STUDENT'S OF GOD'S WORD BANNER SIZE:17.1kb

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

     The name of a denomination tells us much about it. And a composite of the names of many denominations within a single religion can provide much information about that religion.

     In a book about denominations in the U. S., a portrait results from sketches of the scores of denominations that are included. With enough patience and discernment, a viewer of numerous sketches could piece together the whole of a religion (Christianity, for the present) rather well. There are two main reasons: First, the great majority of denominations affirm the central historic teachings of the Bible on which the Christian movement bases its faith and practices; second, each subtradition (Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Evangelical, Calvinist, for example) latches on to a particular emphasis, configuration, priority, or central theme of Christianity.

     The casual or serious observer of the diversity of American denominations within Christianity can thus both isolate major themes in the classic faith and achieve some success in developing a sense of the whole. Empirically judged, however, there might seem no such single thing as Christianity; instead, one finds brand A, brand B, and brand C, subsets of the whole community. To the ecumenically minded, this fact is a scandal, a condition severely contrary to the will of the Lord. To others, sectarians at the extreme edge, being precisely correct or faithlul as to their group's emphasizing, configuring, and selection of priorities and themes is exactly what the Lord of the church wills. Thus the attitude taken toward the relation of the part to the whole is itself a factor that produces diversity. We should take care to note, though, that for some on the "sectarian" end of the spectrum, their part (brand A, let's say) is not a part or a brand at all, but the authentic exemplification of the reality called Christianity.

     For many centuries the Roman Catholic Church, by many millions the largest subset within the Christian movement, considered itself the whole, the body of Christians. It thus shares, with the sectarian right, aspiration to, even claim of, a devout conservatism. The term Roman Catholic Church is a modern coinage. From before the fourth century until the sixteenth, it was simply the Church or the Church catholic. Even for a long time after the Reformation (1520-1560) many Catholics (and many non-Catholics) still spoke only of "the Church." All other Christians were special cases, in varying degrees of acceptance, tolerance, or legitimacy.

     Since appearance of the term catholic is inevitable in any discussion of Christian diversity, its meaning demands early attention. The English word derives from the Greek katholikos, meaning "general," "common," "universal." Today one sometimes hears a person described as having "catholic" tastes, in music, for instance, referring to the fact that the person may enjoy classical, jazz, polyphonic, and sitar.

     Ecclesiastically, catholic points to the whole Christian tradition. Basically, it has to do with the issue of authority. Christians who are Catholic are not free to pick and choose the biblical teachings they believe or the defining authority under which they stand (the church as authoritative organ). Christian doctrines and ethical principles are held to be solid and essentially unchangeable, though subject to growth and interpretation. Solid and unchangeable are accurate descriptions and the exact nature of the doctrines and principles defined by the teaching authority (the magisterium) of the institutional Church in history, as authorized by Christ and led by the earthly succession of councils, Bishops, and Popes.

     Knowing the title of Pope, or universal Bishop, was first given to the Bishop of Rome by the wicked Emperor Phocas, in the year A.D. 610. This he did to spite Bishop Ciriacus of Constantinople, who had justly excommunicated him for his having caused the assassination of his predecessor, Emperor Mauritus. Gregory I, then Bishop of Rome, refused the title but his sucessor, Boniface III, first assumed the title of Pope. In later years it became a habit with many Roman Catholic writers to refer to all the former Bishops of Rome as Pope, even to Linus and Paul. The Apostles of Christ never heard the term and Peter and Paul in making their elections specifically nominated the elected as Bishops only. As Bishops they were all known in Rome until the inauguration of the Papacy, A.D. 610.

     In ancient words, the Catholic Church teaches "what has been believed everywhere, at all times, by everyone." This Vincentian Canon (Vincent of Lerins, 434), while clearer in direction than in detail, could hardly be more descriptive of that church's commitment to catholicity. Therefore Catholics and the Catholic Church are references that truly mean something, references that tell you what these people and this institution stand for. Far from being slogans or euphemisms, they point to concepts constitutive of Catholic reality.

