DOC Historical Society logo: a cross shape with no intersecting streams. The top stream make a right angle, L shape, the middle stream is a straight horizontal line, and the bottom stream (the longer stem of the cross) makes a right angle going up and to the right before it intersects with the horizontal stream. All of the stream tips have an arrow pointing to the right.
Date of establishment: Unknown (Active for years)

Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is one of three religious bodies that trace their origin to the Stone-Campbell Movement of the nineteenth century. The cumbersome name derives from the fact that both titles have been used from the very beginning of the Movement to designate individual congregations, and both titles were taken by various individual congregations that broke from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

Christian Churches/Churches of Christ became a distinct and identifiable religious body through a long process of separation from the denomination known currently as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The division developed out of three major controversies during the first two decades of the twentieth century that served as polarizing factors within the larger fellowship. One controversy was the theological development of modernism and liberalism, a factor that proved to be divisive in many other Protestant bodies. A second was the origin of the ecumenical movement, which led to the organization of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. This issue precipitated a controversy over whether Disciples membership and involvement in the Federal Council was a step toward realization of the Stone-Campbell Movement’s ideal of unity or a denial of the Movement’s aims by recognizing the legitimacy of denominations and embracing denominational status for Disciples. The third issue was open membership, the practice of admitting into full membership of the churches persons who had not been baptized by immersion, usually persons who had been sprinkled as infants. Generally those who held a favorable view of one of these issues tended to favor the others as well. In a congregationally governed body issues such as the above could become divisive only as they affected extra-congregational activities and agencies. 

Modernism became a divisive issue when retirements brought faculty changes in the major ministerial training institution, the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky. The new professors were charged with teachings that ran counter to biblical views held by the older faculty and many alumni. Intense conflict followed, and the trustees conducted an investigation in 1917 that exonerated the accused but did not satisfy the dissidents. Frustrated in their attempt to recover the College of the Bible, those who believed that the future of the Disciples was threatened responded by establishing “faithful” Bible colleges as a means of providing ministers for churches that resisted the new theological trends. 

Conflict arose over interchurch relations when the Disciples participated in plans to form the Federal Council of Churches in 1905. Since they were historically opposed to denominations, the response among Disciples was ambivalent. Some (in the spirit of J. H. Garrison) viewed this limited degree of cooperation as a step toward eventual curtailment of denominational significance and hence as a step toward the unity that the Movement advocated. Others saw the entry of Disciples into an interdenominational body as tacit approval of the denominational system and a repudiation of the historic plea. The controversy was so sharp at the General Convention in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1907 and the prospect for approval so bleak that the move to join the Federal Council of Churches was not placed on the agenda of the business session of the Convention but was approved at a special “mass meeting” held separately. Thus, by an unusual stratagem, Disciples of Christ were a founding denomination of the Council, but the significant opposition within prevented Disciples from meeting their portion of the Council’s budget for many years. 

Open membership became a serious issue in 1920 when the missionaries in China sought permission of the Executive Committee of the United Christian Missionary Society to initiate this practice. The Committee wavered, and a serious conflict followed when the matter was publicized in the Christian Standard, one of the major journals of conservative Disciples churches. Those opposed to this innovation demanded the recall of the missionaries involved (1925, Oklahoma City Convention), but the Society’s officials did not comply. Further efforts to secure the recall of the pro-open membership missionaries were blocked at the 1926 Memphis Convention, and the resulting frustration created a widely held conviction that central, monolithic organizations were dangerous because they were beyond the control of the constituency that sustained them. Many congregations withdrew support from the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS), the official missionary agency of the Disciples of Christ. Seeking a viable mission alternative, these congregations found that a few missionaries were already working independently of the UCMS, so support was diverted to them. Some missionaries resigned from the UCMS and began to work independently, hence the name “Independent,” which characterized this network of churches for decades. 

Generally overlooked has been a sociological factor, an urban/rural polarity, underlying the doctrinal issues at stake and helping to drive the separation. Over much of the twentieth century, two religiocultural mentalities were emerging, with rural-based conservatives and urban-based liberals viewing such matters as organizational efficiency and centralization of authority from very different perspectives. 

Eventually a new convention was organized. The North American Christian Convention held its first sessions in 1927 in Indianapolis, Indiana. With the passage of years, this Convention would become the umbrella organization providing identity for all the congregations and agencies of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. 

