Introduction to the Independent Churches of Christ / Christian Churches



The Independent Churches of Christ/Christian Churches are not technically an organization, although many will describe us as being a non-denominational denomination. Through this pamphlet, we will do our best to represent the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches, but please recognize that there is quite a diverse variety under this umbrella. Like many denominations, a range of perspectives are expressed through the different local churches. However, unlike formal denominations, an unhealthy view at the local level cannot be corrected by anyone higher up because there is nobody higher than the local elders when it comes to dictating what a church should or shouldn't do. Likewise, an unhealthy denominational view can’t trickle down into the local church and corrupt a healthy local body of believers.

It is our movement's desire to restore the teachings and practices of the early church, hence the name Restoration Movement given to our movement. Throughout history, churches have split over all sorts of different creeds. We want to avoid that. We were founded on a principle of striving for unity while maintaining a focus on the essential truths of the Bible. It would be arrogant of us to say that we haven't stumbled along the way, but this drive is still our focus today. Despite our failings, we strive to go straight to the Bible rather than our founders and be faithful to the practices we find in the early church. This practice of going straight to the Bible and trying to live a church life as we see in the early church is why we emphasize local autonomy, baptism by immersion, the priesthood of believers, and the weekly practice of the Lord's Supper. 

You will see this ideal expressed in our popular slogans. 
  • ·         We are Christians only, but not the only Christians
  • ·         In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.
  • ·         No creed but Christ. No book but the Bible.
With all of this said, the Restoration Movement and the Independent Church of Christ/Christian Church branch of that movement were forerunners to the modern-day non-denominational movement. The battle for local autonomy seems to have been won. Some may not agree with it being a good thing, but local autonomy is proving to be a valid model taking root throughout the world. Barton Stone, the Campbells, and the other trailblazers of the Restoration Movement paved a way that many follow today despite disagreeing on a doctrinal point here or there. Independent Churches of Christ/Christian Churches typically accept many of the churches who are also non-denominational as being in the same spiritual stream despite having originated from different historical streams. It's not about the history that got us here but about the direction we are flowing in together. 

John Nugent, professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes Christian College, had this to say on describing the Independent Churches of Christ/Christian Churches:
"Something that has caused people to look down condescendingly upon our churches is that they judge our beliefs by the local church people who make the news or grow big churches. Yet these people hardly represent where the movement is at and where it is headed. With more structured denominations eloquent people at the top of the ladder represent them through officially approved statements. Yet these don't always reflect what is going on in the trenches of local bodies as much as the vision of where the leaders seek to take all local bodies. But with us, we are often judged by local personalities who may or may not represent us well. Suffice it to say that we, too, have leaders with robust, well conceived visions and are trying to lead local churches forward just like every other denomination. Such leaders are well-educated and experienced and occupy positions in our churches, colleges, publishing houses, and scholarly communities. A true comparison between traditions would have to either compare all traditions by their local expressions or all traditions by their most eloquent and informed representatives. Unfortunately because our representatives are not easily identifiable, we often suffer imbalanced (strawman) comparisons."

DOCTRINE OF THE INDEPENDENT CHURCHES OF CHRIST/CHRISTIAN CHURCHES

From here we will move on to looking at some views that are commonly shared by the individual Churches of Christ/Christian Churches. The key is that there is some flexibility and difference in the way these issues are expressed at the local level because of our loose affiliation without any established hierarchy beyond the local leadership. These are excerpts from the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement.

ON LOCAL AUTONOMY

"Christian Churches/Churches of Christ have opted for a polity fiercely protective of congregational autonomy. This is evident from the total absence of any organizational tie uniting the fellowship of some 5,500 congregations and hundreds of agencies. There is powerful resistance to any effort that might be seen as compromising in any way the complete and total autonomy of each congregation. Thus all extra-congregational efforts and agencies (and there are many) rise ad hoc from private initiative and are sustained by continuing endorsement from supporting congregations and individuals." (187)

ON MISSIONS

"Few would deny that the Independent/direct support method of doing missions employed by Christian Churches/Churches of Christ involves some problems. Few of the religious communions that are more highly structured, however, can rival Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in the number of missionaries that are sustained on the fields. Missions continue to be a focus of major interest among most of the churches, claiming a considerable portion of each congregation's budget." (188)

ON WATER BAPTISM

"True to the Stone-Campbell heritage, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ practice immersion of believers as the only valid baptism because they understand this to be the only method of baptism found in the New Testament and practiced by the early church. They insist that baptism finds its meaning as it relates to forgiveness of sin; but they emphatically reject any form of water regeneration, a charge that is sometimes wrongfully made because of the emphasis placed on this ordinance" (188).

ON THE LORD'S SUPPER

"The other ordinance/sacrament (the latter term is seldom heard) found in Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is the Lord's Supper, which is observed every Sunday in every congregation. This, too, is believed to have been the practice of the early church, and thus it holds a central place in the churches' effort to 'restore' early Christian faith and practice. Emphasis is generally focused on the memorial nature of the Supper. Elders usually preside at the table, although this is not mandated. The Supper is made available to all believers ('open communion')" (188).

