The Curious Case of How the United Church of Christ Lost Jesus

“We are still a Trinitarian denomination,” United Church of Christ spokesman Bennett Guess says. You may be in trouble if you find yourself explaining that you’re still trinitarian. After six years of debate, the UCC has resolved to revise their bylaws and constitution to replace every instance of “Heavenly Father” with “Triune God.”

Here’s how the UCC explains the change:

This was not a theological document. It was a restructuring from five boards to one. And in doing this, we dealt with bylaws written decades ago, before the denomination’s commitment to using inclusive and expansive imagery for God.

We no longer use exclusively male language to refer to God. We haven’t for a long time.

On the bright side you might conclude of this progressive denomination, “Well, at least they’re sticking with the Trinity.” And that’s how some have defended the UCC against charges of “sawing off one leg of Christianity’s Holy Trinity.” USA Today‘s Cathy Lynn Grossman rather sardonically comes to the defense of the UCC, says that this change in language will not, in fact, cause the 1 million-member denomination to “rebuff Christ and God by slashing a reference to God as ‘Heavenly Father.’”

Maybe not. But the problem is that you’re not trinitarian just by calling yourself trinitarian. The Bible doesn’t allow for us to worship the Trinity as God A, God A, and Holy God A and still call ourselves Christian.

We can learn a lesson from the Arians, a popular but heretical faction in the early church. They didn’t want use the name “Father” either. But their motives were a little more explicitly mischievous. They didn’t think the Son was equal with God, so eternally speaking, God was not a Father since the Son didn’t eternally exist. Searching for a name to describe this view of God, they came up with “Unoriginate.”

Isn’t it interesting that when we try to clear God of his trinitarian nature and then try to describe who he is, we only have impersonal terms?

Athanasius didn’t like the term “Unoriginate,” and not just because it sounded like a poorly named professional wrestler. He rejected the title because it didn’t explain who God is fundamentally. By calling God the “Unoriginate,” we are defining him by what is in contrast, the “originate”—that is, creation. And God is not dependent upon the existence of creation, nor is he defined by it. So we must do better than “Unoriginate.”

But, as Athanasius pointed out, if we call God “Father,” we immediately contemplate the Son. And here we have something that is fundamental and eternal to both of them: The Father is the Father of the Son; the Son is the Son of the Father. To know God, we must know God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. Otherwise we are grasping for totems of our own imaginations.

And now back to the curious case of the UCC. The problem isn’t only their sensitivity to gender-exclusivity in God or their modern sensibilities trumping the Bible. As we saw with the Arians, if you don’t have a Heavenly Father, then you don’t have a Son. And if you don’t have a Son, you’ve lost Jesus.

As evangelicals concerned with the centrality of the gospel, we must speak carefully and biblically about who God is and how he has revealed himself to us. Like taking an ax to a trunk of a tree, if we speak loosely about God and his nature, the gospel will come tumbling down with it.

As creatures, we depend on God to reveal knowledge of himself to us. Who are we to give him his name? He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He has told us so.

  • Pete Scribner

    I find it curious that the UCC claims to be a denomination of Christ-followers, and yet refuses to follow Christ in calling God “Father.” Thanks for reminding us that God has revealed who he is, and we are neither wise nor humble to try to redefine him.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. Thanks for your post!

  • Bryan Joyce

    To redefine the Father as “Triune God” not only implies that man can do better than God at revealing God, it also makes meaningless so much of the New Testament revelation of God through the Father-Son relationship we see in the gospel. Does it make sense for the Son on the cross to cry out, “Triune God, forgive them, they know not what they do?”

  • anon

    I have read, NEW ECCLESIOLOGY AND POLITY, THE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST by CLYDE J. STECKEL. Based on my reading I believe that it is indeed a move to redefine god (small g intentional). Their plan is laid out, just as Hitler did in Mein Kampf. The leaders of the UCC want it both ways here in that, they are trying to say that the words don’t have meaning in that they are still trinitarian, but the old words must have had meaning for them to need to change them and the old words meant our God, Heavenly Father and the new ones mean their god, some triune thing of their creation so that hey can begin to define their theology as per the constitutional change that makes the General Minister the Interpreter of Theology. They can now get “God is still speaking” to say whatever they want through the “new word” as they define it NO SCRIPTURE NEEDED! They’ll be writing it as they go!

    • Tom

      Anon – did we really need a comparison to Mein Kampf?
      I disagree with the change as well but, come on! The UCC are now like Hitler?!
      I think the argument will go a lot better without the hysterics.

      • anon

        The comparison, which is the plan is revealed in the writing is completely accurate. The use of Hitler is not really such an overstretch when you see how they treat those within that disagree. Not hysterics, but history.

