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Summary of the Disciples of Christ

Disciples of Christ

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a Mainline Protestant denominational group in North America. It is often referred to as The Christian Church, The Disciples of Christ, or even more simply as The Disciples. It has made significant contributions to worldwide Christianity through the evangelistic work of its missionary societies and through its participation in the ecumenical dialogue of the 1900s. The Christian Church was a charter participant in the development of both the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches), and it continues to be engaged in ecumenical conversations.

The Disciples' local churches are governed by the congregation. Currently, there are 691,160 members in 3,754 congregations in North America.


The Beginnings

The early history of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is shared by two other groups: the Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. All three of these groups emerged from the same roots.The Stone-Campbell movement began as two separate threads, each without knowledge of the other, during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s. The first, led by Barton W. Stone, began at Cane Ridge, Bourbon County, Kentucky. The group called themselves simply Christians. The second began in western Pennsylvania and Virginia (now West Virginia), led by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander Campbell. Because the founders wanted to abandon all denominational labels, they used the biblical names for the disciples of Jesus that they found in the Bible.

Go to our Bible quiz page to take a quiz on Biblical name meanings.

Not the Only Christians; Just Christians, Only

The defining event of the Stone wing of the movement was the publication of the Last Will and Testament of The Springfield Presbytery at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1804. The Last Will is a brief document in which Stone and five others announced their withdrawal from Presbyterianism and their desire to be solely part of the body of Christ. The writers called for the unity of all who follow Jesus, suggested the value of congregational self-governance, and lifted the Bible as the source for understanding the will of God. They denounced the divisive purpose of the Augsburg Confession.

Soon, they adopted the name "Christian" to identify their denominational group. The remnants of the Springfield Presbytery thusly became the Christian Church. It is estimated that the Christian Church had about 12,000 adherents by 1830.

Barton W. Stone
Barton W. Stone

The Campbells -- The Reformers

Thomas Campbell
Thomas Campbell

Independently of Stone, the Campbell wing of the movement was launched when Thomas Campbell published the Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington in 1809.

The Presbyterian Synod had postponed his ministerial credentials. In Declaration and Address he set forth some of his convictions about the church of Jesus Christ, as he organized the Christian Association of Washington, not as a church but as an association of persons seeking to grow in faith. However, on May 4, 1811, the Christian Association constituted itself as a congregationally governed church. It constructed a church building at Brush Run which later became known as Brush Run Church.

When their study of the New Testament led the reformers to begin to practice baptism by immersion, the nearby Redstone Baptist Association invited Brush Run Church to join with them for fellowshipping purposes. The reformers agreed, provided that they would be "allowed to preach and to teach whatever they learned from the Scriptures."

Thus began a journey for the reformers among the Baptists within the Redstone Baptist Association (1815-1824). While the reformers and the Baptists shared the same beliefs in baptism by immersion and Congregational polity, it was soon apparent that the reformers were not traditional Baptists. Within the Redstone Association, the differences became intolerable to some of the Baptist leaders, when Alexander Campbell began publishing a journal, The Christian Baptist, promoting reform. Campbell anticipated the contention and moved his membership to a congregation of the Mahoning Baptist Association in 1824.

Young Alexander Campbell
Young Alexander Campbell
Walter Scott
Walter Scott

The Mahoning Association appointed reformer Walter Scott as an Evangelist in 1827. Through Scott’s efforts, the Mahoning Association grew quickly. In 1828, Thomas Campbell visited a number of the congregations formed by Scott and heard him preach. The elder Campbell realized that Scott was bringing an important and new dimension to the movement with his approach to evangelism.

Several Baptist associations began disassociating congregations that refused subscription to the Philadelphia Confession. The Mahoning Association came under attack. The Mahoning Baptist Association disbanded in 1830. Alexander halted publication of the Christian Baptist. In January 1831, he initiated publication of the Millennial Harbinger.

Similarities Between the Two Groups

Both movements sought to end the divisiveness that had arisen with denominational disagreements. They wanted to found the unity of the church in the simple acknowledgment that Jesus is the Christ and the Messiah, and an acceptance of Him as Lord. Both were opposed to the application of creeds as a test of faith. They believed that the simple confession that Jesus Christ is Lord was sufficient to unite all Christians. They considered man-made creeds to be divisive.

