What were the Early
Catholics? Protestants? Baptists?
Presbyterians? Mormons? Adventists?
Many churches unashamedly confess that they are “denominations” and they are proud of the fact! The word “denominate” literally means “to give a name to” (The Random House College Dictionary). A “denomination” is a religious organization or society consisting of a plurality of local congregations following a certain humanly-devised order and called by a specific name. Yet even independent religious groups or fellowships may take an exclusive identifying name to distinguish themselves from other religious groups.
Some churches derive their names from church offices or forms of government:
- Episcopal (rule by bishops)
- Presbyterian (rule by elders or presbyters)
- Congregational (each church is self-governing)
- Others take their names from a religious practice, doctrine, or characteristic: Baptist Church, Methodist Church, Reformed Church,
- Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Dunkard Church, Missionary Church, and the Holiness Church.
Still others have chosen a Scriptural term and elevate it as an exclusive and official designation:
- Church of God
- Assembly of God
- Church of Christ
- Church of the Firstborn
- Church of God in Christ
Some denominations and sects are associated with a particular geographical locality:Roman Catholic Church
- Greek Orthodox Church
- Russian Orthodox Church
- Anglican Church (Church of England)
- Old German Baptist Brethren
- Missouri Synod Lutheran Church
- Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church
- Plymouth Brethren
- Moravian Church
- Cumberland Presbyterian Church
- African Methodist Episcopal Church
- Southern Baptist Church
- Southern Methodist Church
- American Lutheran Church
- Antiochian Orthodox Church
A number of denominations and churches take the name of their founder or an important leader of the past:
- Wesleyan Church (John Wesley)
- Lutheran Church (Martin Luther)
- Mennonite Church (Menno Simons)
- Hutterian Brethren or Hutterite Church (Jacob Hutter)
- Waldensian Church (Peter Waldo)
- Amish Church (Jacob Amman)
- Beachy Amish Mennonite Church (Moses M. Beachy)
- Schwenkfelder Church (Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig)
- Old Order Wisler Mennonite Church (Jacob Wisler)
- Church of Jesus Christ, or Bickertonites (William Bickerton)
Some local churches are given names of the apostles or certain religious leaders of the past: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St. John’s United Church of Christ, St. Timothy Cumberland Presbyterian Church, East St. Paul Baptist Church, St. Jude Catholic Church, St. Barbara’s Orthodox Church, St. Paul Lutheran Church.
As individual members, denominationalists may be known as Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans, Mennonites, Amish, Congregationalists, Nazarenes, and many others. Even Scriptural terms are elevated to the status of denominational designations: Brethren in Christ, Friends, Brethren, Disciples, United Brethren.
Common to all of these groups, churches, sects, and denominations is the fact that they have chosen a specific, official, exclusive, identifying name that serves to separate themselves from others and gives their members a sense of identity and unity.
Community of Christ
The early Christians, of course, knew nothing of this type of organizational identification. Perhaps the closest they came to this was when the Corinthians called themselves after Paul, Cephas, and Apollos (1 Cor. 1:12). Although they fell into this carnal practice, Paul was dismayed with what they were doing. He asked—and we could do the same: “Has Christ been divided? Paul [Wesley, Luther, Menno, Calvin] was not crucified for you, was He? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul [Wesley, Luther, Menno, Calvin]?” (v. 13). Paul soundly rebuked the carnality that would give rise to this practice (3:3-4).
Early believers were known corporately as the community of God (1 Cor. 1:2), the community of Christ (Rom. 16:16), the community of saints (1 Cor. 14:33), the assembly in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 1:1), or simply the “community” or “assembly” (Acts 12:1). They were also called “the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17) and “the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10). Significantly, they were referred to as those “belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2).
Additionally, various images were conveyed in what they were called: Christ’s “body” (1 Cor. 12:27), God’s “household” or “family” (Eph. 2:19), God’s “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5), and God’s “temple” (1 Cor. 3:16). None of these were “official” names!
The members of Christ’s body had certain simple, but meaningful, designations:
- brothers and sisters (1 Cor. 7:15)
- children of God (1 John 3:1)
- saints (Romans 1:7)
- believers (Acts 5:14)
- disciples (Acts 9:1)
- Christians, i.e., followers of Christ (Acts 11:26; 1 Pet. 4:16)
Whether Christians are referred to as individuals or as a body, the terms are simply descriptive of some characteristic or relationship and are neither exclusive nor official. Like the faithful in the first century, true believers will desire to use the same descriptive terms today. Let us ask this important question: What are you called?