Christian Unity and Our Identity as Disciples of Christ

By Welsh, Robert | The Ecumenical Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Christian Unity and Our Identity as Disciples of Christ


Welsh, Robert, The Ecumenical Review


I dedicate this article, originally delivered to the general board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in July 2003, to Konrad Raiser: a fellow "disciple of Christ" and true colleague in the adventure of the ecumenical movement.

Let me begin by putting my cards face-up on the table. It is my understanding and conviction that commitment to the unity of the church and the oneness of all Christians has been, and continues to be, the central mark of our identity as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); it is the essential core of our DNA as a people that gives shape and vitality to our witness to a broken, divided and hostile world.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (1) was born on the western frontier of the United States in the early 19th century as a reaction against the religious turmoil and sectarian impulses that accompanied the expansion of this "New World" through divisions imported by the peoples coming from Europe and Great Britain. The major founders of this movement were Barton Warren Stone (who became the primary leader of the "Christians") and Thomas and Alexander Campbell (a father-son team who became the primary leaders of the "Disciples")--who shared a common plea for unity among all Christians and churches as essential to the proclamation of the gospel, accompanied by "a passion for religious freedom, scepticism of ecclesiastical structures, and a preference for the Bible alone over speculative theology and creeds". (2)

It was Barton W. Stone (1772-1844), a Presbyterian minister in the young state of Kentucky, who had helped bring a major "sacramental revival" to Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. Here he experienced several denominations working together (Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists) in common cause to bring the gospel to the mission field of the rapidly expanding nation. Stone became convinced that he no longer wanted to be a defender of "partyism", but a servant of the one church of Jesus Christ.

Alienation soon developed between Barton Stone and the rigid Calvinism of some Kentucky Presbyterians. In the resulting dispute, Stone and four other ministers withdrew (or were expelled) in 1803 from the synod of Kentucky, and immediately constituted their own "Springfield Presbytery". It was only a few months later, however, that these ministers decided that their real intent was not to form another "party" contributing to the division of the body of Christ, but to begin a process, a movement, for re-uniting all Christians. And so, on 28 June 1804, these ministers met again at Cane Ridge and drafted a dramatic proposal, The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, calling for the union of all Christians in America. The first item of the document set forth not only a bold new ecumenical principle, but shaped the vision that has marked the identity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to this day: "We will that this body [the Springfield Presbytery] die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large, for there is but one body and one spirit, even as we are called into one hope of our calling."

In a statement appended to this document, the ecumenical intentions of the Last Will and Testament were made clear:

   Let all Christians join us, in crying to God day and night, to
   remove the obstacles which stand in the way of his work, and
   give him no rest until he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.
   We heartily unite with our Christian brothers of every name,
   in thanksgiving to God for the display of his goodness in the
   glorious work he is carrying on in our Western country, which
   we hope will terminate in the universal spread of the gospel,
   and the unity of the church. (3)

The year 2004 is the 200th anniversary of The Last Will and Testament that established the basic direction and marked our fundamental identity as Disciples as a people of unity, reconciliation and oneness: willing to trust God even to the point of giving up our own life for the sake of the larger church and its mission in the world. …

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