Unifying the Christian Church: The Story of Christian Denominations

This is part of an ongoing blog series derived from an online course for licensed counselors. This Continuing Education series is titled Working with Evangelical Clients: Basic Beliefs, Denominations and Counseling Techniques to Use

Please take a look at the rest of the series here.

Christian Churches?

When looking at denominations of Christian churches, you may think the term “Christian churches” is all-encompassing.
Yes, we’ve been discussing the Christian church overall, but within this realm lies specific denominations – distinct branches that hold their unique beliefs and practices. The “Christian” denomination has its own particular story that differs from the broad meaning of Christianity most of us think of.

In this section of an ongoing blog series, we delve into the fascinating history of Christian denominations and how they emerged from the backdrop of the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century.

Great Wall of China

The Second Great Awakening: A Revival of Faith

Imagine the United States in the 1800s, a time of profound religious transformation. This period, known as the Second Great Awakening, marked a revival of Christian faith and zeal. The pews of churches swelled as conversions multiplied, propelling Christianity into the forefront of American society. Yet, amidst the vibrant revival, concern started to brew about the growing divisions within Christian denominations. This is where the origin of the Christian denomination began.

single wooden cross

Yearning for Unity: The First Steps

As more believers flocked to churches, the diversity of Christian denominations became increasingly evident. Some individuals were troubled by this splintering, yearning to return to the unity that characterized the early Christian church. However, there was no centralized movement to facilitate this change – at least not initially. Several Christians became concerned about the lack of unity of Christian denominations. A few critical leaders emerged to try to remedy this lack of conformity.

Bible with its pages turning

The Catalysts of Change: Campbell and Stone

Within this evolving landscape, specific vital figures emerged as pivotal players. Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander Campbell shared an audacious goal: to steer Christianity back to its first-century roots. Curiously, these reformers hailed from the Presbyterian denomination, a fact that adds depth to their narrative.

Critically, Thomas Campbell faced opposition from Presbyterian officials due to his unconventional stance on church membership. While he agreed with Presbyterian creeds and confessions, he believed these were divisive and should not be prerequisites for communion. Instead, he championed the Bible as the sole requisite, advocating for a return to New Testament-based beliefs and practices.

Thomas Campbell founded the “Christian Association of Washington County” to set this return to first-century Christianity in motion. Central to this movement was the mantra: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

“Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

— Thomas Campbell

In 1811, Alexander Campbell furthered this mission by establishing a new church. Its adherents became known as the “Disciples of Christ,” aligning with the principles of the movement. Another influential figure, Barton Stone, mirrored the Campbells’ ideas. In 1832, the followers of Stone and the Campbells united under the banners of “Christians” and “Disciples.”

dirt and grass divide

The Core Tenets and Divide

At the heart of this movement were steadfast beliefs – a firm reliance on scripture as the church’s foundation and the pursuit of unity among believers. A desire to transcend denominational boundaries echoed throughout this era. These early leaders of the Christian church movement wanted a return to 1st-century Christianity that had no official.

Yet, despite the initial unity, the movement encountered internal strife. In the late 1800s, a schism emerged, driven by contrasting theological perspectives. Conservative theologians harbored reservations about centralizing the denomination, fearing it would deviate from the movement’s original intent of individual church autonomy.

The conservatives – those who valued adhering to scripture alone – broke away to form the “Churches of Christ.” This affiliation embodied the earlier ideals of the movement, respecting individual church autonomy and emphasizing scriptural purity. Unique to many Churches of Christ was their acapella worship, a practice grounded in the absence of a direct New Testament command for musical instruments.

two paths

Two Paths: Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ

In contrast, the “Disciples of Christ” denomination emerged as the remnants of the original movement. They expanded their national reach as time progressed, adopting a more structured denominational approach. While sharing similarities with the Churches of Christ in many beliefs, the Disciples of Christ leaned towards a more liberal interpretation of the Bible. They actively engaged in social justice issues, combating poverty and racism.

The dichotomy between these two denominations is apparent even in their digital presence. The Churches of Christ maintain a decentralized ethos, reflected in their lack of an official website. Conversely, the Disciples of Christ embrace a more centralized approach, offering an official online platform.

Conclusion: Tracing the Threads of Denominational Diversity

The story of Christian denominations within the broader narrative of the Christian church is a complex tapestry woven through the historical currents of revival, reform, and theological evolution. From the united aspirations of a movement seeking a return to first-century Christianity emerged two distinct paths, each navigating its course in response to the changing tides of theology and society.

Ultimately, the goals of the early Christian church movement did not reach their destination. Christianity did not return to its 1st-century roots. Instead, a new denomination was formed.