It has been suggested elsewhere that the early church or body of believers in the New Testament did not have a name. One consequence of this belief is that some who promote the idea that Jesus did not give a name to his church or people, claim to follow this alleged example themselves and “take no name” believing that church titles or similar designations are somehow wrong. This idea of “taking no name” is worth exploring especially in the context of whether or not the New Testament church was ever given, or took a name. For reference purposes, I have stuck solely to the King James Bible version.
Throughout the Bible, names were given to people both by God and man to mark events or relationships, or to make a statement with regards to what a person is or represents. Sometimes God re-named an individual to reflect his purpose. As far as God is concerned his own name is above all others and reflects his great glory and almighty power.
It is obvious that names are important to God, not the lack of them. However, it is worth looking at a few examples by way of introduction, before dealing with the main terms or names given to the first-century church, either specifically or by common habit and repute. It would take a sizable tome to fully address the interaction between God and names in the Bible but this should not be necessary, as most believers will not regard this as an issue and only a few selected examples should be sufficient for demonstration purposes.
When God created man he gave him dominion over all the animal kingdom and the authority to give names to each and every member of the animal kingdom. He brought every member of the animal kingdom before Adam for him to name. Adam (which means “man” or “created in the image of God”) even called his wife “Eve,” which means “mother of all living”.
So here we can see that God recognises the need for man to be able to identify with not only members of his own species, but members of the animal kingdom as well. This avoids confusion, for God is not the author of confusion. In allowing man to name the things he has dominion over, he is giving man the power to create order, identity and understanding.
When God made a covenant with Abram (means father or exalted father) he changed his name to Abraham meaning “father of many nations” which marked one of the promises that God made to him.
During Jacob’s return trip to Canaan, he wrestled with an angel of God for a blessing. Jacob was not only given a blessing, he was given a new name “ Israel” (because “he had struggled with God”). His sons became the twelve tribes of Israel who multiplied and became known as the “children of Israel” or “ Israel” for short. The twelve tribes which made up Israel were known by the names of their fathers.
The “children of Israel” were God’s chosen race (or people) in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, we see very frequent interaction between God and the name “children of Israel” and its shortened version “ Israel,” in his dealings with his chosen people, so we should have no trouble accepting these names as “bona fide” especially since they originate from God himself. As far as the Old Testament is concerned these terms were by far the main terms used to denominate God’s chosen people. When the tribes of Israel had their separation, the tribes which became disengaged from the main body became known as the “children or tribe, of Judah.”
At the beginning of the New Testament, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias and told him his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son and that he should call him “John” (Luke1:13). “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God” (Luke1:16). The name John means “God is merciful.” He also bore the title “the Baptist” or “Baptist” which marked the mission which God had planned for his life. It is clear from the New Testament that his official name was “John the Baptist,” which was either God-given or God-inspired.
John was sent by God to be a “witness to the light” (Jesus) through preaching, part of which was to show that those who were to repent and receive Jesus were to be baptized into discipleship (i.e. followers).
In Luke 1:30-31 an angel came to Mary and said, Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS (meaning God with us)”
As with Abram and Jacob, etc, we can see God intervenes to specially name John (the Baptist) and Jesus. Their parents had no say in the matter. From this, it is clear that names and the process of naming, are both important to and a habit of God. Jesus was announced as the “Messiah” or “Christ,” as prophesied in the Old Testament, which mean the “Anointed One (of God).”
The following quotations are only a very small sample of what is found in the New Testament to highlight the importance of believing in Jesus’s name.
John 1:12 “But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”
John 20:31 “and that believing ye might have life through his name.”
Matt. 12:21 “And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.”
In Matthew 6:9 Jesus showed his disciples how important God’s name was when he told them how to pray “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”
Furthermore, one source (The Names of Jesus by Elmer L. Towns; Accent Publications, 1987) lists over 700 names by which Jesus was called or referred to. Hardly an indication of someone who was supposedly intended to be unknown in the world, but rather an indication of his importance.
