What’s in a Name?

Is it any coincidence that the first man-made religious effort in history included a building project, the desire for a name and a split soon afterwards? I think not. Paul Zietsman, who is part of a house church down in the Cape, sent me the following:

Something I have been pondering for a while:

Is “denomination” not the actual stronghold of the institutional church?

Why do I think thus?

To unite together under a name (except that of Christ) is a phenomenon of man which first reared its head at Babel:

And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, and its top in the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered upon the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:4)

I realised that without a name:

You cannot register and own property…

You cannot open a bank account…

You cannot apply for authorisation or recognition of your organisation…

You cannot be taxed…

You cannot blow your own trumpet…

You cannot peddle your brand…

You cannot hold people together…unless there is a greater binding factor…

To put it the other way around….If you remove the name (denomination) the institutional church cannot exist, it will collapse overnight. No buildings, or bonds, no payroll, no bank account. There must be a registered name to be a recognised legal entity. The New Testament church existed and flourished without these entrapments (individuals in the church owned property, assets etc. but not the church). The NT church was never a “legal entity” and therefore it was impossible for even the Roman Empire to get a grip on them. That is why governments in the East Bloc and China all approve of the state-recognised churches. They are registered, can be prosecuted and controlled. You cannot outlaw something that does not even have a name. They can forbid gatherings (as they do in some countries) but they cannot get a grip on this – as they cannot get a grip on the underground church. But as soon as a name is registered (guess who approves registrations, and thus who has an unspoken hold and authority over the church…and who can then make laws that govern those organistaions who apply for approval and recognition…and then lawsuits can be filed, like Laurie Gaum sued the Dutch Reformed Church for ending his employment.) A name gives the powers of this world control.

So now we see churches trying to form a unity, and they can become “inter-denominational” but they cannot drop the names altogether, because then they will cease to exist.

17 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Riaan January 28, 2011 / 7:18 am

    Hi, I hear what you have to say about governments taking control. I also here what you have to say about a “man” made plan and name, so to speak. However, no matter how evil the government may be, God is the one that allowed them to be in power, and He commands us to obey the government until the point where they want us to contradict the Word. For no other reason do we have a leg to stand on. Jesus encouraged us to pay our taxes and obey those in charge of us, and to pray for them. Denominationalism is not evil when done to protect the truth. There is much in a name. Personal identity, for the same reason we call our self Christians. But we know that even that must be defined as not everything that calls itself Christian is Biblical, like Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists, etc. So a name separates us not just for evil but for great Godly good. Acts 4v12 says that there is no other name given under heaven by which man can be saved. Yes, there are some very silly reasons why people split churches, but then there are even better ones that tell us why we should. Unity is a wonderful thing, but even worse when we do it at the expense of the Gospel and God’s fundamental truths.

  2. naturalchurch January 28, 2011 / 8:38 pm

    Riaan: I don’t have a problem with the idea that a name provides personal identity and that it can distinguish a person/family/group/enterprise/gang from others who may hold to a different view, market a different product, fight for a different cause, or whatever. As you point out: That’s what names are for. However, as Christians our identity is rooted in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:20). We are his body and we are known by his name. And so the Bible forbids the formation of sub-identities amongst believers ( I follow Paul, I follow Cephas etc.). There is not a single church in the New Testament with a name that indicates anything but locality. Why should it be different now? As far as the issue of separation is concerned: I don’t believe a name can ever be a guarantee of orthodoxy. The Biblical criteria for spotting a heretic nowhere suggest this.

  3. Henning January 29, 2011 / 8:57 am

    Ihre post sind wie Wasser auf meine Seele trocken. Geht hinaus aus ihr, meine Kinder.

    Uw bericht is als water op mijn droge ziel. Komt uit van haar, mijn kinderen.