A significant influence in developing cohesiveness among churches abandoning the older agencies was the Christian Standard, a journal published in Cincinnati, Ohio, and widely circulated since its founding in 1866. It was the most influential journal among the more conservative churches that opposed the policies of the UCMS. Its fidelity to the historic aims of the Movement and its strong editorial voice provided needed leadership and cohesion at a critical juncture. The publisher, Standard Publishing Company, provided a full range of Sunday School literature, youth materials, and books for the emerging group of dissenting congregations. Although privately owned by the Errett family of Cincinnati, its generous support of the new direction taken by the conservative leadership after 1926 continued unabated. 

Associated with the Christian Standard in forging new directions for the emerging Movement was The Restoration Herald, published by the Christian Restoration Association, also based in Cincinnati. Even more conservative than the Christian Standard, it was recognized for its outspoken policy of hostility toward the old Disciple leadership and the agencies associated with the UCMS. 

Churches disillusioned with trends within the International Convention of Disciples of Christ found their rallying center in the North American Christian Convention, which met sporadically until 1950. It was conceived as a gathering where all Disciples could find fellowship free from the conflicts that had marked the International Convention of Disciples of Christ. Primarily an assembly for preaching on themes dear to the Stone-Campbell tradition, no business was to be conducted and no organizational matters were to be considered, thus avoiding the conflicts that had troubled the older International Convention. However, it soon became evident that two conventions were impractical and that each one was becoming the center of gravity for positions that were increasingly irreconcilable. 

An effort to avoid schism was initiated at the 1934 International Convention in Des Moines, Iowa, when a Commission on Restudy of the Disciples of Christ was appointed and charged with examining the heritage of the Stone-Campbell Movement and recommending measures to avert impending division. The Commission met thrice annually until 1948 and carefully defined the points at issue. When it recommended that the two Conventions meet back-to-back in the same city, serious opposition arose from the more militant wings of both factions, effectively frustrating the conciliatory aims of the Commission. A “Stand Up and Be Counted” campaign was sponsored by the Christian Standard, which, in response, only intensified efforts to promote open membership within the International Convention body. Later movement toward total denominationalization and “Restructure” of the Disciples of Christ completed the process of division. However, some of the older agencies of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — the official designation of the restructured denomination — have continued to make their services available to Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Notable in this respect are the Pension Fund, the Board of Church Extension, and the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. 

In 1950 the North American Christian Convention abandoned its irregularity and became a permanent institution. In 1963 an office was established in Cincinnati, and a full-time convention director was engaged. Prior to this time, most conventions were held in Ohio and Indiana, but since becoming a permanent organization the convention has moved nationwide and once even held its sessions in Canada. It has evolved into a family gathering with a variety of workshops, meetings, and activities that appeal to all ages. Attendance often exceeds 25,000. The convention continues to eschew any official status and avoids any kind of formal policy-making action or endorsement. It remains the largest national gathering of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Most of the many agencies that derive their support from the churches are represented in exhibits at this convention. 

A second meeting of national scope among Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is the National Missionary Convention. Inasmuch as missionary strategy and policy were a major cause of the disaffection leading to the origin of the North American Christian Convention, it was natural that missions would be given a significant place in the sessions of the convention. As the international mission enterprise proliferated following World War II, it was difficult to provide missionaries with what many of them deemed to be an adequate place on the programs. Accordingly, missionaries called a meeting at the 1951 convention in Springfield, Illinois, and organized the National Missionary Convention for more satisfactory promotion of their cause. This convention is not an annual gathering but has developed a large constituency. It is managed by missionaries, and occasionally its sessions are held in conjunction with the North American Christian Convention. 

Disillusionment with their seeming inability to influence the policies and actions of the central agencies of the Disciples of Christ accounts for the fact that the North American Christian Convention disavows any suggestion that it officially represents the churches or that it seeks in any way to direct policies affecting the work of the local church. Similarly, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ have opted for a polity fiercely protective of congregational autonomy. This is evident from the total absence of any organizational tie uniting the fellowship of some 5,500 congregations and hundreds of agencies. There is powerful resistance to any effort that might be seen as compromising in any way the complete and total autonomy of each congregation. Thus all extra-congregational efforts and agencies (and there are many) rise ad hoc from private initiative and are sustained by continuing endorsement from supporting congregations and individuals. Some of the larger congregations assume total responsibility for a missionary family or team. Most opt for partial support and send periodic offerings to the missionary’s forwarding committee. This would appear to constitute an unstable base of support for missionary enterprises, but in practice it has proven to be as stable and effective as those methods utilized by more highly organized denominations. Missionaries must be self-motivated, and because their work depends on the participation of interested individuals and congregations, personal contacts with congregations are of vital importance. Friendships and loyalties are established that prove to be functional and enduring. Most independent missionaries form oversight committees that are usually incorporated in their home state and hold title to real properties purchased for use by the mission. Thereby the work of the mission is carried forth should a particular missionary retire or otherwise be unable to continue service. 

