Friday, December 14, 2012

On the Naming of Churches

What’s in a name? In ages not long past, one’s name was central to one’s prosperity and livelihood. One’s name was akin to one’s reputation, something to be defended and preserved, inseparable from one’s ancestry and lineage. One’s name had actual meaning (e.g., Peter means “rock”, Christopher means “light of Christ”) and often was descriptive, or prescriptive, of its bearer. Outside of our own American culture, such attribution to a name is still common practice.

The names of biblical figures are nearly always rich with meaning. Abraham means “father of nations”, Adam means “earth” (Adam, quite literally, is the “Dirt Man”). In their baptisms, Christians, traditionally, receive a new name – a Christian name. This is in symbolic recognition that the “Old Man” has been drowned and that the “New Man” has arisen. That which is ‘born again’ needs a new name. A Christian name was typically a biblical name, e.g, David, Peter, Andrew, Sarah, Mary, Ruth. Such a name connects the bearer to the life example of that figure who bore the name before them. The name Peter carries with it the association to St. Peter’s bold confession of faith even unto death, along with his failings, repentance, and restoration by our Lord.

Biblical names are not so in vogue today. Names inspired by western American landscapes (Dakota, Sierra), cities (Madison, Austin), or popular culture (Destiny, Dylan, Hunter) dominate the school rolls. On the one hand, trends change from generation to generation; but on the other, is there, maybe, something more deceptive and devious at work? The shift away from traditional Christian (biblical) names also marks a distancing from the character and quality those names represent. Subtly, seemingly innocently, our culture continues to sever its ties that ground it in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A similar thing has happened in the naming of churches. It used to be that liturgical Christian churches were named after saints, e.g., St. John’s, St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, etc. In the catholic tradition, the saint a church was named after was called the Patron, meaning ‘Father’. The patron saint was to the church a spiritual father, that is, someone whose faith and witness were to be emulated amongst the parishioners. The church did not worship the saint, nor was the church the saint’s possession, but the church venerated (honored) the faith and witness of that saint, and God’s faithfulness to the Saint, and sought to follow in that example.

More and more churches today bear ‘conceptual’ names like ‘Love’, ‘Peace’, ‘Hope’, ‘New Life’, or ‘Family of Faith’. While the ‘concepts’ these names represent are certainly consistent with Christian faith and doctrine, they exist in the realm of ‘ideas’, ‘thoughts’, and ‘imagination’ – that is, they do not have physical, corporal (bodily) referents. In other words, they have no ‘flesh and blood’, no ‘body’, no ‘life’.

Once again, there may be something more subtle, deceptive, and devious going on here that is consistent with an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism. The primary tenant of Gnosticism is that physical matter is evil; thus, Gnostics abhor the flesh, the body. Ancient Gnostics would often fall into one of two behavior patterns: In the first pattern, since they abhorred the flesh, they would become ascetics and would starve themselves and mortify their bodies. In the second pattern, since they abhorred the flesh, they would abuse it by engaging in excessive drinking, eating, and sexual promiscuity of all manner. A related tenant of the Gnostic philosophy was a denial of the Incarnation (the Word of God taking on human flesh in the conception and birth of Jesus) and of the Resurrection of the Dead. Hence, Gnosticism is a heretical belief that the Christian Church has fought against since the time of Christ.

The modern church names mentioned earlier (‘Love’, ‘Peace’, ‘Family of Faith’) have no connection to anyone or anything that ever lived in flesh and blood by the breath of God. The devil must be enjoying this thoroughly! All the devil desires to do is to take our eyes, our focus, off of Jesus Christ – God in the flesh – by any means possible. These ‘conceptual’ names are, perhaps, just one more deception of the devil that serve to direct us away from Jesus.

Churches named in the traditional manner, after saints and martyrs, have connection, whether recognized or not, to real, flesh and blood people, people who gave their lives for their faith. Such examples are for God’s people to emulate in their own faith and confession and to receive strength and encouragement from in the face of temptation, persecution, and suffering. God saw St. Paul through countless challenges, even a martyr’s death, and has given him the crown of life. Christians thank God for the example of St. Paul and the entire Communion of Saints – for the example of their faithfulness and witness, and for the witness of God’s faithfulness.

What’s in a name? A lot! Our church is named ‘Christ the King’ – that certainly says something! Jesus Christ is the greatest saint of all! He is the spiritual Son of God, the Word of God, in human flesh – real body, real blood, real life, real death, real resurrection. God the Father was Jesus’ strength throughout His temptation, persecution, suffering, and death; Jesus is our strength throughout ours. He has been through it all for us, and He has emerged victorious! Flesh and blood now reign in power at the right hand of God the Father! Where He is, He has promised we will be too! Now, there’s strength to live and faith to persevere!

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