What’s in a name?

For many years, I worked for a division of The Coca-Cola Company.  It did not take me long after starting my career with the company to realize that its most priceless assets were its brands.  Specifically, the brand names that it uses to market its products.  The flagship brand of course is “Coca-Cola” or “Coke.”  Both of these names are literally known and understood world wide.  Studies consistently list them as among the top one or two brand names in the world in terms of recognition.

In addition to recognition, those brands are also understood to MEAN something.  They MEAN brown colored, sweet tasting, carbonated soft drink, with a particular and unique flavor that is consistent around the world.  [The slight variations that people claim are the result of variations in the taste of the water used to make the product and the type of sweetener that is used, which does vary from market to market.]

Because words, including words that are used as brand names, mean something, people tend to rely on them.  The meaning of the word “Coke” was so important to people that when The Coca-Cola Company temporarily changed the formulation of Coca-Cola in 1985, there was a near revolution among consumers.  The so-called “New Coke” fiasco has become legendary, and a classic example of a company asking the wrong questions, not listening clearly to their consumers, and relying too heavily on market research that is critically flawed in its methodology.

The names, or “brands” if you will, that represent the denominations also have meaning.  Actually, that’s not right.  I should say, they used to have meaning.  Fifty years ago you could say the word “Presbyterian,” or “Lutheran,” or “Methodist,” or “Baptist,” and someone familiar with them would have been able to say what those words meant.  And by meaning, I am suggesting an explanation could be given for what they believed and stood for.  And those explanations would likely have been pretty consistent across several responders.  I contend that is not the case anymore.

But on a more contemporary level, and because the news is fresh, I will “pick on” the Baptists to make a point.  If I say the word “baptist” to describe a church, tell me what its theology will be?  Can you do it?  I will save you the time and effort.  The answer is there is no way to tell.  By simply describing a church as “Baptist” you could be exposed to teaching that is on either end of the theological continuum characterized on one end as Arminian and on the other as Calvinist.  The differences between these two theological models are NOT insignificant.  In fact, the differences are huge, speaking directly to what one believes about the nature and “abilities” of man, and the character and sovereignty of God.

Want proof of this contradiction?  The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY is organized, staffed and teaches a theology that is decidedly Reformed.  They are Calvinistic from top to bottom administratively and academically.  While not all of its graduates will fully embrace Reformed theology in their ministries, I dare say many and perhaps MOST will.  And incoming students are making decisions to attend Southern based on the seminary’s clearly stated doctrinal position. 

Standing in stark contradiction to this reality, the Southern Baptist Convention elected with a huge majority, a pastor named Johnny Hunt as its president earlier this month.  Hunt is strongly Arminian.  In fact, he is hosting a conference in his church in Georgia in November of this year, to refute Calvinism.  The outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, wrote a book critical of Calvinism entitled Trouble With The Tulip, referring to the acronym used to describe the so-called 5 Points of Calvinism. 

With this tension in mind, if someone were to tell you they are Baptist, or that they worship in a Baptist church, what do they believe about the sovereignty of God, or what teaching influence are they under theologically?  The short answer is: you can’t tell by virtue of the “brand”.  In fact, it seems that the only thing that is consistent in Baptist churches is an adherence to credo-baptism, or believer’s baptism by immersion.  However, as a denomination, they are not unique in this particular dogma.  So aside from this not-unique distinction, what do the Baptists stand for that differentiates them from other denominations, or for that matter from “non” or “inter” donominational Christian fellowships who express a preference for credo-baptism?  I don’t ask that rhetorically.  I would love to know.

Similarly confusing contradictions between the historic and contemporary understandings of other denominations can also be identified.  The issues at the root of these contradictions will likely be the subject of future posts as I explain my recently articulated bias toward “anti-denominationalism.”  But for now, the bottom line of this post is that I contend that denominational identities and meanings have become, at best, unreliable.  At their worst, they could be regarded as downright deceptive.  Thus, in losing their meaning, they have lost their utility and their purpose.  This in turn makes them largely meaningless, and on some important levels, irrelevant.

As a final thought, is it only me, or has anyone else noticed how many new churches are sprouting up, that are NOT using denominational names as a part of their identity?  Are these all “non” or “inter” denominational churches?  Or, is it just in vogue to use some amorphous name?  Or, are new church planters intentionally avoiding being identified with a particular denomination?  I know for an absolute fact, that in at least some cases, avoidance is a delibrate strategy!

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3 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Brandon says:

    Yeah, avoidance is definitely the case. In college I asked my classmates what they thought of when I said the word “Baptist.” Without fail, the answer came back: “no drinking, no dancing.” Two things can be said about that. 1) That’s what we get for making less-than-minor issues into major issues, and 2) Identifying yourself with said denomination can automatically mean, for some people, that they won’t consider listening to you if that’s your “brand.” The church I am a member of is aligned with the SBC, but they don’t put it in the name of the church.

    I do have a question, though: Can the same argument be made for all labels? If so, we may end up with no way to classify anything. And that may be something we don’t want.

  2. Chuck says:

    Brandon – Yes, the argument you propose could be made. And in my post, I was not intending to make a case against labels per se. Stepping outside the focus of denominations, let’s look again at consumer product brands. Those brands, or labels if you prefer, represent something that is consistent, and dependable. Buy it one time, and you should be able to count on it being the same the next time. Buy it in Corpus Christi or College Station, it should be the same in Louisville. I think you would agree that if this were not the case, there would be a problem. You could no longer rely on that brand. In fact, at the occassion of your next purchase, you might well avoid that brand.

    I am suggesting that if labels are desireable for classifying something, (say a religious demonination) that which the label describes needs to become consistent, and dependable. I think this is a problem for the Baptists as noted in this post. Obviously, I am not suggesting cookie cutter churches. There are going to be understandable differences in non-essential matters. And I am fine with that. But how about a little consistency, in say, theology? For me at least that doesn’t seem like too much to expect?

    There is definitely more to my concerns with denominations than inconsistency within any given “brand” Those will be the subjects of future posts. However, the short preview of one of those posts is that SOME of the “brands” have now come to represent something rotten…and you might even be able to say “consistently rotten.” I think the Baptists by and large are not guilty of that, but the same cannot be said of the Presbyterians, Methodists, or Episcopalians, among others.

  3. Brandon says:

    I agree with that. So, in essence, we should do away with brands if what the brand is classifying no longer represents what it claims to be. Or change in order to fit the brand a bit more.

    And I’m totally on board with what you said about being “cookie cutter.” Churches in different contexts will obviously look different in some ways. But theology can definitely remain the same.

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