Churches of Christ

views updated Jun 08 2018


CHURCHES OF CHRIST emerged from the Stone-Campbell movement (also called the Disciples, or Restoration, movement) during the half-century following the American Civil War. Opposition to instrumental music in worship, missionary societies, and a professional ministry characterized the views of conservatives who had essentially coalesced by the time of the first U.S. Religious Census in 1906.

The majority of Churches of Christ were then located in the states of the former Confederacy, with a membership of approximately 160,000. By 1926 this number had grown to over 435,000, with estimates of 600,000 in 1941. This growth was largely the result of evangelism by traveling preachers and ordinary members who were convinced Churches of Christ had restored New Testament Christianity. In 2000 the Atlas of American Religion listed Churches of Christ as one of seven national denominations, partially based on the group's presence in every part of the nation, a reflection of this early persistent evangelism.

The fiercely congregational Churches of Christ have no official denominational structures or binding creeds. In the twentieth century their identity and uniformity was largely formed around three unofficial loci: religious schools, journals, and influential traveling evangelists.

Five colleges became important centers of learning and identity for Churches of Christ. Lipscomb University, originally Nashville Bible School, was founded by David Lipscomb and James A. Harding in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1891. The school embodied the educational model of Alexander Campbell, who opposed the creation of a clergy class through narrowly focused theological training. Instead, all students studied the Bible in the context of a liberal arts education. This model has prevailed in schools affiliated with Churches of Christ. The other major institutions established in the early twentieth century are Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas (1906); Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee (1908); Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas (1924); and Pepperdine University in Malibu, California (1937).

With the absence of official statements of belief, journals functioned as a major locus for creating and maintaining doctrinal consensus. The most influential journals in Churches of Christ in the twentieth century were the Gospel Advocate, established in 1855 by Tolbert Fanning in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Firm Foundation, established in 1884 by Austin McGary in Austin, Texas. Both continued to shape and reflect mainstream positions for the body until the 1970s.

The most important early thought-shaper was David Lipscomb (18311917), editor of the Gospel Advocate for nearly half a century. His opposition to the "innovations" introduced by those in what would become the Disciples of Christ and his strict ideas of congregational polity became identifying characteristics of Churches of Christ, though his beliefs on Christian nonparticipation in government were not universally accepted. Other important leaders included N. B. Hardeman (18741965), G. C. Brewer (18841956), and Foy E. Wallace Jr. (18961979). All were widely known evangelists who through their preaching, writing, and teaching exercised a powerful conservative influence on the churches.

A series of controversies and small schisms occurred in the first half of the twentieth century, reflecting the literalistic biblical hermeneutic then characteristic of Churches of Christ. All legitimate beliefs and practices, members believed, were discerned from the New Testament through a three-fold hermeneutic of direct command, apostolic example, and necessary inference. Debates arose over the scripturalness of full-time preachers, Sunday schools, multiple cups in the Lord's Supper, and dispensational premillennialism. The mainstream accepted the first three as expedient, but rejected premillennial eschatology as inimical to its conviction that the restored church is the kingdom of God on earth.

The attitude that Churches of Christ were the only true Christians, coupled with the socioeconomic reality that the membership was largely rural and working class, contributed to its cultural and religious isolation in the first half of the twentieth century, with the exception of a few southern cities like Nashville and Louisville. In the 1940s, however, Churches of Christ began to take on national stature and an international presence.

Members of Churches of Christ who served in World War II returned home promoting evangelism and benevolent assistance to Europe and Asia. In 1946 the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, called a national meeting to discuss cooperation for these purposes, and some larger congregations took the role of "sponsoring church" for specific nations. The group's colleges grew with the postwar influx of students under the GI Bill, and an increased desire for trained ministers prompted the establishment of new schools. In 1943, Olan Hicks established the Christian Chronicle as a communion-wide newspaper, and it eventually became the largest circulated paper in Churches of Christ. A national radio program, the Herald of Truth, began in 1952 under the sponsorship of the 5th and Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.

Some viewed these moves with alarm, seeing them as evidence of growing institutionalism and modernization. A noninstitutional movement, led by individuals like Fanning Yater Tant (19081997), editor of the Gospel Guardian, attacked church support of colleges, cooperative mission efforts, and orphans homes as unscriptural and indicative of a desire for worldly prestige. By the end of the 1950s, approximately two thousand noninstitutional congregations had formed a separate communion.

