Churches of Christ
By Bill Gordon
Churches: USA (2000): 13,000; Canada (2005): 149
Members: USA (1206): 1.3 million Canada
(2005): 6,857 (Source: Eileen W. Lindner, ed., Yearbook of American &
Canadian Churches 2008 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008], pp. 364,
Churches of Christ view themselves as autonomous churches in voluntary
fellowship and not as a denomination. They believe denominational organizations
are contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. They have no official
organization beyond the local church.
Churches of Christ grew out of the Disciples of Christ movement that began
in the early nineteenth century. Thomas Campbell organized the "Christian
Association of Washington" (Pennsylvania) in 1809. He hoped to reunite
Christian churches by restoring the apostolic practices of the early
He and his son, Alexander, were key participants in the Restoration
Movement. They sought to restore the first century beliefs and practices of the
apostolic churches. Alexander Campbell took over the leadership of the movement
after he joined his father. Their interpretation of the Bible led them to
accept immersion of believers as the only acceptable mode of baptism.
Consequently, they joined the Baptists.
Alexander Campbell became a very influential leader among Baptists. He was
editor of the Christian Baptist and a well known debater and
preacher. However, his teachings concerning the need for a new reformation in
the church caused animosity between his followers and traditional Baptists. In
1830 he and his followers separated and became known as the Disciples. In 1832
they united with many of the followers of Barton Stone and later became known
as the Disciples of Christ.
In the early twentieth century some Disciples of Christ felt their movement
had drifted away from its original purpose. In 1906, a group led by David
Lipscomb asked federal census takers not to list Churches of Christ with the
Disciples of Christ. This marked the beginning of Churches of Christ as a
distinct group from the Disciples of Christ. While the Churches of Christ have
congregations throughout the United States, most of their members are located
in the South and Southwest.
Churches of Christ have a congregational form of church government. Each
local church is autonomous and self-governing. The only rituals they observe
are those, which they believe, were part of the first century church. The
Churches of Christ reject the use of musical instruments in worship.
Churches of Christ believe salvation is the free gift of God's grace
provided through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. They avoid theories of the
atonement claiming they are speculative. Those in the Churches of Christ reject
Calvinistic theology. They downplay the effects of original sin. The role of
the Holy Spirit in conversion is regarded as either non-essential or minimal.
They view faith as a rational decision where the individual accepts the
biblical facts about Jesus. The Churches of Christ also teach that Christians
can lose salvation by apostatizing. Many understand faith as an intellectual
acceptance of the biblical facts about Jesus. They believe that Christians may
sin in such a way that they lose their salvation.
Churches of Christ teach that baptism by immersion for believers is
essential for the remission of sins and is necessary for salvation. They use
passages such as Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38 to substantiate this teaching.
Baptism has a threefold purpose: (1) it is necessary for salvation; (2) it
places the believer in Christ; and (3) it places the believer in the
Christian Response: While baptism is important, it is not
necessary for salvation. The biblical passages quoted by the Churches of Christ
to argue for the necessity of water baptism do not prove their point.
"He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not
shall be damned" (Mark 16:16). Contrary to the claims of the Churches of
Christ, this passage does not prove the necessity of water baptism. There are
four possible relationships between belief and baptism. First, one both
believes and is baptized. We are told in the first part of verse 16 that this
person will be saved. Second, one believes and is not baptized. This
possibility is not discussed in the passage so we cannot draw any conclusions
about whether such an individual will be saved or lost. A third possibility is
that one does not believe but is baptized. Fourth, one both does not believe
and is not baptized. According to verse 16, one who does not believe is
condemned whether baptized or not.
