Characteristics of Our Churches
The family of churches known as Christian Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Churches of Christ grew out of an early 19th Century movement with origins in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Today there are congregations related to this Christian World Communion in more than 178 countries.
What are the ‘characteristics’ or ‘distinctives’ of this global family?
Today in any Christian World Communion there is great diversity in belief and practice. There are also many features of each family that are shared by the whole church of Jesus Christ. What follows is an attempt to create an overall but simple picture of who Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are and so it needs to be read as a whole. It also needs to be read in the context that no attempt is being made to separate this family from the church of Christ universal but rather to describe its place within the whole church.
So what are the marks of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ?
It is possible to choose ten major characteristics:
1. A concern for Christian Unity
2. A commitment to Evangelism and Mission
3. An emphasis on the centrality of the New Testament
4. A simple Confession of Faith
5. Believers’ Baptism
6. Weekly Communion
7. A Biblical Name
8. Congregational autonomy
9. Lay Leadership
1. A concern for Christian Unity
In the 1808 ‘Declaration and Address’ Thomas Campbell wrote that the ‘Church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one’. Another pioneer, Barton Stone, spoke of Christian unity being the ‘polar star’. The ‘Christian’ movement was a movement for unity within the fragmented and often hostile and competitive church environment of that time but ultimately became a separate movement. Today there are different understandings of how Christian unity might be understood and achieved ranging from commitment to the ecumenical movement, with some involved in dialogue and negotiation with other church families, through a belief that there is already an underlying God-given unity despite apparent division, to those who feel that they have discovered what the church should be like and that unity will come through others recognising this and joining with them.
2. A commitment to Evangelism and Mission
Unity was never an end in itself. Its desirability came out of the understanding ‘that the world could be won only if the church became one’. Today that commitment is shown both by emphasising the need for personal commitment to Jesus Christ and by a concern for peace and justice for all people. Many will balance these two emphases but often one will be emphasised much more than the other.
3. A New Testament emphasis
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are ‘People of The Book’. They believed that unity could be achieved by ‘restoring’ the New Testament Church – stripping away the accumulation of traditions that had brought about division. The authority was the scriptures – not the church. Many still like to be referred to as the ‘Restoration Movement’; others believe there are difficulties in accepting that the New Testament provides a clear unified model for the church and believe that the church must also be open to God’s present word measured against the biblical revelation. All members of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches would describe themselves as biblical but interpretation varies greatly.
4. A simple confession of faith
From Matthew 16:16 came the cornerstone question for church membership: ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ and accept him as your Lord and Saviour?’ Answering yes to that question is all that is required for membership though many congregations now have membership classes. This simple question avoided the use of – often divisive – creeds. Many today will not make any use of creeds; others will use them as a means of expressing faith – but not a test of faith.
5. Believers’ Baptism
Only people who have reached an age where they can make their own confession of faith are baptised. The means of baptism is always immersion. Many congregations will now accept into membership – by transfer – those who become church members through other traditions; other congregations are adamant that believers’ baptism is essential. Baptistries – for immersion – are features of worship facilities.
6. Weekly Communion
Again believing that they follow the New Testament model, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ celebrate communion or ‘The Lord’s Supper’ each Sunday.
7. Biblical Name
Members of the emerging 19th Century Movement wanted to be known only as ‘Christians’ or ‘Disciples of Christ’. Slogans such as ‘Christians only – but not the only Christians’ and ‘Biblical names for Biblical people’ captured this emphasis. Congregations use names such as Church (or Churches or church) of Christ, Christian Church or Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). There are also congregations within uniting churches in many areas and countries.
8. Congregational Autonomy
Members of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches live under the authority of Christ but this authority is seen as being worked out in the local congregation. For many this congregational autonomy is absolute; many others guard their autonomy jealously but have established ways of working together; many are organised in regions and/or nationally but still with a very large degree of congregational autonomy. Globally there is very limited organisation. Some countries that have nationally organised work cooperate through the ‘Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council’. The World Convention of Churches of Christ is a global fellowship which endeavours to build up fellowship and understanding within the whole family.
9. Lay Leadership
The ‘Priesthood of all Believers’ is a mark of all Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. We speak of ‘mutual ministry’. Participation by lay people in all aspects of the church’s life is a notable feature. Lay people conduct the sacraments. Women and men are seen as equal by many parts of the family but others see distinct roles for men and women. There is an employed and trained ministry with recognition varying from a ‘paid member’ to an expectation of special leadership.
‘In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things love’ is the best known slogan in our family. Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have always allowed for diversity and much of that diversity has been enriching. Diversity also allows for the possibility of intolerance and division and that unfortunately has been part of our experience. This Christian family is left with the challenge of finding for itself the unity-in-diversity it seeks for the whole church of Jesus Christ.
