Monday with Michael Spencer: What’s in a Name?

Temple of Apollo, Corinth

Monday with Michael Spencer
What’s in a Name? (2007)

Here in Kentucky, most of the Baptist Churches of a certain age have a particular approach to their names. Most choose to go the geographic route, so we have Three Forks of the Elkhorn, Muddy Gap, First Baptist Every-town-you-can-think-of, a couple of thousand “creeks” of various kinds and so on.

After that, Bible names come in second. Bethel. Emmanuel. Grace. Cana. Bethlehem. And finally, evangelical, emerging and missional names run last: The Journey. Friendship. Sojourners. Victory.

I’ve never put much stock in any theory that a church name has any actual influence on a church’s character. I’ve preached at Little Hope Baptist and everything seemed to be hopeful. We have a lot of “Memorial” churches- like my wife’s former church, which after a fire, renamed themselves Walnut Memorial- and everyone seems cheerfully engaged in the present rather than mourning over the past.

Occasionally, however, a name truly puzzles me. Why, I ask, would someone choose this name if they know anything about the actual meaning of the name? If it’s a Biblical name, I’m sometimes forced to conclude that someone hadn’t read very carefully.

For example, an extremely common name among Baptist churches in my area- and around the south apparently- is Corinth. I could drive you to several Corinth Baptist Churches within three hours. Wonderful churches all, but oh….that name! What were they thinking?

I’ve never seen a Philippi Baptist Church or a Thessalonica Baptist Church, but Corinth Baptist is remarkably popular. Inexplicably popular.

For those of you in the dark, there are two letters to the church at Corinth in the New Testament. It is true that one of these letters contains the famous “love” chapter, I Corinthians 13. But it is also true that the church at Corinth could best be described as a zoo of problems no church would want to be associated with.

Like what? Divisions galore. No visible functioning leadership. Sexual sin in the congregation is approved of to the point that Paul has to throw a bit of a fit to get them to deal with it. Once the offenders are excommunicated from the fellowship, Paul has to plead with them again to allow him to repent and return.

Paul himself is an issue, as the Corinthians have come to despise their founder in favor of something Paul calls “super-apostles.” Then there are divisions over food offered to idols. Lawsuits. Immaturity to the point that Paul calls the Corinthians infants and threatens to come after them “with a stick.” He thanks God that he baptized so few of them.

He has to haul out his entire spiritual experience resume to get their attention. They are enamored with philosophy and rhetoric. They’ve fallen under the influence of female spiritualists and their insistence that everyone speak in ecstatic tongues. He forbids women to speak, tells them to quit dressing like- and frequenting- prostitutes. They want less preaching and more “spiritual gifts.” They’ve turned the Lord’s Supper into a drunken embarrassment.

It’s a zoo, Why would anyone name their church after this bunch?

I have no good answer for that one, but I do know this.

Must of us are candidates for the Corinthian Church at one time or another. We’re immature, disobedient, shallow and rebellious. We would drive an apostle to make threats. We love our sin. We love our fan clubs. We love our personalities. We love our inconsistencies.

As churches, we are guilty of devaluing preaching, are fascinated by our own ideas of spirituality and see no big problem with hauling the world into our lives, homes and churches. We fight with one another and convince ourselves we’re quite spiritual. Church discipline is an alien word for most of us and the Lord’s Supper is actually vanishing for lack of entertainment value.

No word anywhere is more appropriate for us than the announcement that without love we’re just making noise. No one needs to hear the gospel more than those of us who act as if we’re far beyond it. In fact, our version of the Christian life would probably make us quite popular at Corinth.

Paul, amazingly, tells the Corinthians that Jesus died for their sins. He says you have the Holy Spirit. He says the righteousness of Christ is given to you even though you live such disappointing lives. The day of judgement will show that we had a good foundation and were given the riches of the gospel, but what we’ve done with that is another story.

We are still the people of God, like the rebellious and disobedient nation in the old covenant story. Like the Corinthians.

I Corinthians 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. It’s still true, then and now.

Maybe Corinth Baptist Church is a very good name after all. There’s hope for the body of Christ. Jesus loves his people, and will present all the Corinths as a blameless, beautiful bride at the wedding banquet that’s coming.

NOTE: No offense to any Corinth Baptist Churches out there is intended in this post.

39 thoughts on “Monday with Michael Spencer: What’s in a Name?

  1. “His black hat sat on his head with a careful, placed expression and his face had a fragile look as if it might have been broken and stuck together again, or like a gun no one knows is loaded.”
    (Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood)

    without doubt, the woman could write
    . . . . I’ve never recovered from reading Flannery O’Connor . . . like getting hit by a fast-moving train


  2. Beaker, I’m 45 miles from the worst of it, but lots of folks from my parish are in the evacuation zone so are not in their own homes at the moment. Church bldg itself is not in danger. It’s pretty nerve wracking, esp with the electricity turned off. No fatalities-that’s why the authorities called such a widespread evac.

    We might have power for one day, tomorrow; if so, I’ll wash my PJs & underwear ??, gratefully…



  3. The other 80s vicious love song I can recall is R.E.M.’s ‘The One I Love’. “This one goes out to the one I love…” I’ve seen couples get all moony-eyed at each other during it not actually listening to the rest of the lyrics of course.