ON OUR TEST OF FELLOWSHIP

"Other than the 'Petrine confession' of Christ's divinity found in Matthew 16:18 there is no creedal formula that unites Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ. The historic slogan 'No Creed but Christ' is taken very seriously. Theological definitions viewed as barriers to Christian unity and hence rejected as a basis of fellowship. There is little question that this rejection of theological formulation has sometimes resulted inadvertently in a degree of theological shallowness and simplistic Biblicism, but it is an important component of the heritage of the Stone-Campbell Movement and a basic conviction endorsed by the whole fellowship" (188).

ON PASTORS AND THEIR HIRING

"Christian Churches/Churches of Christ ordain their minister and invest sole authority to do so in the local congregation. The strong emphasis on the priesthood of every believer, however, leaves little room for much distinction between clergy and laity. Thus, laypersons may conduct baptisms, and lay leaders may preside at communion services. There is no system of ministerial placement among the churches. Each congregation seeks and employs its own minister(s)" (188).

ON EVANGELISM

"Evangelism is a continuing emphasis among Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. The methods have changed from the revival meetings of bygone years to newer forms suggested by the church growth movement; but the impulses have not abated. Many 'mega-churches' with attendance averages in excess of 1,000 can be identified...the largest of these is the Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky" (188).

ON COOPERATION WITH OTHER CHURCHES

"Christian Churches/Churches of Christ are not formally involved in any aspect of the ecumenical movement. This is due not only to the paucity of mechanisms enabling these churches to join a council but also to the continuing conviction that such official recognition of denominational statuses would be a repudiation of the Stone-Campbell heritage. Nonetheless, ministers from these congregations have no hesitation about participating in local ministerial associations, and they generally support community efforts in association with other Christian bodies...Finally, missionaries often engage in cooperative activity with missionaries from other Christian bodies as they seek to make an impact on non-Christian cultures" (189).

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You can look at the belief statement of the largest and most prominent Independent Church of Christ/Christian Church, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, to see a belief statement that is fairly representative of the beliefs of the movement. I share this to just show that we have unity with other churches despite not have a central hierarchy. 
Southeast Christian Church's Belief Statement:
What We Believe

Essential truth. Our Statement of Faith. These things don’t change at Southeast. This is what we believe, and it’s who we are at the core as a church.

We believe…
 We believe in one God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 5:16,45; 6:1,4,8,9; James 1:17/John 1:1; 14:9 / Genesis 1:2; John 4:24; 14:16-20; 2 Peter 1:21)

 We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible (Genesis 1:1; Acts 17:24-28; Hebrews 11:3)

We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son, my one and only Savior (John 1:14; 1 John 4:9 / John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:18)
  • ·         Who was born Jesus of Nazareth, both fully human and fully divine, conceived of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary (Matthew 21:11; John 19:19 / John 1:14; Romans 5;15-17; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 1:1 / Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26-38)
  • ·         Who suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate (Luke 23:1-46)
  • ·         Who died and was buried, and Who rose again bodily from the dead on the third day (Luke 23:44 – 24:8; John 20:24-29; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
  • ·         Who ascended into Heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father (Luke 22:69; Acts 1:1-9; Colossians 3:1)
  • ·         Who will return to earth to judge both the living and the dead (Matthew 24:36-42; John 14:1-3, Acts 1:10-11; 10:39-42; 1 Peter 4:5)
We believe in the Holy Spirit
  • ·         Who is an active and operative part of the triune God (John 16:5-15; Acts 1:7-8; Romans 8:26-27)
  • ·         Who indwells every Christian (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Timothy 1:14)
We believe in the Bible—God’s Holy Word, Scripture. We believe God inspired the autographs (original writings) of the Scripture and those autographs were consequently without error (Mark 12:36; John 14:26; 16:12-15; Acts 1:16; 1 Corinthians 2:12-13; 2 Timothy 3:14-16; 2 Peter 1:20-21)

We accept the Bible as the final authority for all matters of faith and practice (Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 5:18; 24:35; Romans 15:4; Hebrews 4:12)

We believe the Bible teaches that man, created by God, willfully sinned against God and is consequently lost and without hope apart from Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Romans 3:23)

We believe the Bible teaches that salvation—the forgiveness of sins—is only by grace through the blood of Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:28; Romans 5:9; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7)

We believe the Bible teaches that one receives God’s grace by putting faith in Christ, repenting of sin, confessing Christ and being immersed into Christ (Romans 5:1-2 / Luke 24:45-47; Acts 3:19; 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9 / Matthew 10:32; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:11; 1 John 4:15 / Acts 2:38, Romans 6:1-7; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21)

We believe in the Church of Jesus Christ, founded on the Day of Pentecost and consisting of all Christians everywhere (Matthew 16:13-18; Acts 2:14-47)

We believe the Bible teaches that the Elders are to exercise authority over the local congregation (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4)

SOME QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Q. Why have a church at all if the community is independent from other communities? The main reason I would think most of us attend is for the community of believers aspect, and if the whole community is just one church building, then why not just sit at home in my pajamas and read the bible and call that my personal church?

