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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ)

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Disciples of Christ, together with the Churches of Christ that derive from them, form the largest religious body of purely American origin (1964, about 1,780,000 members; Churches of Christ, 2,250,000). They are also the recognized leaders in promoting a noncreedal form of Christianity. Although the term Christians, as members of the Churches of Christ are called, is sometimes applied also to the Disciples, the latter are really a distinct denomination and their official name is Christian Churches, International Convention.

History. The founder of the Disciples of Christ, Thomas Campbell, discouraged by the opposition his efforts met in Ireland, came to the U.S. in 1807, beginning his ministry in Philadelphia as a Presbyterian. Within 2 years he was resisted by the presbyteries, especially after his famous Declaration and Address, issued “to all that love our Lord Jesus Christ in all sincerity, throughout all the churches.” Its main tenet was that the Church of Christ upon earth should be one, “essentially, intentionally and constitutionally,” and consists of “all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures.” The constitution of this Church of Christ, said Campbell, is not a creedal statement or confession of faith but the New Testament itself. Sectarian churches have no right to impose on their members as articles of faith anything not expressly taught in the Bible. Even inferences or deductions from the New Testament are not to be held binding on the conscience of individuals unless they are accepted by the persons themselves. Just as in apostolic times “a manifest attachment to our Lord Jesus Christ in faith, holiness, and charity was the original criterion of Christian character,” so in the united Church envisioned by Campbell, this alone should be “the foundation and cement of Christian unity.” Campbell was joined by his son Alexander, who came to America (1809) to share and later carry on the work of his father. They organized the Christian Association of Washington, Pa. (1810), the first local church of the new denomination. Soon after a crisis arose on the manner of administering baptism. Deciding that the ordinance must be by immersion, father and son had themselves re-baptized by a Baptist minister. For 17 years the Christian Association operated as a branch of the Baptists, until the younger Campbell’s anti creedalism aroused a storm of protest.

Meanwhile the Campbellites were partially merged with another non-creedal group, called the Christians, who were founded by Barton Stone, a former Presbyterian minister. They combined forces at Lexington, Ky., in 1832. When the question of a new name arose, Stone preferred keeping “Christians,” but Campbell favored “Disciples,” with the result that today both titles are used. The local organization, however, is generally called a Christian Church or a Church of Christ. As members and churches multiplied, the need of organization was recognized and the first national convention was held at Cincinnati in 1849. The body flourished at home and abroad; by the end of the 19th century, the Disciples counted more than a million members and had missionaries in Asia and Africa. They even weathered the Civil War without division. A conservative group, however, gradually withdrew because of a conviction that missionary societies and instrumental music in public worship were alike unscriptural. These separatists became known as the Churches of Christ.

Belief and Practices. Although the Disciples profess to be non-confessional, in practice they emphasize certain areas of faith and ritual that may be taken as representative. They believe that the Bible is the word of God, written by different persons somehow under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet they tend to equate this revelation with other forms of divine communication, including poetic insight and the light of natural genius. Unlike the Churches of Christ, the Disciples admit that the Church Universal is essentially invisible and that the visible Church exists in distinctive religious groups, such as the Methodists, Baptists, and their own denomination. According to one of their spokesmen, to become a member of the Church invisible, it is necessary to have only an inner experience; but to enter the visible church, e.g., the Presbyterian, it is further required to have an outward expression and a new social attachment. The inner experience is to hear and believe the Gospel and to repent of sin, whereas the new social alignment is to become a member of the visible organization. Baptism is administered by immersion to those who have reached sufficient maturity to profess their faith in Christ the Savior and repent of their sins. The Lord’s Supper is regularly given to the faithful under both forms, which may be either leavened or unleavened bread and either wine or grape juice.

There are two principal types of religious service, Morning Worship with the Lord’s Supper, and Evening Worship without Communion. Ministers are urged to avoid elaborate worship programs. Emphasis should always be placed on simplicity. A standard order for Morning Worship begins with a hymn by the choir, during which the minister comes to the platform and takes charge of the function. Following the first hymn is the doxology, an invocation, another hymn, Scripture reading, and the communion hymn, which introduces the ceremony of the Lord’s Supper. After communion is the offertory, during which prayers of self-oblation are said and contributions are made; then a sermon, benediction invoked upon the congregation, and a concluding choral response. Ritual differs in different communities, but recent efforts suggest a greater stress on the liturgy and more uniformity in the orders of worship.

While ministerial associations have been organized for mutual help and supervision, they have no authority among the Disciples of Christ, who are strictly congregational in their form of government. Local churches elect their own elders and deacons, followed by a ceremony of ordination if the officers are chosen for a permanent term, to be ended by death or resignation. Many congregations choose their ministers for a limited term only, and the list of officials may be so arranged that one-third is elected each year. Although congregational in structure, the Disciples are fully organized as a denomination and grouped on three levels above the local church, into district and state conventions, and an international convention which meets annually as a representative of all the churches. The conventions on any level have only advisory power over the member bodies. More direct supervision is exercised through a number of boards, like the Board of Church Extension, whose purpose is to assist the churches to plan and finance their building projects; the Board of Higher Education, with 36 affiliated institutions including Texas Christian (Fort Worth), Butler (Indianapolis, Ind.), and Drake (Des Moines, Iowa) Universities, concerned with the education of youth in an atmosphere of Christian influence and the training of clergy; and the Christian Board of Publications, which services the local Churches with religious literature and publishes a variety of books and periodicals.

Among the best known Disciples’ publications is the Christian Century, originally founded (1894) as a rival to the denomination-minded Christian Evangelist. Its editorial policy favors a liberal approach to Christianity with a minimum of doctrine and ritual. In their opposition to ecclesiastical division, the editors have been prime movers in the American ecumenical movement. They seek to implement the ideal of Alexander Campbell for a return to the Gospels without the encumbrance of confessional creeds.

Bibliography: B. A. Abbott, The Disciples: An Interpretation (St. Louis 1924). J. M. Flanagan, ed., What We Believe (rev. ed. St. Louis 1960). A. W. Fortune, Adventuring with Disciple Pioneers (St. Louis 1942). W. E. Garrison and A. T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History (rev. ed. St. Louis 1958). H. E. Short, Doctrine and Thought of the Disciples of Christ (St. Louis 1951). Illustration credit: International Convention of Christian Churches. Indianapolis.

New Catholic Encylopedia
Vol. 3, 1967, pp. 633-635

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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