What about the names of Jesus’ disciples/believers?
Luke 10:20 “Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.”
Phil. 4:3 “and with other my fellow labourers, whose namesare in the book of life.”
Rev. 21:27 “And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie; but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
It is important that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Jesus’ book of life). Are not believers to be given new names in the new life? Is this not for order, identity and understanding in that new life?
The Apostle Paul who was specially chosen by God to carry the Gospel message to the Gentiles changed his name from Saul to Paul. Yet again we see a name change to mark a God-influenced change in someone’s life. We are not told why Saul changed his Jewish name Saul to the non-Jewish name Paul, but it very likely indicated a new life and identity and also rendered him more acceptable to the gentiles, many of whom detested the Jewish race.
Hopefully, by now the few examples quoted have satisfactorily demonstrated that names are not only important to God and that he is in the business of giving his name to those within “his will,” but that they are also part of God-given common sense as well. If so, does it make any sense that any person or body of people supposedly representing him should take no name and thus not have their mission in life properly marked and identified, contrary to every other example in the scriptures? Does such an occurrence or belief have any precedent or stipulated authority in the scriptures?
It is also worth considering a portion of Luke’s Gospel from Chapter 2 Verses 40 -52 when Joseph and Mary took the young Jesus up to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover.
Vs. 40 “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him. Vs. 41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. Vs. 42 And when he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.
Vs.43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. Vs. 44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. Vs.45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
Vs. 46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
Vs. 47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. Vs. 48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold’ thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. Vs. 49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?
Vs.50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. Vs.51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them; but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. Vs. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
Jesus clearly demonstrated at 12 years old that he was about “God’s business.” In everything that he did thereafter he carried out quite literally in “God’s name” and with God’s seal of approval. Whether specifically stated or otherwise he put the name of God into all that he said and did.
This small portion of scripture conveniently invites a slight digression to deal briefly with some other controversial matters while it is under consideration.
Some people allude to the belief that Jesus was a “lowly” individual who was unlearned and uneducated, etc, and that that was an example of how to bring up children, frowning upon education and position in the world. Yet, here we can clearly see God’s direct intervention in Jesus’ “education and knowledge.” Consider verses 40 (filled with wisdom), 46 (listening to the doctors and asking them questions), 47 (astonished at his understanding and answers), 52 (increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man).
It is clear that being humble in this world and being a nothing can be “worlds apart.” God himself was preparing Jesus for the world, even developing his favour with man. Surely any loving father with sufficient means should do the same for his own children. Is it any wonder that parents in the past who “kept their children down,” in the belief they were doing the “right thing” in their spiritual life, were actually doing the wrong thing? A destructive thing, even!
For those who preach that Jesus was just an ordinary man, consider these facts.
Jesus was perfect in intelligence and wisdom. He was divine. He could have risen to the top of any business or country in this world on account of his abilities which were extraordinary, indeed perfect! However, his business was to serve his heavenly Father which he did in an extraordinarily (perfect) manner. He did not once fail. He knew the minds and thoughts of other men. He also knew the will of his heavenly Father which he followed to a tee. In short, he was the most intelligent and wise man ever to have graced this planet.
If there is anything that applies to Jesus in an ordinary way it was his standard of living. He lived amongst ordinary men and women. He lived and served in humility. Considering he was the “perfect” Son of God, this is extraordinary behaviour. God did not send an ordinary man to Earth. He sent an extraordinary one, i.e. one who was perfect. Is it true then that Jesus was, “just a man amongst men” and was no different to ordinary men?
Some people have regarded asking direct questions of spiritual leaders, and looking for straightforward answers to be wrong, unwilling to submit, or having the wrong spirit, etc. Yet, here we see Jesus’ example and the correct response from those in a position of authority and knowledge. True, Joseph and Mary were anxious over the fact the boy Jesus had gone a.w.o.l. and chastened him, but they soon realised this was no ordinary act of disobedience, it was one of absolute submission to the will of his heavenly Father. An extraordinary example for a 12-year-old boy!