Both groups looked to the New Testament to discover behavior that united the early church. The term "the Restoration Movement" has been used to describe their interest in restoring the New Testament church. In their reading of the scriptures, both groups discovered that the early church gathered on the first day of the week (Sunday) "for the breaking of bread." They began to celebrate the Lord's Supper each week, rather than on a less regular basis as was common on the frontier because of lack of ministers. They left behind the practice of morning prayer and some other original traditions of Anglicanism and the Presbyterian Church.

In their study of the Bible, both groups determined that baptism as shown in the New Testament was for adult converts and accomplished by immersion in water. They adopted the practice in their churches and abandoned the baptism of infants.

"Raccoon John" Smith

The Merging of the Two Groups

The two groups united at High Street Meeting House, Lexington, Kentucky with a handshake between Barton W. Stone and "Raccoon" John Smith on Saturday, December 31, 1831. Smith had been chosen by those present to speak on behalf of the followers of the Campbells. While existing accounts are clear that the handshake took place on Saturday, some historians have changed the date of the merger to Sunday, January 1, 1832. This 1832 date has become generally accepted. The actual difference is only about 20 hours.

Two representatives of those assembled were appointed to carry the news of the union to all of the churches: John Rogers, for the Christians and "Raccoon" John Smith for the reformers. Despite some challenges, the merger was successful.

The Challenge of the Names

With the merger, there was the challenge of naming the new movement. Finding a Biblical, non-sectarian name was important. Stone wished to continue to use the name "Christians." Alexander Campbell insisted on "Disciples of Christ." Walter Scott and Thomas Campbell agreed with Stone, but the younger Campbell had strong reasons and would not yield. As a result, both names were accepted. The confusion over names has continued ever since. Prior to the separation in 1906, congregations would typically be named "Disciples of Christ," "Christian Church," and "Church of Christ."

Alexander Campbell, Age 65
Alexander Campbell, Age 65

The First National Convention and the Missionary Movement

The first National Convention was held at Cincinnati, Ohio in 1849. Alexander Campbell was concerned that holding conventions would lead the movement into divisive denominationalism and therefore did not attend the gathering. Among its actions, the convention elected Alexander Campbell as its President and created the American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS).

The formation of a missionary society set the stage for future "co-operative" efforts. By the end of the century, the Foreign Christian Missionary Society and the Christian Women's Board of Missions were also involved in missionary activities. Forming the ACMS did not reflect a consensus of the movement in its entirety. Sponsorship of missionary activities became a divisive problem. In the following decades, for some congregations and their leaders, co-operative work through missionary societies and the adoption of instrumental music in church worship was straying too far from their conception of the early church. After the American Civil War, the division grew.

The Journals

From the beginning of the movement, the free exchange of ideas among the people was fostered by the journals that were published by its leaders. Alexander Campbell published The Millennial Harbinger and TheChristian Baptist. Stone published The Christian Messenger. In a respectful way, both men routinely published the contributions of those whose positions were radically different from their own.

After Campbell’s death in 1866, journals continued to keep the discussion and conversation alive. Between 1870 and 1900, two journals emerged as the most prominent. The Christian Standard was edited and published by Cincinnati's Isaac Errett, while J. H. Garrison from St. Louis edited and published The Christian Evangelist. The two men enjoyed a friendly rivalry and kept the dialog going within the movement. A third journal became part of the conversation with the publication in 1884 of The Christian Oracle, later to be known as The Christian Century, with an interdenominational appeal. Later, in 1914, Garrison’s Christian Publishing company was purchased by R. A. Long, who then established a non-profit corporation, "The Christian Board of Publication" as the Brotherhood publishing house.


In 1906, the U.S. Religious Census listed Churches of Christ for the first time as a group that was separate and distinct from the Disciples of Christ. However, the division had been growing for several years, with published reports as early as 1883. The most obvious distinction between the two groups was the Churches of Christ forbidding the use of musical instruments in worship. The controversy over musical instruments began in 1860, when some congregations introduced organs, which were traditionally associated with wealthier, denominational churches. More basic were the underlying approaches to interpretation of the Bible. The Churches of Christ allowed only those practices found in accounts of New Testament worship. They could find no recordings in the New Testament of the use of instrumental music in worship. The Disciples considered all practices that were not expressly forbidden in the New Testament.

