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History of the Disciples of Christ

Early History

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew out of two movements seeking Christian unity that sprang up almost simultaneously in western Pennsylvania and Kentucky – movements that were backlashes against the rigid denominationalism of the early 1800s.

Thomas and Alexander Campbell, a Scottish Presbyterian father and son in Pennsylvania, rebelled against the dogmatic sectarianism that kept members of different denominations – and even factions within the same denomination – from partaking of the Lord’s Supper together.

Barton W. Stone in Kentucky, also a Presbyterian, objected to the use of creeds as tests of “fellowship” within the church, which were a cause of disunity, especially at the Lord’s table.

“Christians,” the name adopted by Stone’s movement, represented what he felt to be a shedding of denominational labels in favor of a scriptural and inclusive term. Campbell had similar reasons for settling on “Disciples of Christ” but he felt the term “Disciples” less presumptuous than “Christians.”

The aims and practices of the two groups were similar, and the Campbell and Stone movements united in 1832 after about a quarter of a century of separate development.

The founders of the Christian Church hoped to restore Christian unity by returning to New Testament faith and practices. But the church found that even this led to division. One group which opposed practices not specifically authorized by the New Testament, such as instrumental music in the church and organized missionary activity, gradually pulled away. That group finally was listed separately in the 1906 federal religious census as the “Churches of Christ.”

Another group remained with the Disciples but began a separation in 1926 over what it felt were too liberal policies on the mission field in the practice of baptism. More than 40 years later (1967-69) some 3,000 of those congregations formally withdrew at the time of Disciples restructure. They refer to themselves as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

A Heritage of Openness

The Disciples have a long heritage of openness to other Christian traditions – having come into existence as sort of a 19th century protest movement against denominational exclusiveness. At the local level and beyond, Disciples are frequently involved in cooperative and ecumenical work.

In 1910, the Disciples established the Council on Christian Unity, the first denomination in the world to have an organization devoted to the pursuit of Christian unity.  Disciples helped organize the National and World Councils of Churches. The denomination also contributed the first lay president of the National Council (1960-63) – Indiana industrialist J. Irwin Miller.

The Rev. Paul A. Crow Jr., retired president of the Council on Christian Unity, the Rev. Michael K. Kinnamon, now General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, along with the Rev. Patrice Rosner are Disciples who served as chief executives of the Consultation on Church Union -now Churches Uniting in Christ  (CUIC) – which is striving for visible unity.

Disciples have given leadership to the establishment of a new ecumenical venture in the U.S. called Christian Churches Together (CCT) that brings together Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians.  The Rev. Richard L. Hamm, former General Minister and President, has been named CCT’s first full-time executive.

In 1989, the Disciples and the United Church of Christ declared that “a relationship of full communion now exists between our two churches.” The ecumenical partnership rests on five pillars of acceptance and cooperation: a common confession of Christ; mutual recognition of members; common celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion; mutual recognition and reconciliation of ordained ministries; and common commitment to mission.

Joint work between the Disciples’ Division of Overseas Ministries and the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries (formerly known as United Church Board for World Ministries), dates from 1967. World mission for both churches is now carried out by the Common Global Ministries Board, established in 1995. Approximately 150 persons hold overseas appointments in 44 countries on the churches’ behalf.

In keeping with their ecumenical mission, the Disciples have approximately 270 international church partners in close to 70 countries.  Global Ministries facilitated 20 short-term volunteer opportunities and over 74 group mission trips in 2007.

In the wider ecumenical movement, Disciples have held theological conversations with the Roman Catholic Church and with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

Organization

The Disciples have a history of congregational government, although in 1968 they adopted a structure that sees the church in covenantal relationships in congregational, regional and general ministries. Each expression is considered equal rather than pyramidal and each has its protected rights and identified responsibilities. Each is in covenantal relation to the others and calls or dismisses its own staff and handles its own finances and property. The general ministry is called general rather than national because both the United States and Canada are included in the structure. There are 33 regions, many of them encompassing all of a single state.

Communion

For I have received of the Lord what I have also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup also after supper saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I Corinthians 11:23-26 (NRSV)

From the Preamble of The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ):

“At the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ”

The Lord’s Supper or Communion is celebrated in weekly worship. It is open to all who are followers of Jesus Christ. The practice of Holy Communion has become the central element of worship within the Disciples tradition.

Disciples’ observance of the Lord’s Supper emanates from the upper room, where Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ is met and received in the sharing of the bread and the cup, representative of the body and blood of Jesus. The presence of the living Lord is affirmed and he is proclaimed to be the dominant power in our lives.

Baptism

eter said to them,” Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven;, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 2:38 (NRSV)

From the Preamble to The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), rev. 2005

“Through baptism into Christ, we enter into newness of life and are made one with the whole people of God.”

Just as the baptism represents the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it symbolizes the death and burial of the old self of the repentant believer, and the joyous birth of a brand new being in Christ. Those who founded the Disciples movement taught baptism by immersion as the accepted form.

From the : “Word to the Church on Baptism,” Commission on Theology, 1987

Baptism is a public act by which the church proclaims God’s grace, as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the use of a visible sign of God’s gracious initiative and the human individual’s response in faith. With other Christians we affirm that baptism is at once a divine gift and a human response.

Baptism, as a gift of grace, received by faith, expresses its meaning in a variety of images: new birth; a washing with water; a cleansing from sin; a sign of God’s forgiving grace; the power of new life now and the pledge of life in the age to come. The meaning of baptism is grounded in God’s redemptive action in Christ, it incorporates the believer in the community in the body of Christ, and it anticipates life in the coming age when the powers of the old world will be overcome, and the purposes of God will triumph.

The Chalice

The chalice symbolizes the central place of communion in worship for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The X-shaped cross of the disciple Andrew is a reminder of the ministry of each person and the importance of evangelism.

Congregations and ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are free to use the chalice in publications, web sites and other media. Organizations not affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are asked to obtain permission for the use of the Chalice