Common Roots, Divergent Paths: The Disciples and the Churches of Christ

by W. Clark Gilpin

Dr. Gilpin, an assistant professor of church history at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University, Enid, Oklahoma, is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 20, 1978, pp. 1234-1238. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock


The Disciples and the Churches of Christ’s seemingly separate futures will in no small measure depend on evaluations of the vitality and limitations of their diverse legacies.

Despite common ancestry in an American religious movement which knew itself as the "Reformation of the 19th century," the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) today exhibit only faint family resemblances. For a century the congregations of the Christian Church have moved steadily, if at times hesitantly, toward life as one of the "mainstream" Protestant denominations. From the Federal Council of Churches to the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), they have involved themselves in ecumenical relationships; with a restructure of polity during the past decade, they have amplified the connectional dimension of a traditionally congregational ecclesiology.

Meanwhile, the Churches of Christ (the article is important) have fiercely resisted identification as yet another denomination. Within a diverse and loosely associated "brotherhood" they have borne witness to their local congregations as whole and autonomous manifestations of the church. In the present decade, while the Christian Church has slowly declined to 1.3 million members, the Churches of Christ have achieved a membership of approximately 2.5 million; the two wings of the "Reformation" seem classic examples of the contrasting religious patterns assessed by Dean Kelley in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1972).

Shared History

This disparate development has insulated the groups from each other. For the person in the pew, commerce between the two communions, whether intellectual, religious or social, is rare. Yet members of both churches have maintained an abiding -- some might say excessive -- interest in their shared early history. The 41 volumes of founder Alexander Campbell’s religious periodical, The Millennial Harbinger, remain in print ($350.00 the set) more than a century after original publication ceased. Such pride of ancestry, if exercised critically, may prove singularly beneficial. The churches’ seemingly separate futures will in no small measure depend on evaluations of the vitality and limitations of their diverse legacies.

This concern for tradition is itself a matter worth noting, for the founders of the Disciples of Christ had slender regard for matters traditional. When, in the first decade of the 19th century, Thomas and Alexander Campbell immigrated from the north of Ireland to western Pennsylvania, the division and disarray within their own Presbyterian tradition as well as in the other Protestant churches of the frontier profoundly disturbed them. They were soon fired with zeal -- not to begin another church but to propagate a movement of purification and reunion within the existing churches. They called on church people from the denominations

to begin anew -- to begin at the beginning; to ascend at once to the pure fountain of truth, and to neglect and disregard, as though they had never been, the decrees of Popes, Councils, Synods, and Assemblies, and all the traditions and corruptions of an apostate Church. By coming at once to the primitive model and rejecting all human inventions, the Church was to be at once released from the controversies of eighteen centuries, and the primitive gospel of salvation was to be disentangled and disembarrassed from all those corruptions and perversions which had heretofore delayed or arrested its progress [Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, by Robert Richardson (Lippincott, 1868-70), Vol. I, pp. 257-258].

The Campbells’ effort to unite Christians on the foundation of what they perceived to be the New Testament pattern of preaching and discipline thus included an iconoclastic attack on the historic traditions of the churches. The search for the "ancient order" was simultaneously a severe judgment on the present order.

The Campbellite Formula

The document that articulated this program was the Declaration and Address written by Thomas Campbell in 1809. Pleading for Christian union through a return to New Testament Christianity, Campbell celebrated the freedom and ability of the individual Christian to interpret Scripture untrammeled by the authority of creed or clergy. An honest look at the Bible, unbiased by preconceived theological notions or denominational ax-grinding, so Campbell argued, would lead the individual to the conclusion that it spoke clearly and with a single voice and that its pattern could be duplicated in the present day. "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak," Campbell announced; "where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." This formula, so he and his son Alexander believed, could achieve public unity for the church while allowing liberty to the private opinions of its members.

The Declaration and Address was published, it should be observed, not as the constitution of a church but as the manifesto of a voluntary society of reformers, the Christian Association of Washington County. And although the society quickly evolved into a congregation and affiliated with the Baptists, the reformers continued to consider themselves a movement. They joined the Baptists not with the idea of being "merely" Baptist but rather on the assumption that they were the leaven by which the Baptist loaf would rise to true Christianity. Strife ensued and, taking a host of Baptist converts, the Disciples of Christ struck out on their own. By the early 1830s, through the persuasive evangelism of Walter Scott and through union with Barton Stone’s Christian movement, what had begun as a voluntary society became a rapidly expanding association of churches. Twenty years later the Disciples of Christ were the seventh largest religious group in America.

The remarkable growth of the churches was prompted by the clarity of their message and the ambiguity of their identity. They were not a denomination, it was regularly insisted; they were a movement, a brotherhood. In those optimistic early days, to join a Disciples congregation was to mesh one’s personal commitment with the new destiny of the Christian faith. The Campbellite formula was the hallmark of the fellowship: the restoration of primitive Christianity, freedom in Christ, and union among Christians.

