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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Disciples of Christ

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

Seeking to achieve unity among believers through what he called a restoration of primitive Christianity, Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander founded the Christian Association of Washington, Pa., in 1810. In 1830, the Campbells’ followers came to be known as Disciples of Christ. See REVIVALISM.

In 1906, a long-standing dispute among the Disciples crystallized in a schism, and the separating body was organized as the Churches of Christ. Because their respective traditions are so similar, the parent and schismatic groups may be studied in common on the basis of their history, doctrinal position, worship, and church organization.

History. Thomas Campbell, Irish by birth, arrived in the United States in 1807. For several years he had tried, without success, to unite the various parties within the Irish Presbyterian Church, of which he was a minister. In America he continued his efforts for Christian unity by denying the necessity of formulated creeds and insisting that the Lord’s Supper should be open to all who accept the New Testament.

In 1809, Campbell was joined by his son, Alexander. Together they established the Christian Association according to the principles enunciated in the father’s Declaration and Address. The document affirmed that the church of Christ on earth is essentially one, and that Christians ought to be required to believe only what is expressly taught in Scripture. The Campbells founded the Christian Association as a branch of the Baptists, with whom they agreed on the necessity of baptism by total immersion but disagreed on the need for a confession of faith. This disagreement led eventually to their expulsion from the Baptist Church.

In 1832, the Disciples, or “Campbellites,” merged with a group called the Christians. This group, organized by a former Presbyterian minister, Barton Stone, was noncreedal; that is, the members did not adhere to a formal statement of belief. Stone and his followers declared their objections to the Presbyterian creed and to all authoritative creeds formulated by fallible men. When the merger took place in Lexington, Ky., the uniting parties could not agree on a common name. Stone insisted on the words “Christian” and wanted the group to be called the “Christian Church” or the “Church of Christ.” Alexander Campbell preferred “Disciples” as less offensive to other Christians and equally scriptural. No action was taken and the two names were used interchangeably.

Their first national convention was held in 1849 at Cincinnati, Ohio, which became the headquarters. Alexander Campbell was elected first president. Soon a conflict arose between the more conservative followers of Campbell and the progressives in the denomination. The conservatives objected to giving the Lord’s Supper to people who were not Disciples and to calling the clergy “Reverend.” They also objected to the use of organs in churches. They held that the formation of missionary and other societies was a form of denominationalism and a concession to ecclesiastical tyranny.

The conservatives separated from the main body in 1906. They became the Churches of Christ, distinct from the Disciples. Since then each of the two groups has gone its own way, the churches of Christ becoming more conservative or fundamentalist and the Disciples more liberal.

Doctrine and Ritual. Since both Disciples and Christians profess to be nonconfessional, that is, having no creed and no doctrines except those found in the New Testament, it is not possible to formulate their principal beliefs. The nearest equivalent is to examine the areas of faith they emphasize and the ritual worship they commonly practice.

Although Disciples and Christians both accept the Bible as the word of God even the most fundamentalist among them does not seem to believe that Scripture is supernaturally inspired. They speak of revelation as coming to men through individual lives, through providence, through religious assemblies, and through men like the prophets and apostles. They allow, therefore, for a difference in degree but not in kind between the inspiration of poetry of great genius and the workings of the Holy Spirit in the composition of the Bible. See INSPIRATION.

The Disciples and Christians agree that the Church Universal is essentially an invisible society of all believers. However, they differ so widely in their teachings on the nature of the visible church that this point alone distinguishes the two religious groups.

Disciples admit the existence of and need for visible Christian bodies such as the Methodists, Baptists, and themselves. Christians, however, direct all their apologetic reasoning against the idea that the existence of denominations is in accordance with the will of God. They defend their own claim to being nondenominational by insisting that they are not a part of any religious church because they refuse to divide up into parties. Denonimations, they say, are a violation of Gospel teaching. They hold that the Roman Catholic Church originated in the inventions of men and that, in trying to reform it, Luther, Calvin, and others only produced more “man-made” churches.

