Our Denominational Heritage

Where does your name come from? Aren’t all churches Christian?” How did your denomination get started?

In the American frontier state of Kentucky, during the early 1800’s, a group of Christians formed a revival movement to end denominations and to return to the practices and unity of the First Century Church. 

They called themselves “The Disciples of Christ,” and began discussions with a similar association of churches that called themselves simply “The Christian Church.” 

Eventually, the two groups merged to become “The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),” and the unity movement to end denominational divisions became a denomination in the forefront of ecumenical dialogue.

 

That was then. Who Are You Now?

Today, The United States, and the whole world has cultural frontiers of their own, and Disciples are there to bridge the cultural rifts with a faith that says “You’re a fellow child of God and we’ll treat you that way.”

Our Loyalty to Christ is greater than any political affiliation: (Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were both Disciples, yet different politically. Incidentally, President James Garfield was not only a Disciples member but the only American President who was also an ordained minister. He was also the first president to be assassinated. )

You’ll find a similarly wide spectrum of opinion in any Disciples church, but we have learned to get along. You will find Disciples on either side of any cultural divide you can imagine, and yet we find ways to stay in working contact with each other.

In our own time, the United States that is very polarized politically, socially, and religiously.  The Disciples want to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. We seek and meet others on the growth edge of our society today, beyond prejudices, beyond labels, beyond unfair expectations, in a place of faith, friendship, openness, and mutual spiritual exploration. 

We have a history of variety. There is a place for you in our fellowship.

 

 

Give me some more specifics about your national presence. 

There are more than 1 million members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States, Puerto Rico, Jamaica,  and Canada, and in the People’s Republic of the Congo

In Michigan, there are over 8,000 members in 40 congregations. 

All Disciples churches celebrate Communion weekly. 

We love potlucks and singing, laughter and honest talk. 

We are open-minded and curious about many things.

We are always reading and discussing Scripture, looking for new insights and raising new questions. The Bible survives all attempts to replace it with a single “interpretation.” The Spirit always leads to fresh insight. 

 

What are some highlights from your national history?

Today, we are more than a million members in 3800 congregations in the U.S. and Canada. 

We are also a worldwide missionary force, especially strong in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Our national goal is 1000 new congregations by the year 2020. We’re more than halfway there. 

We began as a frontier church, spreading across the United States as the frontier moved west. Members of many denominations joined our churches, attracted by the spirit of unity and the desire to follow Biblical principles rather than “Man-made inventions.”

We were the fastest growing denomination in America during the 19th century. 

We were also the only major denomination that did not split during the American Civil War. (One of our founders, Alexander Campbell had a plan to avoid bloodshed: end slavery by purchasing and freeing slaves at Federal Treasury expense.)

We are a melting pot church. Many members have backgrounds in other denominations (especially Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist). We are a multi-ethnic church.

 

“Where the Scriptures speak, we speak. Where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all people to the Lord’s Table, as God has welcomed us. 

 

We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, requiring nothing more -- and nothing less --as a basis of our life together.

We hold the centrality of Scripture, recognizing that each person has the freedom -- and the responsibility -- to study God’s Word within the community of the church.

We practice the baptism of believers, stressing that the way of Christ can be spiritually costly, while also recognizing the baptism performed in other churches.

We structure our community around the Biblical idea of covenant, emphasizing not obedience to human authority but accountability to one another because of our shared obedience to Christ.

We participate in God’s mission for the world, working with partners to heal brokenness, reconcile divisions, and bring justice to the whole human family.

We celebrate the diversity of our common life, recognizing our different histories, styles of worship, and forms of service.

(Excerpted from our denomination’s “Disciples of Christ Identity Statement, 21st Century Vision Team, August 2007)

 

 

Here are some Biblical Principles That Guide Us:

 

The Great Confession

Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,

and we proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world

(Matthew 16:16, Philippians 2:11, 1 John 4:14)

 

The Great Commandment

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

and with all your soul and with all your mind.

This is the great and first commandment.

And a second is like it:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

(Matthew 22:37-39)

 

The Great Commission

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,

baptizing the in the name of the Father and of the Son

and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe 

all that I have commanded you.

(Matthew 28:19-20a)

 

Here is a statement of common purpose from our denomination: 

 

  • We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

What does that mean?

  • We practice unity and inclusion at the Lord’s Table for the sake of mission and for the sake of the world as the one family of God. Most congregations do this by celebrating communion every Sunday. That’s why we use a chalice as our logo.
  • We practice believer baptism – that a person makes the choice to follow God’s call rather than the choice being made for them as an infant. Baptism is the basis of membership in the Church and also a mark that every person is called to serve God – the idea of the “priesthood of all believers.”
  • We honor our heritage as a movement for Christian unity by cooperating and partnering with other faith communities to work for bringing about wholeness – healing and justice – in the world. This is what it means to be “ecumenical.” One example is our cooperative work with the United Church of Christ in Global Ministries for the past 25 years and our newer effort to share staff in the area of family ministries.
  • We are called to study and read scripture for ourselves. Rather than having tests of faith and creedal statements, we critically and thoughtfully study scripture, taking into account the history and background – the context – in which it was written.
  • We also honor the heritage of Christian unity by staying together in covenant as a witness to the world that even when we disagree we can still make room, welcoming all to the table as Christ has welcomed us. Our spiritual ancestors were fond of saying, “unity, not uniformity.”
  • We move to answer God’s call for justice particularly in the areas of care for the earth, the challenges for women and children, poverty and hunger and immigration. We seek to do this work in cooperation with other people of faith. Some say we “get dirty for Jesus” as a way of conveying the hands-on mission orientation of many of our faith communities.

