Disciples of Christ / Churches of Christ

The family of churches known as Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ grew out of an early 19th century movement with origins in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The movement in the United Kingdom can be traced back to congregations formed in the second half of the 18th century, some of which were amongst those that came together in the first "cooperative" meeting of British Churches of Christ congregations in 1842. The movement in the United States focused around three major leaders, in particular Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Barton Stone was a Presbyterian minister who organized a revival in 1801 which is considered a significant milestone in the religious history of the USA. The experience led him to withdraw from the Presbyterian synod of Kentucky in 1803 and then in 1804 (reflecting the desire to be "simply Christian") to establish the "Christian Church".

Thomas Campbell, also a Presbyterian Minister, came to the United States in 1807 from Ireland. In 1809, because of what he saw as the scandal of Christian division, he formed the Christian Association of Washington (PA) and published a classic document on Christian unity - "The Declaration and Address". His son Alexander Campbell became an advocate of these ideals and soon took the lead in the developing reform movement. Attempts to continue to work with the Presbyterians failed and the reformers reluctantly formed their congregation at Brush Run, Pennsylvania, into a separate church in 1811. An attempt to work with the Baptists over the next two decades also failed and by 1830 these "Disciples" were a separate group.

In 1824 Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell met. Their movements came together in 1832 and a period of definition and consolidation for this united movement followed. The 19th century was a time of significant growth, and the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) became the fifth largest denomination in the United States.

The early leaders of the two movements believed that Christian unity is essential to the proclamation of the gospel and to the integrity of the church's witness in the world, and that its realization could be achieved through the restoration of the faith and order of the New Testament church. Their call was to return to the apostolic tradition of the earliest church, which they identified as the "ancient order of things". On the basis of the NT witness, many of the characteristic beliefs and practices of the church took shape and continue today: weekly celebration of the Lord's supper, baptism by immersion of believers confessing the faith, commitment to the priesthood of all believers in which lay and ordained share in the ministry of word and sacrament, self-governance of the congregation, and the proclamation of the gospel to the world.

The Disciples of Christ believe that the church is a sacramental community, a covenant fellowship brought into being by God's initiative of grace and sustained in its life by the Holy Spirit. Baptism and the Lord's supper are accepted as sacraments of the church, and are the primary elements in shaping the ethos and identity of the Disciples of Christ. Baptism marks entrance into membership in the church universal. Holy communion is the central act of each Sunday's worship service; the invitation is always to an "open table". Christ is present at each Lord's supper both in the elements as they are received and in the life of the community itself.

The movement of the Disciples of Christ, marked by its message of freedom, diversity, simplicity of worship and a reasonable faith, has spread from North America to Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, where it met with other groups holding similar beliefs, usually called "Churches of Christ". Through the missionary movement of the 19th century Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ communities have been established in several other parts of the world. Many of these have joined with other denominations to form united churches.

By 1906, congregations currently known in the United States as "Churches of Christ (a cappella)" had become a distinct group. Throughout the 20th century they have operated quite separately but there is currently a strong movement to embrace the wider church again. In the decades from the 1920s to the 1960s in the United States a further division occurred, culminating in the more ecumenical group restructuring as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with those not wishing to be a part of this denomination remaining as "independent" Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

The Disciples of Christ/Churches of Christ have two international bodies that serve different goals and that operate with different styles:

  1. the "World Convention of Churches of Christ (WCCC)"
  2. the Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council (DECC)