  • Paul Bryant-Smith

    This is an interesting article, in the sense that “interesting” means that it doesn’t have a scrap of factual information in it. I know. I was a delegate at the UCC’s General Synod 28 in Tampa and voted on this issue, so let me set the record straight.

    The UCC Constitution now refers to God as “Triune God” but this is in no way a departure from Trinitarian orthodoxy. Perhaps John Starke would have done well to read the statement of faith from The Gospel Coalition, which also professes faith in the “Triune God” in the very first article of its statement of faith. See

    The second major mistake that Starke makes is to assume that the UCC no longer endorses the traditional Trinitarian formula. Had he done even a little bit of research, he would have realized that the General Synod — at the very same meeting — ratified an agreement between several Reformed tradition churches and the US College of Catholic Bishops in which we agreed to recognize each other’s baptisms which are performed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Starke also makes a significant error when he suggests that only that particular verbiage can be used to reference the Trinity. In 2 Corinthians 13:14, the Apostle Paul offers a Trinitarian blessing to the church, writing “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.” Clearly, the word “Father” doesn’t have to be used in every formulation of the Trinity. There are many in the UCC who prefer to use non-sexist language for God, especially when that language already exists in scripture, which is the simple explanation for the change in language. Bringing up the Arian heresy is nothing but a red herring.

    That said, there WAS a parliamentary error made in not allowing an amendment to correct an error that only replaced the “Father” language with “Triune God” rather than replacing the complete “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language with “Triune God,” but I’m confident that this grammatical mistake will be fixed at the next meeting of the General Synod. Suggesting that this was an intentional theological shift, as Starke does, or likening it to a Nazi plan is nothing but paranoid conspiracy theory mongering.

    • Collin Hansen

      Not a scrap of factual information? You acknowledged yourself in the last paragraph that the UCC replaced “Father” with “Triune God.” I do hope that egregious mistake is corrected by the UCC, as you say it will. I’m not sure I understand how a mistake of this magnitude could slip by the entire General Synod. Can you help us understand? Why did this particular phrase replace “Father” and not “Holy Spirit,” for example? No one here objects to the title “Triune God.” The only question is whether the title can stand in for one particular person of the Trinity alongside the other two.

      You also observed that many in the UCC “prefer to use non-sexist language for God.” Does God using gender-specific language for himself amount to sexism on his part? What do we make of Jesus praying to his heavenly Father? If removing such supposedly sexist language from descriptions of God is as popular in the UCC as you say it is, then this most recent mistake might not be evidence of a new shift. But it would reveal a departure from historic orthodoxy nevertheless.

  • Paul Bryant-Smith

    Collin, let me address your questions in reverse order.

    Scripture uses LOTS of metaphors for God (in all three persons). Rock, Creator, Provider, Mother Hen, Defense Attorney (Paraclete): I could spend all night listing them. While it is true that scripture also uses plenty of male titles, there’s no requirement in scripture that we use only those. I’d hope that my earlier quote from 2 Corinthians would address that.

    The issue of why the “Triune God” line replaced only the “Father” language is a strange accident of parliamentary procedure. As the delegates to General Synod represent the associations from which they come, it was ruled unacceptable to make “substantive changes” to the proposed Constitutional amendments, since the delegates would not have had an opportunity to discuss the changes with their constituents.

    There was discussion on the floor to use “Triune God” rather than listing the three persons of the Trinity, but it was ruled out of order for the reason I mentioned above. There was, at the same time, a pressing issue of restructuring of the UCC boards, which would have been imprudent to delay, so nobody wanted to delay the restructuring simply on the basis of a grammatical glitch. It was, at the time, discussed that the UCC is – and has always been – Trinitarian in its theology.

    This entire “theological controversy” was brewed up by David Runion-Bareford, who is the prime motivator for the “Biblical Witness Fellowship,” which is an extremely conservative (Dare I even say “fundamentalist”) movement within the UCC, whose sole purpose for existing is to denigrate the denomination, with its very name suggesting that the UCC has abandoned the Bible. John Starke has simply repeated Runion-Bareford’s skewed assertions, adding a couple of his own creative twists. There has been no departure from orthodoxy, just from objective reporting on the part of Runion-Bareford and Starke.

    For a more objective take, you might find it interesting to read the USA Today article on the topic:

    • John Starke

      Hi Paul,

      I did distinguish the error of the UCC with the Arian heresy in my piece. I only used the Arians as a lesson and a more egregious consequence of not using “Father.”

      Also, we must admit the there certainly are many metaphors for God in the Bible, but “Father” or even “Son” is not a metaphor, but they are the names—or even the NAME of God. Certainly, we can use “God” and “Lord” or even Triune God when we refer to him, but to say he is not “Father” or not “Son”—or even making this optional—is denying something fundamental to the Triune God. So while you may “accept” the traditional formula and baptisms that have been been done in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have made something that is fundamental to God an option.

