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Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)


The Disciples of Christ form the largest religious body of purely American origin, promoting a noncreedal form of Christianity in the U.S.

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 two 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 rebaptized by a Baptist minister. For 17 years the Christian Association operated as a branch of the baptists, until the younger Campbell's anticreedalism aroused a storm of protest.

Meanwhile the Campbellites were partially merged with another noncreedal 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.

In 1968, the Disciples of Christ reorganized themselves into a threefold ecclesial polity known as the "three manifestations"local, regional and general. The local church or congregation is the basic unit of church, with autonomy in its own affairs. The congregations are grouped into regions, with its own administrative machinery, support mechanisms for local congregations, and clergy licensing procedures. At the highest level, the General Assembly meets every two years. Among the best known Disciples' publications is the Christian Century, founded 1894.

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).

[j. a. hardon/eds.]

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