I once delivered a full-length sermon on the topic “the denominationalism within us”—to the horror of several siblings who had some wool shreds near their chins and noses (the wool’s having been pulled down from above). Born ‘n bred as nondenominational Christians, they were more than offended to be accused of being denominational.
Now, most church groups don’t fear denominationalism at all and in fact find the denomination “nest” quite homey. Leaving alone the issue of that false comfort for now, I merely want to say that the Church of Christ has for decades employed a set of terminologies that discourage honesty about structure and identity. Disingenuously, it has in some circles used a lower-case “c” on “church,” as if to say, “we’re not a denomination,” all the while using the oddly fashioned term “church of Christ” in precisely the same way as the Methodists use the initials “UMC,” Baptists use the term “Baptist,” and Catholics use the pretentious label “The Church.”
Yes, Virginia, there is denominationalism within the Church of Christ. There is no doubt about this. Despite not having an earthly headquarters (a plus in many respects), any real system of ordination (a plus in most respects), a general conference (a plus in all respects), etc., “we” are a Yellow-pages-identifiable religious group that has a name. That makes us a denomination, period.
Leroy Garrett tells of the early concerns with naming in the Restoration Movement:
Once the Stone and Campbell movements united and became one church, a story I shall be relating, they settled the name issue by calling themselves by both names, Christians and Disciples, and their congregations were variously known as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. It was unusual — a church with three names! The cruel irony is that once this unity movement betrayed its own heritage and divided into three churches, a sad story that I will also relate, each of the churches ended up wearing one of the three names, and for the most part only that name.
I still heartily reject “Methodist,” “Catholic,” “Baptist,” “Lutheran,” etc., as having anything to do with anything eternally significant (although they are in some contexts valid, helpful descriptors). In the last case: I find it patently irreverent to name with a human’s name a group that purports to claim allegiance to Jesus as Messiah, so “Lutheran” and “Wesleyan” and “Swedenborgian” are right out. The epithet “Methodist” speaks of a way of Christian living, and as many believe to have been the case with the first use of the term “Christian,” it was originally derogatory. “Baptist” is much more biblically based but also belies a sectarian, human philosophy or set of practices. “Catholic” is, etymologically speaking, less provincial than all the rest in this paragraph, but that label, of course, carries with it centuries of apostasy, strongly suggests the Roman hierarchy, and gathers with it whole nationalities, ethnicities, perversities of both living and doctrine, not to mention weird habits like Bingo nights. A trunk full of junk like this represents major baggage that no one should carry. Better never to use the common adjective “catholic” without clearly explaining it as meaning “universal.”
I perpetually find myself with mouth agape when I see evidence that human allegiance can still be paid to these human labels, or to any like them. Although denominational loyalties seem far weaker than they were years ago, they are still with us. People consider themselves “Methodists” and “Episcopals” and “Assembly of God” more than “Christians.” Not being one for mob mentalities, I don’t get it.
But again: what is it to be Christian? I grew up thinking it meant “Christ-like.” I don’t think that’s as helpful a definition anymore, though. In the sermon referred to above, I defined “Christian” as I would define “Bostonian”: the suffix “-ian” designates one who is of something, possessed by something, belongs to something. A Bostonian is of Boston and in some sense belongs to Boston. A Christian, likewise, is of Christ, possessed by Christ.
The definition of “Christian” is infinitely more important than affiliation with any denominated subgroup within Christendom.