 

These traits were summed up by former General Minister and President Dick Hamm when he identified the marks of a faithful church as true community, deep Christian spirituality and a passion for justice.

 

Here is a statement of Common Disciples Beliefs: 

 

Principles of Disciples Identity (prepared by the 21st century Vision Team to accompany the Disciples “Statement of Identity,” 2009)

1. We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world, requiring nothing more - and nothing less - as a basis of our life together.

2. We hold the centrality of scripture, recognizing that each person has the freedom - and the responsibility - to study God’s Word within the community of the church.

3. We practice the baptism of believers, which emphasizes that God’s grace demands a response of faith and discipleship, while also recognizing the baptism performed in other churches.

4. We gather for the Lord’s Supper, as often as possible, experiencing at this table the gracious, forgiving presence of Jesus Christ.

5. We structure our community around the biblical idea of covenant, emphasizing not obedience to human authority but accountability to one another because of our shared obedience to Christ.

6. We participate in God’s mission for the world, working with partners to heal the brokenness of creation and bring justice and peace to the whole human family.

7. We hear a special calling to make visible the unity of all Christians, proclaiming that in our diversity we belong to one another because we commonly belong to Christ.

8. We witness to the Gospel of God’s saving love for the world in Jesus Christ, while continuing to struggle with how God’s love may be known to others in different ways.

9. We affirm the priesthood of all believers, rejoicing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit - which include the gift of leadership - that God has given for the common good. 10. We celebrate the diversity of our common life, affirming our different histories,

styles of worship, and forms of service. 11. We give thanks that each congregation, where Christ is present through faith, is

truly the church, affirming as well that God’s church and God’s mission stretch

from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth. 12. We anticipate God’s coming reign, seeking to serve the God - Creator, Redeemer,

and Sustainer - whose loving dominion has no end.

 

Historically, how have the Disciples promoted Christian Unity across denominations? 

Thomas and Alexander Campbell, a Scottish Presbyterian father and son in Pennsylvania, rebelled against the dogmatic sectarianism that kept members of different denominations - and even factions within the same denomination - from partaking of the Lord's Supper together.

Barton W. Stone in Kentucky, also a Presbyterian, objected to the use of creeds as tests of "fellowship" within the church, which were a cause of disunity, especially at the Lord’s table.

"Christians," the name adopted by Stone's movement, represented what he felt to be a shedding of denominational labels in favor of a scriptural and inclusive term. Campbell had similar reasons for settling on "Disciples of Christ" but he felt the term "Disciples" less presumptuous than "Christians."

The aims and practices of the two groups were similar, and the Campbell and Stone movements united in 1832 after about a quarter of a century of separate development.

The founders of the Christian Church hoped to restore Christian unity by returning to New Testament faith and practices. But the church found that even this led to division. One group which opposed practices not specifically authorized by the New Testament, such as instrumental music in the church and organized missionary activity, gradually pulled away. That group finally was listed separately in the 1906 federal religious census as the "Churches of Christ."

Another group remained with the Disciples but began a separation in 1926 over what it felt were too liberal policies on the mission field in the practice of baptism. More than 40 years later (1967-69) some 3,000 of those congregations formally withdrew at the time of Disciples restructure. They refer to themselves as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

A Heritage of Openness: The Disciples have a long heritage of openness to other Christian traditions - having come into existence as sort of a 19th century protest movement against denominational exclusiveness.  At the local level and beyond, Disciples are frequently involved in cooperative and ecumenical work.

In 1910, the Disciples established the Council on Christian Unity, the first denomination in the world to have an organization devoted to the pursuit of Christian unity.  Disciples helped organize the National and World Councils of Churches. The denomination also contributed the first lay president of the National Council (1960-63) - Indiana industrialist J. Irwin Miller.

The Rev. Paul A. Crow Jr., retired president of the Council on Christian Unity, the Rev. Michael K. Kinnamon, now General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, along with the Rev. Patrice Rosner are Disciples who served as chief executives of the Consultation on Church Union - now Churches Uniting in Christ  (CUIC) – which is striving for visible unity.

Disciples have given leadership to the establishment of a new ecumenical venture in the U.S. called Christian Churches Together (CCT) that brings together Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians.  The Rev. Richard L. Hamm, former General Minister and President, was CCT's first full-time executive.

In 1989, the Disciples and the United Church of Christ declared that "a relationship of full communion now exists between our two churches." The ecumenical partnership rests on five pillars of acceptance and cooperation: a common confession of Christ; mutual recognition of members; common celebration of the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion; mutual recognition and reconciliation of ordained ministries; and common commitment to mission.

Joint work between the Disciples' Division of Overseas Ministries and the UCC's Wider Church Ministries (formerly known as United Church Board for World Ministries), dates from 1967. World mission for both churches is now carried out by the Common Global Ministries Board, established in 1995. In 2012, we had 46 fully supported missionaries and nine Global Mission interns.

In keeping with their ecumenical mission, the Disciples have approximately 270 international church partners in close to 70 countries. Global Ministries also placed 14 long-term Volunteers, 37 Overseas Associates and 23 short-term volunteers in 2012.

In the wider ecumenical movement, Disciples have held theological conversations with the Roman Catholic Church and with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

 

 

For detailed information about our denominational tradition, please go to www.disciples.org.

 

Also visit the homepage of the 

DISCIPLES OF CHRIST HISTORICAL SOCIETY