Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Denomination Overview

Alexander Campbell
Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ.

Colton, Zahm & Roberts, N.Y. / Public Domain 

The Christian Church, also called the Disciples of Christ, started in the United States from the 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement, or Restoration Movement, which stressed openness at the Lord's Table and freedom from creedal restrictions. Today, this mainline Protestant denomination continues to fight racism, support missions, and work for Christian unity.

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

  • Also Known As: The Disciples of Christ, the D.O.C., or the Disciples
  • Known For: Mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States and Canada with roots in the 19th century Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.
  • Founded: 1832
  • Founders: Thomas and Alexander Campbell; Barton W. Stone.
  • Headquarters: Indianapolis, Indiana.
  • Worldwide Membership: Disciples number nearly 700,000, in 3,754 congregations.
  • Leadership: General Board with Regional and General Assemblies
  • Identity: "We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us."

History and Founding of the Christian Church

The Disciples of Christ, also known as the Christian Church, evolved from two separate movements, in two different states, led by three different ministers. What brought them together was a common goal: restoration of the church to the ideals and practices of Christianity in the first century AD.

While this goal initially led to unity, differences over the years caused splits into three separate restoration groups.

Roots in Pennsylvania

In western Pennsylvania, Presbyterian minister Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), frustrated with the differences among Christian denominations, and wanting to put an end to divisiveness at the Lord's Table, proposed uniting Christians under the principles of the New Testament church. That was in 1809.

Campbell's son Alexander (1788-1866), also a Presbyterian minister, agreed with his father on the need to do away with differences among faith groups. They named their breakaway church "Disciples of Christ" to shed denominational disagreements. Alexander Campbell began carrying the movement through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.

Beginnings in Kentucky

At about the same time, Barton W. Stone (1772-1844), was breaking away from the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky. He rejected the use of creeds, which separated Christian denominations and caused factionalism. He found that he could no longer follow church doctrines and chose to rely solely on the Bible for theology, in the footsteps of the early church.

Stone also questioned belief in the Trinity. He took the name "Christians" for members of his church, to remove denominational labels. It's unclear whether the leaders of these two simultaneous movements were aware of each other's work, but Stone and Alexander Campbell finally met in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1824.

Pioneers in the great religious reformation of the 19th century
Pioneers in the religious reformation of the 19th century. Engraving by J.C. Buttre; design by J.D.C. McFarland

The two leaders shared many areas of agreement. Both wanted to restore the authority of the Bible and get back to the ways of the New Testament church. Opponents called Stone's followers "New Lights" or "Stoneites," while Campbell's critics dubbed his people "Reformers" or "Campbellites."

Similar beliefs and goals led the Stone-Campbell movements to unite in 1832 in Lexington, Kentucky. At that time, they became the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ.

Walter Scott, also a Scottish Presbyterian, was another early leader in the Restoration Movement. His evangelistic thrust helped strengthen and stabilize the movement as it pulled away from the Baptists in 1839.

By the end of the 19th century, the Christian Church represented the swiftest growing body in the United States.

From Unity to Dissension and Division

Two other denominations eventually sprang from the Stone-Campbell movement. The Churches of Christ broke away from the Disciples in 1906, and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ separated in 1971.

For many members of the movement, following the example of the first-century church meant strict observance of what was written in the Bible. If it wasn't there, they didn't want to add it. Those members objected to instrumental music and organized missionary activity because they couldn't find these in the book of Acts or other New Testament writings.

Dissension went on for decades, leading to the split of 1906. The breakaway group, which reorganized as the Churches of Christ, uses a cappella, or unaccompanied singing only.

The next split began in 1926 and culminated in 1971 when the Disciples restructured. This group separated because it felt the Disciples were leaning toward liberalism and modernism.Those 3,000 breakaway congregations became known as Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, or Independent Christian Churches, since they reject denominationalism.

Obviously, the similarity in names has led to much confusion. Scholars generally classify the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as liberal, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in the middle, and Churches of Christ as conservative.

More recently, in 1989, the Disciples and the United Church of Christ entered into full communion with each other. As proponents of ecumenism, the Disciples were active in the founding of the Federal Council of Churches as well as the World Council of Churches and are members of the Consultation on Christian Union. 

Some notable names in the Christian Church membership rolls are James A. Garfield, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Lew Wallace, John Stamos, J. William Fulbright, and Carrie Nation.

The Christian Church Logo
The Christian Church logo of a chalice symbolizes the importance of communion in the Disciples of Christ worship service. Image: ® Courtesy of the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ

The Shape of the Christian Church Today

The Christian Church is spread through 46 states in the United States and is also found in five provinces in Canada.

Each congregation has freedom in its theology and does not take orders from other bodies. The elected representative structure includes congregations, regional assemblies, and the General Assembly. All levels are considered equal.

The Disciples recognize the Bible as the inspired Word of God, but members' views on the inerrancy of the Bible range from fundamental to liberal. The Christian Church does not tell its members how to interpret Scripture.

Christian Church Beliefs and Practices

The Christian Church does not have a creed. When accepting a new member, the congregation requires only a simple statement of faith: "I believe that Jesus is the Christ and I accept him as my personal Lord and Savior."

Beliefs and practices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) vary from congregation to congregation and among individuals, especially concerning the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the existence of heaven and hell, and God's plan of salvation. Disciples of Christ ordain women as ministers. In fact, the current General Minister and President of the organization is a woman—Reverend Teresa Hord Owens.

The Christian Church baptizes by immersion at an age of accountability. The Lord's Supper, or communion, is open to all Christians and is observed weekly. The Sunday worship service consists of hymns, reciting the Lord's Prayer, Scripture readings, a pastoral prayer, a sermon, tithes and offerings, communion, a blessing, and a recessional hymn.