The Integration of Theology and Psychology within the Church of Christ Tradition: Psychotherapy and Positive Psychology as Case Studies

By Beck, Richard | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Integration of Theology and Psychology within the Church of Christ Tradition: Psychotherapy and Positive Psychology as Case Studies


Beck, Richard, Journal of Psychology and Christianity


Congregations of the Churches of Christ emerged in the 1800s as a part of the American Restoration Movement, an effort to "restore" the practice of a primitive New Testament Christianity. A recent census reports over 1.5 million members of the Churches of Christ in America across 12,500 congregations. After a brief survey of Church of Christ history, this paper focuses upon two distinctive features of Church of Christ theology and practice highlighting in each case implications for integrative reflection and research. First, the ecclesial and congregational emphases within the Churches of Christ are used to raise questions regarding the associations between ecclesiology and virtue-formation. Second, the optimistic view of human nature and agency that has characterized the Churches of Christ is used to highlight tensions, often overlooked in the integrative literature, between the anthropological assumptions that dominate Christian theology versus those informing the psychotherapeutic enterprise.

What does the integration of psychology and theology look like from within the Churches of Christ? And how can the distinctive and peculiar theological emphases within the Churches of Christ be of interest or value for Christian psychologists working in other faith traditions? Answering these questions has been a challenge, but I think the integrative issues raised and illustrated within the Churches of Christ-particularly in the areas of theological anthropology and ecclesiology-are of value to clinical, counseling and research psychologists working on integrative projects, especially those related to psychotherapy and positive psychology. To be sure, few outside the Church of Christ tradition will agree with the particular faith commitments of my faith tradition, but the distinctive beliefs of the Churches of Christ can help illustrate and illuminate vital and important integrative issues that, in my estimation, have been often overlooked.

To illustrate how my Church of Christ heritage has shaped how I've selected and framed integrative topics, I would like to focus on two distinctive aspects of Church of Christ theology to highlight integrative issues in the areas of psychotherapy and positive psychology. I don't expect agreement on the theological particulars related to how those within the Churches of Christ might approach these issues, but I do hope that tracing out our distinctive and particular approach will expose general issues, tensions, frictions, and outstanding questions that require attention from psychologists working across every faith tradition.

Preliminaries: Introducing the Churches of Christ and the American Restoration Movement

Before attempting to summarize theological distinctives within the Churches of Christ some history might be helpful for those unfamiliar with the tradition (for a short historical overview of the movement see Foster, 2013). The Churches of Christ emerged out of the American Restoration Movement. The American Restoration Movement was associated with the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant revival movement, mainly in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio, that peaked in the early to mid-1800s. Independently, then later together when their respective followers united in 1832, the early leaders of the movement, Barton Stone (1777-1844) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), sought the "restoration" of primitive New Testament Christianity. This involved a wholesale rejection of creedal confessions and much within the theological and doctrinal legacy of church tradition (both Catholic and Protestant) in favor of a direct and straightforward reading of the Bible.

The American Restoration Movement was originally a unity movement rooted in the belief that a direct appeal to the Bible could create unity and consensus in the face of creedal and confessional controversies, which were believed to be a source of ongoing disunity and conflict among the various Protestant denominations. …

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