From the first call to Christian unity, our human condition impeded its full realization. Everyone tended to find common ground with the philosophical proposal that the Church of Jesus Christ should be united. The question of the form and marks of this unified Church was quite another issue altogether. “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” Ironically, it was this call, first issued by St. Augustine in the 4th century and popularized by the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which set the tone for division. What items of faith are essential?
Thus far in our series of articles intended to prepare ourselves to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Declaration and Address, we have given an overview of the founders of our movement, Thomas Campbell, his son Alexander and Barton Stone. Last week we outlined how from this unity movement started by Thomas Campbell there are at least three distinct churches to have emerged, each viewing themselves as a continuation of the original intent of the founders. The irony is that these divisions are unique to the United States. The congregations in other countries are still essentially unified in other nations; although distinctions arise from congregation to congregation that mimic the practices of each of three movements in the US.
The largest of the three primary churches are the Churches of Christ. Commonly known as the “accapella churches of Christ,” this is considered the largest of the three with over 13,000 congregations and 1.9 million members. Clearly, the most conservative of the three, the Churches of Christ consider themselves “un-denominational.” The term first used by some of the early founders focused on the concept that in order to be truly part of Christ’s Church, one needed to dissolve their relationship with any denomination or “un-denominate” themselves. The Churches of Christ reject all creeds, believing that any person can simply read the Bible and come to a clear understanding of the true doctrine of the Christian faith. Theologically, they are anti-Calvinist and Amillennial in their view of the book of the Revelation. There remains a strong emphasis on the memorial celebration of the Lord’s Supper weekly, officiated by local elders. “Ministers” are often called Evangelists and are primarily responsible for preaching and teaching. Pastoral care is the primary responsibility of the local elders.
The term Independent Christian Church is a bit of a misnomer, in that they are by and large, members of the North American Christian Convention. There is much more diversity on issues of baptism and the role of clergy. With about 6,000 congregations throughout the US, the approximate membership is about 1.2 million. Although many of these congregations share similar views on issues of baptism and congregational autonomy, their theology has come to reflect a contemporary Evangelical perspective on many issues, including greater acceptance of a pre-millennial perspective on the book of the Revelation. Many of the nation’s “mega-churches” are affiliated with this body, including Southeast Christian Church (18,000 on Sunday / 6th largest in the US) in Louisville, Kentucky and Southland Christian Church (9,000 on Sunday) in Lexington.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the smallest of the three movements, with approximately 3,754 congregations and approximately 691,000 members. Considered the more progressive of the three movements, the Disciples of Christ holds many of the same practices as the Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches, but with an openness to varying perspectives and points of views among its membership, including great openness to women’s leadership in the Church, a higher view of ordained ministers and a strong ecumenical spirit toward other denominations.