Separate black congregations were formed when African Americans who opposed instrumental music and missionary societies withdrew from the Disciples in the early twentieth century. Two leaders symbolized different approaches to segregation in Churches of Christ. Marshall Keeble (18781968), an evangelist who baptized over thirty thousand people, represented an accommodationist stance, acting deferentially to whites and thereby securing their support. G. P. Bowser (18741950) consistently attacked white racism as contrary to the gospel. He was known especially for his work as an educator and editor, operating several schools and founding the Christian Echo in 1902. In 1945, African American Churches of Christ established an annual National Lectureship, and in 1950 founded Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, these churches numbered over 169,000 members in more than 1,200 congregations.

In the 1960s a growing rift could be detected between conservatives and progressives in mainstream Churches of Christ. In 1966, conservative Ira Y. Rice Jr. (19172001) published the first of three volumes titled Axe on the Root, in which he attacked leaders he believed were abandoning traditional positions. The next year progressives began Mission magazine to challenge the body's biblical hermeneutic and the assumption that Churches of Christ were the only true Christians. Wineskins magazine, begun in 1992 and renamed New Wineskins in 2001, has become the most important progressive journal. The rift continued to develop so that at the beginning of the twenty-first century a de facto division existed, though nowhere officially recognized.

In 1993, congregations of the International Church of Christ (ICOC), formerly known as the Boston Church of Christ, asked not to be included in church directories. These churches had become a source of controversy for their aggressive evangelism, cultic control of members, and rigid hierarchal structure. In late 2002 a shakeup of the ICOC's leadership resulted in more prerogative for local congregations, most of which are located in major world cities.

Churches of Christ in the United States grew from 915,000 members in 1965 to over 1.24 million in 1980. Growth has been slow in the United States since then, with a count of slightly over 1.26 million in 2000. Growth outside the United States, however, has been dramatic in the same period. By 2003, studies indicated almost one million members of Churches of Christ in Africa alone, with several hundred thousand in India. Missionaries and indigenous evangelists supported directly by individual American congregations was the rule, though many national churches are now self-supporting.

Three major bodies share the Stone-Campbell heritage: Churches of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the "independent" Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the last two dividing over issues surrounding the twentieth-century fundamentalist-modernist controversy. In 1984, talks labeled the "Restoration Forum" began between Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches, and in 1999, leaders from all three groups inaugurated the Stone-Campbell Dialogue to explore ways they might minister together.

See Also

Campbell, Alexander; Disciples of Christ.


The first major effort at a history of Churches of Christ was undertaken by Earl Irvin West in two volumes titled The Search for the Ancient Order: A History of the Restoration Movement, first published by the Gospel Advocate Company in 1949 and 1950. West's treatment, eventually expanded to four volumes, reflected the triumphalistic attitude characteristic of Churches of Christ in the early twentieth century. In the 1990s a new, more self-critical, historiography arose that reflected an identity shift in the mainstream that had begun at least by the 1960s. Among the chief representatives of this new approach are:

Childers, Jeff W., Douglas A. Foster, and Jack R. Reese. The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ. Abilene, Tex., 2002.

Foster, Douglas A. Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Face the 21st Century. Abilene, Tex., 1994.

Harrell, David Edwin, Jr. The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2000.

Holloway, Gary, and Douglas A. Foster. Renewing God's People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ. Abilene, Tex., 2001.

Hooper, Robert E. A Distinct People: A History of the Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century. West Monroe, La., 1993.

Hughes, Richard T. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996.

Because of the congregational polity of Churches of Christ, accurate statistics have been difficult to obtain. Mac Lynn, working with the Glenmary Institute's efforts to gather extensive national religious data, has produced reliable statistics on the body in his directories Churches of Christ around the World: Exclusive of the United States and Her Territories. Nashville, Tenn., 2003; and Churches of Christ in the United States: Inclusive of Her Commonwealth and Territories. Nashville, Tenn., 2003.

Douglas A. Foster (2005)

Churches of Christ

views updated Jun 11 2018

Churches of Christ. Christian denomination, also known as ‘Disciples’ and ‘Campbellites’ after its founder A. Campbell. Organized in the USA, the earliest ‘Disciples’ came to adopt baptism by immersion and the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper for baptized believers; each local church practised a Congregational form of church government. The Churches of Christ participated in ecumenical discussion in the present century, and in 1981 the majority of the Churches of Christ in Great Britain became part of the United Reformed Church.

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