After the division, Disciples churches used "Christian Church" as the dominant designation for its congregations. While music and the approach to missionary work were the most obvious issues, there were also some deeper problems. The process that led to the division had begun prior to the American Civil War.

Following the Churches of Christ's separation in 1906, additional controversies arose. Should missionary efforts be cooperative or should they be congregations independently sponsor them? Should new methods of Biblical analysis that were developed in the late 19th century be embraced in the study and interpretation of the Bible? The "cooperative" churches were more likely to adopt the new biblical study methods.

During the first half of the 1900s, these opposing factions among the Christian Churches coexisted but with growing discomfort and tension. In 1920, the three Missionary Societies of the cooperative churches merged into the United Christian Missionary Society. Human service ministries expnded through the National Benevolent Association and provided assistance to the orphaned, the elderly and the disabled. By the mid-century, the cooperative Christian Churches and the independent Christian Churches were following different paths.

Modern Disciples

Beliefs and Practices

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a church of the Lord's Table. Each week, members of the Christian Church gather around the Table in local congregations to celebrate the Lord's Supper, sing hymns, read the word of God from the Bible, hear the word of God proclaimed, and extend Christ's invitation to become His Disciples. Each congregation determines their own nature of worship, study, Christian service, and witness to the world. At the Lord's table, individuals are invited to acknowledge their faults and transgressions, to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to remember their baptism, and to give thanks for God's redeeming love. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) believes that it is in the local congregations where people come, discover, and know God as they gather in Christ's name. Because Disciples believe that the invitation to the table comes from Jesus Christ, communion is open to all who confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord, regardless of their denominational affiliation. For most Disciples, communion is understood as the symbolic presence of Christ within the gathered community. Disciples practice believer's baptism in the form of immersion, beliving it to be the form that was used in the New Testament. The experiences of yielding to Christ in being buried with him in the waters of baptism and rising to a new life have profound meaning for the church.

"In essentials, Unity; In non-essentials, Liberty; and in all things, Charity." —19th Century slogan of the Stone-Campbell Movement

For modern Disciples, the one essential is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and obedience to him in baptism. There is no requirement to give assent to any additional statement of belief or creed, nor is there any "official" interpretation of the Bible. Hierarchical doctrine was initially rejected by Disciples as human-made and divisive, and subsequently, freedom of belief and scriptural interpretation allows many Disciples to question or even deny beliefs common in doctrinal churches such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Atonement. Beyond the essential commitment to follow Jesus, there is a tremendous freedom of belief and interpretation. As the basic teachings of Jesus are studied and applied to life, there is the freedom to interpret Jesus' teaching in various ways. As would be expected from such an approach, there is a wide diversity among Disciples in what individuals and congregations believe. It is not rare to find individuals who seemingly hold diametrically opposed beliefs within the same congregation affirming one another's journeys of faith as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Members and seekers are encouraged to take being disciples seriously, meaning that they are student followers of Jesus. Often the best teaching comes in the form, "I will tell you what I think, but read the Bible for yourself, and then study and pray about it. Decide in what ways God is calling you to be a follower of Jesus."

Modern Disciples reject the use of creeds as "tests of faith," i.e., as required beliefs, necessary to be accepted as a follower of Jesus. Although Disciples respect the great creeds of the church as informative affirmations of faith, they are never seen as binding. Since the adoption of The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in 1968, Disciples have celebrated a sense of unity in reading the preamble to the Design publicly. It is as a meaningful affirmation of faith, not binding upon any member. It was originally intended to remind readers that this Church seeks God through Jesus Christ, even when it adopts a design for its business affairs. Some of the denomination's best scholars have noted the inadequacy of the "Preamble" as a balanced theological statement.

"…the church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things…" —Thomas Campbell, Proposition 1 of the Declaration and Address

The Disciples celebrate their unity with all who seek God through Jesus Christ, throughout time and regardless of location. That unity is symbolized in the open invitation to communion for all who have professed faith in Christ without regard to church affiliation.

In local communities, congregations share with churches of other denominations in joint worship and in community Christian service. Ecumenical cooperation and collaboration with other Christian Communions has long been practiced by the Regions.

