What about churches changing their names?

Phillip Owens

Names are important. A name is “a word or phase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing” (Webster). Names differentiate.

God has used names that distinctly designated some people from others, and some things from other things.

“Eve” means “living” or “life,” and God named her this “because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). “Abram” meant “exalted father.” God changed his name to “Abraham” because its meaning distinctly designated who he was – “for I have made you a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). Jacob’s name was changed to Israel following his wrestling with an angel, because he had “struggled with God and with men, and…prevailed” (Gen. 32:28). When God “named” someone, that name accurately designated something about that person. This continues throughout the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, an angel told Joseph that the son Mary was to have should be called “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21). Why? It means “savior.” Jesus’ name implied His purpose on earth. The apostles gave Joses the name “Barnabas” (Acts 4:36) since “son of encouragement” distinctly designated his character in the early church.

Elders, bishops, and shepherds or pastors are called such in the New Testament because of their spiritual experience, age, and the kind of work they do in local churches (Acts 20:17,28; Eph. 4:11; I Tim. 4:14; I Pet. 5:1-4). These names and their qualifications (I Timothy 3; Titus 1) distinctly designate a group in local congregations and are more descriptive of their concern for, influence on, teaching, and care for souls over whom they are given responsibility than an authoritarian title. A young man (19-20 years of age) in a white shirt and dark pants riding a bicycle peddling Mormon doctrine is not a Bible “elder” (older man), though given that “title” by a church. He is not in age, character, or work what the Bible describes, and hence it is a misnomer.

In our English translations, the word for “church” is from a word that means “assembly.” When the gospel is preached and people believe and obey it, they are added to the “church” or assembly of the saved (Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 2:36-47). It sometimes refers to all saved people (see Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22-23; Heb. 12:23), and consequently some speak of the “universal” church or assembly of Christians. Second, it can refer to a local assembly or congregation of Christians in a geographical area, such as when Paul called to himself “the elders of the church” at Ephesus (Acts 20:17), or “the church of God which is at Corinth” (I Cor. 1:2).

The word “church” usually stands by itself, the context showing the reader which church the inspired author is discussing (see Matt. 18:17; Acts 2:47; 5:11; 8:3; 11:26; 12:1,5; 14:23 and others).

However, any modifying words connected to the word “church” show its relation to God and Christ. After Peter confessed the great truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus said, “upon this rock [the great truth Peter had just confessed, p.o.] I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Therefore, the church belongs to Christ; He built it and died for it (Acts 20:28). In this connection Paul would refer to “the churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). This is not a denominational term, but a distinctive designation of churches belonging to Christ.

Similarly, since people who obey the gospel are actually honoring, obeying God, and are God’s people (II Cor. 6:16-18), we see the simplicity in inspired writers referring to “the church of God” or God’s church (see I Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; Gal. 1:13; I Tim. 3:5,15). Again, this is not a denominational term, but a distinctive designation of churches belonging to God.

Names given by men and honoring men divide people religiously and are unscriptural

The church at Corinth was divided over men. I Corinthians 1:10-15 indicates that some attached themselves to Paul, Apollos, and Cephas. Paul asked three questions, all of which indicated that their allegiance should have been to Christ, not men. “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized into the name of Paul?” Since Christ was not divided, and since Christ died for them and they had been baptized into Him, they should wear His name.

In a world where religious division seems acceptable and even desirable, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be united (Jno. 17:20-21). However, the same thing Paul condemned in I Corinthians 1 is practiced today. When religious people wear names such as “Lutheran” that pay tribute to a man, or “Baptist” that exalts a particular ordinance, or “Methodist” that describes the Wesley’s “methodical” approach to religious matters, or “Presbyterian” that exalts the type of church government, honor that should be given only to Christ is diverted to something or someone else, and division results. These religious names give distinctive designations to particular religious groups. As such, they accurately describe what those groups are and/or do.

Why recent trends to drop denominational names?

Most have noticed that for over fifteen years many denominational churches have dropped their distinctive names and have adopted vague, indistinct, indefinite designations. Some have capitalized on terms such as “Crossroads” or “Crosspoint,” with a play on the word “cross.” Others simply adopt the name of the surrounding community without further designation, while some even drop the word “church” from their name.

Is this good and right? If dropping denominational designations for Bible designations and practices were the reason, yes, this would be wonderful. But these are not reasons given.

A simple “google” search of news articles on this subject reveals that most denominations change their names in order to attract more members.

In a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article entitled, “Afraid of scaring away potential members, Baptist churches cloak identity,” Rody Clyde, leader of a ministry workshop said, “Some people mistakenly associate the Baptist name with an angry, judgmental kind of fundamentalism.”

Ebby Smith, professor of Christian ethics and missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, stated that “many denominations tend to leave out the denominational name because it sometimes puts off baby boomers and younger people who do not want to be labeled as a member of any denomination.”

Smith continued by saying, “It’s just a technique to get a hearing. Once they are in church, they find out it is Baptist. Most of these churches are closely tied with Baptist organizations.”

It has been my observation that when any church begins to “cloak” its true identity, it is either because its members are ashamed of something they really believe and don’t want people to know, or they actually stand for nothing! If they truly teach doctrine that is unique to Baptist or Methodist, to “cloak” one’s name is dishonest to the public. If GM developed a bad reputation, and a dealership decided to change its name to Ford thinking it would attract more customers, but still sold GM’s, we would think it absurd and dishonest. The same is true in religion.

On the other hand, the indefinite, vague and indistinct designations can actually describe what is preached and practiced. If “anything goes” in preaching, and “anything goes” in practice, and little is said or done in regard to immorality, false teaching, various sins, etc., then the indefinite names on the outside of the buildings actually describe the indefinite teachings and practices on the inside! Of course, this coincides with our politically correct culture, but counters everything the Bible teaches concerning the cost of discipleship, morality, and the singularity of the Lord’s way in everything.

What is the answer?

I obviously do not speak for anyone but myself. However, I would not want to be identified with any religious organization that “cloaked” its true identity or stood for nothing. Such was not true of the New Testament church or of faithful Christians during the first century, and such can not be true of faithful churches or Christians today.

Paul said that we are to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (II Tim. 1:13). Words carry thoughts. Right words, given by inspiration of God (II Tim. 3:16-17), carry right thoughts and are to be used when discussing and naming Bible things. We are to speak “as the oracles [or utterances, words, p.o.] of God” (I Pet. 4:11). “Call Bible things by Bible names and do Bible things by Bible ways” is a Bible principle based on the above verses.

If a person genuinely wants to follow Jesus Christ and go to heaven, he will “obey the gospel,” a Bible phrase descriptive of Bible conversion (see Mk. 16:15-16; Romans 10:16; I Pet. 4:17). This is different from “accept Christ as your personal savior.” He will want to “eat the Lord’s supper” (I Cor. 11:20) not take the Mass, and do so on “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7), not Thursday or Friday nights. He will want to be called a “Christian” (Acts 11:26), without any modifiers such as Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, etc. Upon his baptism into Christ (Mk. 16:15-16; Gal. 3:26-27), the Lord will add him to His church (Acts 2:47), and he will want to assemble, worship and work with others who have done the same in a given location (Acts 9:26; Hebrews 10:24-25). We pray that will be your disposition.