During an introductory college course to Christianity each fall, we discuss the significance of the four marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. We view an image of the varying threads of denominations, and ask whether it is a picture of unity made possible through infinite diversity or a picture of unity fractured.
Current discussions in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) question whether there is a need for a new break in the family tree, or if it is possible to retain unity despite great disagreement. With great prayer, leaders are laying out a myriad of options, all intended to strengthen individual churches to better serve Christ’s mission in a broken world.
The word denomination has an etymology that challenges the very mission of the church. A French word from the 14th century, “denomination” implies “the act of giving name to.” While that may be the origins of what makes Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and others unique, it should not be their end. The very act of “giving name to” just might be what keeps the church alive.
The Biblical traditions have remarkable stories portraying the power of naming. God creates the world by naming “light,” “day,” “night” and “sky.” God called Abram and Jacob and then named them Abraham and Israel -- their names marking a dramatic shift in life’s trajectory, a new orientation, a new mission, a new way of life bound in faith to the God who named them. The very act of naming is the first vocation of Adam, who labeled the llamas and termed the tamarind and tapir. Naming is what gives new dignity to Legion; a new mission to Simon, Andrew, James and John; and new life to the church in Acts, as the early Christians called on the name of Jesus Christ amid the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Today, the church remembers the extraordinary power of “giving name to” a child christened at Baptism. Alongside their given family name comes the very name, “child of God.”
The act of labeling like-minded people -- liberals, conservatives, orthodox, heathens -- is all too easy and simplistic. Religious traditions are at their worst when naming becomes delineating: Samaritans, Sadducees and Pharisees are just a few New Testament examples. In contrast, names like Luke, Lydia and Legion carry hope for transformation. When Christ gave name to them, he called them forth to mission, naming their worth in the good news of God’s kingdom. Their lives were changed.
Given the many issues facing denominations today, the act of denominating, of “giving name to,” cannot be simply how we provide lines of delineation. That would be the slow fracturing death of the church. The act of “giving name to” must be instead the essential mission of the church. Rather than becoming lost in the staid nouns of our denominational names, the hope for the church is energized when we take on the active verb of “giving name to” those who are lost, hopeless, disenfranchised, broken.
Ranjit Arapurakal is an incredible musician and man of faith from Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey. He took the act of “giving name to” as a personal mission when he traveled to India to use his faith and musical gifts with street children in Bombay. For children whose names are rarely uttered with love, Ranjit blessed them by creating a song from their very names and teaching them the melody. That very melody might so aptly be called, “Child of God.” In his song, the act of “giving name to” is the starting point of salvation.
Perhaps denominations can re-energize their sense of identity by remembering “denominating” as a call to mission rather than the boundary marker between factions. For those skeptical that singing a song about naming holds promise for the future of denominations, I beg to differ. For each person named by Jesus the Christ, from Andrew to Zaccheus, the foundation of the church was called and blessed, loved and shaped.
“Denominating” should not be the end of the church through our fractured theologies. It should be the ongoing way we name and revitalize our mission to bear witness to the reign of God.
Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.