Two sacraments of ordinances are recognized by the Disciples and Christians: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is held to be only an experience that changes one from a non-Christian to a Christian. The baptismal rite is performed in adulthood and always by complete immersion, since this is believe to be the only way permitted by the New Testament. In administering baptism, they change one word in the customary formula, saying, “I baptize you into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

There are two main types of services among the Disciples and Christians, Morning Worship with Communion and Evening Worship without communion. Ministers are told to avoid elaborate worship and to emphasize simplicity. Though variously described, the Lord’s Supper, according to both the Disciples and the Christians, is only a memorial, reminding the participants of Christ’s great love for mankind even to death on the cross.

The Disciples do not specify unleavened bread and they allow the use of wine for the Lord’s Supper, but the Christians recommend that unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice be used. Disciples also provide for “simultaneous Communion.” Bread is distributed to the people and held in the hands; then all eat together as the minister recites the words: “And he gave to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’” The wine is distributed and taken in the same way.

Historically, the Churches of Christ differ from the Disciples by their opposition to the use of instrumental music in public ceremonies. They agree that music has a place in New Testament worship and freely use hymns in their church services. They also permit the accompaniment of musical instruments for religious songs in private devotion, but not for public acts of worship. The argument is that, since the New Testament is silent on the subject, those who allow musical accompaniment do so without scriptural authority. They appeal to the early Protestant reformers, who said that musical instruments, like incense and the lighting of lamps, are remnants of the Old Law that have no place in the New Dispensation.

Organization and Government. The ministerial associations organized among the Disciples and Christians for mutual help and supervision have no authority. Both groups are strictly congregational in their form of government, that is, local churches elect their own elders and deacons (see CONGREGATIONALISTS). The election is followed by a ceremony of ordination if the officers are elected for permanent tenure, to be ended only by death or resignation. Many congregations, however, prefer to choose their ministers for a limited time only, usually three years.

In the early days ordinations to the ministry were rare. Even now the Disciples hold that there is no official distinction between the clergy and laity. The real power of the ministry is not official, but entirely personal, that is, dependent on one’s own personal holiness. This opinion is shared by the Churches of Christ. However, ordinations are now frequent and are surrounded with considerable ceremony, as the formal setting apart of a man to the work of the ministry. Essentially, the ceremony consists of the laying on of hands by one or more elders and an ordination prayer asking the divine assistance to guide the minister in his leadership of the congregation. There is no set formula for the prayer. Frequently the congregation is asked to affirm its desire to ordain the man or woman to special service.

There is no ecclesiastical authority in the Churches of Christ beyond the local congregation. Also congregational in their structure but fully organized as a denomination, the Disciples are grouped, above the local church, into district state, and international conventions. There is no national body, however. The international convention meets annually as a representative group of all the churches, but the Disciple’s conventions have only advisory power and no final authority over the member churches.

More direct supervision is exercised through a variety of boards. The Board of Higher Education has 36 affiliated institutions, including Texas Christian, Butler, and Drake Universities, and is concerned with the education of youth and the training of the clergy. The Christian Board of Publications has extensive publishing operations.

Most of the 2 million members of the Disciples are in America, although there are scattered adherents in other English-speaking countries, notably Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia. Their stress on higher education and freedom from doctrinal restraint has given them an ascendancy in American Protestantism that is quite out of proportion to their numbers. They have been outstanding in the promotion of unity among Protestants, with the result that the Protestant ecumenical movement in America is deeply affected by their noncreedal theories.

The membership in the Churches of Christ is slightly higher but exclusively American. By comparison with the federated Disciples, the scattered Christian congregations are not very effective on a national scale. Their existence as a distinct religious group is often overlooked and their name is often confused with that of the dominant and well publicized Disciples of Christ.

For further information read PROTESTANTISM IN THE UNITED STATES.

Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. #3, 1965, pp. 512-515

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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