is avoided in name, appearance and yes, even down to a semi-liturgical service conducted by someone in skinny jeans who tosses a stole around their neck.
In my mind, it is a matter of identity.
As a Christian, I cannot separate myself from the past, nor from the identity that the past provides. It is not merely the Church’s history, it is my history. The Tradition within that history continues to inform and enrich us. And, to a great extent, that Tradition provides our identity, both individually and corporately.
The canon of Scripture did not appear on a velvet pillow descending from heaven. It came to us through the Tradition.
Our modes of exegesis and interpretation were not discovered by us as a prize in a cereal box. They have been handed down to us.
The creeds we confess did not simply “happen”. In the first instance they were formulated in connection with worship, baptism and the eucharist. Later creeds were hammered out in conciliar gatherings. In both instances, they come to us through the Tradition.
Yes, forms may change, language may change and even buildings may change, but our faith is that which was “once delivered”. Paul, just decades distant from the events recorded in the Gospels, realized that he already stood in a tradition that he was both passing on to the next generation, even as he invited those to whom he wrote and spoke to become a living part of that tradition. It seems to me, that our desire to “market” ourselves as an entity that avoids the word “church” is problematic. I think it is primarily problematic because “the Church” to which we invite people is not just our own small group. In our own small group we may express the greater reality of “the Church”, but we are not the “end all or be all” of which the Church consists. The Church is a 2000 year old tradition of worship, service, and theological reflection. It is local, regional and global. It is the Church militant here on earth and the Church triumphant in heaven. It is the two or three gathered and it is countless millions through the centuries.
It seems to me, that while the new names that I see may be an interesting marketing tool, the practice loses more than it gains. Moreover, there seems to be an implicit rejection of what it means to embody the tradition of the Church in favor of a particular “branded” gathering in a particular place. Church should be a place to encounter God, not a variation of Starbuck’s or a place to hear a motivational lecture. That ground has been covered by others. We, I believe, are called to something different.
It occurs to me that the reason one might not want to identify as a church is caused by shame in what the “church” has become. I am not speaking of the church universal, but of the churches as you identified as a place to get Starbucks and hear a short lecture. Could it also have something to do with shame of fundamentalist churches or liberal churches who have abandoned the gospel for right or left wing political activities? Or the terrible number of churches where children, men and women have been sexually victimized? I think it’s a very sad state of affairs when shame from sinful behavior causes the churches to not even want to be identified as a church, because the church has become synonymous with this extreme and abusive behavior.
Duane, what can say. I agree totally and appreciate the article.
Cash nailed it…
Yes, I think that is an astute observation. Maybe, like U2, we need to take back the song and make it ours again…
Just having risen from falling off my chair… many thanks!
I agree with the article also. This church model, which takes its name, look and practice from popular culture, is the result of a couple identifiable doctrinal errors:
(1) A humanist view of a seeker, who is not in bondage to sin. Therefore, with the right motivations and attractions, this seeker can make a decision for Jesus.
(2) The humanist cannot deal with original sin and man as a son of the devil, because he sees a spark of goodness in the man, which the preacher can tap into with modern psychology and/or emotion-inducing music.
(3) The humanist cannot tolerate an foreknowing, predestining, electing God.
(4) The enthusiast has divorced the Spirit from the Word of God, and therefore rejects the effective working Word to birth and sustain faith through the Gospel. Therefore, either the church manufactures spiritual experiences or reduces Christianity to a moral philosophy which people learn and study through lectures.
(5) The modern epicurean can’t tolerate an immanent God who would come down and be “God with us” where he as promised to be in the office of Word using the keys, and in the Sacraments.
…Or they have hired, at great expense, some clever church consultant/marketing guru who has assured them that this is the way forward…
I’m sure that happens, but it happens for a reason. I don’t think we can divorce doctrine and practice. I think they are linked together, and that practice follows from belief.
“I’m sure that happens, but it happens for a reason…”
Agree, without reservation.
I think it is funny. What do these names mean to the unbeliever? The Baptist church next to my old OC Lutheran church was named El Toro Baptist and a couple of years ago changed to Agape. Does an outsider know what Agape is?
These name changes are not out of shame but to steal sheep from other churches.
This church was Rick Warren’s original church.
There is a LCMS church here that has changed its name to “Spirit of Joy”… No identification as being Lutheran. It has not, by the way, reversed their fall in numbers.
Lutherans fall out of orthodoxy also. They forget that it is God who builds his church, not man – so they change the name, go CoWo and hope everyone thinks they are a Calvary Chapel type place.
If I’m not mistaken, Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians of the church’s vocation to “plant” and to “water”, but God gives the growth. Is Christ still the head or have men taken over His role as well?
