"The Great Unnamed Body"
A Review of Steve Dewhirst's Article

by Tim Haile

October 16, 2000

      Disagreement exists over the question of whether or not a local church may be identified as a "church of Christ." Some object to such a designation because they see this as man's attempt to "name" the church, and it is their contention that God authorized no such practice. Some of these objectors argue that the expression "church of Christ" is merely a "designation" and not a "name." I find this distinction interesting. The dictionary defines a "name" as "a word or words by which an entity is designated and distinguished from others." Notice that a "name" is a "designation!" Is it okay to "designate" a church, but wrong to "name" it! Upon what basis do these people reject a "name," but then turn around and accept a "designation?"

     A designation is "a name given principally to classify according to distinguishing characteristics." In the New Testament, we read where Jesus and the apostles "distinguished" local churches from each other. Churches were sometimes distinguished from other churches by mention of their geographical province. For example, there were "churches in Asia" (1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:11), "churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2), and "churches of Judea" (Gal. 1:22). Acts 9:31 makes reference to "the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria." Though these churches were individually autonomous (1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28) and separate from each other, yet they are listed together based upon their geographical relationship.

     We also have examples of more specific designations. Luke spoke of the "church at Antioch" (Acts 13:1) and the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:4). Paul addressed himself to the "church of God at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2) and to the "church of the Thessalonians" (1 Thess. 1:1). Furthermore, the "saints at Rome" were distinguished from the "saints at Ephesus," and the "saints at Philippi" (Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1).

     Many people have no objection to these geographical designations, yet they reject any spiritual designation. It is important to note that the churches that Paul associated with were called churches "of Christ," churches "in Christ" and churches "of God" (Rom. 16:16; 1 Thess. 2:14; 1 Cor. 11:16). Paul used these designations to distinguish true churches from false ones.

     This leads us to our question. Is it wrong for a local body of saints to refer to themselves as a "church of Christ" in order to identify themselves and to distinguish themselves from neighboring religious groups? Brethren have generally been careful not to insist upon the exclusive use of this name, but the question I want to address in this response is whether or not it is wrong to so refer to a local church. Some are saying that it is. What does the Bible say?

Local Church Judgment versus Human Rules

     I may teach the truth on any subject, but I do not have the right to bind where God has not bound. Thus, I have no right to single out one particular designation from among those that God has allowed, then demand that all local churches exclusively wear that name. I am responsible to insist upon the use of scriptural designations, and I must continue to condemn the wearing and exalting of human names in religion (1 Cor. 1:11-13; 4:6). However, I am not to condemn the wearing of any God-approved name. It is this very practice that I wish to consider in this article. Such condemnations are being pronounced today. Should we stand for such? Should we allow men to forbid that which God has authorized? To loose where God has not loosed? Absolutely not!

     In The January, 2000 issue of Focus Magazine, Steve Dewhirst had an article entitled "The Great Unnamed Body." Had brother Dewhirst merely raised concerns about the misuse of proper names or about the exclusive binding of particular names, I would not be responding to him. However, that was not the case. Brother Dewhirst wrote:

     "Let's face it brethren. When we select a proper name to call ourselves, we're doing so without the sanction of divine authority."


     "When it comes to naming local churches, why do we insist on doing what the Lord wouldn't do?"

     Brother Dewhirst taught that we have no authority to refer to a local church as a "church of Christ." Paul said, "Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you" (Rom. 16:16). I noticed that brother Dewhirst conveniently ignored this simple verse of scripture. I wonder why? This is especially interesting considering the fact that he did mention several passages, where local churches are "described by a variety of expressions." He mentioned Romans 1:6, I Corinthians 1:2, II Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:2, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2, I Thessalonians 1:1 and several passages in the book of Revelation where individual churches are addressed. However, conspicuously absent from the list is Romans 16:16! Again, I wonder why? Could the reason be that this passage completely destroys Steve's argument? After all, in this verse Paul described all local churches with which he was affiliated as being "churches of Christ." Since Paul wrote the Roman letter from Corinth, we are forced to conclude that the "church of God" at Corinth was one of these "churches of Christ."

     After arguing that we have no divine authority for any proper name, brother Dewhirst went on to write:

     "We have neither command, nor approved example, nor necessary inference to guide us."

     Wait a minute! Didn't we just read from Romans 16 where Paul referred to local bodies of saints, in various localities, as "churches of Christ?" How much more "approval" does one need? Here again, I am not requiring the use of this designation, but I am confidently affirming that such usage is both scriptural and authorized.

