What Is in a Name?

What is in a name?  For most of us, ours was chosen for us before we were born.  As for my name, Loren James Golden: my first name was chosen simply because my parents liked it (and yes, I was actually named after Canadian actor Lorne Greene); my middle name was chosen because it was my father’s first; and my surname was my father’s surname—and my mother’s adopted surname upon marrying him—and my paternal grandparents’ before them, and my great-grandparents’ before them, etc. (although sometime around the Revolution it was apparently changed from Golding, possibly to distance my patriot ancestors from loyalist relations who supported the British crown during the War).  Our names represent our character and our identity, whether good or bad, and it is that character and identity that come to others’ minds when they hear them.  Some names are universally admired and adored (or nearly so) because of the people they represent, such as Mother Teresa or Jimmy Stewart, whereas others are just as thoroughly condemned, such as Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler.  Others are loved by some and scorned by others, whereas others still—most, in fact—are known to very few.

Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from the Lead Pastor, Rev. Jim West, of my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian in Kansas City—a weekly e-mail entitled, A Note from Pastor Jim, sent to members, former members, and friends of the church—stating that the Session (the governing board of elders in a Presbyterian church) was prayerfully considering changing the church’s name.  Mostly this is because of confusion over the name Presbyterian—most Christians do not know what “Presbyterian” means or the theological heritage for which it stands (indeed, many pew-sitting Presbyterians do not know that), and many Evangelical Christians in particular associate it with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which they regard as apostate, inasmuch as most of the leaders in that denomination have bent over backward to accommodate the denomination’s doctrine and policies to the ways of the unbelieving world, in contradiction to such passages as Romans 12.1-2, I Corinthians 1.18-25, James 4.4, and I John 2.15-17.  But even the name Colonial is being questioned, especially considering that the church is endeavoring to transition to a multiethnic congregation (in the mold of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City), and “most African Americans have ZERO positive association with the word ‘colonial’,” associating it with “images of plantations and slaveowners.”  Pastor Jim also recounted that he almost declined to candidate for the position of Colonial’s Lead Pastor back in 2007, before he even visited the church, because the name gave him the impression that it was “a very old, formal congregation that (he) assumed would be petrified in its traditions and homogeneous in its wealthy, white, generally liberal membership.”  (Obviously, he visited the church and revised his opinion of it.)

This news came as something of a shock to me.  My last three church homes, representing nearly my entire adult life (from age 24 and on), are all Presbyterian—Eastminster Presbyterian in Wichita, Kansas (EPC; 1991-1996), Colonial Presbyterian (EPC; 1996-2014), and Denton Presbyterian in Denton, Texas (PCA; 2014-present), in all three of which I have been an active, contributing member (for details, see my post, One Presbyterian Layman’s Journey of Faith).  Obviously being Presbyterian is immensely important to me (after [1] being found in Christ and [2] being a member of a healthy, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church).  This is not to say that I would not regularly attend a healthy, Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching, non-Presbyterian church if no Presbyterian congregation fitting that description was planted within a reasonable commute from my home.  However, I believe that the standards of classical Presbyterianism—the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms—“contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (EPC Book of Order §14-1.A.3, §14-1.E.3; PCA Book of Church Order §21-5.2, §24-6.2), and being a member of a congregation that cannot affirm the Reformed interpretation of secondary doctrines (e.g., the Doctrines of Grace/Predestination, Covenant Theology, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Signs and Seals of the Covenant) would put me in the uncomfortable position of being at variance with the pastors and elders who would have authority over me, for the bare fact that these doctrines are of secondary importance does not mean that they are unimportant, for they are taught in Scripture.  Moreover, classical Presbyterianism, such as is expressed in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, has a certain high quality of exegetical preaching to which I have become accustomed in the past 28 years, and which I have rarely found outside of classical Presbyterianism, and I have a deep appreciation for the Presbyterian form of government, both of which would be greatly missed, were I to regularly attend a non-Presbyterian church.

I became aware of Colonial’s reputation as a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching congregation while I was still a member of Eastminster (when both churches were still affiliated with the PC(USA); both have since transitioned to the EPC).  When I secured employment in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, my thoughts immediately turned to Colonial as my next church home (I really did not seriously entertain any other possibility), and all the pastors at Eastminster recommended Colonial as well.  I felt some struggle in my first few years at Colonial, because my theological formation at Eastminster (which included taking distance learning classes at Reformed Theological Seminary) was essentially Old School Presbyterian (with which I have consistently identified ever since), whereas Colonial is basically a New School Presbyterian church.1  Nevertheless, I committed to Colonial and grew to love her, and when I secured employment in north Texas, it was at least as painful to leave Colonial as it had been to leave Eastminster nearly eighteen years earlier.