  4. Werner January 29, 2011 / 2:58 pm

    My personal levels of frustration with names, denominations, seeming (to me) divisions, the institutionalised church and so on, have risen to dangerously high levels during my life, particularly in recent years…must be middle-age approaching… : )

    Lately I have started to contemplate humans and institutions in a different light…

    My personal view is that humans CANNOT function at any level, even as Christians together, but through an institution…even marriage, with only two people, is considered an institution…

    I submit that: no matter how differently we function as a group of Christians to the mainstream institutionalised denominations (even ancient ones), we will still be an institution with most of its bells and whistles…and a name of some sort…

    As Jesus’ bride, collectively, countless people throughout history and into the future, we are His to regard and to be led ever closer to God…

    I have grown really tired of critically regarding my (and sometimes others’) personal positioning within Jesus’ bride’s body…the Church… so if I am part of the buttocks of the body, I just want to except that and get on with my God-given role…He made the buttocks for a reason..!

    I can only speak for me, but I am at a precipice, from where I would like to jump in faith…focusing on Jesus to use me and lead me as He wants, not as I want…whether I am in the most heavily bureaucratic institutions, or in the most casual ones…

    Whether my institution has a name with 1500 years’ history, or whether I just call it “fellowship” etc…it will be called something…it will have a name, it will take on a collective identity, it will lead to “brand formation”…

    I pray that my eyes remain more and more fixed on Jesus, and I trust His embrace…

    He will prevail, not me in this sinful jacket I call my human body…

    Greetings…in the name of the Lord of the universe and everything else…Jesus Christ

  5. Henning January 30, 2011 / 7:00 pm

    Werner, what you are saying is true. It addresses only one dimension of the problem, however, namely the philosophical question regarding institutionalism. The question is not only ‘What is permissible’ but to what extent does the institutional dimension of the church muffles the Word. The much more critical issue that comes into play is the non-verbal communicative aspect of the institution.

    What I mean is this: it has been said that if all the “bells and whistles” of institutionalism don’t matter, it applies both ways: e.g. if the church building is irrelevant and makes no difference and we may therefore gather under a tree, then we might just as well gather in the church building, seeing that it makes no difference. Therefore we may retain all the elements of institutionalism, as they are irrelevant.

    This is however, not true. The reason being that the verbal communication regarding Christ and the Kingdom is but a small percentage of all that is being communicated by the institution. Everything that is part of the church as institution says something about God, or at least gives a particular hue to His image, or “flavour” to the Bread of Life.

    The tragic truth is that the institutionalised church, by and large, misunderstood God’s instruction that we should be different from the world. Instead of being different on the inside but still part of this world, the church thought it proper to be different from the world on the outside, but shared most of the rotten-to-the-core principles that makes the world go round. The list is almost endless and too long too discuss here, but I think we all know what we are talking about. All the little traditions, protocols, peculiarities etc. designed by men obscures Christ.

    How dare we? For most of the world it is acceptable that a priest should wear a dress, top himself with a funny hat and not get married and be addressed as “father”. While the protestants may ridicule this, they have their own equivalent of all this.

    Paul was very clear about the fact that if something is a stumbling block – even though permissible – he will avoid it in order for the weak not to stumble. What unimaginable arrogance of the institutionalised church to regard their little traditions and peculiar way of doing, speaking, thinking and being, higher than the interests of those for whom Christ also died. Those who look at the history of the institution, and see all the lying, killing, deceiving, political whoring, prancing about to be accepted by men etc. and are thoroughly nauseated by it all – what about them? Is it enough to say ‘…but we are not like that…’ It is not enough. By being part of the institutionalised church you are being part of a man-made system, an organisation designed by man according to the ways of men, to further the interests of man. Why would we not show the integrity of distancing ourselves from that which causes such a stumbling block, which obscures Christ in His beauty, which dims the radiance of the Bridegroom?

    Our insistence on presenting Christ clothed in a new robe designed by man and made by man will not win us any honour from God, but His dismay. It is not unlike the unspeakable sin of the Roman Catholic Church presenting Christ to the medieval world, but doing it in Latin. The result was Christ being obscured. Why, Oh why would they do it. To enforce the other-worldly and exalted status of the church? To retain authority? For their own honour? In their twisted minds they believed that by doing it, they somehow glorified God. And the Bridegroom who paid so dear to be known to His beloved, was obscured behind a veil of human ideas of what is proper and what not.

