The family of churches known as “Christian Churches”, “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)” and “Churches of Christ” grew out of an early 19th Century movement with origins in both the UK and the USA. Today, there are congregations related to this Christian World Communion in over 170 countries.
What are the “characteristics” or “distinctives” of this global family?
In any Christian World Communion there is diversity in belief and practice. There are also many features of each family that are shared by the whole church of Jesus Christ. What follows is an attempt to create an overall but simple picture of who Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are and so it needs to be read as a whole. It also needs to be read in the context that no attempt is being made to separate this family from the universal Church but rather to describe our place within the whole Church.
So what are the marks of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ?
1. A concern for Christian Unity
In the 1809 Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell wrote that the ‘Church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one’. Fellow pioneer, Barton Stone, spoke of Christian unity being the ‘polar star’. The ‘Disciples of Christ' or 'the Association of Christians’ was a movement for unity within the fragmented and often hostile and competitive church environment of that time. Today there are different understandings of how Christian unity might be understood and achieved, but at our heart we consider anyone who loves Christ to be a part of the universal Church, regardless of what denomination they attend.
2. A commitment to Evangelism and Mission
Unity is never an end in itself. Its desirability came out of the understanding ‘that the world could be won only if the church became one’. We take seriously Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 'May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.' Today that commitment is shown both by emphasising the need for personal commitment to Jesus Christ and by a concern for peace and justice for all people.
3. A New Testament emphasis
Churches of Christ are ‘people of the Book’. They believed that ‘restoring’ the New Testament Church and stripping away the accumulation of traditions that had brought about division could achieve unity. Our ultimate authority is the Scriptures, not the traditions or hierarchies of the church. We are sometimes referred to as the ‘Restoration Movement’. Churches of Christ would describe themselves as ‘biblical’, but interpretation of that can vary from church to church.
4. A simple confession of faith
From Matthew 16:16 came the cornerstone question for church membership: ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ and accept him as your Lord and Saviour?’ Answering ‘yes’ is all that is required for membership, though many congregations have membership classes. This simple question avoided the use of (often) divisive creeds. Many today will not make any use of creeds; others will use them as a means of expressing faith – but not a test of faith.
5. Believers’ Baptism
Only people who have reached an age where they can make their own confession of faith are baptised. The means of baptism is always immersion, believing that it best symbolizes being ‘buried’ and ‘raised’ with Christ (Romans 6:4).
6. Weekly Communion
Again believing that they follow the New Testament model, Churches of Christ celebrate communion or the ‘Lord’s Supper’ each Sunday. We believe in an ‘Open Table’, where all who love the Lord can participate in communion: “we are a people of the open table. We stay true to the spirit of New Testament practice and rejoice in the spirit of Unity symbolized by our radical sharing of the Lord’s Table.” (Kerrie Handasyde, The Open Table).
7. Biblical Name
Members of the emerging 19th Century Movement wanted to be known only as ‘Christians’ or ‘Disciples of Christ’. Slogans such as ‘Christians only – but not the only Christians’ and ‘Biblical names for Biblical things’ captured this emphasis. Congregations use names such as Church (or Churches or church) of Christ, Christian Church or Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
8. Congregational Interdependence
Members of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches live under the authority of Christ but this authority is seen as being worked out in the local congregation. Local churches are connected most closely to their State Conferences who make up the Council of Churches of Christ in Australia (CCCA). Decisions that most impact the local church are made at a local church level. State and national affiliation for churches allows them to partner together in theological training, ecumenical work, mission work (both overseas and in Australia), ordination and resourcing. The World Convention of Churches of Christ is a global fellowship, endeavouring to build up fellowship and understanding within the global family.
9. Lay Leadership
The ‘Priesthood of all Believers’ is a mark of all Churches of Christ. Participation by lay people in all aspects of the church’s life is a notable feature. Lay people conduct the sacraments. Women and men are seen as equal. Men and women can be endorsed and ordained for working among their local church.
‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love’ is the best-known slogan in our family. Churches of Christ have always allowed for diversity, and much of that diversity has been enriching. This will mean that if you turn up to a service at a Church of Christ one Sunday, it may differ significantly to a different Church of Christ you attended the week before! Churches of Christ are left with the challenge of finding for ourselves the unity-in-diversity it seeks for the whole church of Jesus Christ.
11. Ecumenical Representation
As part of our posture towards Christian unity, Churches of Christ are represented in many ecumenical forums working closely with our brothers and sisters from other Christian denominations. We have formal representation and affiliation with each states Council of Christian Churches networks, the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches we also have appointed representatives on task forces, boards and committees of these Councils.