Churches of Christ

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The Churches of Christ[1] are a group of autonomous churches in the United States made up of believers in Jesus Christ who have been baptised by immersion "for the remission of sins" as a component of the salvation process.

They consider themselves to be non-denominational (there is no "headquarters" for the group, unlike denominations) and prefer not to be categorized as a Protestant group (though many of their early followers came from Protestant denominations), saying that they do not seek to reform the Catholic Church but only to restore Christianity to authentic New Testament beliefs and practices.

With roots going back into the 1700s, they were organized early in the 1800s from the union of two similar groups, one led by Barton Stone and the other by Alexander Campbell (the latter being the more influential, the group is sometimes referred to in a pejorative manner as "Campbellism").

They are strongest in the American South.

Main Beliefs and Practices

A phrase attributed to Alexander Campbell is commonly used to define the group: "Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent."

Although there are several sub-groups within the Churches of Christ, common beliefs and practices within the group include:

  • Baptism by immersion "for the remission of sins" as a component of the salvation process.
    • Churches of Christ do not believe in infant baptism; only persons old enough to understand what is required of salvation can be baptized.
    • The belief that baptism is an essential component of salvation has led opponents to accuse adherents of believing in "baptismal regeneration" and rejecting the views of sola gratia and sola fide; in return adherents believe that faith requires obedience or it is not truly faith at all.
    • The phrase "for the remission of sins" does not have a uniform position within Churches of Christ. The majority view is that a baptismal candidate must understand that baptism will remit their sins; as such, any baptism (even by immersion) with any other belief (such as it being symbolic, as what Baptists and most other Protestant denominations teach) is not valid and the candidate would have to be rebaptized in the Church of Christ. However, a significant minority view holds that, so long as the candidate had a desire to obey God, it is valid even if the candidate did not completely understand its significance.
  • Strongly Armenian in their views on God and salvation, especially their rejection of eternal security [2]
  • Singing by a cappella means only (i.e., no musical instruments, though a pitch pipe may be used)
  • Weekly observance of the Lord's Supper
    • Although some Churches of Christ practice closed communion, the majority of congregations practice open communion, on the basis that according to I Corinthians 11:28 a visitor must "examine himself" and decide whether or not to participate (i.e. the minister, deacons, or elders do not decide who may or may not partake).
  • Church governance by elders, supported by deacons
    • The term "pastor" is rarely used among churches and the term "reverend" even less, due to lack of Biblical support for either name. Instead, terms used to describe the person giving the weekly sermon include "minister", "evangelist", or (if the person is also an elder) "preaching elder".
    • Only adult men may be elders, deacons, or ministers; the group opposes women in these roles.

Churches of Christ support Biblical inerrancy. They are also dispensational, in that they accept the Old Testament as illustrative (and useful for Christians to study) but not authoritative (i.e. the church is guided solely by the New Testament). Furthermore, they do not accept any creeds or doctrinal statements as binding on the church (though they may not necessarily disagree with them).

They are generally amillenial in their views of the end times, and strongly oppose teachings on the Rapture.

They oppose Pentecostal and charismatic practices, believing that the gifts of tongues and healing disappeared when the final canon of Scripture was complete. They do not generally support the direct involvement of the Holy Spirit in Christian life (this comes from Campbell's view that people were convinced by words and ideas; Campbell was a strong debater and that practice continues in Churches of Christ today); however, the direct involvement view (which came from Stone) has gained some influence in recent years.

Some Churches of Christ hold to what is likely the hardest position on divorce and remarriage, believing adultery to be the only Biblical grounds. Some even advocate that if a person is divorced and remarried (outside of grounds of adultery) and then becomes a Christian, the person should divorce his/her current spouse and either remarry their former spouse or remain unmarried, or else they continue to commit adultery. This is an increasingly minority view.

Splits within the movement

Split from Disciples of Christ

Prior to 1906 the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ[3] were listed in US Census records as one and the same movement, when the two groups parted ways (and, ever since, have been recorded as separate movements).