Few would deny that the independent/direct support method of doing missions employed by Christian Churches/Churches of Christ involves some problems. Few of the religious communions that are more highly structured, however, can rival Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in the number of missionaries that are sustained on the fields. Missions continue to be a focus of major interest among most of the churches, claiming a considerable portion of each congregation’s budget. 

True to the Stone-Campbell heritage, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ practice immersion of believers as the only valid baptism because they understand this to be the only method of baptism found in the New Testament and practiced by the early church. They insist that baptism finds its meaning as it relates to forgiveness of sin; but they emphatically reject any form of water regeneration, a charge that is sometimes wrongfully made because of the emphasis placed on this ordinance. 

The other ordinance/sacrament (the latter term is seldom heard) found in Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is the Lord’s Supper, which is observed every Sunday in every congregation. This, too, is believed to have been the practice of the early church, and thus it holds a central place in the churches’ effort to “restore” early Christian faith and practice. Emphasis is generally focused on the memorial nature of the Supper. Elders usually preside at the table, although this is not mandated. The Supper is made available to all believers (“open communion”). 

Other than the “Petrine confession” of Christ’s divinity found in Matthew 16:18 there is no creedal formula that unites Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. The historic slogan “No Creed but Christ” is taken very seriously. Theological definitions are viewed as barriers to Christian unity and hence rejected as a basis of fellowship. There is little question that this rejection of theological formulation has sometimes resulted inadvertently in a degree of theological shallowness and simplistic biblicism, but it is an important component of the heritage of the Stone-Campbell Movement and a basic conviction endorsed by the whole fellowship. 

The philosophical roots of the Stone-Campbell Movement lie in the Enlightenment. The empiricism of John Locke, modified by the Common Sense realism of Thomas Reid, provided the basic thought patterns for all three of the branches of this Movement. Emphasis on free inquiry tended to discourage “fundamentalism” per se among the Movement’s heirs. In spite of certain similarities of emphasis, such as common rejection of certain findings of biblical higher criticism and an occasional advocacy of biblical inerrancy in some quarters, classic Protestant fundamentalism (of the Reformed/Calvinist type) has held little appeal for Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. 

Christian Churches/Churches of Christ adamantly refused to regard any institution or organization other than the local congregation as in any sense “church.” They insist that the church as such inheres primarily in the local congregation, itself understood as a microcosm of the church universal. Each congregation elects elders and deacons, who have sole responsibility to direct the affairs of the local church. 

Christian Churches/Churches of Christ ordain their ministers and invest sole authority to do so in the local congregation. The strong emphasis on the priesthood of every believer, however, leaves little room for much distinction between clergy and laity. Thus, laypersons may conduct baptisms, and lay elders may preside at communion services. There is no system of ministerial placement among the churches. Each congregation seeks and employs its own minister(s). There is no uniform plan for pension or care for retired ministers. Several pension programs are available, and each minister plans for his or her own future needs. Churches often contribute to the minister’s pension arrangement, but there is no uniformity in this matter. 

Women’s role in leadership is limited. Rarely are women engaged as preachers or senior pastors or elected to the eldership; however, women are regularly accepted for missionary service, and many serve as teachers in Bible colleges. Women often hold senior staff positions in local churches in education, children’s ministries, and youth ministries; and in many congregations, women are admitted to the ministry of deacons. The ministry role of women in the life of these churches has slowly increased in recent decades. 

Evangelism is a continuing emphasis among Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. The methods have changed from the revival meetings of bygone years to newer forms suggested by the church growth movement; but the impulses have not abated. Many “mega-churches” with attendance averages in excess of 1,000 can be identified. As of 2004, the largest of these is the Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Reliable statistics on the status and growth of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ are difficult to obtain prior to 1955, when an annual Directory of the Ministry was first published. Many congregations of this fellowship continued to be listed in the Yearbook of Disciples of Christ until the Restructure of the Disciples in 1968. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Directory of the Ministry of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ reports 1,333,000 members in 5,554 congregations in the United States and Canada. The body is served by a large number of agencies and institutions. Youth work in the churches is augmented by some 100 summer camps, many of which have well-developed facilities providing year-round programs for conferences, etc. The churches sponsor 118 homes for children or retired persons, 85 elementary-level Christian schools, and 75 campus ministries. 