      Without the name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you can call yourself Trinitarian, but it won’t be the Triune God of the Bible. Please don’t hear me saying that you are an Arian, but to take away or make optional something that explains the eternal relationships among the persons of the Trinity is a serious problem and foreign to the Bible.

      • Paul Bryant-Smith


        I find your argument to be a curious one. If you recall your Hebrew, the name of God is not “Father” but “YHWH,” which means “I Am what I Am” or “I Will Be what I Will Be.” Certainly, this is not the name of a God who can be pinned down by a single moniker like “Father.” One of the classic mistakes in theology is to try to place God in a box and to insist that there is only one way to understand God.

        You make a HUGE misstatement in saying that not using “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is to not be properly and Biblically Trinitarian. Again, I’m going to reference Paul’s Trinitarian benediction in 2 Corinthians where he offered “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Communion the Holy Spirit…” Are you for a second suggesting that the Apostle Paul wasn’t sufficiently Trinitarian or that he was (and I’m trying to get my mind around how you could possibly believe this) insufficiently Biblical??? Also, given the richness of names that are used for God in the Bible, are you also suggesting that, unless someone calls God “Father” and ONLY “Father,” that they’re insufficiently Trinitarian and un-Biblical? I certainly hope that your theology isn’t that limited.

        • Collin Hansen

          We’re not going to get anywhere in this discussion if you persist in putting words in other people’s mouths. Your apparent agitation suggests an unwillingness or inability to answer the questions at hand and consider viewpoints you do not tolerate. No one but you has suggested that only “Father” is acceptable. No one but you has suggested that we must refer to the Triune God in every instance as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

          Meanwhile, you have not defended your curious view that the name “Father” is merely a metaphor. Yes, the Bible describes God in many ways. And no, not every one of these descriptions is a name. Nor have you answered whether or not you see this name as optional or insignificant in Trinitiarian formulations. We all know Paul does not use the word Father in 2 Corinthians 13:4. But your proof texting holds little weight, since Father appears repeatedly in the Pauline corpus as a name for God, including three times in 2 Corinthians alone.

        • John Starke

          I think you may need to read my post again and my comment. I tried to be clear (sorry if I wasn’t), that “Father” or even “Son” are not the only names you can call them. God and Lord are sufficient as well. But the Bible is very clear that “Father” and “Son” are names that identify the individual persons of the Trinity. To deny that he is “Father” or make it optional is to deny something fundamental to God. So if we use the word “God” or “Lord,” it must always with be with the knowledge that the first person of the Trinity is Father and the second person is Son.

          You are right to say that the OT (and NT) name for God is YHWH, “I AM.” But the NT’s fuller revelation of the identity of YHWH is trinitarian. So that, in Matthew 28:19, we baptize in the name (NAME, singular!) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The individual names are fundamental to the identity of each persons.

          Whether we call him “Father” or not, that is who he is. That is his name, not a metaphor.

  • J.R.

    Mr. Starke,
    I also think you misrepresented the gist of the Arian heresy.

    “Arianism is the theological teaching attributed to Arius (ca. AD 250–336), a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt, concerning the relationship of the entities of the Trinity (‘God the Father’, ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit’) and the precise nature of the Son of God as being a subordinate entity to God the Father. Deemed a heretic by the First Council of Nicaea of 325, Arius was later exonerated in 335 at the First Synod of Tyre,[1] and then, after his death, pronounced a heretic again at the First Council of Constantinople of 381.[2] The Roman Emperors Constantius II (337–361) and Valens (364–378) were Arians or Semi-Arians. The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by—and is therefore distinct from and inferior to—God the Father.” – Theopedia.

    I don’t think that it is fair for the TGC to charge the UCC with tampering with the Trinity by reference to the Arian heresy, whilst at the same time promoting the exact thing that Arius taught – ie, trinitarian subordination. For sure, the UCC is on a false trajectory, but we should be examining the plank in our own eye as well, especially the false distinction between function. That was the same platform used by supporters of Arius to oppose wording in the Nicene Creed.
    (btw, Trinitarian subordination is not necessary to effectively argue against female ordination.)

  • J.R.

    Sorry, that should read, “the false distinction between function and essence”

  • anon

    Plenty of arguments so far, certainly by some who think they are smarter than us poor dumb Bible believers. I know that if a so called “fundamentalist” were to proof text you would be all over them. You are also guilty of trying to change the topic several times which would not be allowed in formal debate for the very reason that it is off topic. So let’s not proof text or go off topic. The context of the Bible, and we do want to be contextual don’t we, is God is the heavenly father. As early as Exodus 4:22 “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son,” God is referenced as a father and there are many, many more times. The argument is not whether or not He is God the Father, but rather why you do not want to honor Him as such. The answer, as I see it, is He is not the God you choose to honor, but rather one of your own creation. If you have created your own trinitarian god then you do not have to honor Him as He is not your God. You may then go about the business of writing new scripture with the flashy advertising campaigns of “God is still speaking.” Interesting how long it took for anyone in UCC leadership to acknowledge that this was a “new word.” Getting people use to the concept then delivering the new scripture. What is being ignored is the change to the constitution of the UCC that makes the General Minister the interpreter of theology, WOW, that is a lot of power in a church writing new scripture.