    The world does not need religion. They desperately need to know and understand God. They need to see Christ, unveiled – in His raw essence. They need to fear God. They need to understand the Kingdom. All this so that every knee may bend even now, as they will bend when they will see Him like that. Presenting Christ to such a world in a ‘language’ tainted with archaic thoughts and ideas, wrapped in the gift-wrap of men’s own design, reeking of the injustices of the past, controlled by systems designed on secular templates, by men who studied at and were sanctioned by secular institutions in order that they may professionally speak about Christ… Why, Oh why would we want to do that?

    PS. I may sound very harsh, but my indignation is not unlike that of my Master when observing the interests of men being furthered in the house of His father. My e-mail is grace2u@ telkomsa.net

  6. Carla Swanepoel January 31, 2011 / 12:04 pm

    Die vraag wat ek myself afvra is: Hoekom wil die liggaam van Jesus Christus wat in verskillende omgewings funksioneer en wat in verskillende funksies funksioneer homself op dieselfde speelarea sit as besighede en maatskappye wat fondse ontvang van organisasie. Hoekom is dit nodig dat ons liewers die meeste uit die samelewing en die staat uit kan kry as die een wat Alles beheer en die Een wat elk geval die wereld in stand hou. Geboue, name, finansiele state vir tax, ens. is overrated as ons hart nie meer kan klop soos dit voorheen geklop het toe Jesus se Koninkryk nog vars was in die vroee kerk nie.

    • Paul Zietsman February 5, 2011 / 9:50 am


  7. James February 2, 2011 / 12:35 pm

    Greetings in Christ from Canada!

    I’ve been enjoying this discussion.

    I agree that institutionalism is indeed a great danger for the church, and can, at times obscure the gospel. However, I don’t think it is possible for the church to endure over time without some “institutional” features. An institution is simply a stable set of social relationships or behaviours, so even a house church has basic institutional features, if they have a regular place of meeting, leaders, hosts, etc.

    What we need is not a complete escape from institutions (this is impossible), but we do need flexible institutions that are open to reform and renewal in the light of scripture and the discernment of people led by the Spirit. I guess I would describe “institutionalism” as a continuum, beginning with really basic institutional features, and leading up to (on the extreme other end) total bureaucratization, where the institutional features exist for their own right and control things. To be sure, if the church is to be responsive and open to renewal, it will be better if it is on the “low” end of the institutionalization continuum.

    On the other hand, we can learn a lot from the wisdom of Christians of past generations, and we can also learn a lot from their mistakes! But without some institutional continuity it is hard to create the kind of corporate memory which allows these lessons to be passed on.

    For some reason, God chooses to reveal the gospel through frail “earthen vessels.” I’d say this includes the institutional aspects of the church. In spite of our brokenness, the gospel bears fruit, because it’s power rests on God’s promise. Even though sin remains among us (both individually and corporately), the gospel goes forth.

    That shouldn’t be an excuse for the church’s failures, though! I’ve personally had many frustrations with institutionalism in my own Christian experience, and have seen things happen which have indeed obscured the gospel. And I would agree that denominationalism does obscure the gospel. However, I’m just cautioning against the idea that any church can completely escape institutionalization.

    • Paul Zietsman February 5, 2011 / 10:02 am

      There is a big diffrenec between “organization” and “institution”. Churches that meet in homes do have organization…it is like the scaffolding we need to enable us to function as co-workers of the Master-Builder. Organization is needed, but we must never mistake the scaffolding for the building. Institutionalization casts the scaffolding in concrete, so it becomes immovable, and the building has to be built according to how the scaffolding stands. Proverbially, the tail is wagging the dog.
      Chruches meeting in homes do not need a name (denimination) it is held together by the Spirit of God, manifesting in brotherly love. If it is not held together by this, then let it fall apart! But if we need a name, programme, and hierarchy to keep this together it is no different form any club. Clubs all have their rules, constitution, meeting times, programmes, chairmen and leaders, treasurers, membership registers etc…

  8. Paul Zietsman February 5, 2011 / 9:45 am

    Is there a Biblical pattern for church, or do we have the option to do as we see fit?

