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Disciples of Christ - going their way.

A story making the rounds in Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) circles says that the pope, when advised of the start of talks between the Disciples and the Vatican, asked in puzzlement: "The Apostles I know, but who are these Disciples?"

A frequently asked question, even by Disciples themselves, it's rather difficult to answer.

Members of the church believe so strongly in freedom and diversity--in worship and in life style--that it would be impossible to pinpoint a Disciples "type."

Born on the American frontier, this 152-year-old church is little known even though it has more than a million members in North America and has been the church of three U.S. presidents--James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.

The Christian Church is one of the largest Protestant bodies founded in this country. It has a weak identity, perhaps because of its double name, its long-standing aversion to being considered a denomination and because it does all of its work abroad--and much of it in the United States--ecumenically, in cooperation with other churches. It is an active participant in and helped organize the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Consultation on Church Union.

In a 1983 poll, George Gallup reported that the Disciples were unknown to two-thirds of the American population and that, among those who think they do know the Disciples, many identify them as a cult. The truth is that they are very much a part of mainstream American Protestantism.

"Disciples of Christ" is the federal census definition of the Disciples, but only a small percentage of the church's 4,328 congregations carry that name. Most are identified by names such as First Christian Church, Bethany Christian Church or Clark Street Christian Church--but you can't be sure that all the "Christian Churches" in your town are affiliated with the Disciples. Perhaps an equal number of "Christian Church" congregations in the United States are independent.

The aversion to being considered a denomination comes from the church's origins as a movement in post-Revolutionary War America to bring unity to a church thought to be sinfully divided over European theological, political and social issues. For nearly a century and a half, Disciples used the euphemism "brotherhood" to describe themselves rather than utter the terrible word "denomination."

Why the compound name?

The "Christian Church" part of it stems from the church's Kentucky ancestry and Barton W. Stone, whose followers dissolved their Presbyterian relationship in favor of a church less complicated, less dedicated to the use of creeds as tests of belief and more open to the reunion of Christians.

Thomas and Alexander Campbell, whose movement to restore Christian unity developed similarly but separately in western Pennsylvania, rebelled against dogmatic sectarianism. Campbell chose "Disciples of Christ" because he felt it was less pretentious than "Christian Church."

Since the two movements came together in 1832, the terms have been used interchangeably and in several different forms. In a 1968 restructuring, the brotherhood finally admitted that it was a denomination.

In the 1980s, Disciples represent a church built on a rich heritage but living fully in the present; a church that, in addition to having produced three presidents:

* Paced American churches in establishing a human-rights office and has two full-time people to call attention to rights violations around the world (both staff members having overseas experience and having been imprisoned in Asia and Latin America for working with rights-violations victims).

* Contributed the first lay person to be president of the National Council of Churches, Indiana diesel manufacturer J. Irwin Miller, in 1960-63.

* Made the largest contribution in the 1970s to initiate a "world bank" in Holland shared by more than 100 church bodies to provide high-risk business loans to Third World poor people.

* Initiated the idea of "campus ministry" at state colleges and universities and currently contributes 52 Disciples to such work.

* Turned former "missions" over to African church leadership in Zaire nearly 25 years ago and thus ranked among the first of the denominations to foster independent and autonomous indigenous churches in that ara. (Disciples are now involved in some 60 countries, with personnel in about a third of them, but because they have encouraged united Protestant churches abroad, little work remains anywhere in the world that is purely Disciples of Christ.)

* Founded Christian Century magazine in 1872 and spun it off as one of the most widely read ecumenical journals of the day.

* Ordained women as ministers in the 1800s, nearly as early as they ordained anyone, and now employe hundreds of ordained women.

* Helped resttle nearly 10 percent of all the refugees handled by the National Council of Churches denominations over the past five years.

To become a member of the Christian Church, a person simply confesses faith in Christ and is baptized by immersion, although most congregatoins will accept members by transfer who have been baptized as infants or sprinkled by another denomination. Nothing else is required.

Disciples consider reciting creeds unnecessary; they have no formal doctrine. They have always considered themselves a Bible-centered people, and their argument for freedom of opinion in matters of faith is built on the presumption that a reasonably intelligent person can study the Scriptures and determine God's will and relationship to man.

The Disciples' main sacrament is the Lord's Supper, commonly called communion, which they consider central to each worship service and which is open to all Christians. Unordained by elders handle the sacrament, and lay persons also carry out from time to time all other pastoral duties except those regulated by civil law, such as officiating at weddings.

Although the Christian Church has a strong ordained ministry of men and women serving in local congregations, higher education, the chaplaincy, denominational and edumenical offices and other ministries, few Protestant bodies take the "priesthood of all believers" concept to the length that Disciples do.

And, Few if any take the Christian unity ideal as seriously as Disciples. They came on the scene advocating Christian unity many years before a serious ecumenical movement developed in this country--and they haven't stopped. The ecumenical way is second nature to most Disciples.

Their ecumenical involvement runs the gamut from joint vacation church schools with congregations of other denominations (especially in small towns) to membership and leadership (paid and volunteer) in state and local councils of churches all the way to union conversations.

More than 60 Disciples ministers serve a full-time or elected executives of national and regional ecumenical organizations, reinforced by a force of volunteers. It is also interesting to note that 116 Disciples ministers serve non-Disciples congregations and 44 non-Disciples ministers serve Christian Church congregations.

