Headquarters Indianapolis, Indiana
|Associations Churches Uniting in Christ, Christian Churches Together, National Council of Churches, World Council of Churches, World Convention of Churches of Christ|
Region The United States and Canada with partner churches worldwide
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States in the Reformed tradition. It is often referred to as The Christian Church, The Disciples of Christ, or as The Disciples. The Christian Church was a charter participant in the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and of the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), and it continues to be engaged in ecumenical conversations.
- First national convention and missionary movement
- Beliefs and practices
- Human Sexuality
- Regional ministries
- General Ministries
- Chalice logo
- Membership trends
- Affiliated academic institutions
- Universities and colleges
- Seminaries and theological institutions
- Ecumenical relations
- Prominent members
The Disciples' local churches are congregationally governed. In 2008 there were 679,563 members in 3,714 congregations in North America. For 2012, their Yearbook & Directory claimed 625,252 members in 3,627 congregations. In 2015, Pew Research estimated .3% of the U.S population, or roughly 735,000 adult adherents, self-identify with the mainline tradition which is significantly higher than the official membership of 497,423, of whom about 306,905 are active, while roughly 177,141 people attend services each week. The WCC also reports, with higher figures, that the denomination has up to 830,000 members in the US and 2,606 in Canada.
The name, Disciples of Christ, is shared by three other groups, The Churches of Christ, the Independent Christian churches and churches of Christ, and the Christian Congregation. They emerged from the same roots. The Stone-Campbell movement began as two separate threads, each without knowledge of the other, during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. The first of these two groups, led by Barton W. Stone began at Cane Ridge, Bourbon County, Kentucky. The group called themselves simply Christians. The second, began in western Pennsylvania and Virginia (now West Virginia), led by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell. Because the founders wanted to abandon all denominational labels, they used the biblical names for the followers of Jesus that they found in the Bible.
In 1801, the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky planted the seed for a movement in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley to disassociate from denominationalism. In 1803 Stone and others withdrew from the Kentucky Presbytery and formed the Springfield Presbytery. The defining event of the Stone wing of the movement was the publication of the 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 Westminster Confession of Faith.
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, (Pennsylvania) 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 the same beliefs in 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 that 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 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.
The two groups united at High Street Meeting House, Lexington, Kentucky, with a handshake between Barton W. Stone and "Raccoon" John Smith, on Saturday, December 31, 1831. Smith had been chosen, by those present, to speak on behalf of the followers of the Campbells. While contemporaneous accounts are clear that the handshake took place on Saturday, some historians have changed the date of the merger to 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.
With the merger, there was the challenge of what to call the new movement. Clearly, finding a Biblical, non-sectarian name was important. Stone wanted to continue to use the name "Christians." Alexander Campbell insisted upon "Disciples of Christ". Walter Scott and Thomas Campbell sided with Stone, but the younger Campbell had strong reasons and would not yield. As a result, both names were used. The confusion over names has been present ever since. Prior to the 1906 separation, congregations would typically be named "Disciples of Christ," "Christian Church," and "Church of Christ." However, there are different practices by each. More than the name separates each church example:"Independent Christian Church" will not accept a woman as a minister when some of the "Disciples of Christ" congregation will. These different congregations (Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, and Independent Church) share many of the same beliefs and practices but there are, in fact, differences.
First national convention and missionary movement
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 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 did not reflect a consensus of the entire movement. Sponsorship of missionary activities 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 in church worship was straying too far from their conception of the early church. After the American Civil War, the schism grew. While there was no disagreement over the need for evangelism, many believed that missionary societies were not authorized by scripture and would compromise the autonomy of local congregations. This became one important factor leading to the separation of the Churches of Christ from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
From the beginning of the movement, the free exchange of ideas among the people was fostered by the journals published by its leaders. Alexander Campbell published The Christian Baptist and The Millennial Harbinger. Barton W. Stone published The Christian Messenger. In a respectful way, both men routinely published the contributions of others whose positions were radically different from their own.
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.
In 1906, the U.S. Religious Census listed Churches of Christ for the first time as a group which was separate and distinct from the Disciples of Christ. However, the division had been growing for years, with published reports as early as 1883. The most obvious distinction between the two groups was the Churches of Christ rejecting the use of musical instruments in worship. The controversy over musical instruments began in 1860, when some congregations introduced organs, traditionally associated with wealthier, denominational churches. More basic were the underlying approaches to Biblical interpretation. The Churches of Christ permitted only those practices found in accounts of New Testament worship. They could find no New Testament documentation of the use of instrumental music in worship. The Disciples, by contrast, considered permissible any practices that the New Testament did not expressly forbid.
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 by the Churches of Christ, additional controversies arose. Should missionary efforts be cooperative or should they be independently sponsored by congregations? Should new methods of Biblical analysis, developed in the late 19th century, be embraced in the study and interpretation of the Bible? The "cooperative" churches were generally more likely to adopt the new biblical study methods.
During the first half of the 20th century, these opposing factions among the Christian Churches coexisted but with growing discomfort and tension. Among the cooperative churches, the three Missionary Societies merged into the United Christian Missionary Society in 1920. Human service ministries grew through the National Benevolent Association and provided assistance to orphans, the elderly and the disabled. By mid century, the cooperative Christian Churches and the independent Christian Churches were following different paths.