But within this church of reformers that formula was asked to do double service. It was at once a challenge to American Protestantism and, increasingly, a platform for Disciples churchmanship. Despite its documented effectiveness in the former capacity, it was to prove increasingly unstable in the latter.

Division and Controversy

Rejection of churchly traditions in favor of Scripture, "the living oracles," had quickly established the distinctive features of Disciples worship and polity: weekly communion, believer’s baptism by immersion, a prominent role for the laity, and fervent regard for congregational autonomy. But when further issues of organization and discipline arose, factions within the church tended to argue their cases by elevating to pre-eminence a particular element of the formula: restoration, freedom or union.

By the end of the 19th century the brotherhood, finding the issues irresolvable, had split. The Churches of Christ, maintaining doctrinal conservatism and emphasizing the element of restoration, proclaimed the organization of missionary societies and the use of instrumental music in Worship to be abominations utterly lacking in scriptural warrant. The Christian Church, keeping cautiously open to the currents of critical biblical scholarship, adopted the element of unity as the distinctive Disciples contribution to the faith and proceeded to develop missionary societies and to listen to organs with an easy conscience.

Controversy was not laid to rest by division, however. Disagreement about the relation between baptism and church membership, about the relation between biblical criticism and biblical restorationism, and about the administration of missionary work split the Christian Church again in the 20th century. The Churches of Christ, too, seemed perennially rocked by controversies, ranging from matters of millenarian theology to the financial support of radio and television ministries. Today the Campbell-Scott-Stone tradition exists’ in three wings: the Churches of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the nondenominational fellowship of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

An Unfinished Task

The inability of the traditional Disciples formula to address emerging ecclesiastical and social issues has continued to vex the churches. In 1963 Christian Church historian Ronald E. Osborn evaluated the situation for The Christian Century series "What’s Ahead for the Churches?" and found that "though various attempts have been made to combine the elements in differing proportions (RF9U4, RF4U7) or to concentrate on one or two of the elements, washing the others out, discomfiture has been the recent lot of Disciples as the tradition simmered in uneasy flux" ("Formula in Flux: Reformation for the Disciples of Christ," The Christian Century, September 25, 1963, p. 1163).

Earlier Disciples have thus presented both the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church with an ironic heritage -- a movement to restore the church, but one whose self-understanding has inhibited sustained theological reflection about the church’s nature and mission. The effort to frame the Disciples message within a comprehensive doctrine of the church still stands before these diverse communions as an unfinished task. Since the two have appropriated their history differently, the common problems will likely receive two quite different sets of answers. But events of the past decade seem to have placed each church further along the road toward a richer ecclesiology.

A Movement with a Message

One problem to be confronted could be characterized as the long-term effect of originating from a voluntary society. The Disciples have cherished the image of being a movement with a distinctive message to promulgate. But this message-centered understanding of the fellowship has all too often had as its corollary a contractual understanding of the church. The result has been that withholding funds and withdrawing from "the movement" have been used as tactics for voicing opposition to policies or trends of thinking.

One important reason for decline in Christian Church membership since the late ‘60s, for example, has been the withdrawal of congregations that objected to the restructure of the denomination’s polity. The hallowed designation "brotherhood" can be somewhat misleading, therefore, implying as it does that "the ties that bind" run deep in the blood and transcend issue-related disagreements. In fact, it is precisely this dimension of "brotherhood" which is most at stake for the churches in the immediate future.

The issues here are perhaps most apparent in the Churches of Christ, where emphasis on restoration of New Testament Christianity has placed ideological purity at a premium. The temptation has been to make loyalty to the message and uniform understanding of it tests of fellowship. The sense of being what Churches of Christ historian David E. Harrell has called "a peculiar people" has often lapsed into intolerant exclusivism. Reuel Lemmons, editor of the widely circulated journal Firm Foundation, shares the opinion of many church leaders when he laments "the disfellowshipping mania" which regularly threatens to erupt in the congregations. This excessive regard for uniformity, Lemmons declares, has made the churches more interested in "guarding the ramparts and ferreting out the heretics" than in mission.

In the past, the churches’ apprehensions about individual thinking occasioned the departure of many talented and well-educated members. In 1966 a group of such exiles published Voices of Concern as a public expression of regret that the Churches of Christ had not fostered an "atmosphere in which independent minds may feel at home." The editor, Robert Meyers, expressed hope that new currents of open-mindedness in the churches betokened "a more charitable tomorrow. Thousands are restless and dissatisfied with the aridity of exclusivism and authoritarianism. Bright young minds are refusing to be put off with answers that have no more to commend them than the hoary beard of antiquity" (Voices of Concern: Critical Studies in Church of Christism [Mission Messenger, 1966], pp. 2-3).