History of Churches of Christ
The family of churches known around the world as Christian Churches, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ began in the early part of the 19th Century – almost 200 years ago – in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
It was a time when churches tended towards legalism, authoritarianism and exclusivism.
Our movement began with a passion for the unity of this rigid and divided church. There was deep conviction that unity could not be achieved without a thorough reformation of the church of those times and that through such reform the life, faith, and order of the ‘New Testament’ church could and should be restored.
The origins of our movement can be traced back to congregations formed in the second half of the 18th Century in the United Kingdom, some of which were amongst those that came together in the first ‘cooperative’ meeting of British Churches of Christ congregations in 1842. Early British leaders included William Jones and James Wallis but they owed much to other reformers of their times.
The movement in the United States focussed around two major leaders in particular – Barton W Stone and Alexander Campbell.
Barton Stone was a Presbyterian minister at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, from 1798 and the revival he organised there in 1801 is considered a significant milestone in the religious history of the USA. The experience was a major factor leading Stone to withdraw from the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky in 1803 and then in 1804 (reflecting the desire to be ‘simply Christian’) to dissolve the new Springfield Presbytery he had created and ‘sink into union with the Body of Christ at large’. Effectively the ‘Christian Church’ of ‘Christians only, but not the only Christians’ with unity as its ‘polar star’ had been established.
At the time of the 1801 revival the Campbells were still in Ireland. Thomas Campbell, also a Presbyterian Minister, came to the United States in 1807. In 1809 because of what he saw as the scandal of Christian division he formed the Christian Association of Washington (PA) and published a classic document on Christian unity – ‘The Declaration and Address’. The first of the thirteen proposals in this foundation document of the Christian Church includes the statement that the church is ‘essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one’ – which was to become one of our important slogans.
Alexander Campbell arrived in The United States two years after his father and quickly discovered that he shared his father’s views. He became an advocate of these ideals and soon took the lead in the developing reform movement. Attempts to continue to work with the Presbyterians failed and the reformers reluctantly formed their congregation at Brush Run, Pennsylvania, into a separate church in 1811. An attempt to work with the Baptists over the next two decades also failed and by 1830 these ‘Disciples’ were a separate group.
In 1824 Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell met. Their movements came together in the famous handshake of 1832 and a period of definition and consolidation for this united movement followed. The first century was a time of significant growth and the Christian Church became the fifth largest church in the United States.
A fourth pioneer in the United States, Walter Scott made a unique contribution to the movement with his rational evangelistic emphasis. His ‘five finger exercise’ – faith, repentance, baptism, the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit – provided an order in which people could come to Christ and membership in His Church.
In 1847 Alexander Campbell visited the United Kingdom and was president of the Second Cooperative Meeting, affirming in person the links that had been developing across the Atlantic.
The movement wanted to use ‘biblical names for biblical things’. In The United Kingdom ‘Church of Christ’ was the name used and churches in the Commonwealth still usually use this name. By the 1840’s there were Churches of Christ in Australia, Canada and New Zealand and later in India, South Africa and (using current names) Malawi, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Vanuatu. By the time of the their 1909 Centennial Convention, United States churches had established work in The Argentine, China, The (Belgian) Congo, Cuba, Hawaii, India, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, The Philippines, Puerto Rico and Tibet.
However by 1906, congregations currently known in the United States as Churches of Christ (a cappella) had become a distinct group. Throughout the 20th Century they have operated quite separately but there is currently a strong movement to embrace the wider church again. In the decades from the 1920’s to the 1960’s in the United States a further division in the Christian Church occurred culminating in the more liberal and ecumenical group restructuring as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with those not wishing to be a part of this denomination remaining as ‘independent’ Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.
In the early 1980’s in the United Kingdom the majority of our cooperative churches joined the United Reformed Church (Church of Christ-Congregational-Presbyterian) and most of the remainder formed the Fellowship of Churches of Christ. There is also a group of ‘Old Path’ (a cappella) churches.
In many other parts of the world some of our family have joined united churches – for example in India, Thailand, Jamaica, Japan, The Philippines and The Congo (Kinshasa). Ironically sections of our family have played a unique part in the ecumenical movement while others have remained apart from and even very critical of it.
In 1930 the first World Convention of Churches of Christ was held to provide our family with an appropriate way of sharing globally. The next convention, in Brighton, England, UK in the year 2004, will be the sixteenth. There are now more than 168 countries with congregations relating to our 19th Century heritage and there is a vast network of links within this family. World Convention provides a unique means of building fellowship, understanding and common purpose within this diverse Christian World Communion.
We have dreamed of the church united in essentials, tolerant in non essentials and loving in all things – so that the world might really believe and Christ’s community might come.
This is still our challenge.
‘Produced by the World Convention of Churches of Christ and written using International English.’ www.worldconvention.org