A. This is a great question and it comes down to what we believe the church's mission to be. We believe God's wants to fill every city and town around the world with communities whose life together points others to God's kingdom. 

The purpose is not to point others to a network of communities, but to God's saving work in this world through Christ and his body. So our goal is not independence for the sake of independence. We simply think this is a viable form of representing Christ. 

We also believe that God's Spirit is the rudder that guides the church. So our independent status allows us to be highly responsive to the Spirit's leading. Since we understand God's Spirit as empowering specific gatherings of believers, irregardless of whatever network they may be a part of, we believe that independent communities work well for the heart of God's purpose for the Church in his mission. 

Because God promises his Spirit to gathered communities, not individuals who do spiritual things by themselves, independent gathered communities are in a fundamentally different category from an individual at home.

We do still have fellowship as a community. We go on mission trips and work with other Christian Churches wherever that may be. We are united in sharing ideals despite not having a formal body holding us together. We have a strange yet beautiful sort of unity that isn't forced or kept together by any organization. We are unified in our common friendships and shared mission.


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Q. Why do you oppose congressional cooperation and/or covenant relationships between congregations?

A. All of our working with other churches spins out of relationships that people in the churches have with each other or relationships that pastors have with each other. If there isn't any relationship, there isn't much cooperation. Everything really spins out of relationships.

Missions are typically done through multiple churches working together to support a person. Church planting is usually done in cooperation with churches. Stadia is an example of an organization that is planting churches together. Disaster relief is structured cooperation with organizations like IDES. The churches in the area I grew up in work together with an orphanage. Our camps and colleges are a result of us working together. However, our cooperation usually exists by an individual with a vision selling it to multiple churches, which then unites us in the cause. Churches can choose to join in or stay out.

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Q. How does a new congregation form within the Christian Church movement? What keeps it from moving just into the more independent side of things?


A. We plant churches like crazy. Stadia is an organization from our brotherhood. Exponential is the largest church planting conference in America, and it is Christian Church in origins yet works with all denominations. 

The only thing that keeps churches from moving out of the brotherhood (as we like to call it) is that they share the common core convictions with each other, have good relationships with others in other Christian Churches / Churches of Christ, and desire to work together. A lot of us don't really care if you are part of our movement. We will gladly work with you in your efforts to further the kingdom. Exponential would be a perfect example of this.
The one positive of all of this is that churches also seem to crumble when the Spirit has left the building because there is no system left to just prop it up. Despite this, our brotherhood is healthy and growing.

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Q. What exactly do you believe in terms of essential truths? If you had to give me what the essential truths are, what are they?

A. This has always been a tough one. For we are anti-creedal in our nature, yet we often have belief statements. Creeds have been typically used to define who is in and who is not.
Disappointingly, some of us have become more sectarian than the sectarianism of the denominations our movement was founded to free the church from. We claim to have no book but the Bible as our guideline for fellowship and the faith, but we all too often place our interpretations of pet Scriptures or even beliefs that are not even expressed in Scripture as issues of fellowship. In denominational churches, they typically have handbooks that describe what the church believes, what it requires to be a leader in the church, and how people in the church should live. We have no handbook outside of Scripture, but all too often, we have erred in making unwritten, ever-changing handbooks, a handbook just as legalistic as those in the denominations, except we are not transparent about them and people do not know what is expected of them.

Our conviction at our church is to not be that way. We want to be non-denominational, not anti-denominational. There is a big difference. Anti-denominational people think that people in denominations cannot be right with God because they are in a denomination. Non-denominational means that we choose to be locally led, but we don’t hate denominations. Through non-denominational lenses we do not see the man-made lines we have created. Non-denominational people do not get hung up with denominational names and view each person as an individual, right with God based upon their own faithfulness to Him and not on their church affiliation. Condemning people in other churches and dividing over the names we use to call ourselves is so contrary to Scripture.

There are four passages of Scripture that should be the cornerstone of what we believe is essential: Love God (Matt 22:34-40), love our neighbors (John 13:34-35), love one another (Matt 7:15-20), accept people as brothers and sisters in Christ who show fruit and claim that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor 12:1-3). That’s it. Once we start broadening beyond that, we start alienating people and continually add to our essentials creating a list that will keep growing and never stop growing.

With all that said, this has been the wrestling match through the ages. Some would want to make local autonomy, baptism, or the Lord's Supper essentials. And that is definitely a view held in parts of our movement. We won’t hold those up as essentials; those are just the way that our local church expresses restoration convictions in our areas. 

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Q. Can you recommend/is there a history of the churches?


We don't see the stars because they're normal.


"Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years…No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television."

- Paul Hawken