Are Education and a Questioning nature wrong? Is growing in stature and favour in this world in itself wrong? What does the example of Jesus tell us?
We have seen that Jesus’ business in this world was “God’s” business.
When tempted of the devil before commencing his ministry, Jesus had the following to say:-
Luke 4:4 “man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God.”
L uke 4:8 “it is written that thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
Jesus focuses our vision on God. He is the route “to” God.
John 4:34 “Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.”
By now we should need no more convincing that “names” are important to God and that all that Jesus did was in “God’s name.” From this, we can safely attach the name of God to ALL that Jesus did, irrespective of whether God’s name is specifically mentioned or otherwise!
The New Testament Family of God
Basically, the name “Jesus” means “Emmanuel” i.e. “God with us.” This name was prophesied in Isa. 7:14 and confirmed in Matt.1:23. This is the name above all other names under Heaven and is only subservient to the one to whom it represents, i.e. God. Therefore the “name” and “being” that Jesus directs us towards, is “God.” Through believing in the “name” of Jesus we have access to God. In Matt.19:17 Jesus does not take the glory but re-directs it to the one to whom it belongs -“Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is God.”
At the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:9) Jesus gives a name to those who show the spirit of Christ towards others, viz; “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
Here we have a clear example of a name being given to those who believe in the name of Jesus. They shall be “called” the “children of God!”
Clearly this is a name emphasizing that those who follow Jesus will become part of the family of God. Jesus made this statement at the beginning of his ministry and before he started to build his church. Even at this founding point in his ministry we can cast aside all notions that Jesus did not give a name to the body of his followers. He has clearly designated them a “family” by calling them the children of God!
The “children of Israel” in the Old Testament become the “children of God” in the New Testament. Formerly God had re-named Jacob “ Israel,” and his descendents became known as the “children of Israel.” In the New Testament Jesus starts off his ministry by naming his future followers “children of God.” This new name was not just limited to the tribes of Israel (i.e. Jacob) but was open to all from the tribes of the Gentiles who would trust in his name.
Thereafter God’s people in the New Testament are directly named “children of God” on at least ten occasions (Matt.5:9, Luke 20:36, John 11:52, Rom.8:16 & 21, 9:8 &26, Gal. 3:26, 1 John 3:10 &5:2). On many other occasions they are referred to as “children” but within the same context as “children of God,” so on most, if not all occasions we can regard the references to “children” to mean the “children of God!”
Even at this point in his ministry and even before he had started to build his church, it is obvious that Jesus had given his future followers a “name!” However, this deals with the body of believers before Jesus began founding his church and clearly the name “children of God” is designed to bring them within the family of God. Therefore this name establishes a close family relationship between God and his people.
The New Testament Church
In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 16 verses 17–18, Jesus states the following:-
Vs.17 “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona (meaning Simon, son of Jonah, after the custom of the Jews): for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. Vs. 18 And I say also unto thee, that thou art Cephas (translated = Peter), and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus is re-naming Simon (Peter) on account of God in Heaven having spoken to Peter and given him the revelation that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. This re-naming of Simon marked the foundation of the new church. The name “Peter” means “the Rock,” giving the new church a solid base for construction via the Holy Spirit.
Jesus at this time had said, “I will build my church.” Not only is he putting “his” name to it he is also designating the body of his followers a “church.” The word “church” does not appear in the Old Testament to describe an assembly or group of believers because at that time God’s people were a nation or chosen race. In the New Testament, it is used to describe all those who have been called out from all nations of the world to serve God, or localised groups or assemblies of such believers.
Remember, the name “Jesus” means “God with us” so in effect Jesus is clearly stating that it is “God’s church” or the “ church of God,” for in all things he directed the glory to God the Father and it is only through Jesus that we can come to God the Father. In ALL things he did them in “God’s” name! Those whom Jesus named “the children of God” in a family sense, form the “ church of God” as an assembly (usually for worship).
