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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Churches of Christ

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

A body of churches that separated from the Disciples of Christ in 1906 and ever since have distinguished themselves as rigid constructionists in “restoring primitive Christianity.” See CHRISTIAN CHURCHES (DISCIPLES OF CHRIST). The name Churches of Christ is loosely applied also to many of the older New England churches and to local units of the Disciples of Christ.

Alexander *Campbell, founder of the Disciples, had been a Baptist from 1812 to 1829, during which time he advocated certain conservative policies. These, later abandoned by him, were developed by a strong reactionary party among the Disciples. They were against open Communion and the use of “Reverend” in addressing the clergy. But their main grievance was the organization of missionary and other societies, which they construed as a form of denominationalism and a concession to authoritarianism. They objected also to installing organs in churches. After years of controversy in the pulpit and religious press, the conservatives estimated they had enough solidarity to separate from the main body. The government census for 1906 listed them for the first time as a distinct religious body, the Churches of Christ, with an estimated membership of 200,000 at the turn of the century. In 1964 they claimed a total of 2,250,000 members.

Doctrinally the Churches of Christ do not differ much from the Disciples, except that they discourage any semblance of imposed confessional creeds. Both believe that baptism should be administered by immersion and only to adults who have reached sufficient maturity to profess the faith and repent of their sins. The Lord’s Supper is commonly held to be only a memorial of Christ’s Passion and death, although the Christians, as they are called, more frequently recommend that unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice be used for Communion. As a rule, the Churches of Christ are more fundamentalist in their approach to the Scriptures and less tolerant of the *ecumenical movement.

The principal feature of the Churches of Christ, however, is their organizational structure. There is no juridical authority beyond the local congregation. The Christians maintain that denominations that are ruled by ecclesiastical forms of government are ignoring Christ the head of the Church and are assuming the right of self-government. This is held to be clearly against the Bible, which records that shortly before His Ascension; Christ declared that “all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Since “Christ has all authority; therefore man has none.” Unlike the Disciples who admit the existence and need of denominations, the Christians defend their own claim to being nondenominational. They further regard themselves as heirs of a new movement, which began in the 19th century, to restore the true church which had become lost to the multitudes “because of the doctrines of Catholicism and denominationalism.” After the lapse of centuries, they believe, Thomas and Alexander Campbell rediscovered the fact that “faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is sufficient profession to entitle a man or woman to become a member of the Church of Christ.”

As a result of their congregational independency, the Churches of Christ have no organization larger than the local church community. This has created the dilemma of how to operate the churches efficiently without some degree of unity, while remaining nondenominational in spite of some organization. In practice the problem is solved by permitting cooperative effort among the churches, but always short of being on a national scale. Moreover, books and periodicals from common publishing houses serve to unite the autonomous groups into a kind of federation.

Although the Churches of Christ have no national headquarters comparable to the Disciples, they have not been without a distinctive unity. Solidarity was first achieved and remains operative by their resistance to the “human innovations” of other religious bodies, in the form of set creeds, church officials above the parochial level, and ritual requirements for membership. They have been fairly consistent also in opposing musical instruments in churches, to such a degree that they are sometimes described as the “noninstrumental music” segment of the parent body. Their religious publications are labeled “unofficial,” and their colleges are simply “nonsectarian.” While large-scale missionary societies are forbidden because they are said to lack scriptural foundation, foreign missionaries are sponsored by individuals or local churches. Although adherents may be found throughout the U.S., they are concentrated in an arc that stretches from the middle Atlantic seaboard across Indiana down to Texas, and in the far West. Their weekly publication, Gospel Advocate, is one of the best known organs of nondenominational Christianity in the U.S.

Bibliography: B. Baxter, What is the Church of Christ? (Nashville 1960). A. Campbell, The Christian System (2d ed. Pittsburg 1839). B. W. Stone et al., An Apology for Renouncing the Jurisdiction of the Synod of Kentucky... (Lexington, Ky. 1804). T. Campbell, Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (Washington, Pa. 1809). M. M. Davis, How the Disciples Began and Grew, (Cincinnati 1947). W. E. Garrison and A. T. DeGroot, The Disciples of Christ: A History (rev. ed. St. Louis 1958).

New Catholic Encylopedia
Vol. 3, 1967, pp. 868-869

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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