Bible Q&A: The Proper Way to Refer to the Lord’s Church

I read your answer to the question about the difference between the “the church of Christ” and “the church of God.” I have a question related to that. Should we stop giving the Lord’s church any sort of title at all, such as “Church of Christ”? I ask because the names given to the church in the New Testament seem to be descriptions instead of titles. What are your thoughts?

It is true that the various names given to the church one reads about in the New Testament are more descriptive in nature than titular (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 1:2; Acts 9:2; Heb. 12:23; etc.) Therefore, there is certainly nothing unscriptural by deciding to refer to the local congregation of which one is a part, or the body of Christ universally, in a descriptive fashion instead of using a titular proper noun. For example, there is certainly everything proper with the idea of saying, “I am a part of the church which is on Main Street in Jonesboro,” “I am a member of the body of Christ which assembles in Harrisburg,” or, “I belong to the church of God.”

It is also true that many refer to the church of which they are a part in a titular fashion, using proper nouns. For example, “I am a member of the Broad Street Church of Christ,” or, “I belong to the West Side Church of Christ.” (As a brief sidenote, I’ve noticed a trend lately in churches of Christ which refer to themselves in a titular fashion and use proper nouns on their street signs and in their bulletins and church letterheads. Some notice that the biblical names of the church are lower-case in the New Testament and thus go out of their way to do the same by making sure the “c” in “church” in “church of Christ” is always lower-case. However, this is grammatically incorrect because the New Testament describes the church in descriptive fashions while they are using the term “church of Christ” as a proper noun title, which grammatically would require all “c’s” to be capitalized [“Church of Christ.”] The editor in me wishes such were not the case because it gives visitors and outsiders the impression that we don’t know how to proofread our own material.)

The question before us is whether such titular, proper noun usages are scriptural and proper. While one should refer to themselves using a designation that is scriptural (i.e., “church of Christ,” “church of the firstborn”) rather than unscriptural (“Lutheran,” “Methodist,” etc.), there is also nothing wrong with using scriptural designations in titular ways in the name of expediency. This is because the reality of the situation is that there are literally thousands of different faiths and sects which all profess to be Christian in the world today, unlike the first century. The church which practices nothing but New Testament Christianity must distinguish themselves from these erroneous, man-made religions. We do this, of course, through our teachings, worship practices, and church government organization which follow the New Testament pattern. We must also do so in how we refer to ourselves.

Some would say that last goal would be accomplished by referring to ourselves by using scriptural names solely in a descriptive fashion. Is that really the case, though? For example, the New Testament church was described as “the church of God” (1 Cor. 1:2) and “the church of the first born” (Heb. 12:23). However, a denomination also refers to itself as the Church of God. The same is true for the Church of the First Born. There are other denominational and evangelical churches, all man-made and all which teach and doctrinal error, which refer to themselves by scriptural designations.

So what would likely happen if, in an effort to refer to the Lord’s church solely in a descriptive way, I say to someone, “I am a member of the church of God which is on State Street,” or, “I belong to the church of the first born in Willicut”? They would almost certainly walk away under the impression that I am a member of the Church of God or Church of the First Born denomination or evangelical church, depending on whether either or both of those organizations exist in my town and/or they are familiar with the man-made churches who bear those names. The goal I have of distinguishing the Lord’s church from falsehood would have not been reached. Instead, all I’ve done is muddy the waters. Indeed, we live in a world in which even if I simply tell someone, “I am a member of the Lord’s church,” they will likely walk away thinking I might be part of something which is counterproductive to what I want them to know since there is an evangelical church calling itself “The Lord’s Church” which practices error.

The theological concept of expediency comes from the biblical concept discussed repeatedly in the New Testament whenever that which is most “profitable” (symphero) is discussed (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23). If we tell others that we belong to the church one reads about in the New Testament and use any sort of biblical description to do so, they will almost certainly think we are just a part of one denomination among many. They would think so even if we used the term “church of Christ” completely in a descriptive way as opposed to a titular way. What is most “profitable” is not to focus primarily or solely on what we call ourselves, although that is important up to a point (cf. 1 Pet. 4:16). Instead, what is most “profitable” is meeting them where they are and teaching them not only about the names used in the Bible to refer to the church, but even more importantly the gospel plan of salvation and what they must do to be added to that church by the Lord.

Let us also remember the warning about “disputes about words” and the ungodly reasons for that and the even more ungodly results which it brings (1 Tim. 6:3-5). Topics like this, even if discussed sincerely and reasonably, can still also bring about that which God does not want.

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