Jesus was the chief cornerstone in “his church” upon which those who believed in him were added, to form the temple of the living God, who would dwell within it. The “ church of God” is, therefore, the “ temple of God,” one not made with hands. It is a spiritual building comprised of the “living stones” whose names are to be found in heaven.
Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians (ch.1 vs 18-22) explains this perfectly.
Vs.18. “For through him (Jesus) we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Vs.19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; Vs. 20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; Vs. 21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; Vs. 22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
Peter in his First Epistle to the various scattered churches states:-
Ch. 2 Vs.4 “To whom coming (Jesus), as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Vs. 5 Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
What was Jesus’ church of the New Testament called?
Although there is no passage in the New Testament in which Jesus specifically states “the church of God,” there can be little doubt that that is clearly what he meant when he stated “I will build my church” or “God’s church ( church of God).”
What did the early Christians call their church?
Just as we have demonstrated that those who were adopted into the family of God were regularly called the “children of God” or “children” (for short), so too we can see compelling evidence that as an assembly of believers they referred to their group or sect as the “church of God” or “church” for short.
Acts 20:28 “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
1. Cor. 1:2 “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus………..”
1. Cor. 10:32 “Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.”
1. Cor. 11:22 “…or despise ye the church of God,….”
1. Cor. 15:9 “…I persecuted the church of God.”
Gal. 1:13 “For ye have heard of my conversion in time past in the Jews religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.”
1. Tim. 3:5 “(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)”
1. Thes. 2:14 “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus:”
There are many other references to “the church,” “in the church,” “of the church,” “churches,” etc, mentioned in Acts, the various Epistles and Revelation. These terms are used within the body of believers to refer to their group and in general virtually all of these can be taken for granted to be a shorter version of “church of God,” since the people to whom they were addressed would have understood what the name “church” meant in full. On a very few occasions “ church of Christ,” is used, as are some other terms to describe the church. However, these “other” terms are synonymous with “ church of God,” which by common habit and repute was the main term or name, used or inferred in the New Testament, to identify the church as a body of believers. Just as Jesus and the children of Israel accrued “many” names, so too the first church did likewise, each contextually appropriate. Rather than having “no name,” it in fact had many names, all synonymous with the “children of, or church of, God.
Even if we do not read specifically of Jesus giving the name “church of God,” to “his church,” at what point does a name commonly used to describe a group, such as these, or even “Christians” become accepted as a proper title?
Would the early believers have replied “we have no name” when asked the name of their sect? or would they have said we belong to the church of God or Christ. Jesus had already designated the sect not only as “a church,” but “his church.”
1. Peter 3:15“…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:”
Would the believers have denied being a church or would they have explained whose church it was?
It should be remembered that “church” means an “assembly.” At the time the scriptures were translated into English, one of the stipulations that King James is said to have made was for the translators to use “church” in place of “assembly.” However, this does not alter the meaning of the reference or title.
The early church did not initially refer to themselves as Christians. This was a name given to them by people at Antioch. Just because this name was given by man, is it wrong, or should the church of God avoid using it for some other reason?
Acts 11:26 “And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”
Who assembled at Antioch? The church ( church of God) did! They were in the habit of referring to themselves as the church ( church of God) or “children of God. Perhaps the people of Antioch had understandable reservations about using these terms to describe the believers, as they likely belonged to other sects whom they regarded as being of God and so coined the name Christians, which by common usage and repute became the general name for believers in Christ’s name?
Although the term Christian or Christians is only found three times in the New Testament it is clear from these references that even the church of God were using it more commonly amongst themselves and the world at large.
1. Peter 4:16 “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed: but let him glorify God on his behalf.”
Peter’s use of the term Christian here clearly shows it had become accepted amongst the believers and coming from Peter himself, it gives the name a “rock” solid foundation!” This is a classic example of a name being used initially by common use (and given by “man” at that) eventually becoming an accepted title.
The third and final reference to the name “Christian” is:
Acts 26:28 “Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
Did Paul say to Agrippa “we don’t take the name of Christians?”