Quite apart from any sentimental attachment to the name Colonial Presbyterian Church that I might have, I believe it unwise for the church to change her name, either by omitting the name Presbyterian or by replacing the name Colonial.  Pastor Jim states that he loves the EPC, and that neither he nor the Session have any intention of abandoning their Presbyterian heritage, and I believe him.  However, to drop Colonial’s middle name would give the impression of embarrassment over, and a desire to distance the church from, the EPC and Colonial’s Evangelical Presbyterian heritage, irrespective of the Session’s intention.  Truth Matters, and Evangelical Presbyterianism is all about the Truth.  Rather than drop the name Presbyterian from the church’s name out of concern that it might be confusing to prospective visitors, it would behoove Colonial to publish on its website an essay on what, in her own words, Evangelical Presbyterianism is (the brief overview of what Colonial believes on the About Us page is limited to primary doctrines that are in no way unique to Evangelical Presbyterianism), and why it is important that Colonial is an Evangelical Presbyterian church.  (Update, February 22, 2020: Subsequent to my publication of this post, Colonial has updated her About Us page to include a section entitled, “Why Presbyterian?”, in which she does this.)

If anything, it would be worse for Colonial Presbyterian Church to change her first name than to drop her middle.  A name is much more than a label or a brand, more than something by which we introduce ourselves and others call us.  As stated above, it represents our character and identity, and Colonial’s character and identity are impeccable.  Colonial has a history and reputation of faithful preaching and community involvement, and that history and reputation are bound up with the name Colonial Presbyterian Church.  If Colonial were to change her name to Light of Christ Church, for example, it would be more descriptive of her mission statement, but the history and reputation bound up in the name recognition would be lost, even if the faithful preaching and community involvement remain unchanged.  Moreover, rather than focus on a perceived link between Colonial’s name and slavery in the antebellum South, why not instead identify Colonial Presbyterian Church as a colony of heaven planted by God to bring the light of Christ the Savior to a dark world lost in sin?  If Christ has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and (has) made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev. 5.9-10), and if Colonial is Better Together, striving to be “a multi-generational, multi-ethnic family,” cannot Colonial’s good name be used to illustrate the concept that, as a colony here on Earth of the Kingdom of the King of kings, the generational and ethnic makeup of Colonial ought to resemble that of the Kingdom whose colony she is?

As Pastor Jim emphasized, the decision of the Colonial Session to discern the Lord’s leading as to whether the church should change her name or leave it as it is was not a frivolous one, nor one reached rashly, nor one on which the Session is of one mind.  As he said, “this is a very sensitive topic, (and) there are many strong feelings out there about our name, our history, our legacy, and our personal investment in this organization called Colonial (and Presbyterianism as well).”  More importantly than the decision as to whether to change the church’s name or keep it the same is the need to preserve Colonial’s peace and unity.  I cannot emphasize highly enough: This is not a decision worthy of splitting the church.  Colonial during this season of discernment needs all our prayers “that (Colonial) may all be one, just as (the) Father (is) in (the Son) and (the Son) in (the Father), that (Colonial) also may be in (God), so that (Kansas City and) the world may believe that (the Father) has sent (the Son).” (Jn. 17.21)  And may Colonial “complete (the Lord’s) joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2.2)

1 For the uninitiated, New School Presbyterianism is not Theologically Liberal Presbyterianism.  When the Presbytery of Philadelphia was formed in 1706 (the precursor to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, which was organized in 1788), it was an amalgam of two distinct parties—Scots-Irish Presbyterian immigrants and English Puritan immigrants who preferred the Presbyterian system of government (see Hart & Muether, Turning Points in American Presbyterian History, Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729).  The Scots-Irish (Old School) were the group that lobbied for the adoption of the Westminster Standards in 1729 and were skeptical about open-air revivals and the charismata (especially speaking in tongues), whereas the Puritans (New School) had more pietist sensibilities, resisting subscription to any confessional standard and being more amenable to open-air revivals and the charismata.  This conflict persisted in American Presbyterianism for most of the first two centuries of its existence, resulting in the Old Side/New Side split of 1741-1758 and the Old School/New School split of 1837-1869, until it was eclipsed by the so-called “Fundamentalist/Modernist” controversies of the 20th century.  It could be argued that New School Presbyterians were more susceptible to Theological Liberalism than Old School Presbyterians, but it would be unfair to characterize them as Theological Liberals, as they, like Old School Presbyterians and unlike Theological Liberals, hold to Biblical inerrancy and believe in the primacy of preaching the Gospel.  Nevertheless, the undercurrents of the older conflict still persist today.  The PCA is predominantly (but not exclusively) an Old School Presbyterian denomination, whereas the EPC is predominantly (but not exclusively) New School.  Both denominations adopt the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard, but the EPC has authored a document entitled “Essentials of Our Faith” that outlines primary doctrines of the Christian faith, and requires her officers to “affirm and adopt” it “without exception” (EPC Book of Order §14-1.A.5, §14-1.E.5), while generally allowing greater latitude for officers to declare exceptions to secondary doctrines in the Westminster Standards (EPC Book of Order §13-6) than the PCA (PCA Book of Church Order §13-6, §21-4.f).