  4. HUG, I have a friend who is now retired from the Maine Forest Service, and he used to get sent out west to fight these fires. It was great when he was younger, but he got to the point where he realized that too many homes were built where they shouldn’t be built—on hillsides with conifer forests below that WILL ignite by natural causes sooner or later. He said they might as well put a sign on their house that says “Burn Me.”

    I realize not all those at risk are in that category. My prayers and sympathies to them.


  5. There’s at least one honest church name, from Flannery O’Connor’s little novel Wise Blood: “The Church Without Christ.”

    Its founder Hazel Motes said, “I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”


  6. I have visited a Second Baptist in Calais, Maine, probably less well known.

    In googling, there does appear to be a defunct First Baptist in Calais (pronounced “Cal-ess,” btw, and that’s how they’ll really know you’re not from around here).

    So why isn’t Second Baptist now First Baptist? They could have been at the top of the speed dial.


  7. I grew up Episcopalian. Our little parish was named Church of the Resurrection. Others in the area were named St. John’s, St. Margaret’s, St. Thomas. and so on. Finally one popped up named “All Saints.”


  8. I wouldn’t join a church that hides its denomination. This tells me they have listened to the Church Growth crowd, making it a huge read flag.


  9. Huh. That strikes me as a very weird name, but google shows quite a few of them. They seem to be mostly LCMS (though many bury that detail on their websites). The only one I found that is ELCA turns out, reading their history page, to have originally been LCMS. The history is very gappy, but the timing strongly suggests they left following the Seminex purge, and ended up ELCA via the AELC.

    So I am left scratching my head why anyone thinks that is a good name for a church. I expect they would say because we should remember Christ, but the “Memorial” construction is usually applied to people who are dead, not risen. Maybe this works better in German?

    For what it is worth, my experience of Lutheran churches is that they run either to names for or attributes of God, understood broadly; names of the Evangelists or St. Paul; or to places associated with God. In heavily German areas, Zion is practically the default church name, other names only being used if Zion is already taken in that area. I have been a member of three different Zion churches, including where I am now and intend to be until I drop.

    That being said, there are weird outliers. There is a St. Mary’s Lutheran near me. It is over two hundred years old. There also is a St. Benjamin’s. That has everyone scratching their heads, including that congregation. No one knows the story there. My guess is that it was a corruption of something else entirely, but I can’t even speculate what.


  10. The numbering thing went out at some point. I was reading an old document from the 18th century that referred to a minister of a 4th Baptist Church. Who would want to be known as 4th Baptist? Couldn’t they think of a name?


  11. Re NW LA area, this morning I awoke to news of more fires, more mandatory evacuations, more blackouts, more high dry winds. (I heard the winds hit around 2 Ayem.) Very slight haze where I was, could see a possible fire plume on the northern horizon behind the La Puente Hills and in front of the San Gabriel Mountains, low and horizontal with no source which means its blow-in from the ones in the Inland Empire. (I am well away from any fires, in an older built-up area nowhere near the mountains — can’t afford to.)

    The urban sprawl of the past 30 years has led to oceans of condos and McMansions splashing way up into the foothills and canyons (always expensive real estate). Foothills and canyons right next to the chaparral that WILL burn. And the eucalyptus and palms in their landscaping — eucalyptus burns like torches and palms like sparklers dipped in gasoline. (A bud of mine from rural North Cal — where the sugar pines burn like last year’s Xmas trees dipped in gasoline and fire prevention is part of growing up — is always ranting about how they never clear the “picturesque” but highly-flammable brush away from the “homes” down here. I don’t remember how far they clear brush from structures there but it’s at least several meters. At least we don’t have sugar pines this far south.)

    The first part that makes me want to choke the stupid out of people is that Sacramento and the PUC (who got us into this mess in the first place) are too interested in Virtue Signaling each other and Scolding us Lowborns to actually fix the core problem.

    The second is that after it’s all burned over, they (owners and developers) will insist on rebuilding the exact same condos & McMansions in the exact same places, like on the floodplain after a Mississippi River flood or on Florida beachfronts after a hurricane.


  12. The second fundamentalist church I attended became known as The Church of Beth Dabar (House of the Word). That led to more than a few questions. It has since changed names.


  13. Hi, checking in on my phone. Power still out. Santa Rosa is threatened, the same part of town that burned 2 years ago. Please continue to pray for us. Small local fires as well, also NW LA area.


  14. I worry most when a church changes its name. It usually means the place has changed or will very soon, and often not for the better.


  15. The Presbyterians are just as bad. Tons of first pres churches. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a second presbyterian church, so saying they are first seems kinda pointless.


  16. Analogous to using Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” for your wedding music

    Or Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ as a patriotic anthem.


  17. And why are there so many “First” Baptist Churches? Even if there are no other Baptist churches in town. Did they name it that to keep other ones out?

    And if there is also a “Second” Baptist Church, and First Baptist burns down, does Second Baptist become First Baptist?

    They should teach this stuff in seminary.


  18. Or cluelessness.

    Analogous to using Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” for your wedding music.


  19. I used to drive by a Corinth Baptist Church and had exactly the same thoughts as Michael (and David Greene). But I wondered how many knowledgeable Christians would want to come visit that church. i didn’t think I would (having been a member of a Corinthian church by another name [credit to Eeyore]).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: