The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a Mainline Protestant denomination in North America. It is often referred to as The Christian Church, The Disciples of Christ, or more simply as The Disciples. It has made significant contributions to worldwide Christianity through the evangelistic work of its missionary societies and through participation in the ecumenical dialog of the 20th century. The Christian Church was a charter participant in the formation of both the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), and continues to be engaged in ecumenical conversations.
The Disciples' congregationally-governed local churches invite people to practice a simple faith that proclaims Jesus Christ and celebrates the freedom as Jesus' disciples to explore God's call to his people to love and to serve.
At the end of 2005 there were about 723,000 members in 3,777 congregations in North America.
The defining event of the Stone wing of the movement was the publication of Last Will and Testament of The Springfield Presbytery, at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1804. The Last Will is a brief document in which Stone and five others announced their withdrawal from Presbyterianism and their intention to be solely part of the body of Christ. The writers appealed for the unity of all who follow Jesus, suggested the value of congregational self-governance, and lifted the Bible as the source for understanding the will of God. They denounced the divisive use of the Augsburg Confession.
Soon, they adopted the name "Christian" to identify their group. Thus, the remnants of the Springfield Presbytery became the Christian Church. It is estimated that the Christian Church numbered about 12,000 by 1830.
Independently of Stone, the Campbell wing of the movement was launched when Thomas Campbell published the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington, in 1809. The Presbyterian Synod had suspended his ministerial credentials. In The Declaration and Address he set forth some of his convictions about the church of Jesus Christ, as he organized the Christian Association of Washington, not as a church but as an association of persons seeking to grow in faith. On May 4, 1811, however, the Christian Association constituted itself as a congregationally governed church. With the building it then constructed at Brush Run, it became known as Brush Run Church.
When their study of the New Testament led the reformers to begin to practice Baptism by Immersion, the nearby Redstone Baptist Association invited Brush Run Church to join with them for the purpose of fellowship. The reformers agreed provided that they would be "allowed to preach and to teach whatever they learned from the Scriptures.
Thus began a sojourn for the reformers among the Baptists within the Redstone Baptist Association (1815-1824). While the reformers and the Baptists shared Baptism by Immersion and Congregational polity, it was soon clear that the reformers were not traditional Baptists. Within the Redstone Association, the differences became intolerable to some of the Baptist leaders, when Alexander Campbell began publishing a journal, The Christian Baptist, promoting reform. Campbell anticipated the conflict and moved his membership to a congregation of the Mahoning Baptist Association in 1824.
In 1827, the Mahoning Association appointed reformer Walter Scott as an Evangelist. Through Scott’s efforts, the Mahoning Association grew rapidly. In 1828, Thomas Campbell visited several of the congregations formed by Scott and heard him preach. The elder Campbell realized the Scott was bringing an important new dimension to the movement with his approach to evangelism.
Several Baptist associations began disassociating congregations that refused to subscribe to the Philadelphia Confession. The Mahoning Association itself came under attack. In 1830, The Mahoning Baptist Association disbanded. Alexander ceased publication of the Christian Baptist. In January 1831, he began publication of the Millennial Harbinger.
Both threads sought to find the unity of the church in the simple acknowledgment that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, and an acceptance of Him as Lord. Both were opposed to the use of Creeds as a test of faith. The simple confession that Jesus Christ is Lord was believed to unite all Christians. Man-made creeds were seen as divisive.
Both groups looked to the New Testament church to discover the practices that united the early church. The term, The Restoration Movement, has been used to describe this interest in restoring the New Testament church. In their reading of the Scriptures, both groups found that the early church gathered on the first day of the week "for the breaking of bread," and began to celebrate the Lord's Supper every week.
In their study of the Bible, both groups believed that Baptism in the New Testament was for believers by immersion in water. They adopted the practice in their churches.
The two groups united at High Street Meeting House, Lexington, Kentucky with a handshake between Barton W. Stone and "Raccoon" John Smith, Saturday, December 31, 1831. Smith had been chosen, by those present, to speak in behalf of the followers of the Campbells. While contemporaneous accounts are clear that the handshake took place on Saturday, some historians have dated the merger for Sunday, January 1, 1832. The 1832 date has become generally accepted. The actual difference is about 20 hours.
Two representatives of those assembled were appointed to carry the news of the union to all the churches: John Rogers, for the Christians and "Raccoon" John Smith for the reformers. Despite some challenges, the merger succeeded.
During the first hundred years of the Restoration Movement, "Disciples of Christ," "Christian Church," and "Church of Christ" were all commonly used titles for congregations associated with the Campbell-Stone Movement. As interpretations, convictions, and preferences regarding a cappella and instrumental music distinguished congregations, the a cappella churches typically used "Church of Christ" to identify themselves.
In 1849, the first National Convention was held at Cincinnati, Ohio. Alexander Campbell had concerns that holding conventions would lead the movement into divisive denominationalism. He did not to attend the gathering. Among its actions, the convention elected Alexander Campbell its President and created The American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS).
The formation of a missionary society set the stage for further "co-operative" efforts. By the end of the century, The Foreign Christian Missionary Society and the Christian Women's Board of Missions were also engaged in missionary activities. Forming the ACMS clearly did not reflect a consensus of the entire movement. It became a divisive issue. In the succeeding decades, for some congregations and their leaders, co-operative work through missionary societies and the adoption of instrumental music was straying too far. After the American Civil War, the schism grew.
Following Campbell’s death in 1866, journals continued to keep the discussion and conversation alive. Between 1870 and 1900, two journals emerged as the most prominent. The Christian Standard was edited and published by Isaac Errett of Cincinnati. The Christian Evangelist was edited and published by J. H. Garrison from St. Louis. The two men enjoyed a friendly rivalry, and kept the dialog going within the movement. A third journal became part of the conversation with the publication in 1884 of The Christian Oracle, later to become The Christian Century, with an interdenominational appeal. In 1914, Garrison’s Christian Publishing company was purchased by R. A. Long, who then established a non-profit corporation, “The Christian Board of Publication” as the Brotherhood publishing house.
After the division Disciples churches used "Christian Church" as the dominant designation for congregations. While music and the approach to missionary work were the most visible issues, there were also some deeper ones. The process that led to the separation had begun prior to the American Civil War.
Following the 1906 separation of the Churches of Christ (a cappella), controversy still existed within the movement over whether the missionary efforts should be cooperative or independently sponsored by congregations. Questions on the role of the methods of Biblical Criticism to the study and interpretation of the Bible were also among the issues in conflict.
During the first half of the 20th century the opposing factions among the Christian Churches coexisted, but with discomfort. The three Missionary Societies were merged into the United Christian Missionary Society in 1920. Human service ministries grew through the National Benevolent Association providing assistance to orphans, the elderly and the disabled.
Under the Design, all churches in the 1968 yearbook of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) were automatically recognized as part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In the years that followed, many of the Independent Christian Church Congregations requested formal withdrawal from the yearbook. Many of those congregations became part of the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.
19th Century slogan of the Campbell - Stone Movement
For modern Disciples the one essential is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and obedience in baptism. There is no requirement to give assent to any other statement of belief or creed. Nor is there any "official" interpretation of the Bible. Which allows some Disciples seminary professors to question and even deny the divinity of Jesus. Beyond the essential commitment to follow Jesus there is a tremendous freedom of belief and interpretation. As the basic teachings of Jesus are studied and applied to life, there is the freedom to interpret Jesus' teaching in different ways. As would be expected from such an approach, there is a wide diversity among Disciples in what individuals and congregations believe. It is not uncommon to find individuals who seemingly hold diametrically opposed beliefs within the same congregation affirming one another's journeys of faith as sisters and brothers in Christ.
Members and seekers are encouraged to take seriously being disciples, meaning student followers, of Jesus. Often the best teaching comes in the form, “I’ll tell you what I think, but read the Bible for yourself, and then study and pray about it. Decide in what ways God is calling you to be a follower of Jesus."
Modern Disciples reject the use of creeds as "tests of faith," i.e. as required beliefs, necessary to be accepted as a follower of Jesus. Although Disciples respect the great creeds of the church as informative affirmations of faith, they are never seen as binding. Since the adoption of The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in 1968, Disciples have celebrated a sense of unity in reading the preamble to the Design publicly. It is as a meaningful affirmation of faith, not binding upon any member. It was originally intended to remind readers that this Church seeks God through Jesus Christ, even when it adopts a design for its business affairs. Some of the denomination's best scholars have noted the inadequacy of the "Preamble" as a balanced theological statement.
Thomas Campbell - Proposition 1 of the Declaration and Address
The Disciples celebrate their oneness with all who seek God through Jesus Christ, throughout time and regardless of location. That oneness is symbolized in the open invitation to communion for all who have professed faith in Christ without regard to church affiliation.
In local communities, congregations share with churches of other denominations in joint worship and in community Christian service. Ecumenical cooperation and collaboration with other Christian Communions has long been practiced, by the Regions.
At the General Church level, the Council on Christian Unity coordinates the ecumenical activities of the church. The Disciples continue to relate to the National Council of Churches, of which it was a founding member. It shares in the dialog and theological endeavors of the World Council of Churches. Disciple have been a full participant in the Consultation on Church Union since it began in the sixties. It continues to support those ongoing conversations which have taken on the title “Churches Uniting in Christ.” The goal of these endeavors is not merger into some “Super Church,” but rather to discover ways to celebrate and proclaim the unity and oneness that is Christ's gift to his church.
In Disciples congregations, the priesthood of all believers finds expression in worship and Christian service. Typically, Lay Elders, rather than ordained ministers, preside at the Lord's Table in celebration of Communion. The lay Elders and called Pastors provide spiritual oversight and care of members in partnership with one another.
Regional churches assist congregations who are seeking ministers and ministers who are seeking congregations. Regional leadership is available on request to assist congregations that face conflict. Though they have no authority to direct the life of any congregation, the Regional Churches are analogous to the middle judicatories of other denominations. Many of these regions are experiencing financial difficulties. For example, the Regional Minister of the Illinois-Wisconsin Region left due to budget issues so other staff members could keep their jobs. There is a growing concern among some congregations that are struggling with their own budget woes that the regions need to restructure to lower their operating costs.
One highly popular and respected General Agency of the church is the “ Week of Compassion,” named for the special offering to fund the program when it began in the 1950’s. The Week of Compassion is the disaster relief and Third World development agency. It works closely with Church World Service and church related organizations in countries around the world where disasters strike, providing emergency aid.
The General Church has challenged the entire denomination to work for a 20/20 Vision for the first two decades of the 21st Century. Together the denomination is well on the way to achieving its three foci:
The relationship between the congregations, regions and the general church are detailed in The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
At the 2005 General Assembly, over 3000 delegates voted nearly unanimously to elect the Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins as General Minister and President of the denomination. Watkins was the first woman to be elected as the presiding minister of a mainline Protestant denomination.
After the 1968 General Assembly, the Administrative Committee charged a sub-committee with the task of proposing a symbol for the church. Hundreds of designs were submitted, but none seemed right. By November the Deputy General Minister and President, William Howland, suggested that the committee's staff consultant and chairperson agree on a specific proposal and bring it back to the committee: that meant Robert L. Friedly of the Office of Interpretation and Ronald E. Osborn.
On January 20, 1970, the two men sat down for lunch. With a red felt-tip pen, Osborn began to scrawl a Saint Andrew's cross circumscribed inside a chalice on his placemat.
Immediately, Friedly dispatched the crude drawing to Bruce Tilsley of Denver with the plea that he prepare an artistic version of the ideas. Tilsley responded with two or three sketches, from which was selected the now-familiar red chalice. Use of the proposed symbol became so prevalent that there was little debate when official adoption was considered at the 1971 General Assembly.
The chalice is a registered trademark of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Congregations and ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are free to use the chalice in publications, web sites and other media. Organizations not affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are asked to obtain permission
Because most congregations call themselves "Christian Churches," the chalice has become a simple way to identify Disciples of Christ Churches through signage, letterhead, and other forms of publicity.
Because intellectual and religious freedom are important values for the Disciples of Christ, the Colleges, Universities, and even Seminaries that are related to the Disciples do not seek to indoctrinate students or faculty with a sectarian point of view.
In the 21st Century, the relationship between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and its affiliated Universities is the pervue of Higher Education and Leadership Ministries (HELM), an agency of the General Church.