     But Catholics are not the only believers in catholicity; to put it bluntly, they are not the only catholic Christians. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, the Orthodox, and many Methodists declare their common faith by affirming the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed in their public worship. While they obviously do not share the exact Roman Catholic understanding of the faith and the church, they assert their participation in the whole body of Christ, whenever and wherever, under its authority and within its community.

     The Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Church in particular take their places squarely in the catholic tradition. In fact, both titles register catholic intent. Episcopal simply makes English letters from the Greek characters: episkopos means "bishop." The bishops of The Episcopal Church are living links with the centuries of leaders which embody the authority Christ gave to the church in the beginning. They have less authority than Roman Catholic bishops, and their role is only partially to speak about doctrine and ethics. But the office they hold is no less indispensable, for it symbolizes continuity and unity and the authority of Christ in other words, the office is intrinsic to true catholicity.

     Orthodox refers to the traditional church in the eastern countries of Christendom (Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, and so forth). The word means "straight, correct opinion," "faithfully true doctrine." The animation of the Orthodox tradition, throughout its subdivision into national entities, is more effective liturgy for worship, however, than it is sound doctrine. Yet, both the dox, "opinion," and the fastidiously practiced liturgy are ortho (straight in line with the tradition of authority), message, and mission from Christ and the apostles, across the centuries (no less since 1054), when Rome and the East officially divided, than before.

     Whether these three communions (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox) will ever incarnate the amplitude of catholicity by reuniting is not something anyone can predict, nor is it our primary concern in this essay on the significance of names. What is important to note here is that they share a conviction about catholicity. The body of Christ is one (holy, catholic, and apostolic); that is its very nature, and denial of that essential nature is a transgression of Christ's action and God's intention. The Lord has only one body; its ministry of Word and sacrament, worship and service, faith and order, life and work, is the ministry he commissions his people to carry out.

     Brief notice was given to the fact that Eastern Orthodoxy is divided into national units. That condition points to the social and political diversity within this large company of Christians. At times, tension, even warfare, has pitted one Orthodox-Church nation against another. At other times, the transnational Orthodox Church has stood as one resource for the healing of social breaches and the unifying of belligerent states. In the new millennium, we may expect the Orthodox tradition to contribute to the altered political conditions in the nations of eastern Europe.

     The issue of nationality arises also with The Episcopal Church, or more precisely, with the Church of England, the Anglican communion, of which The Episcopal Church in America is a manifestation. From its emergence in 1534, the Church of England has made two emphatic points: (1) It is not Roman Catholic, thus not subject to papal authority; and (2) it is catholic. By the later twentieth century, it is rare for the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other Anglican leader to make an issue of whether the Anglican episcopacy stands as squarely in the line of apostolic succession as does the Roman Catholic. But the conviction that this is true continues to be part of Anglican ecclesiology: It is a catholic body. Summarizing, catholicity is as important as ever, but far less a point of contention than in earlier centuries. Moreover, church unity is proving to have enough political power to overcome national belligerency, as witness the effectiveness of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland in gaining increasing freedom from Soviet domination in the 1980s.

     Evangelical is another term one needs to understand when looking at American denominations. In this case too, the classic meaning of the word is elementary: Evangelical is derived from the Greek euangelion, used in the New Testament to refer to "good news" (the good news of the message about Jesus Christ). When its fundamental meaning is taken into account, obviously all Christians are evangelical, since all Christian bodies proclaim that good news. That message is the very reason for their existence. (By contrast, many American Christian groups are not catholic. Catholicity may be repudiated or, more tellingly, simply be a matter about which they know nothing at all.)

     Evangelical emerged as a common term and central concept with the work of Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. In studying the Bible for himself, Luther "discovered" the gospel, the message about forgiveness by divine grace through human trust, and he insisted that the church must place its ministry and authority in the service of that message. Affirming the doctrine of the church catholic and not intending to form a new church, Luther's actions nevertheless resulted in his being forced to decide between the evangelical message and the Catholic Church. He chose the former. To this day the "Lutheran" church in Germany is called Evangelishche. In the U. S., the body formed in 1988 by the merging of three Lutheran bodies included Evangelical in its name (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

     Protestant Christians who now call themselves Evangelical typically do not include Lutherans in their families; nor do most American Lutherans consider themselves a good fit in those families. Why? What has happened? What has brought about this historical curiosity?