However, long before then the two groups had serious disagreements over the use of music in worship and missionary societies. More important was a fundamental division between the views of two early leaders of the movement: Campbell believed in progress toward the Kingdom of God and was both optimistic and not hostile toward the secular world, while Stone was pessimistic about human nature and the prospects for progress and wanted a radical separation from the world.

From the end of the Civil War to 1917, David Lipscomb dominated the Churches of Christ and managed to balance the views of Campbell and Stone. After Lipscomb's death, the Churches of Christ moved away from the premillennialism of Stone and Lipscomb and embraced Campbell's views. Foy Wallace, whose views prevailed among the Churches of Christ from the 1930s through the 1950s, continued the movement away from the thought of Stone and Lipscomb.[4]

Ultimately, the Disciples of Christ evolved into a centralized denomination which has increasingly become theologically and politically liberal, is ardently committed to social justice and is an active member of both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. On the other hand, the Churches of Christ tend to be theologically conservative though politically neutral (however, churches and ministers will speak out against abortion and homosexuality), and maintain an earlier system of fellowship between congregations which does not involve any surrender of congregational independence.

The Non-Institutional Movement

A second major split in the movement took place in the 1950s over a growing trend toward the use of "sponsoring churches" to perform larger works such as the operation of orphanages and television networks.

As Churches of Christ have no central denominational headquarters, and due to concerns that "missionary societies" would ultimately lack any accountability to anyone but themselves, under the "sponsoring church" system one church would take responsibility for a work (with its elders being in charge) and other churches or individuals would then donate to that church for that work.[5]

Opponents of the "sponsoring church" movement saw no Biblical support for such an arrangement, and over time resulted in divisions within local congregations. The term "non-institutional Churches of Christ" is commonly used to define those congregations opposed to the "sponsoring church" movement. Those congregations also oppose local churches having fellowship halls, gymnasiums or "family life centers", again stating no Biblical support for the practice.

Other divisions

In addition to the non-institutional and "sponsoring church" congregations, there are other, smaller groups as follows:

  • A small but growing number of larger congregations have moved away from strictly a cappella singing, and either have instrumental music in all services or offer separate instrumental and a cappella services.
  • Another notable sub-group disagrees with the use of individual serving cups during the Lord's Supper, instead believing that only one cup is authorized per Scripture (the term "one-cupper" is sometimes used pejoratively to classify these congregations). Even within this group there are disagreements on whether 1) the wine should be fermented or non-fermented, 2) whether the bread can be broken ahead of time or whether each participant must break it separately, and even 3) whether a cup, when it runs empty or it is accidentally spilled, can be refilled.
  • Another group opposes the use of Sunday Schools, believing that all participants must gather at one time.
  • Finally, another group opposes having one person designated as "minister", instead having more than one person rotate what would be preaching duties.

The latter three groups often overlap, but also hold to "non-institutional" views.


  1. Many of this movement prefer to use the spelling "churches of Christ", differentiating between "the Church" (all Christians) and "the church" (a local congregation).
  2. However, there is no consensus on how one could end up lost after being saved.
  3. Formally, the denomination is called Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
  4. Richard T. Hughes, "The Apocalyptic Origins of Churches Of Christ and the Triumph of Modernism." Religion and American Culture 1992 2(2): 181-214. 1052-1151
  5. The work may be organized under a separate entity for legal purposes, an example being the Gospel Broadcasting Network, an internet-based television network which is under the oversight of a Mississippi congregation.

See also


Sunday School

Infant baptism

Essay: Water baptism cannot save, the Church cannot save, Born again by faith alone

External links

Further reading

  • Harrell, David Edwin, Jr. The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith. (2000). 472 pp. by a leading historian
  • Hughes, Richard T. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. (1996). 448 pp.
  • Williams, D. Newell. Barton Stone: A Spiritual Biography. (2000). 249 pp.