To me, much of this is about, “What are we inviting people to know and experience”. I am not a Lutheran, but I would think that one would be inviting people to become a part of that tradition and, therefore, worshipping and teaching in that tradition. I am an Anglican. I have no way to bring people into my tradition without the Book of Common Prayer, the Creeds, the Eucharist, etc. When, however, we compromise our identity from the outset, it seems to me that we are participating in some sort of “bait and switch” confidence trick. I mean, what do we do? Do we invite people to a non-denominational CC type church and then slip a catechism into their pocket before they leave and hope for the best? It seems to me that many of us are shooting ourselves in the foot…
“Bait and switch” is a legitimate description. Those who engage in it wouldn’t confess to such a strategy. They might say: We want to ease the unchurched into the church by not imposing a lot of foreign symbols and words on them at the outset, while keeping the atmosphere familiar to them. But essentially, bait and switch is exactly what their doing. The church is more of a foreign embassy in the middle of an increasingly hostile country. That’s the biblical reality, anyway.
Well we have Jehovah’s Witnesses and his Latter Day Saints self proclaimed and those Christian Scientists… what is in a name? It is the cross that draws or offends or is marginalized for whatever reason…
I guess i am wondering why we need distinctive labels at all … it somehow is sad to me today that we see ourselves as Church plus anything… Name of city? Maybe…
But El Toro Baptist is funny … If i remember correctly, el toro is the bull? Okay for a town or a Marine base, but a church?
Oh well, maybe i have a case of autumn fever today….
Em, the church was named for the city. So Baptist usually name their churches for cities or neighborhood subdivisions.
This is a fascinating list… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_church_buildings
Again it goes back to the false belief that their are “seekers” out there – not so. This was similar to when Skip H had the 27 campus crosses removed from our church as it would offend “seekers”.
Church is for believers and believers only. Outsiders are welcome but no part of the liturgy is to be structured in their direction.
As a note, one of the things that hastened my leaving was I found the Skip H corporate logo hanging high at the rear of the stage area to be offensive.
Yes, MLD, i got that… Still think the bull baptists is awkward
Condolences to you and your Dodgers… but they got to play….
Obscure church names don’t bother me much. But I will confess that when a local, well-established, and rather large congregation changed its name to “Active Church” it became the source of many corny jokes from me:
“Do they only allow fit people to attend?”
“Did they replace all the pews with tread mills?”
“Active Church- where we never let your rest in the Lord”
and so on. I confess that I still find the new name humorous.
I assume they attend in jogging suits… in the liturgical colors of the Church Year, of course…?
I have a Catholic friend who writes me often. Though I think I am on a list to whom he sends fishing emails. The idea is to draw attention on every issue back to the matter of apostolic authority. He is a good apologist and I think a wonderful man. I have no problem with his labor of love.
That same sense is here. This article stirs me profoundly and like MLD I quite appreciate it. My church has a name without church in the title. For me the avoidance is not of being a church. I relish and treasure being church. I boldly brand myself as churchman and lover of the church in the midst of both slander and scandal. I will not hide from either sin or shame nor will I run from those who wish to increase the sufferings of Christ by rejecting his people. No, I eschew church on the sign because church is the people not the place. So that is an aside really for my purpose in answering.
What is being hailed here is central. We are being challenged on the matter of apostolicity. Unlike many who claim to only believe the Bible I know full well that to believe the Bible is by nature to accept the apostolic nature of the church. The Bible is not self generated. It was given, received and is thereby our tradition.
So as a nondenominationalist what defense can I make for existing. In my training I was blessed to have a professor who often repeated that we must be sure that we have “a gospel” something about that riveted me. Of course I wanted to protest “the gospel” over time I have realized that his nuanced expression pressed me to constantly pursue understanding the Gospel we received.
Apostolic succession is a much bigger deal than most nondenominational types recognize in that it actually deals with the matter of authority and of truth. While I appreciate very deeply this article I would simply respond that the succession that matters most is that of the apostolic gospel not the delivery system (yes that is crudely put and not as pejorative as it sounds). My life pursuit is to communicate the apostolic Gospel, the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
I take your comment in the very good spirit in which it was offered. “Unpacking” the Tradition has occupied most of my adult life, and I don’t think that I’m finished, yet.
“My life pursuit is to communicate the apostolic Gospel, the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” A worthy goal…
I commend both Duane and BD for their focus on the Gospel. Regrettably, in the schismatic church of the 21st century, there is no consensus among traditions and non-tradition traditions on what is the Gospel. That would make a worthy topic for discussion.
