Subtle shifts to the “proper”

It can be intriguing and informative to learn of groups other than the one from which you originate.

Various groups, like “mine,” have had their struggles with restoration and unity.°  Many attempts to restore or reform have involved division and departure from larger, established groups, as well.  While that precedent is commendable, another trend is negative:  as far as I can tell, all reforming groups of any size have eventually become proper-noun institutions rather than bodies/organisms.  For instance,

The Church of God initially called itself the church of God to indicate its understanding of unity.  To my knowledge, no one has traced the shift from church of God to Church of God.[1]

That no one had historically traced the shift may indicate an apathy about institutionalization/ crystallization.  In other words, if one is content with membership in an institution, s/he might not even notice the subtle shift from church to Church over a period of years.  In my own musings and dreamings, I admit that I have at times been fixated on naming something I wanted to be a reality but didn’t yet exist for me.  Although I’m quite content in one respect simply to gather with Christians for discussion or study or a communion meal (to name a few things), at some point, I do wonder what to call the group or the meeting.  The gathering.  Our study.  The community group.  Our Christian get-together.  The practical reality is that we need nouns (sometimes, adjectives) when we refer to something.

When one “calls” oneself something, as an individual, he likely has a common-noun sense in mind.  I can call myself an erstwhile athlete, a dad, a husband, a teacher, a studyer of ancient texts, a musician.  All those labels have function or activity at their root.  When a group feels it should call itself something, though, a corner has been rounded, and the group probably then has a proper-noun sense in mind.  A group may be

  • a band . . . or The Balderdash Band
  • a team . . . or The Phillies
  • a duo . . . or The Dynamic Horn Duo
  • a church . . . or The XYZ Church

(In English, the indefinite or definite article helps to clarify the sense of the label.)

With proper-noun naming (denominating) comes more of a sense of formal organization.  When a proper-noun sense is the obvious intent of a church group, the lower-case “c” on “church” is incorrect.  It is admirable if a group wishes to retain a lower-case “c” sense of meaning, but actual retention is often elusive.  “The apparently irresistible urge to bureaucratize reflects a modern mind-set.”[4]

John Brooks of the Church of God (Holiness) argued that human law in the church was “not only unnecessary, but presumptuous.”[2]  The flyleaf of Brooks’s book describes its contents:  “a treatise on the origin, constitution, order, and ordinances of the Church; being a vindication of the New Testament Ecclesia, and an exposure of the anti-scriptural character of the modern church of sect.”  “Church of sect,” by the way, is Brooks’s term for the denominational system.[3]  Ironically, Brooks used the capital C in the first instance—presumably not to refer to his group but to “The (universal) Church,” as a whole, through the ages.  I would argue that any such capitalization tends to institutionalize rather than to focus on meaning and function.  When Luke wrote in Acts of “the way,” there were no capital letters employed, and I can’t be sure whether Luke a) wanted his readers to recognize a formal label for the new sect or b) perhaps was merely depicting function, i.e., this is the pathway for God’s people.

In speaking of the anabaptist (which might have a lower-case “a” sense when speaking of the dynamic, or a capital-letter sense when historically identifying the masses in a recognized movement), Theron Schlabach has noted, “The essence was radical discipleship and the ever-renewing church.  The structural pattern was non-structure, really:  to transcend the cultural and ecclesiastical structures that history had produced and to be a Spirit-led, constantly recreated people of God rather than an institution.”[5]  I say “yes” and label that good.

Where I land in all this, for the present (and it’s been relatively consistent for a quarter-century now), is that I am one of Christ’s, weakly trying to follow; I am shying away from institutional manifestations where I find them; and I am trying to be part of a movement.

° Some restorative groups that come to mind:  Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites; Lutherans; Oneness Pentecostals; Church of the Brethren; Church of Christ and Christian Church; and various Reformed churches.  I am not intentionally omitting any group here; I suspect that most of them (even the Roman Catholics?) would lay some claim to attempting to restore or reform something at some point.  The groups I listed are a few that have, more or less, made reformation something of a hallmark.

[1] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 134.  Emphasis on letter case mine, bc.

[2] The Divine Church (Columbia, MO.:  Herald, 1891; rpt., New York:  Garland, 1984), 27.

[3] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 136.

[4] Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 126.

[5] Theron F. Schlabach, “Renewal and Modernization among American Mennnonites,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 213.

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