Following World War II, it became obvious that the organizations that had been developed in previous decades no longer effectively met the needs of the postwar era. After a number of discussions throughout the 1950s, the 1960 International Convention of Christian Churches adopted a process to "restructure" the entire organization. The Commission on Restructure, chaired by Granville T. Walker, held its first meeting on October 30 & November 1, 1962. In 1968, the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) adopted the commission's proposed "Provisional Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)." Soon the Provisional Design became "The Design."
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 Christian churches and churches of Christ.
The modern disciples have been described as "a Reformed North American Mainstream Moderate Denomination."
Beliefs and practices
As an integral part of worship in most Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations members celebrate the Lord's Supper. Most congregations also sing hymns, read from the Old and New Testaments of Christian Scripture, hear the word of God proclaimed through sermon or other medium and extend an invitation to become Christ's Disciples. As a congregational church, each congregation determines the nature of its worship, study, Christian service, and witness to the world. Through the observance of communion, individuals are invited to acknowledge their faults and sins, to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to remember their baptism, and to give thanks for God's redeeming love. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) believes that it is in the local congregations where people come, find, and know God as they gather in Christ's name. Because Disciples believe that the invitation to the table comes from Jesus Christ, communion is open to all who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, regardless of their denominational affiliation.
For most Disciples, communion is understood as the symbolic presence of Jesus within the gathered community. Most Disciple congregations practice believer's baptism in the form of immersion, believing it to be the form used in the New Testament. The experiences of yielding to Christ in being buried with him in the waters of baptism and rising to a new life, have profound meaning for the church.
Marco Antonio de Dominis, De Repubblica Ecclesiastica, adopted as the 19th Century slogan of the Stone-Campbell Movement
For modern Disciples the one essential is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and obedience to him 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. Hierarchical doctrine was traditionally rejected by Disciples as human-made and divisive, and subsequently, freedom of belief and scriptural interpretation allows many Disciples to question or even deny beliefs common in doctrinal churches such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Atonement. 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 being disciples seriously, meaning that they are 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," that is, 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.
consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ
and obedience to him in all things...."
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 continues to relate to the National Council of Churches, of which it was a founding member. It shares in the dialog and in the theological endeavors of the World Council of Churches. The Disciples has 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 the 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 2011, the denomination stated that "Disciples do not have a formal policy on same-sex marriage. Different congregations have the autonomy to discern on issues such as this one". In 2013, the Disciples of Christ voted in favor of a resolution affirming all members regardless of sexual orientation. After same-sex marriage was legalized in the US, the denomination reiterated that it leaves "all decisions of policy on same-sex marriage to local congregations."
Congregations of the Christian Church are self-governing in the tradition of congregational polity. They select their own leadership, own their own property, and manage their own affairs.
In Disciples congregations, the priesthood of all believers finds its expression in worship and Christian service. Typically, lay persons who have been elected and ordained as Elders preside with called and installed ordained pastors in the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Elders and called Pastors provide spiritual oversight and care for members in partnership with one another.
The Regional Churches of the Christian Church provide resources for leadership development and opportunities for Christian fellowship beyond the local congregation. They have taken responsibility for the nurture and support of those individuals seeking to discern God's call to service as ordained or licensed ministers. Typically, they organize summer camping experiences for children and youth.
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.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at the "General Church" level consists of a number of self-governing agencies, which focus upon specific Christian witnesses to the world that have emerged in the dialog within the movement since before the first convention in 1849. Typically, these ministries have a scope that is larger than Regional Ministries, and often have a global perspective. The church agencies report to the General Assembly, which meets biennially in odd numbered years. The General Minister and President (GMP) is the designated leader for the General Church, but does not have the administrative authority to direct any of the general church agencies other than "The Office of General Minister and President." The GMP has influence that derives from the respect of the church much as the pastor of a local church leads a local congregation.
The General Ministries are:
One highly popular and respected General Agency program is the "Week of Compassion," named for the special offering to fund the program when it began in the 1950s. 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 2020 Vision for the first two decades of the 21st Century. Together the denomination is well on the way to achieving its four 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 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.
The logo of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a red chalice with a white St. Andrew's Cross. The chalice represents the centrality of Communion to the life of the church. The cross of Saint Andrew is a reminder of the ministry of each person and the importance of evangelism, and recalls the denomination's Scottish Presbyterian ancestry.
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, a commercial artist and member of Central Christian Church 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.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has experienced a significant loss of membership since the middle of the 20th century. Membership peaked in 1958 at just under 2 million. In 1993, membership dropped below 1 million. In 2009, the denomination reported 658,869 members in 3,691 congregations. As of 2010, the five states with the highest adherence rates were Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Kentucky and Oklahoma. The states with the largest absolute number of adherents were Missouri, Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
Affiliated academic institutions
From the very beginnings of the movement, Disciples have founded institutions of higher learning. Alexander Campbell taught young leaders and founded Bethany College. The movement established similar schools, especially in the years following the American Civil War.
Because intellectual and religious freedom are important values for the Disciples of Christ, the colleges, universities, and seminaries founded by its congregations 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 purview of Higher Education and Leadership Ministries (HELM), an agency of the General Church.
Universities and colleges
Seminaries and theological institutions
The Disciples of Christ maintains ecumenical relations with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It is also affiliated with other ecumenical organizations such as Churches Uniting in Christ, Christian Churches Together, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. It maintains Ordained Ministerial Partner Standing with the United Church of Christ, which means that clergy ordained in the Disciples of Christ may also serve in the United Church of Christ.