    Firstly, how do we THINK about this concept?
    Rom 12:1-2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

     Our minds must be renewed (Phil 2:5, Eph 4:23)
     Our way of thinking (mind) determines our behaviour…be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).
     This is addressed to believers, not to unbelievers. Paul sees a problem amongst believers…that we may be spiritually regenerate, but still are conformed to this world because of the way we think.
     This scripture indicates that conformity to the world has its stronghold in our minds; if the mind is renewed according to God’s Word we will be transformed.
     “ No one is ever united with Jesus Christ until he is willing to relinquish not sin only, but his whole way of looking at things” – Oswald Chambers

    Is our way of thinking right? If it does not work out practically, something is wrong…


    Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands? (Mar 7:5)

    Tradition is not wrong in itself, but if it is not substantiated by Scripture we cannot let it shape the norm. If it tradition a pattern contrary to the pattern in Scripture it should be rejected.

    Does the Bible contain a definiton of “church”?
    Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)

    How many “bodies” are there?
    There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph 4:4-6)

    Where did “church” originate? – God or man?
    If indeed it originated from God…do we have the right to do it as we please?

    Did God lay down a pattern; an example – or did He leave it up to us do decide?
    How do we define “church” – whose definition is it?
    That which we make, we define; but what HE makes, God defines.

    Austin Sparks puts it this way:
    The difference between imitation and what is conceived is the difference between what is dead and what is alive. One is made, the other is born; and the constitution of the Church is the result of the activity and energy of a Life, the Lord’s own risen Life… being transmitted, passed on. Whatever you may develop, you will never get a development of the true Church unless the risen Life of Christ is operative and is there in sufficient measure to be transmitted by the Spirit.

    In the Old Testament we found many things instructed by way of commandment…precept upon precept…In the New Testament we do not find everything by way of commandment, but by way of example, or pattern :

    The apostles were to lay down the pattern, (example, blueprint, foundation) upon which the church of Christ was to be built: “… built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone in whom all the building fitly framed together grows unto an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20-21)

    1Cor 4:16-17 Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church.

    This implies that there is to be adherence to the same teaching and pattern everywhere, in every church. We do not have the liberty to do it our own way…” What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” (1Cor 14:36)

    1Cor 11: 1-2 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.

    Phil 3:17 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.

    Paul said to the churches: do that which you have seen in me! Phil 4:9 Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

    Is it acceptable for each “church” to have its own pattern; its own way of doing things?

    The book of Acts is a running commentary of the practical life of the New Testament church.

    Are there things that are applicable to all churches?
    1 Cor 7:17 But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.

    1 Kor 14:33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

    1 Kor 3:3-4 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?

    Do we have the right to call something “church” when it does not match the definition thereof?
     There are many cases where men have re-defined biblical concepts. An example to illustrate this: The term “born again” means something very different to an evangelical, than it does to a catholic. The catholics also believe in being born again, but they define it as an event that takes place when you partake of the sacraments for the first time. The Jehova’s Witnesses also acknowledge Jesus, but they have re-defined Him as being a man, and not God.
     We are finding that men are trying to superimpose their definition of “church” on God. So we are stuck with two different concepts…the “church” as we observe it in the world, and the “church” as we observe it in the New Testament.
     We are talking out of the pre-supposition that the “church” (defined by man) is in fact the church (defined by God)!
     Lastly, let us ask ourselves, should we continue to try and stretch God’s permissive will, or should we be seeking His perfect will? (Rom 12:2)

    We should discern between true believers, and the organizations which they may belong to.

    Some observations…

    In man’s concept of church we find:
    Names (denominations), denomination-specific doctrines, programmes, ecclesiastic hierarchy, buildings and property.

    In the Biblical concept of church we find:
    No names, except that of Christ, they were defined by geographical location only. The same doctrine throughout all the churches, no programmes, no hierarchy – Christ is the head, the rest are all brethren (howbeit with differing gifts and functions). No church-owned buildings or property.