The Disciples have actually been--as the story about the pope indicates--in theological conversations with the Roman Catholic Church for several years. Though the Catholics have a tradition of authority very different from the free-wheeling Disciples and a much more formal worship style, both celebrate the Lord's Supper as the center of worship.

The Disciples are in union conversations with the 1.8-million-member United Church of Christ. They already sahre the same mission executives in India and the Middle East. Several of their congregations are dually aligned, and many ministers have dual standing. The two bodies are in the midst of a six-year covenant of work and study, hoping to have a clear recommendation by 1985 on whether union is possible and, if so, what form it should take.

"What we are alooking at is an organic union to create a new church, not an institutional merger of two existing churches," explained the Rev. Robert K. Welsh, vice president of the Disciples' Council on Christian Unity.

Both denominations are participants in the nine-denomination Consultation on Church Union at the same time that they are in conversation with each other. The Disciples' chief ecnumenical officer, the Rev. Paul A. Crow, Jr., served COCU as its first general secretary.

The Christian Church's general officers are in Indianapolis, Indiana, but the Disciples also have major offices in St. Louis, where their publishing and higher education divisions and offices for social and health services are located, and in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society.

The church operates on three distinct levels--congregational, regional (there are 35 regions in the United States and Canada) and general. On each level, it owns its own property, manages its finances and determines programs. There is no pyramid of authority.

Congregations are free to call their own ministers, interpret the gospel in their own ways and determine their own involvement (or lack of it) in social arenas.

Given this kind of freedom, congregations have as many personalities as there are congregations. Some are dedicated to social activism, and others may seem almost withdrawn from the world and its problems, but most have multisided characters that place them between these two extremes.

It doesn't happen often, but occasionally the freedom to express beliefs will get a minister or lay person in trouble with the law. Earlier this year the Rev. Pamela Owens, pastor of Woodgrove Brethren Christian Church in Woodland, Michigan, and one of the members of her congregation, Ralph Townsend, were among 50 people arrested following a demonstration against Williams International, producer of engines for the cruise missile. Most of the demonstrators were charged with trespassing, but Owens, mother of two small children, was charged with seven counts, including conspiracy to disturb the peace.

Owens said she participated in the demonstration because she had been looking for an opportunity to make a religious statement against nuclear weapons.

"We are a partner congregation with a church in East Germany," she said, "and I knew those missiles were pointed right at them. This made it very personal to know that those missiles could annihilate people with whom we are pen pals."

She said her understanding of Christian witness is that it sometimes calls for civil disobedience.

The general manifestation of the church, which has 11 administrative units to carry out its work, is headed by a general minister and president, the Rev. Kenneth L. Teegarden, whose 12-year term of office will end in 1985. A search is already under way for successor as the church's top salaried official, to be elected at the denomination's general assembly in Des Moines, Iowa.

The church also has an elected moderator, an unpaid presiding officer who presides over the biennial general assembly as well as the church's 183-member general board.

The moderator for this biennium is symbolic of another of the Disciples' special interests--higher education. He is the Rev. William E. Tucker, chancellor of Texas Christian University, the largest of the 33 institutions of higher education affiliated with the church in this country, including seven seminaries and foundation houses. Other Disciples-related universities include Drake University in Des Moines and Bethany College in West Virginia.

The Disciples' most famous ex-student is President Ronald Reagan, who attended Eureka College in Illinois, where he was a football player, an actor and a campus leader. Reagan still holds membership in the Hollywood-Beverly Christian Church of Los Angeles, though he had had no involvement with the generally liberal Disciples in two decades.

The Johnsons often attended National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., while Lyndon was president. The other Disciples president, James A. Garfield, was a lay preacher, the only preacher to serve as president of the United States. He also was president of the Disciples' Hiram College in Ohio.

Britain's World War I prime minister David Lloyd George was affiliated with the church, as is R. S. Garfield Todd, former prime minister of Rhodesia and one-time missionary, who spent several years under house arrest because of his outspoken advocacy of black majority rule in what is now Zimbabwe.

Poets Vachel Lindsay and Edwin Markham were Disciples who wrote with deep conviction on moral issues, and Carry Nation tramped the country at the turn of the century saloon-busting with her hatchet.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has lost members twice in its history because of splits in the denomination.

One group opposed practices not specifically authorized by the New Testament, such as instrumental music in the church and organized missionary activity, and pulled away gradually. It was finally listed separately in the 1906 federal religious census as the "Churches of Christ." (Some Disciples congregations still bear the name "Church of Christ" also.)

Another group pulled away over what it felt were too-liberal membership policies on the mission field. These mebers began withdrawing in 1926 and formally separated at restructuring time in 1967-69. These independent congregations refer to themselves as Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

Teegarden has written about a Methodist friend who once told him, "You Disciples help keep my hopes for Christian unity alive. You haven't really united with anyone in your whole history, yet you keep insisting the church is one. You never seem to become disillusioned about the possibilities for church union."

And Teegarden's answer shows why the denomination's double name is important, no matter how long and confusing it may be.

"The generic first part, 'Christian Church,' points to our objective of unity," he said. "The distinguishing second part, 'Disciples of Christ,' reminds us that we have not arrived."
COPYRIGHT 1984 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Coffey, Carole
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1984
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