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Twisting the Church Trademark

The church has a serious branding problem. This week the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the free speech rights of the members of Westboro Baptist Church, a group who protests outside of military funerals with hate-filled signs like “Your sons are in hell” and “thank God for dead soldiers.” And while I’m sure most believers wince when they hear the word “church” co-opted by this group (and I’m sure Baptists do a double wince), where exactly is the line for when it’s appropriate to call something a “church”? We live in a world of brands and, like it or not, the word “church” has brand equity that, incidentally was originally created by Jesus himself when he said to Peter in Matthew 16:18 “on this rock I will build my church (ekklesia)…” Any product manufacturer knows that one of the easiest ways to make money is to simple co-opt a brand. For decades hundreds of factories in China have made countless millions churning out knockoffs of every conceivable brand, complete with company name on the product, making these products worth many times what they would sell for otherwise. Stealing brand equity from a valuable brand name to increase the value of your cheaper product is a serious crime in today’s economy.

Now maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal to some of you that Christian words like “church” get misused and abused but I think this is a much more serious problem than we realize and the way it’s used by Westboro is just the tiny tip of the iceberg. Just ask 10 Christians from different backgrounds to define “church” or to tell you whether this group or that organization is a church and you’ll see what I mean. We have no idea what the word church means. In the legal field of Intellectual Property they would explain that the word “church” is a victim of 2000 years of trademark dilution. Trademark dilution is one of the worst things that can happen to a brand because it takes a word that clearly stands for something in the mind of the public and begins to detach it from it’s owner who invested it with original meaning, robbing it of it’s value and ultimately turning the word into a moldable, generic term (here’s a list of recent generic trademarks). Once a term becomes generic, set free from it’s anchor, it becomes just a regular part of the language and begins to evolve and devolve over time with the language as a whole.

But lucky for us we have a book that is as old as the word “church” we can return to if we want to discover what this word originally meant. And the word is a very simple word. All the ways the word is used in the New Testament can be summed up by simply saying that the church is either all Christians everywhere (Ephesians 1:22-23) or all the Christians in a particular region (Galatians 1:2), city (Revelation 3:14) or gathering place (Romans 16:5). In other words the church is Christians and Christians are the church. But it’s about to get a lot more complicated. Because the word got co-opted. Over time as disagreements, denominations and factions began to grow and Christians refused the command to work out their differences and remain one body (Ephesians 4:3-6) we began to form distinct churches within the same city. And in all fairness, as we said above, these factions are churches, as long as they are made up of Christians. But now instead of the church being the word that refers to our oneness, it has become the word that refers to our divisions. What a strange twist. But the plot thickens. As we began to use the word almost entirely as a reference to particular congregations of believers we then turned the word against other congregations of believers, judging whether their gathering is worthy or not worthy of the word church. So we took the word, twisted it, and now use its twisted meaning as a way to judge one another.

Let’s try to understand what this is like using a unified brand most of us are familiar with – America. Imagine if the American government created a flat 10% income tax, dissolved the IRS, and simply said that any good American should pay their taxes, but they were done with enforcement. Here’s what brand dilution might look like in stages. Stage 1 would, of course, involve millions of people not paying their taxes. But soon afterward stage 2 would begin when charismatic leaders would use the guilt of not paying taxes and the frustration of underfunded government services, to get people to send tax money exclusively to them for better services. Stage 3 would start when these leaders began to redefine being a real American as joining their group. Stage 4 would happen when these leaders began to create a franchise of their America in every state, city, town and village by designing exclusive training schools that offered secure jobs and a piece of the action to anyone who successfully planted a branch of their version of America in a new place. Stage 5 would be when there are so many different branches of America in every city that everyone would celebrate national holidays, like the 4th of July, with just their America and feel somewhat superior to others who don’t belong to as cool, or as true, or as historic, or as effective of an America as they belong to. Stage 6 would be when the next generation grows up in this system and can’t imagine America being defined as anything but belonging to one of the hundreds of Americas in their city. Stage 7 would come around whenever a generation would emerge that woke up a said, “wait, aren’t we all Americans and shouldn’t we identify with each other as part of one country? Aren’t we really one and aren’t these branches basically just artificial, man-made divisions?” But image how difficult reversing the damage would be. You can’t say these branches aren’t America or that the people in them aren’t Americans. All you could say is the word got twisted and used to create division instead of unity. And that’s all I’m saying. The word church has been twisted and sliced and diced and now is used almost exclusively as a reference to a separate group instead of a regional expression of our global unity.

But on the other hand remember stage 1? When freedom is given and the enforcement is gone would we really gather regularly for worship, give generously, pray with each other and make disciples? Yes, some of us would, but in smaller numbers at first. But what would grow out of it would be an expression of Christianity that flows from the heart and is controlled, not by external institutional systems, but by the Holy Spirit within. It all starts by believing the truth about the word “church”, that we are already fully members of the church and that, despite the appearance of division we are already one.