     The explanation pertains to the setting in which modern American Evangelicalism appeared and now flourishes. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches were the evangelical groups. Their doctrine and church life were different from those of other churches, especially the Roman Catholic and Episcopal. They were orthodox Protestant in their teachings about God, Christ, the Bible, personal salvation, life after death, and divine activity in the daily affairs of the world, including answer to prayer and miracles. Their links with God were through preaching, the Bible, and personal spiritual experience, rather than through mediation of sacramental grace, tradition, and ecclesiastical organization and authority.

     Brief mention must be made of the emergence of evangelicalism in Great Britain. Among Wesleyans (later, Methodists) in England, from the 1740s, this spirit of personal relationship to God took deep root and made a major impact on both church and society. In Scotland, some in the Calvinist churches were giving greater emphasis to the plain teaching of the Bible and congregational freedom from the authority of the state church. All these developments influenced American church life.

     Around 1900, the term evangelical came to be applied to the conservatives or fundamentalists within those denominations and increasingly, to new "denominations" or families such as Pentecostal, Holiness, and Restorationist groups (the several Churches of God, Church of the Nazarene, Churches of Christ, and others). Long classified together and viewed by "mainline" people and churches with some condescension, these usually were referred to as sects, even "small sects."

     They differed from the older evangelical forms found in the larger Protestant denominations in several ways. They opposed the growth in complexity and formality found in the older churches, and the corresponding decrease in warmth, intimacy, and vitality. Another difference was their positive agendum that God was much more accessible and his truth more readily defined than was taught by Methodists and Presbyterians. Thus, variously, these "sects" became militant biblical literalists and propositionalists; they claimed to be Holy Spirit filled and empowered; they identified themselves as a holy people who should live by God's standards in a world increasingly drawn to "modernist" and secular ways. Purity became their hallmark. And this entailed withdrawal and separation from conventional society, from "the world."

     For the first forty years of the twenteth century, these churches were more likely to be called sectarian or fundamentalist than evangelical. Since 1941, when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed, and especially since 1970, they have come to be called by the name they use to characterize themselves (Evangelical). Fundamentalism is an extremist subset of the much larger Evangelical company.

     Evangelical, then, both in its sixteenth century form and as a more recent American and English movement, refers to a movement by Christians who oppose some things because they affirm other things. Luther declared the pure message of the good news alone as being authentic and authoritative. American Evangelicals have asserted the closeness of heaven and earth, so that heaven's truth and power, in pure form, are accessible to those on earth. Both are change oriented: Luther was impelled to reform (re-form) the church into what he believed God intended; the recent Americans, to evangelize the world so that its people might live by divine, not worldly, standards of what is true, right, and good. Luther wanted to straighten out the theology of the church to which "everybody" belonged; American Evangelicals, to recruit everyone into a society where being Christian is voluntary, not a condition to be taken for granted.

     Catholic and Evangelical are the terms we have employed to describe the groupings of Christians in the various denominations. Indeed, those designations more accurately define those bodies' self-descriptions than do the names Roman Catholic and Protestant. And those terms are more inclusive, inasmuch as Catholic includes Orthodox and Episcopal, while Evangelical magnifies the genuine similarity between the "sects" and the traditional large denominations. Normatively considered, this way of understanding and classifying points to the latent unity shared by the two clusters and could help them work to realize that unity. Historically, the names Protestant and Catholic have attained general utility and popularity. This is regrettable, since it renders difficult many "Catholics'" association with catholicity and divides "Evangelicals" into two camps, which have practically no contact with each other, perhaps because they are blind to the unity they share.
(A footnote to this delineation: The Lutheran Church stands as a via media, a kind of middle way, participating in both groups.)