At the General Church level, the Council on Christian Unity oversees the ecumenical activities of the church. The Disciples continues to relate to the National Council of Churches, of which it was an original founding member. It shares in the theological endeavors and dialog of the World Council of Churches. The Disciples has been a full participant in the Consultation on Church Union since it began in the 1960s. It continually supports those ongoing conversations which have taken on the title "Churches Uniting in Christ." The goal of these endeavors is not to merge into some "Super Church", but rather to discover ways to celebrate and proclaim the unity and oneness that is Christ's gift to his church.


Congregations of the Christian Church are self-governing in the tradition of congregational polity. They choose their own leadership, own their own property, and manage their own affairs.

In congregations of the Disciples, the priesthood of all believers finds its expression in worship and Christian service. Typically, the Lay Elders, rather than ordained ministers, preside at the Lord's Table in celebration of Communion. The Lay Elders, as well as selected Pastors, provide spiritual oversight and care for members in partnership with one another.

Regional Ministries

The Regional Churches of the Christian Church provide resources for leadership development and opportunities for Christian fellowshipping beyond the local congregation. They have taken responsibility for the care and support of those individuals seeking to discern God’s call to service as ordained or licensed ministers. Typically, they organize summer camping experiences for the children and youth.

Regional churches assist congregations who are seeking ministers and vice versa. Regional leadership is available on request to aid congregations that face conflict. Although they have no authority to direct the life of any congregation, the Regional Churches are analogous to the middle judicatories of other denominations.

General Ministries

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at the "General Church" level consists of a number of self-governing organizations, which focus upon specific Christian witnesses to the world that have emerged in the dialog within the movement since before the first convention in 1849. Generally, these ministries have a scope that is larger than Regional Ministries, and often have a global perspective. The church organizations report to the General Assembly, which meets biennially in odd numbered years. The General Minister and President (GMP) is the designated leader for the General Church, but does not have the administrative authority to conduct any of the general church agencies other than "The Office of General Minister and President." The GMP has influence that derives from the respect of the church, similar to how the pastor of a local church leads a local congregation.

One highly popular and respected General Agency of the church is the "Week of Compassion," named for the special offering to fund the program when it started in the 1950’s. The Week of Compassion is the agency for disaster relief and Third World development. It works intimately with Church World Service and church related organizations in countries around the world where disasters strike, providing emergency aid.

The General Church has encouraged the entire denomination to work for a 20/20 Vision for the first two decades of the 21st Century. Together the denomination is well on the way to achieving its three main points:

  • Seeking racial justice, which is described as anti-racism.
  • Forming 2,000 new congregations across the United States and Canada.
  • Seeking God’s transformation of 2,000 existing Congregations in ways that will renew their witness.

The relationship between the congregations, regions, and the general church are detailed in The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

At the 2005 General Assembly, over 3000 delegates voted nearly unanimously to elect the reverend Dr. Sharon E. Watkins as General Minister and President of the denomination. She was the first woman to be elected as the presiding minister of a mainline Protestant denomination.

The Chalice

The Logo of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a red chalice with a white Saint Andrew's Cross. The chalice symbolizes the centrality of Communion to the life of the church. The cross of St. Andrew is a reminder of the ministry of each person and the viatlity of evangelism, and recalls the denomination's Scottish Presbyterian ancestry. The symbol was first designed in 1969.

After the General Assembly of 1968, the Administrative Committee charged a sub-committee with the task of generating a symbol for the church. Hundreds of designs were submitted, but none seemed to fit. By November, the Deputy General Minister and President, William Howland, suggested that the committee's staff consultant and chairperson decide on a specific proposal and bring it back to the committee: that meant Robert L. Friedly of the Office of Interpretation and Ronald E. Osborn.

On January 20, 1970, the two men met for lunch. With a red felt-tip pen, Osborn began to draw a Saint Andrew's cross circumscribed inside a chalice on his placemat.

Immediately, Friedly dispatched the crude drawing to Bruce Tilsley of Denver with the plea that he prepare an artistic version of the idea. Tilsley responded with a few sketches, from which was selected the now-familiar red chalice. Use of the proposed symbol became such a dominant concern that there was little debate when official adoption was considered at the 1971 General Assembly.

The chalice logo is a registered trademark of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Congregations and ministries of the Christian Church 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 before using the logo.

Because most congregations call themselves "Christian Churches," the chalice has become an easy way to identify Disciples of Christ Churches through signage, letterhead, and other forms of publicity.

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