Has that "more charitable tomorrow" arrived? To a surprising degree the answer is Yes. The Churches of Christ are tolerating a significantly wider spectrum of theological opinion within the fellowship than would have been expected even a decade ago. It remains to be seen whether that tolerance for diversity will extend beyond strictly doctrinal issues to the points at which religious concerns clearly interact with social attitudes. Discussion of the place of women in the ministry, for example, has not yet fully developed in the churches. But, as made clear in a 1971 series by Leroy Garrett in the Restoration Review, "the Restoration mind" is concerned with more than whether or not to use a plurality of communion cups during the Lord’s Supper; it is also doing its homework on such matters as social justice and race relations. Whatever the exact outcome, those ministers and editors calling for "unity in diversity" may be expected to play an increasingly influential role in the Churches of Christ.

Beyond the Local Church

A second ecclesiological problem being confronted is the status of the churches’ mission beyond the local congregation. On this issue the most dramatic recent changes have been within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Nineteenth century Disciples feared hierarchical authority to such degree that any organization beyond the local congregation was regarded with suspicion. The Churches of Christ have insisted on leaving missionary work to the initiative of the local church, and any joint efforts are typically coordinated by the elders of a large or particularly active congregation. Even for the "cooperative" Christian Church, missionary and benevolent societies were organized and maintained strictly as adjuncts to the actual church -- that is, the local congregations. Society officers were given such secular titles as general secretary or president, and annual conventions of the denominations were mass meetings, not representative deliberative gatherings.

During the late ‘50s, perspectives began to change in the Christian Church. A panel of scholars was commissioned to reassess the church’s heritage, and its three-volume report, published in 1963, gave theological impetus to the rethinking of polity. In 1968 the churches accepted a new "provisional design" for the denomination, which in a moderately revised form was approved as "the design" by the 1977 General Assembly. The restructured polity incorporates the old denominational boards and agencies into a more inclusive concept of the church existing in three basic manifestations: local, regional and general. Changes in names reflect the changes in thinking. The International Convention of Christian Churches is now the General Assembly of the Christian Church. The chief executive officer of the denomination, Kenneth L. Teegarden, is now the general minister, and the state secretaries are now regional ministers.

The broad effects of these significant revisions cannot yet be assessed, but one important feature is surely the expanded responsibility placed at the church’s regional level (corresponding roughly to states or clusters of states). Particularly notable is the region’s role in care for seminary students and in the oversight of ordination -- responsibilities formerly left to the local congregation. The regional ministers are playing a larger part in the denomination’s financial deliberations and as advisers in ministerial placement, and one of their number, James A. Moak of Kentucky, recently completed service as moderator of the church’s General Assembly. For a denomination not infrequently beleaguered by the distinction between local congregation and general agency, this mediating structure would seem an important addition to the church’s life.

Ecumenical Dialogue

A final ecclesiological problem confronting the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church concerns relations with those whom Alexander Campbell liked to refer to as "the parties" -- that is, the denominations of American Christianity. For a tradition which had Christian union as one of its founding principles, this at first seems an odd problem. But in fact the iconoclastic dimension of the Disciples message made it difficult for this movement-become-a-church to appreciate traditions lacking a "thus saith the Lord" from Scripture. Some of the earliest Disciples missionaries, for example, were sent to Europe to "restore" Christianity on the Continent.

This restorationist repudiation of denominational Christianity has served for decades to isolate the Churches of Christ from the concerns of many American Christians and, equally, has made their concerns nearly incomprehensible to the outsider. Here again, new perspectives are developing. Such scholarly journals as the Restoration Quarterly are publishing a number of articles whose historical and theological concerns extend far beyond the old rubrics of biblical exegesis and the history of the restoration movement. Similarly, Mission, which began publication in 1967, has received praise from such analysts of the current religious scene as Edwin Gaustad and Martin E. Marty for the skill with which it addresses broad concerns of the Christian faith from a restorationist perspective. Although the old exclusivism dies hard, it is clear that many members of the Churches of Christ are diligent in the effort to bring the tradition into clear dialogue with current issues in theology and ethics.

For the Christian Church, in which the restoration theme has long been deeply submerged, ecumenical discussion and studies of merger have been taking place throughout the 20th century. Currently, conversations toward a deeper understanding are proceeding with representatives of Roman Catholicism, and discussions toward possible union have begun with the United Church of Christ. The latter relationship is being pursued in ways compatible with the membership of both in the Consultation on Church Union, and it will be occurring at all levels of the life of the two churches.

In sum, internal diversity of thinking, more positive relations with the broad Christian tradition, and revisions of polity have set a demanding yet potentially fruitful theological agenda that addresses the whole spectrum of the Disciples of Christ tradition. The movement’s founders had hoped that their message would allow them "to ascend at once to the pure fountain of truth"; for their descendants in the Churches of Christ and the Christian Church the goal remains the same, but the route is more arduous.