The crisis in ministerial education, previously noted in conjunction with the controversy over the advance of modernist theology, and the fact that most of the older colleges and universities of the Disciples were associated with the Division of Higher Education of the Disciples of Christ, forced the emerging Christian Churches/Disciples of Christ to create Bible colleges. Thirty-two Bible colleges are affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Originally directed primarily toward ministerial education, many of these institutions are no longer called “Bible Colleges.” They have broadened the scope of their curricular offerings in the liberal arts and sciences and have in many cases gained regional accreditation. 

Three fully accredited graduate seminaries (Emmanuel School of Religion, Cincinnati Bible Seminary, and Lincoln Christian Seminary) and one liberal arts college (Milligan College) furnish additional educational opportunities. 

Nationwide, 100 evangelistic associations engaging in the work of establishing new churches are listed in the Directory. Publications needed to support the programs of the churches are supplied by two agencies: Standard Publishing Company (Cincinnati) and College Press (Joplin, Missouri). 

The strong missionary heritage of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is reflected in the more than 1,000 persons currently serving in some capacity in the mission activities sustained by the churches. Outside the United States, twenty-seven Bible Colleges endeavor to provide education for indigenous ministry. Many missions operate primary schools, and some provide homes for needy or abandoned children. At least one hospital and a number of clinics are maintained by missionaries from these churches. Missiologists in the fellowship claim that there are now more members of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in the Third World than can currently be found in the United States. 

Recognition of some of the problems inherent in the independent/direct support method of doing missions led to establishment in 1948 of the Christian Missionary Fellowship. This organization screens missionary candidates, provides limited supervision of fieldwork, and otherwise utilizes many of the procedures of organized mission activity; but it makes no claim to be the sole mission agency through which Christian Churches/Churches of Christ must do mission work. Based in Indianapolis, its outreach is multinational. Churches preferring a more structured mission program have found this agency to be useful. 

Christian Churches/Churches of Christ are not formally involved in any aspect of the ecumenical movement. This is due not only to the paucity of mechanisms enabling these churches to join a council but also to the continuing conviction that such official recognition of denominational status would be a repudiation of the Stone-Campbell heritage. Nonetheless, ministers from these congregations have no hesitation about participating in local ministerial associations, and they generally support community efforts in association with other Christian bodies. In 1983 a cluster of concerned individuals from the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ helped initiate an “Open Forum” for constructive dialogue with representatives from the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Finally, missionaries often engage in cooperative activity with missionaries from other Christian bodies as they seek to make an impact on non-Christian cultures. 

At the turn of the twenty-first century, when the memories and much of the animosity of the conflicts of earlier years have faded and new leadership has emerged, there is discernible longing for closer ties between the disparate bodies of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Serious questions are being raised about the long-term significance of some of the issues that seemed to hold critical importance in years past. A growing awareness of this is apparent in all branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement and manifested among Christian Churches/Churches of Christ both in the Restoration Forums with Churches of Christ and in the recent gatherings of the Stone-Campbell Dialogue. 

See also 

Bible College Movement; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Christian Missionary Fellowship; Christian Standard; Churches of Christ; College Press; Evangelical; Fundamentalism; Missions, Missiology; National Missionary Convention; North American Christian Convention; Standard Publishing Company; Theology — Christian Churches/Churches of Christ 


C. J. Dull, “Intellectual Factions and Groupings in the Independent Christian Churches,” The [Cincinnati Bible] Seminary Review 31 (1985): 91-118 • David Filbeck, The First Fifty Years: A Brief History of the Independent Mission Movement (1980) • Byron Lambert, “From Rural Churches to an Urban World: Shifting Frontiers and the Invisible Hand,” Discipliana 55 (1995): 67-80 • Zella McLean, ed., Directory of the Ministry: A Yearbook of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (published annually) • James DeForest Murch, Christians Only (1962) • James North, Unity in Truth: An Interpretive History of the Restoration Movement (1994) • G. Richard Phillips, “From Modern Theology to a Post-Modern World: Christian Churches and Churches of Christ,” Discipliana 54 (1994): 83-95 • Rondal Smith, “The Independent Christian Churches Face a Multicultural Twenty-First Century,” Discipliana 57 (1997): 35-46 • Henry E. Webb, In Search of Christian Unity: A History of the Restoration Movement, 2nd ed. (2003) • C. Robert Wetzel, “Christian Churches/Churches of Christ at 2001: In Search of a Theological Center,” Stone-Campbell Journal 4 (2001): 3-12 • Flavil Yeakley, “Recent Patterns of Growth and Decline among Heirs of the Restoration Movement,” Restoration Quarterly 37 (1995): 45-50. 

Henery E. Webb

This entry, written by Henry E. Webb, was originally published in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Edited by Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pages 186-189. Republished with permission.