What’s in a Name?

I fielded an interesting question from an LDS friend of mine yesterday over instant messenger. I’m sure this is not an exact quote, but here’s the question:

bq. I was reading in the Book of Mormon last night and thought of a question I want to ask you. You know how, in 3 Nephi, Jesus tells the ancient American Christians that His church should be called after His name? I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I’m interested to know what you think of this after leaving the church.

My friend’s question may not seem important to most evangelical Christians, but it is a vital question to Latter-day Saints. Before I continue, let me quote the verses in question for those who may not be familiar with them. From 3 Nephi 27 in the Book of Mormon, we read:

bq..   2 And Jesus again showed himself unto them [the ancient American disciples], for they were praying unto the Father in his name; and Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and said unto them: What will ye that I shall give unto you?
  3 And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter.
  4 And the Lord said unto them …

  7 … whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake.
  8 And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.


Must a Church Bear Christ’s Name?

p. Mormons claim (or rather, the Book of Mormon claims) that, to be true, a church must be named for Jesus Christ. This is why their church is officially called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They may not admit it directly to evangelicals, but they find it somewhat absurd that we attend churches called “Methodist”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian”, or “Baptist”. They are sincerely concerned as to why we choose to name our churches after the men who founded them or the primary doctrines they hold to, rather than after the One who is most important to all of us.

I can’t say that I ever actively studied this question, but it was one of many concerns that sat in the back of my head as I began a serious study of the Bible three years ago. The answer is actually quite simple.

The Local Church

Evangelicals have two different definitions for the word “church”. First, there’s the church I attend every Sunday. It is not the one true church of Christ; it is merely a building and a membership roster. We call it “[Southeast Baptist Church]” for the same reason an LDS ward[1] might be called the “Louisville 1st Ward” or the “Granger 29th Ward”. This is not a new concept. In fact, New Testament Christians followed the same pattern. There are several churches explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, with names such as the “church of God in Corinth”[2], the “church in Laodicea”[3], or the “church of the Thessalonians”[4].

The Church Corporate

Apart from that definition, we also use the word church to describe the body of all Christians everywhere. More often we call this group of people the “church corporate” or the “body of Christ”. The body of Christ does not have an earthly leadership, nor does it need one because Christ is the head of his church. In Colossians 1:18 we read:

bq. And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

Many other verses use the term “body of Christ” in the same way (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:12, 27; Ephesians 3:6; Ephesians 4:12; Ephesians 5:23).

Through the influence of the Holy Spirit, God guides all Christians everywhere to accomplish His sovereign purposes in the world. Though outwardly the various Christian denominations may seem at odds, they are nonetheless working toward the same end[5]. Jeremiah 31:33-34 describes the New Testament church organization very well:

bq..   33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
  34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

p. Because all Christians possess direct access to the Father through his word and through the Holy Spirit, we need no earthly leadership to keep things organized. God himself keeps things in order. Christians still act in various roles such as Pastor, Sunday School Teacher, etc., but these roles do not carry with them differing levels of authority or importance. We are all equals before God. If each of us acts under the Father’s guidance, we can be confident the church corporate will move forward in fulfillment of God’s great purposes.

The Answer (Finally)

So, is my church named after Christ? Is it His church? If we’re talking about Southeast Baptist Church, no. It’s an earthly organization made up of people who sincerely proclaim to be members of Christ’s body.

If we’re talking about the real church, the church corporate, the body of Christ, yes. Since it isn’t an earthly institution, it doesn’t have a name that sits on the record books of any earthly government. It doesn’t belong to a man and is not named after a man or a specific set of doctrines. We don’t quibble about it’s name because it is, plain and simple, Christ’s church.

fn1. In Mormonism, congregations are called wards. LDS church members are expected to attend a certain ward based on their geographical location.

fn2. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1

fn3. Colossians 4:16; Revelation 3:14

fn4. 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1

fn5. Please don’t misunderstand this statement. My intent is not to say there are many different roads to God. My assertion is that the various denominations are working toward the same end by the same means on the same path, assuming they are acting in submission to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

This entry was posted in essay.
  • Nat

    That is fascinating. I never knew that having Jesus Christ’s name in the name of the church mattered so much to LDS. I do also think it’s interesting that we evangelicals don’t care so much even though we claim that Jesus is the center of our faith. But I suppose it comes down to “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” At least, that’s my take on it.