Hey, Piggly Wiggley doesn’t put supermarket in it’s name any longer. Perhaps they are going after the post modern, seeker sensitive shopper also. 🙂
The Gospel, I believe, is more than a mere assertion of “facts” about salvation history or the validity of the Sacraments. The next step has to be the context of salvation history and the Sacraments… it has to do with the Church.
Yes, Duane, I would be comfortable agreeing that the Church has been entrusted with the stewardship of the Gospel.
To put it in everyday language, the Gospel is “good news” for sinners, but even more importantly it is the proclamation or “handing over” the grace of God to sinners by the means which Christ has authorized.
The Gospel is the passive reception of God’s grace and mercy by faith, whereby a sinner is declared righteous in the sight of God on account of the saving work of Christ. It is categorical and unmerited, but simply gift.
That brings up an obvious question, “Do you think God’s grace extends beyond the Word and Sacrament entrusted to the Church?” Not a trick question…
I will answer your question, based on the following verse:
“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”
St. Paul definitely excludes works of the law. That leaves only one other possibility: That God works outside the Word. I believe that the commands in the Gospels, such as from the Father: This is my son; listen to him; and These things are written so that you may believe…; and no one comes to the Father except through the Son; exclude salvation apart from hearing with faith.
The truth is, without the Word, no one would have ever heard of a crucified Savior who died for your sins rose from the dead for your justification.
Thus, grace is found no where but in the Word proclaimed and given for you, by preaching and in the visible Word (i.e., the Sacraments).
The answer is as I expected. Yet, can grace be found outside of Word and Sacrament? Natural law? Paul’s preaching in Athens referencing philosophy? In the world of late antiquity in which literacy was limited and the OT and NT canon were fluid, what exactly does “Word” mean? One can be even more specific in those works which were considered “profitable” (Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, etc.). How do they relate to “the Word”? Or, to bring it up to the present day, is grace to be found in those writings about “the Word” – Luther’s commentaries, Calvin’s, Barth’s or even Lewis. The common thread seems to be not the items themselves, but their connection to the Church. Just a thought, not a certitude.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
One of the reasons why Lutherans believe there are Christians in many different traditions is because they do have the Word, even where the teaching may be a mixture of truth and error in various measures. Where the Word is heard, the Spirit is present and may work faith when and in whom He pleases.
However, what is the best way to distract someone from hearing? It is to flood the ear with lots of other sounds or voices; what we call “noise.” Therefore, obviously it is safest and most edifying to hear and read Scripture, commentaries, preaching, liturgy, catechisms, creeds and confessions which adhere faithfully to the Word.
Does that make sense?
Coincidentally, I am in the midst of preparing some lessons on the Gospel According to Matthew. The specific material I am currently working on is the “authority” that Jesus delegates to his disciples, which has been passed down to the Church catholic. This authority, which is complementary with individual Christian piety, is quite remarkable:
“[P]roclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast our demons.’ ”
“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
“whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
“Go therefore and make disciples”.
I like to add in a little of John, because his later Gospel seems to supplement well the earlier ones:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
You and I are probably on all fours with each other when it comes to the significance of the Church.
The question needs to be directed back to Duane – do you think God’s salvation grace can be found outside of word and sacrament? I am assuming we are not speaking of God’s common grace to all people.
Indeed, there is a common grace that extends to the whole creation. I think the Church is the primary “vessel” of that Grace in Word and Sacrament.
We live, however, in an “anecdotal age”. “I came to Christ reading CS Lewis”. “In studying philosophy I discovered the truth of Christianity.” …And a hundred variations. I’m not willing to wholly discount these anecdotes and certainly God can bring people to himself through the means that he desires. So, I guess I don’t have “hard edges” when it comes to this question… It is a question, however, to which I give a good bit of thought.
MLD can clarify if need be, but the “common grace” that extends to the whole creation falls under Article 1 of the Creed, not Article 2. It is among other things rain, food, shelter, etc.
That, indeed, is part of the question! Acts 17:19-34
I always thought of Acts 8 as the prime example of how it works. God draws folks (in this case the Ethiopian) through his word, then provides for the actual preaching / exposition of that word (Phillip in this case) and the sacraments to seal the deal (the body of water.)
Phillip preached both word and sacrament this we know because when the Ethiopian saw the water, he tied it directly to what Phillip preached.
Duane, in your case of CS Lewis, I think you already had a dose of the word in you and Lewis brought it out, or he used enough scripture that it was effective.
Hey, I was saved listening to Greg Laurie talking about Paul and the role of women in the church – go figure.
Jean, your explanation of God’s common grace describes what I was talking about.