Our Friends the Disciples of Christ

Our Friends the Disciples of Christ: Discussions on the Contemporary Religions of America—No. 4

Thoughts on the Disciples of Christ, an indigenous American religious group.

THE Disciples of Christ constit­ute the largest purely indige­nous American religious group." 1 Although all members of this communion use the name "Dis­ciples of Christ," and "Christian Church" interchangeably, the term "Disciples of Christ" is more commonly used by those churches that cooperate through the International Conven­tion. "In point of origin, the beliefs of the Dis­ciples are as American as the Declaration of Independence." 2

"The Disciples began by the confluence of two main currents of religious thought: one, the Christian Church, developed in Kentucky and Ohio under the leadership of Barton W. Stone; the other, that of a body which came to call itself Disciples of Christ, developed in west­ern Pennsylvania and western Virginia under the leadership of Thomas Campbell, his son, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott. . . . These men, who came to be known as the Big Four, were of Presbyterian antecedents." 3 With a background for being cramped in style in the British Isles, these men were opportun­ists on American soil and cast in their lot with the pioneers of America in their westward march. With them it was not a matter of Cal­vinism or Arminianism; Christ died for all men. Creeds just did not fit into their mold. They preached a New Testament religion with complete liberty of opinion on nonessen­tials. The problem question, still to be solved, was "What are the essentials?"

We cannot here follow the circuitous route of this interesting group of individualists who had encounters with the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans of their day. The Disciples thrived on debates, but were too often weak on theology. Some church historians dis­miss this weakness with a casual observation that it is easier at times to take notice of their specialties rather than their certainties! Disci­ples of Christ do not believe in the doctrine of apostolic succession. Conversion must be vol­untary. They invite, but do not believe in proselytizing. No formula of interrogation is necessary for membership. The Lord's Supper is for any baptized person, without regard to sectarian affiliations.

Religious liberty is stressed on individual opinion. Each may interpret the Bible as he understands it. They believe in a democratic system of church government with no sense of rivalry between the denominations. Here we meet a rugged individualism that suited per­fectly our American pioneers. And today this freedom of thought by the Disciples is less troublesome in the World Council of Churches than the ideas of groups that built their faith on conscience and pure Bible doctrines. They aim to short-cut the red tape of the church's organizational machinery. Trials for heresy are unknown, they claim, although withdrawals for gross immorality are acted upon by the con­gregations. Disciples believe that only the Lord can expel anybody from the "church universal." Although they believe their church to be the most in accord with the practices of the early Christian churches, they consider it the business of Christians of all faiths to be brought into one church of Christ. "We are not the only Christians, but are Christians only," is their slogan on this point.

Religion in American Setting

While some church historians play up this American brand of religion it should be ex­pected from the various backgrounds of this interesting group of Christians that they suggest a paradox of at least some of their ideals. In various areas of America their creedless free­dom has at times become a problem to their fellow Christians. In New England, and in other sections, the Disciples have absorbed the elements of a waning Puritanism, which char­acterized Congregationalism, Quakerism, and Unitarianism. The Dissenter spirit brought with them from Europe, and the by-products of the American Awakenings, eventually produced this individualism to which the European state church and hierarchical system made no appeal. Side by side with Wesleyan Arminianism and Calvinism these Christian churches adjusted themselves to the needs of the American pio­neers. Once away from kings and priests, from laws and liturgies, pioneers might have deteri­orated into nonbelievers except for this new approach. However, the Disciples have grown in influence and numbers, and today are not ignoring other areas of the world in their American type of evangelism.

We have lived close to these interesting mem­bers of the Christian Church who are generally honest and wholesome without their religion's becoming a yoke of bondage, as some claim. They are hardly as other-world-minded as some groups of fundamentalists, but they are well integrated on Sunday schools, and children's and young people's plans. The church is not the abode of the pious alone; Christians have a fellowship that provides holy pleasures as well. Some groups take an active part in Bible institutes, evangelistic revivals, and welfare proj­ects. Their educational institutions maintain a Christian spirit. A few of this group still hesi­tate to feature musical instruments in the church, but this conservatism is changing with the times also.

Our friends of the Disciples faith have many commendable traits. It cannot be denied by us that they prefer their free-from-the-law liberty when they meet Seventh-day Adventists. Re­sponsible leaders of both groups have raised questions at times on religious issues, but it may be that we have considered in recent decades that there is little gained by debating truth and much achieved by living it. However, many from the Christian Church and Disciples have sought at our hands a more positive religion.

Our worldwide message on the imminent return of Christ is preached with the power of the everlasting gospel. Our reformatory phases of the message make healthful and exemplary living a challenge against the crimes of this age.

Seventh-day Adventists may not be considered as broad-minded as some other groups; but our desire to be obedient in all New Testament teachings makes us conscious that it is high time to awake from slumber and to be Christians indeed in word and act.

Approaching Disciple Christians

It is good to share our well-prepared litera­ture with our friends of the Christian churches. There are associated groups under this classifi­cation which we cannot touch on here. These make good neighbors also, and what has been previously stated about the Baptists and Pres­byterians, might quite generally apply for the Disciples.

In many areas where families of these groups meet Adventism, our excellent system of Vaca­tion Bible Schools conducted by the Sabbath school department has brought good under­standing between our neighbors. We love our children and youth, and desire to nurture them in a clean Christian atmosphere. We jointly desire to make boys and girls very aware of the need of following the Word of God, and shar­ing it with those who may not have it. Christian songs and ideals will bring blessing to any com­munity. A new emphasis on abstemious living is needed in all ranks throughout the world.

Again, there is a deceptive zeal about getting Sunday laws activated to defend Sunday sacredness, even by church groups who do not under­stand their true import. With tact and friendli­ness Adventists must now help Christians gen­erally to understand what position should be taken on enforcing such laws. Not in a com­bative spirit, however, but in a true Christian attitude we should let our light shine among our Christian friends and thereby cherish the discipleship of Christ mutually. Jesus separated the church from the state, and true American­ism must be maintained on this New Testament platform. There is great urgency in Advent-ism's witnessing on the Sunday-law issue.

We should now sense the need to alert evan­gelical Christians on these great problems that may eventually bring back days of persecution such as their forefathers endured. Surely en­lightened Christendom should become vigilant and militant for Christian tolerance. We should bring a positive note into our witnessing. Many sincere Christians, lacking guidance on this issue, might become our bitterest enemies. We now have a responsibility to save our fellow Christians such embarrassment. So let us do it, declaring the issue to be one of principle for all Christians and not just a crusade on the part of minority groups for self-preservation. These matters deserve some projected thinking and wise planning by Seventh-day Adventists. 

1 James Craig, "Who Are the Disciples of Christ?'' A Guide to Religions of America (New York: Simon and Schuster. Copyright 1955 by Cowles Magazines, Inc.), p. 38.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., pp. 41, 42.


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August 1961

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