     Protestant-Catholic-Jew has been the popular way to refer to American religious diversity. Our suggestion here of recasting the first two names should not result in any oversight of the third. In the Jewish community, problems of naming and identification are less severe and far less significant. For historical reasons as much as theological, Jews know who they are, and divisions within Judaism are less divisive. A group of Jews who might found a new branch or school ("denomination") of Judaism do not threaten Jewish integrity or Judaism's survival. The consequences might result in some weakening of this ethnic/religious phenomenon in the short run, but probably would strengthen it in the long run.

     The root syllables JUD and JEW refer to a people who are one of the twelve tribes of the Israelites, and they are bonded to one another in a Peoplehood. Their existence began in ancient times, created by a revelation from the one God who calls them to a special identity and role, and intends them to live by his Commandments. The fact that many modern Jews are not religious does not alter their identity, and most are quite prepared to acknowledge this. At any rate, Jews know they are part of a very large community, ancient and global, and distinct. Few human groupings have emphasized personal rights more, but even fewer have stamped group awareness with such indelibility. An individual Jew is a personal unit with great worth and responsibility; he or she is also undeniably a part of the Peoplehood.

     Yet we must speak of four different "denominations" of Jews in America: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist. All Jews were Orthodox until new social, political, and intellectual currents changed European life so dramatically between 1750 and 1850. There had been diversity (Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Hasidic) throughout Judaism's history, of course, but it was within what we now call Orthodox Judaism. When more modern European conditions both allowed and necessitated some formal differentiation, Reform Judaism was born. (Parallels between Judaism before 1750 and Christianity before 1500 are notable. In the latter case, all were Christian, "Catholic," but much diversity existed.)

     When we speak of reforming a religious movement, we usually think of making it more conservative. But Reform in this Jewish setting was more akin to "reformulated" than "reformed" (more a noun than a verb) a point made recently by Reform Jews who would prefer a more traditional religious setting. Reform began in Germany and has flourished in America.

     Conservative Judaism grew out of Reform. Its proponents regarded Reform's adaptations to modernity (in dietary regulations, worship, attitudes toward intermarriage, for instance) as going too far. It is usually said, however, that Conservative Judaism is much closer to Reform than to Orthodox, differing principally in that it makes changes more slowly.

     Reconstructionist Judaism is a much smaller branch than the other three. An American product, it views Judaism essentially as a civilization, not a religion. As such, the label Reconstruction is well chosen. This subtradition has sought to shift the meaning of tradition. By all odds, it is the most liberal of the groups.

     The argument here has been that Catholic and Evangelical are more representative terms than (Roman) Catholic and Protestant. But there is no comparable need to recast terms for Judaism or Jew. The names will do, taking under consideration that there are those that call themselves part of Judaism or Jew but have no part of the civilization.

     Returning now to the most diversified collection, "Protestants" (roughly "Evangelical" in the nomenclature employed here), we are ready to look at a few types of Protestants whose category names tell us something about the whole. Despite the fact that all are Evangelical in some sense and hold many doctrines in common, they are highly divergent and, in many cases, have no notion of unity at all. This is due in part to social and economic factors, to be sure. But it is also a result of very different emphases, configurations, and priority rankings with respect to the shared Christian message.

     Among the several categories of Protestant groupings, one consists of nicknames, titles of derision imposed by outsiders seeking to depreciate a new group: Lutheran, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, among others. Some contain proper nouns that refer to places or people: African, Wesleyan, Calvinist (Presbyterian and Reformed bodies). Another uses New Testament terms to describe the followers of Christ.

     The "New Testament terms" category is one of the more fascinating. Why do some congregations and fellowships call themselves "Church of God"; or "Churches of Christ"; or simply "Christian"? The answer is disarmingly simple: That is the way the New Testament refers to the congregations in the early years (the normative period) of the Christian movement. Thus, in one way or another, these twentieth century Christians are restorationists. Their goal is to restore the church of this era to the exact standards, policies, structures, ministries, and even the names, that characterized the primitive church.

