Around 200 years ago, change was stirring on the American frontier. What most scholars believe to be the first indigenous religious movement in the United States was beginning to take shape. In Kentucky and West Virginia, ways of thinking about God and the Church were independently being formed that would eventually merge to become what we now call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
I think it is somewhat telling that even from the beginning there wasn’t complete agreement – even on our name. One of the many slogans of the day was “Bible names for Bible things.” In other words, in the desire to restore the practices of the New Testament church, there was an effort to move away from non-Biblical names (e.g., Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) to names used by the early church to describe itself. Barton Stone said (my paraphrase), “The first believers were called ‘Christian’ – therefore we should be called the ‘Christian Church.’” Alexander Campbell, always one to have an opinion, responded, “Yes, but before they were Christian they were called Disciples.”
Thus, we became the “People of the Parenthesis” – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). You might say we were born in reasoned compromise. Of course, Disciples have long been known to disagree amicably. Another favorite slogan of the early Disciple movement was, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” In other words, we all agree that Jesus was the Christ. Pretty much everything else is up for discussion.
In the attempt to restore the practices of the New Testament church, human creeds were discarded, ancient worship practices reinstituted, and the unity of the church (as opposed to the rampant sectarianism of the day) was recognized as our “polar star.” Barton Stone and some other Presbyterian ministers in Kentucky even went so far as to write a “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” so their churches could merge into the Body of Christ and avoid the theological and ecclesial separation that kept them from working and worshiping together.
I suspect our founders would be dismayed at some of our church’s more recent developments. What was originally described as a “brotherhood” (before the days of inclusive language) eventually came to be described as a denomination. What was originally a highly motivated and inspired movement became an institution with all of the
incumbent structures and bureaucracies required for support and survival.
I am a committed supporter of what our church stands for – both then and now. However, I would love to see our church regain the sense of mission and movement that once characterized our church. In the early part of our history, people were inspired by the evangelical zeal, called to action by the emphasis on justice and Christian unity, and intellectually challenged to engage their minds as well as their hearts in the pursuit of faithfulness. Those values still exist in our church. Indeed, for those who first learn about our history, it is one of the most appealing aspects of our church.
Though our movement’s history is only two centuries old – the core ideas still have the power to inspire people and transform the world. We have a story to tell! If you would like to learn more (and there is much more!), join us this Wednesday for an evening of YOUR history. I look forward to telling the story again – and again.