    • meredith nienhuis

      Amen Anon! Many are the false teachers who posit that the Bible needs “interpretation” according to the whims and ways of contemporary culture. God has clearly spoken, but some still hear thunder and speak a gospel other than Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • Paul Bryant-Smith

    When I posted my initial critique of the above article, I failed to realize quite how conservative this website and its readers are. Clearly, my moderate-left theology has stirred up a hornets’ nest of folks who believe that those who don’t believe exactly as they do are not really Christians — or at least not Trinitarian, though I’m not sure that there is really a distinction here.

    It was my intent to point out that, contrary to the title of the article, the United Church of Christ didn’t “Lose Jesus” when we opted for the term “Triume God” over “Father.” In fact, Jesus is in the next clause of the UCC’s Constitution and Bylaws. I now understand that what was meant by the article’s title is that the author does not believe the UCC to be Christian because our governance documents the use of “Triune God” instead of “Father” — even though we affirm baptism in the name “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    I find myself mystified at the charge of “proof texting.” I wonder what the response would have been had I NOT cited scripture in evidence of my assertion that there is more than one way that Biblical texts deal with the Trinity, particularly in light of how few Trinitarian formulations there are within the actual text of the Bible.

    At any rate, I find that this conversation is not productive. I somehow doubt that anyone involved in this discussion, myself included, is likely to change their opinion; we’re simply starting from positions that are too far distant from one another. I will, therefore, withdraw so that I can spend my time engaging in ministry, rather than debating the minutiae of Trinitarian theology.

    Though our theology differs, I pray tht you will all be blessed by our Triune God, the One who created us, who redeems us, and who sustains us.

  • Roger Wolsey

    Curious. Well, according to his logic, the author of the article, should have no problem with us referring to God as “Mother.” This still allows Jesus to be the Son. But, my guess is, that he doesn’t really embrace that logic, but rather tradition for its own sake. It is a grave problem when we forget that all theological language is imperfect and is ultimately metaphorical. It is a problem trying to worship an impersonal, generic God, this is why Jesus referred to God as “Abba” (Aramaic for “papa”). That conveys that God is LIKE a really intimate parent to us. But He could’ve used Ama just as easily — except that he knew that a female metaphor wouldn’t fly in that patriarchal culture. Would that we’d shed ourselves from patriarchal trappings which are NOT essentials of our faith.

    • John Starke

      Roger, I’m not sure there was an anti-female scenario in the OT/NT. How many idols were “goddesses” in that time? Most, actually, and the Jews were drawn to worship them throughout their history. Richard Bauckhaam has written on that fallacy in other places.

      It could be that God just is who he says he is.

  • Matt

    You not only lose Jesus but every born again Christian adopted as sons.We still need a Father,otherwise who adopted us,our triune guardian?

  • carl

    There are two things I find interesting.

    1. Replacing Father with Triune God or Trinity. This does not make any sense since the Father is not the Triune God. The Father is not the Son and not the Holy Spirit although they are one. So at the very least if this is done then the UCC are heretics because of partripassionism (the view that the Father suffered and dies on the cross). By saying Triune God then all 3 persons would have dies on the cross. That is heresy. Jesus Christ died on the cross. Not the Father or the Spirit.

    2. The second thing that puzzles me is that the UCC is replacing a non-scriptural description of God for a biblical name for God. I am not against using the word Trinity or Triune God but it is not used in scripture. Thus I find it odd to replace a word from scripture with one not from scripture. This might not necessarily be wrong every time but it is interesting especially since it was presumbly promoted by one from “Biblical Witness Fellowship.”

    3. I do not think that the article really understood the arian conflict but overall the article seemed right on. And like many others it is interesting that denominations think that the Father, Son language is sexist but it is the language often used by Jesus to speak aobut Himself and his relationship to God. hmm.

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  • Benton


    Good insight. I was glad to see you respond–several times–appropriately with grace and truth. Collin, also. This is something I struggle with as I begin to write more extensively on God’s Word and the biblical worldview. I fear being too judgmental and harsh, or too “gracious” and soft.

    Then again, God prepares those He calls and it would seem that preparation requires sacrifice and surrender. I am curious if this gets easier with time, or do you struggle with how to respond?

    In Christ,

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