     For the Churches of Christ, the biblical text not only names the congregations, but serves as the constitution for their beliefs, practices, and structure. In the case of Churches of God (at any rate, those that grew out of the Tomlinson movement in East Tennessee around 1900), it was felt that the present church must emulate what the primitive church believed and experienced, particularly the gifts of the Spirit (definitively, the empowerment to speak in tongues). These bodies that have taken their names straight from the New Testament (Church of God of Prophecy, Church of God [Cleveland, Tenn.], the Original Church of God, Church of God in Christ, and so on), are thus Pentecostal. A quite distinct body, Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), preaches Holiness, the enduement by the Spirit with the gift of sanctified life, genuine godliness.

     Of less importance than either the name or the specific characteristics, however, is the resolve to reproduce exactly the life of the New Testament church. Restoration is the theme; the thinking is, "In every aspect, let us follow the New Testament." That being the case, the choice of a phrase from the text is altogether natural and entirely appropriate.

     But going back in time to restore the original is not the only way time is used. The "Adventists" look toward the future, the time when the second coming, the return of Christ, will occur. Of course, Adventists also look back to the first coming and the New Testament events. Indeed, their historical understanding poises them between the Advent and the second Advent, the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem. The two events from a powerful dialectic.

     Mormons, properly called Latter Day Saints, teach something unique about time in the divine providence. Recently (in a latter day, the 1820s), the message and authority of the good news were restored. For all intents and purposes, the church and sound theology had gone underground from the apostolic age until a revelation was given to Joseph Smith near Palmyra, New York.

     Restoration thus has one peculiar twist for the Latter Day Saints, another for the Adventists (who, let us note, simply make a keystone of what all Christian orthodoxy believes). But Restoration, having to do with the relation between the original period and Christian belief and practice in subsequent times, is a generative metaphor among American Christian denominations.

     Moving to a quite different perspective, some denominations refer to themselves by the human quality of love. Friends (the Society of Friends) and Brethren (Church of the Brethren) obviously exalt the spirit that binds each community of Christians. The process of loving relationships is grounded in the image of Christ (friend and brother to all human creatures). In practice, the friend or brother image takes fullest shape as members of the group relate to one another and, frequently, to all those around them.

     The Society of Friends, or Quakers, has sought, ever since its seventeenth century beginnings, to embody friendliness in a profound, almost supernatural fashion. Affirming that every person in the world is endowed with the Inner Light, a kind of spiritual nerve center, these Christians believe that all people are equal. This has meant, among other things, that they worked for the eradication of slavery. Their record in humanitarian relief of distress from war, famine, and storms has won them a well-deserved respect. Their responsibility toward others is dwelled upon more than their relationship to others within their denomination. The endowment given to all people by the Creator is the dynamic force behind the Friends.

     By contrast, the Brethren, a family of German Pietists with several American manifestations, came into existence to form communities of brothers and sisters in Christ, set off from conventional society and from the state church. While far from indifferent toward other people and human need, their motivation always has been to live by pure doctrine, as a devout company of fellow believers. God's people are called out of "the world" to live by God's standards alone and in simplicity, with those who share the walk of faith. Thus their message and identity set them apart from accommodating churches and worldly people and conventions. Their commitment to peace is a major distinguishing mark.

     "United," or unity, is a general theme that crops up often among Christians (with each other), in the case of the Brethren; with all human beings, according to Friends. In fact, as a generic dimension within the Christian religion, unity can hardly be surpassed. The central doctrine of reconciliation points toward unity, or union between God and people. Unity in love is declared to be a hallmark of the body of Christ, local and universal. For some denominations, uniting a divided church ranks near the top of the Christian agenda. Realizing the wholeness of God's world (toward God, toward all other people, toward the physical and social environment of life) is as elementary as any concept. It is hard to imagine a Christian community for which unity, in some aspects, is not a central concern.