Proper Names and Sectarianism

     One of brother Dewhirst's arguments against using proper names was that these names either foster or reflect the "mentality of sectarianism." He wrote:

     "Not only does the defense of a proper name for all local churches denote a spirit of sectarianism, but any proper name will come to be thought of as a denominational designation by those to whom we're trying to teach undenominational Christianity."

     I flatly reject this premise. The fact that people may misuse a name, and may falsely associate things with a name, does not make the use of that name suspect. Steve's argument proves entirely too much, for if he is correct, all saints should immediately stop calling themselves "Christians!" Why? Because, according to Steve's argument, the use of this name identifies these saints with all of the "Christians" in the sectarian world. His argument would demand that since people of all types of religious backgrounds and with thousands of different belief systems call themselves "Christians," we must cease referring to ourselves as such. Brother Dewhirst has a faulty original premise. Our collective use of the designation "church of Christ" is no more wrong than our individual use of the term "Christian." Neither of these is "sectarian."

Real "Sectarianism"

     I will tell you what a "sectarian mentality" is; it is the mentality that seeks to ignore the moral and doctrinal differences that exist between God's people and the devil's people. It emphasizes "church" more than it does "Christ." It avoids any practice that would distinguish God's people from the world: Christ's church from the churches of men. Sectarian mentality places divinely approved designations on equal par with denominational ones. Consider this quote from Dewhirst:

     "When Jesus declared "upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18), He didn't promise to build the Church of Christ, The Disciples of Christ, The Christian Church, The Baptist Church, The Church of God, The Methodist Church, The Assemblies of God, The Nazarene Church, The Salvation Army, or any other denominational body of congregations."

     Note that brother Dewhirst places the "Church of Christ" in the same category as the human religions he listed. This is a contradiction. Brother Dewhirst and others need to ask themselves whose church Jesus was referring to when He said "my church?" This "church" was founded upon the great truth that Jesus was "the Christ" (Matt. 16:16). It was "Christ" who said, "I will build my church." Thus, it was His church - the church belonging to Him, hence, the "church of Christ." In Acts 2:47, penitent, baptized believers were "added" to that church - the church "of" (belonging to) Christ. Colossians 1:13 says those delivered from the power of darkness are "translated into the kingdom of God's dear Son." Whose kingdom is it? The kingdom of God's Son. Who is God's Son? Peter said He was "the Christ" (Matt. 16:16). Thus we conclude that we are translated into the kingdom of Christ. But didn't Jesus use the terms "church" and "kingdom" interchangeably? Yes, this is plainly demonstrated in Matthew 16:18-19. If the "kingdom" is the "church," and we are "translated into" the kingdom of Christ, then we are translated into the church of Christ!


     In view of my understanding of the above truths, I was somewhat offended by the following statement that brother Dewhirst made. He wrote:

     "It appeals to our pride to belong to the Churches of Christ even though no such body of local churches is recognized by God, Himself."

      No, it does not "appeal to our pride" to belong to a church of Christ. Such a sweeping statement indicts the motives of good brethren. I will say that our brother is correct when he states that there is not a "body" of local churches of Christ. The universal church is composed and comprised, not of churches, but of saved individuals. I agree with brother Dewhirst on this point. However, it is not necessarily "pride" that causes Christians to collectively refer to themselves as, a "church of Christ." It may just be that they have been reading their Bible (Rom. 16:16).

The Great Named Family

     In Ephesians 3:14-15 Paul wrote:

{14} "For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
{15} from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named."

     Paul said the whole family of God is named. One should avoid making sweeping criticisms of those who use names to describe who and what they are religiously. Such criticisms indict God Himself. Individually, we have been given a name. Beginning at Antioch, disciples were divinely called "Christians" (Acts 11:26). Collectively, Paul referred to a plurality of local churches as "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16). The church at Ephesus was a "church of God, which He has purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). Jesus was the actual person of God Who died for the church (Eph. 5:25), thus the church at Ephesus was referred to as a church of Christ. Furthermore, Peter said Salvation is in "the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 4:10,12). Friends and brothers, if we are to "speak where the Bible speaks" we will happily incorporate these Bible names into our discussions as we describe and identify certain spiritual things. Let us not be ashamed of our Lord or of His holy name (Lk. 9:26).


     Allow me to reiterate the fact that no particular designation is exclusively applied to local churches in the New Testament. Consequently, we have neither the right nor the obligation to bind any particular name. However, we do have the right and the obligation to "speak as the oracles of God" (I Pet. 4:11). This authorizes us to follow Paul's example in referring to local churches as "churches of Christ," "churches of God," or by other scriptural designations (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 11:16).

by Tim Haile

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