If the Churches of Christ really want to speak only when the Bible speaks
and be silent when the Bible is silent, they will not use Mark 16:16 to argue
for the necessity of water baptism for salvation. Mark 16:16 is silent
concerning whether the person who believes but is not baptized is saved or
"Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the
name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift
of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). The Churches of Christ claim this passage
teaches that both repentance and baptism are necessary for salvation. An
examination of the Greek text reveals information not available in the English
translation. The word "for" is a translation of the Greek preposition eis. The
Churches of Christ are correct when they point out that eis can sometimes
express aim or purpose. If Luke intended that usage, then this passage would
teach that baptism is necessary to receive forgiveness of sins. However, this
is not the only meaning that the Greek term eis can have in this passage. Eis
can also be used to indicate the basis or ground of something. According to A.
T. Robertson, this usage "occurs at least three times" where it cannot be
purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground" (Matt. 10:41; 12:41) (A. T.
Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol. III, p. 35). Acts
2:38 can mean that one is baptized because his or her sins have already been
forgiven. Acts 2:38 does not prove the necessity of water baptism for
The Lord's Supper
The Lord's Supper is one of the three elements central in Churches of Christ
worship. The other two elements are preaching and baptism. According to the
Churches of Christ, the Lord's Supper has three primary meanings: (1)
commemoration of the memorial meal commanded by Christ; (2) proclamation of
Christ's death for sinful people; and (3) examination of the individual's
Christian commitment. In keeping with their understanding of the New Testament,
Churches of Christ celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday.
Churches of Christ subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, but they avoid
the use of the terms Trinity and Trinitarian. These are
considered philosophical rather than New Testament terms.
The Churches of Christ believe that the New Testament is the primary guide
for understanding Christian faith and practice. Creeds are considered
unnecessary and extraneous. A popular slogan of the Churches of Christ (and
other Protestants) is: "Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is
silent, we are silent."
Churches of Christ have three basic types of ministers: evangelists, elders,
and deacons. Evangelists are ordained by a local congregation and sent out to
preach, win converts, and establish churches. Elders function much the same as
pastors, providing spiritual and disciplinary functions in local churches.
Deacons function in servant roles in churches.
Both Baptists and Churches of Christ place a strong emphasis on the autonomy
of the local church. Both groups also advocate the support of missions.
While there are many similarities between Baptists and Churches of Christ,
there are also many areas of differences. Baptists do not consider water
baptism essential to salvation. Baptists believe baptism is a symbol of the
death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Believers are baptized to
identify publicly with Christ, and to portray their death to a life of sin and
resurrection to a new life.
Baptists, unlike Churches of Christ, have organizations beyond the local
church in order to work together for purposes of missions and evangelism.
Contrary to the practice of the Churches of Christ, Baptists accept the use of
musical instruments in worship. Baptists see faith as requiring a personal
trust in and commitment to Jesus Christ rather than just an intellectual
acceptance of the biblical teachings about Christ Jesus. Baptists believe the
Bible teaches that salvation does not depend on membership in a particular
church. Salvation comes as a result of a personal faith in and commitment to
Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
• Allen, Crawford Leonard. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry
Of Churches Of Christ. Abilene, Texas: ACU Press, Abilene Christian
• Hooper, Robert E. Crying In The Wilderness: A Biography Of
David Lipscomb. Nashville: David Lipscomb College, 1979.
• Hughes, Richard T. Reviving The Ancient Faith: The Story Of
Churches Of Christ In America. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.,
• Foster, Douglas A. Will The Cycle Be Unbroken?: Churches Of
Christ Face The 21st Century. Abilene, Texas: ACU Press, 1994.
• Mead, Frank S., and Hill, Samuel S. Handbook Of Denominations
In The United States. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.
• Olbricht, Thomas H. Hearing God's Voice: My Life With
Scripture In The Churches Of Christ. Abilene, Texas: ACU Press, 1996.
• Robertson, Archibald Thomas. Word Pictures In The New
Testament (Vol. III). Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
• Smith, F. LaGard. Baptism, The Believer's Wedding
Ceremony. Cincinnati: Standard Pub., 1989. Bill Gordon, Associate,
Apologetics and Interfaith Evangelism.