    Organization is not wrong in itself, but that is not the “church”…do not mistake the scaffolding for the building.
    Does “ekklesia” denote an organization, or an organism?

  9. Henning February 5, 2011 / 3:58 pm

    Theodore Wedel offers a striking parable aimed at the danger of irrelevance, but it also offer some perspective on the institution-issue. Here it is:

    “On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no though for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

    Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going out to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do the work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decoration, and their was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.

    About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

    At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted on lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.

    As the years went by the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself. and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown!”

    I doubt it that any of those new little lifesaving stations would be proud to be associated with any of the clubs up the coast.

  10. Henning February 5, 2011 / 4:11 pm

    How do I change my avatar? That wallpaper motif is not quite me.

  11. Henning February 5, 2011 / 4:26 pm

    Hi James,

    Nice to have someone from the land of milk and honey joining in the conversation. You are right, of course. I like the continuum idea – as a matter of fact, that is how I see most things in life – on a continuum.

    I think the big challenge would be to discern between essence and form, and stay with the essence. Tea would probably be better sipped from a Royal Albert cup, but there is simply nothing in common between the nourishing liquid tea, and the bone-dry porcelain of the cup. To a person dying of thirst, the cup is of no consequence. As a matter of fact, he might just curse you if you tarry to give him the tea because there is no proper cup available.

  12. Paul Zietsman February 8, 2011 / 4:57 pm

    A lot of what you say is logical, but the danger lies herein: There is nothing like institutionalization to entrench a continuum of following and repeating the wrong blueprint. What if the little lifesaving station went to the archives, drew their founding statements, and found they were actually supposed to be fire rescue team for Manhattan?

  13. Carla Swanepoel February 13, 2011 / 10:35 pm

    For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many. If the Dutch Reformed should say, ” Because I am not AFM, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the Methodist should say,”Because I am not a Baptist, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?

    …… and so I can go on.

    I do understand that my rephrasing can sound as if I am off the point, but please bear with me:
    The Bible speaks of different religious groups, cultural groups, male and female, not forgetting the clean and the unclean. But all are baptised (those who believe) into one body. It is all functioning as one. In today’s culture I believe we can compare it to the different faculties of church denominations. In the past I would never have had a problem with church names or even different dogmas, but it has become a place where Christ has been divided again, where he has only come for the “Jews” or only for the “Gentiles”. By the segregation of the different nomination, groups and names we have divided the body of Christ because we have decided that the “hand” or the “finger” doesn’t have a purpose in our “gifts” or “calling”.

    Rob Bell writes in his book Sex God: The first Christians had a phrase for what happens when people properly respect and acknowledge the image of God in those around them. In the letter to the Ephesians, we read about a group of people who were previously divided because of race, background, wealth, socio-economics status, worldviews, and religion. One group is made up of Jews, the other Greeks, and in this new church, they find themselves united because they’ve all become followers of the resurrected Jesus Christ. All of the old categories simply don’t work anymore. This new commonality, this new bond, is simply bigger than all of the things that had previously kept them apart. The first Christian called this the “new humanity”. In the beginning, God created us “in His image.” So first, God gave us an image to bear, then God gave us gender:male and female. Then God gave us something to do, to take care of the world and move it forward, taking part in the ongoing creation of the world. Later, people began moving to different places. It takes years and years of human history to get to the place where these people are from here and those people are from there. Different locations, skin colour, languages, and cultures come much later in the human story. What we often do is reverse the creative process that God initiated. we start with different cultural backgrounds and skin colours and nationalities, and it’s only when we look past these things we are able to get what we have in common – that we are fellow image-bearers with the shared task of caring for God’s creation. We get it all backwards. We see all of the differences first, and only later, maybe, do we begin to see the similarities. The new humanity is about seeing people as God sees them.

    Although it may not seem to have anything to do with “should churches have names?”, I believe that the segregation of churches by names has the same core potential as what is written above.

    I believe in one church – called the body of Christ – which has many screwed up members – you can start with A (AFM) and end with Z( Zionists). It would be wonderful if people would not be classified by church names but rather by who they are serving.

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