Should any group of believers avoid using this term on a common basis to describe themselves, just because Jesus did not personally denominate his followers as “Christians” and because it was first used by unbelievers to refer to members of the church?
It seems clear that the term or name “children of God” was used to refer to the believers in a family sense, whilst the term or name “ church of God” was used in an organisational sense. The term or name “Christians” (followers of Christ) appears to have by and large, superseded the name “children of God” in general use.
In all things Jesus identified with God and did all things in God’s name. God’s name is either specifically applied or inferred in all that Jesus did. Is there any reference in the New Testament to Jesus “not taking a name, or commanding against it?” If we accept that “names” are/were important and the norm, we must also accept that not taking a name (for a person or group) is a significant deviation and requires specific qualification for it to be accepted as “Gospel.”
Some people believe that denominations in the Christian church ( church of God) are wrong. What therefore are denominations?
Firstly the term “denominate” means “to give a name to, or to call.” Denomination means “the act of naming: a name or title: a class or group, a collection of individuals called by the same name or sect. It is also used to class or group units of weights, money, etc.
From this we can see that God himself is predisposed towards “denomination,” since names are very important to him (especially his own). Further, giving names to people, groups etc, is sheer common sense in that it avoids “confusion,” something that God is not the author of. Were not the Old Testament children of Israel divided into twelve tribes and denominated after their founders?
Therefore denominationalism (giving names to) in itself is not wrong. It is “wrong doctrine” that is wrong, which is also the main cause of divisiveness. Also, people allow themselves to become divided over personal convictions as to the true meaning of various passages from the scriptures. In many cases, these differences in doctrinal belief may not in themselves be wrong, but the divisiveness they cause is unfortunate and undoubtedly satan exploits this aspect of human nature to the full.
Matters of personal belief can be harder to resolve than even serious matters of social failing which can be dealt with by way of forgiveness and restitution. The latter only requires an acknowledgement by at least one party of having been wrong, whilst the former entrenches people in their belief of being right.
Nevertheless, even personal desires can create divisions amongst the best of us. In Acts 13:2 we read of the Holy Ghost separating Barnabas and Saul (Paul) from the other prophets and teachers at Antioch “for the work whereunto I have called them.” Yet later, after they returned to Antioch there was a “contention so sharp between them; that they departed asunder one from the other” (Acts 15:39).
This unfortunate matter was over Barnabas wanting to take Mark along with them during their planned visit to the brethren in the various cities where they had previously preached, to see how they were doing. Because Mark had departed from them on a previous occasion, Paul objected to him accompanying them on this occasion.
Over such apparently “resolvable” and “trivial” matters, serious divisions can occur which in turn can in turn lead to differences in doctrine as the scripture then becomes examined in two different camps and unanimity of agreement is compromised.
On the night before Jesus was betrayed he prayed:-
John 17:11 “And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee, Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.”
It is clear that Jesus wanted all the members of the church of God to be “one” body of believers in just the same way as he was with his heavenly Father. In an ideal world this would have been the case.
However, we have already demonstrated with the example of Paul and Barnabas who had been separated by the Holy Ghost for a special purpose, that divisions can, will and do, occur within the church of God, simply because we are human? Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against his church and we know too that nothing can separate us from the love of God, so despite divisions and differences within the church, the gates of hell will not succeed in separating those who possess the true spirit of God, from God. Divisions may, however, separate us from one another, being that our love for one another is not as strong as God’s love towards us.
The practice of giving names to things is not wrong. In fact, the reverse weighs heavily against all scriptural trends and examples, because names “mean” something and they are often things of importance that God wants us to pay heed to. In the case of churches divided by doctrinal beliefs, it is not wrong merely to give titles to these bodies of believers, which merely identifies them and distinguishes them one from another.
When Jesus spoke against the Pharisees and Sadducees etc, did he speak against their denominational names, or was it against their practices and beliefs ?
Revised July 22, 2008