     Bringing together a fragmented church is a dominant goal of the United Church of Christ formed in 1958, a suitably named company of Protestants with several roots. Its oldest and deepest source is the Congregational Church, the Protestant body that emerged in the England of the 1580s as Puritans, those who sought to purity the both the worship and personal morality of the church in England. Having settled Massachusetts, they were the established church for several decades, brooking no dissent and no rival bodies. Eighteenth century conditions forced a change, with the New England religious map soon showing the multiplicity of sects soon to characterize all America. In this process the Congregational Church lost some of its membership to the Unitarian Church (about which some discussion follows).

     Eventually this tradition grafted two other roots. In 1931, the Congregational Christian Churches (in the main, a Virginia and North Carolina fellowship dating back to the 1790s) merged with the Congregational Church, still strong in New England but with a sizable constituency in the Midwest. Then in 1958, the Evangelical and Reformed Church rounded out the body that exists today. Itself the result of a merger, it contributed to the stream the traditions of German and Swiss Calvinism and Lutheranism.

     The United Church of Christ often struggles with its ideal of unity (a predictable problem when several strands are woven together) but also maintains its commitment to make one body of many parts. It is heavily involved with ecumenical agencies and continues to engage sister denominations in negotiations toward unification.

     Consideration of the Unitarian Church expands the meaning of UNIT, the archetypal root term of this category. Among Unitarians, the uniting of denominations is not the issue, nor is the uniting of people to God, in terms of the Christian doctrine of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the impetus toward wholeness underlies the Unitarian usage of UNIT.

     This denomination, originally a liberal Protestant communion, now sometimes Protestant and sometimes in a kind of "ethical culture" position which separates it from Christianity, is indeed committed to a vision of wholeness (a whole God, so to speak). A unitary divinity, one God, rather than a "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" (this is its doctrine). To make God "three-in-one" confounds human understanding by speculating in sublime metaphysics. Unitarianism's deity is one, and not a baffling mystery. God is accessible; God's ways are knowable; God's commands are straightforward. Moreover, the people God made are morally capable of hearing and heeding. They do not need reclamation. Reasonable at its core, Unitarianism affirms a sort of primordial unity and synergy of all things (God, people, and the world).

     Despite appearances, perhaps Unitarianism outdoes all UNIT-minded heirs of the Christian tradition. It is truly distinctive and far removed from orthodox and near-orthodox groups. Its hallmark is the assertion that unity is the nature of all reality, whereas other UNIT-minded Christians are seeking to bring together segments which, in the nature of things, should remain fragmented.

     But the root UNIT has still other meanings and frames of reference. Unity School of Christianity is a vigorous branch, about which most people know little. Here UNIT does not refer to uniting denominations, or to fashioning God in the mode of wholeness, or to reconciliation. It does not refer to acknowledgment of the oneness of human understanding and mysteries of the universe and ultimate reality. Rather, it functions in spiritual or psychological areas. Affirming the reality of the supernatural, it regards as a basic truth the accessibility of a divine power to heal, strengthen, and unify. Thus people are encouraged to pray, meditate, and avail themselves of divine spiritual energy and insight. Reality, at its most real, unites people and God. Unity speaks of the Universal Mind and of Christ-consciousness as the link with God.

     The true church is found in the human state of consciousness. Unity's ministry is most often carried on by messages transmitted in print, by telephone, or on tape. It seeks not to save, but to soothe, comfort, and strengthen, more than to call to action or challenge. But its message is entirely consistent with its basic theology (the proximity of God to people), that God's spiritual presence enables people to be at one with God, with the benevolent forces of the universe, and with true human nature.

     Christian Science is a distant cousin of Unity. It too functions in essentially spiritual categories, in this case because it understands spirit to be the ultimate nature of reality. Unlike Unity, which insists on the reality of matter (and sin and disease), Christian Science teaches that the material universe is superseded by spirit, so that illness and disease, for example, are unreal and can be seen for what they are when one recognizes that God, who is love and the All-in-All, cannot will pain and destruction for humankind. The metaphysics of Christian Science unifies matter and spirit, and regards matter, in its true essence, as spiritual.

     Though there are important differences between Unity and Christian Science, the two movements share an affinity for the spiritual unity of the universe. Unity is not so much an organized denomination as a service rendered; Christian Science is a distinctive denomination grounded in sophisticated metaphysics, which sets it apart. Thus these two spiritual perspectives on the meaning of UNIT thus stand side by side with: Society of Friends and Church(es) of the Brethren, which work to unite Christians with other Christians and with people; United Church of Christ, which dreams of realizing the one body of Christ; and Unitarians, who replace the three-in-one notion of God with a "whole God" whose nature and mission repudiate complication. Across this wide variety of applications, UNIT (unity, union, uniting) looms large as a fundamental dimension of the Christian religion. All, in the final analysis, are efforts to capture the monotheistic vision of reality taught by Christianity.

     The dominant concern which impels still another company of Protestants is captured by the adjective free (and cognate terms). Free arises from the Protestant impetus to relieve the Word, the sovereignty, and the truth of God from any and all fetters. God is the archetype of freedom, and this is the meaning of sovereignty: that God is beholden to nothing and no one except as God may choose; and in turn, the meaning of grace is as God manifests it. At a basic theological level, that is what Luther, Calvin, the Congregationalists, Baptists, and other early Protestants were determined to accomplish: the acknowledgment of God's freedom.

     Within the past three centuries, and notably in American denominational formation, free has referred more to organization than to theology, although of course theological conviction provides the incentive for organizational restiveness. Two examples will clarify: Free Methodist Church, and Evangelical Free Church.

     Methodist churches in the United States are highly and rather centrally organized. Bishops and district superintendents exercise considerable authority over pastors and congregations (with the intention of affording ministries prophetic freedom). Objections to this feature of a Protestant communion guided by an Evangelical vision first appeared with the Republican Methodist Church of the 1790s, but acquired permanent status with the emergence of Holiness theology near the middle of the nineteenth century.

     Part of the protest involved ecclesiastical domination, as just suggested. But other burdens were to be thrown off in the name of Christ's "easy yoke": pew rentals and sales, in favor of free seats; formal liturgical services, in favor of free expression under the Spirit's leading; and of course, freedom from sin and from a worldly skepticism toward the ability of God to empower believers toward Holiness, or entire sanctification. In general, Free Methodism has aspired to deregulation of social conventions and administrative control. Its claim is that God will do the inspiring, empowering, and leading. Throwing up barriers that limit God is indeed a serious transgression.

     The Evangelical Free Church originated among Swedish Pietists and continues in the spirit of that movement today. Objecting to the automatic nature of membership in the state church (Lutheran) of Sweden (that only birth into the realm was required for baptism) Pietists insisted on personal knowledge of God through a relationship. They found the theology and practice of the state church inimical to the development of strong doctrine and deep personal faith.

     In this country, the members have lined up more with doctrinal purists than with Pietists (who might be thought of as spiritual purists). In a setting where solid orthodoxy has easily yielded to watering down, or even modernism, they have held the line. In both Sweden and the U.S., these "free" church people have stood for independence of the vital church from compromise with all cultural conventions. Sometimes the convention is a formal establishment of religion. But sometimes these compromises disclose a community which, because it is eager to keep up with the times, allows adaptability to weaken the sturdy objectivism of the "truth once for all delivered to the saints."

     What's in a name? Plenty, if the subject is religion. By tracing root meanings and the application of several basic terms, we learn much about the whole of a religion and about its parts. Catholic, Evangelical, Restorationist, UNIT (unity, union, wholeness, reconciliation), Friends and Brethren, and Free only introduce a very long list. But a glance at these convinces us that names and titles (denominations), basically provide us with considerable insight into religious traditions.
References:  The Drama of the Lost Disciples, by George F. Jowett, Covenant Pub. Co. LTD.
Handbook of Denominations, New 9th Edition, by Frank S. Mead,
Revised by Samual S. Hill, Pub. Abingdon Press-NASHVILLE

STUDENT'S OF GOD'S WORD BANNER SIZE:73.2kb

Return To: "What is a Student of God's Word"

CLICK HERE TO GO HOME

therain.org 2000
website security