How the Churches of Christ went wrong

The Churches of Christ began as a unity movement (1790-1801) shortly after one of the great spiritual awakenings that followed hot on the heels of the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen colonies of the United States (1776). The European Renaissance (1200-1600) was replete with an awakening of reading the newly printed Bibles that had been translated into the languages of the people, and a rebellion against the paternalistic control, the taxes and the biblical errors of the Roman Catholic Church that had dominated Europe for almost a thousand years. It seemed like each European nation and each century spawned a new denomination of believers, enthusiastically worshiping God more biblically.

Finally we come to the American frontier, as European-Americans bought, stole and pillaged Native American land rapidly westward. Horseback circuit riding traveling preachers would attract eclectic crowds who no longer adhered to their original denominational divisions. To the worshipers it seemed like God was bringing in a new age of unity and several new denominations sprang up around this enthusiasm, one of which was the Restoration Movement pushed by such preachers as Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell and David Lipscomb. Their two strongest doctrines were that one should not be divided by denominational titles and creed books, and we should all be baptized (immersed) as believers for the remission of sins. Other major doctrines were pre-millenialism (Christ was coming back soon to rule on earth for a thousand years), no professional clergy (the priesthood of all believers), and many churches were pacifist (turn your swords into plowshares).

Competitiveness and Nostalgia

The primitive nature of the early Restoration Movement spawned two nasty traits: competitiveness and nostalgia. Competitiveness spawned huge entertaining debates that could go on for weeks, Campbell becoming a famous debater. Competitiveness and debates quickly defined lines in the sand: if you don’t believe x then you are not one of us: baptism for the remission of sins, believer’s baptism, Lord’s Supper on the first day of every week. Nostalgia also spawned a need to keep things the way they were on the frontier: simple unadorned church buildings, old-fashioned songs, no instruments of music, no ordained clergy, no church hierarchy and no para-church organizations. Churches quickly fought and divided over each of these “innovations” that horrified and scandalized the faithful remnant.

The hard line Churches of Christ have camped around three major ideas:
1. The one true church has no hierarchy and no denominational name or headquarters on earth,
2. believer’s-baptism-for-salvation,
3. the Five Acts of Worship: the Sunday morning worship service must replicate New Testament worship services of the early church:
a. Singing with no instrumental music (unless you belong to the hard line instrumental music group, in which case you must use instrumental music in order to obey God),
b. the Lord’s Supper every Sunday,
c. Giving money to the church
d. Men praying,
e. Men preaching

Where did they go wrong?

Jesus and his apostles never asked for the worship service to be uniform. Jesus did ask to be commemorated in the bread and the cup. The apostle Paul did rebuke one church for being selfish about the way they did not share their meals together, and for having disruptive worship times that were confusing and self-aggrandizing rather than edifying and encouraging(I Cor 11-14). James rebuked Christians for treating the rich better than the poor in the church services, which he said showed they really did not believe they were saved by the gracious gift of forgiveness (ch. 2). Paul instructed that there be the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures in churches (I Tim 4). But beyond that there are no instructions that tell the early or later church to do things a specific ritualistic way in order to be pleasing to God.

This upsets many obsessive people in the hard line Churches of Christ, so they came up with complicated hermeneutical principles to divine exactly how to replicate the early worship service and thus to be pleasing to the Lord when all the other denominations are not. Never mind the fact that they are following a commandment that does not exist; it soothes them and makes them feel they are holy by just showing up every Sunday morning (and Sunday night and Wednesday night and gospel meetings and mowing the church lawn and painting the church classrooms).

Jesus’ spirituality did not revolve around a church building. When he was kicked out of all the synagogues he continued to preach in homes and on hillsides. The congregation, as far as he was concerned, was anyone he interacted with, believer or unbeliever, everyone was part of his church that he wanted to talk to and influence. And what Jesus taught was not how to congregate, not how to collect and spend church money, not how to sing, but how to treat each other with respect, how to overcome bitterness and hatred, how to tell the truth, and how to live a life of light in a dark world. These are things that are difficult to obey. It is much easier to show up for church and do a five point ritual than to examine one’s heart and repent of bitterness.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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32 Responses to How the Churches of Christ went wrong

  1. Gary Bray says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. Knowing the history of a group like the C of C helps people avoid making the same mistakes. For 20 years I went to a C of C, twice Sunday, Wednesday and I mowed grounds and painted classrooms, confident that ‘me and mine’ were ‘goin to heaven’ while the Baptists and others would surely burn in hell. I was actually ARROGANT about it. Ignorance breeds arrogance and the truth you print here is medicine for those poor misled souls. Please continue to let the light of truth shine. Gary Bray

  2. Hi Gary, Thanks for the encouragement. You, like many of us, have put in a lot of work into the C of C system, and it is frustrating when we realize we were going down the wrong road.

    • jaxstratton says:

      My husband and I are starting to doubt the C o C. We’ve been going for years. We have met some wonderful people. Unfortunately, there are many in the church who were very judgmental and nasty. We also felt like most of the sermons were divisive, and preaching about how every one else is doing it wrong. Never felt we could measure up.

      • garycummings says:

        There is a lot going on in learning what the truth is and acting on it, as far as leaving the COC goes. For me, I had to act upon the truth which I understood for me.

  3. Eric says:

    Reading this concerns me. One of my best friends is part of C of C and she is so self-righteous, prideful, arrogant, & IGNORANT that I wonder if she’s ever gonna see the truth. She is obsessed with C of C and any scripture I give her to rebuke them she says I’m taking out of context and misinterpets scriptures. In James 4:6, the scripture says God resist the proud …. so it’s like what else can I do but pray, if God don’t help the proud, I know I can’t. The C of C doctrine is DEMONIC, I can’t sugar coat it. The stuff that comes out of her mouth is not the truth and comes from the pits of hell! I love her but I’m clueless on how to help & others like her ….

    • Hi Eric, Yes, it is painful to be friends with someone in the C of C. Fortunately only 10-20% of C of C is like that. Sometimes just listening to her without contradicting her may relax her enough to give her enough room to listen to you. She might be C of C because she is scared and can’t admit that to you or herself. If she is rude and arrogant it could be because she feels discounted and unimportant, and can’t figure out a way to remedy that. If you think about persuading her over a period of years as opposed to a period of hours it might help you to be patient with her. If you bide your time until she has a crisis with her faith, then she might turn to you because she has seen a more peaceful, sensible alternative in your faith over the years.

      • Eric says:

        Good advice, Yea I hope in a couple of years that will be the case and that bondage loosens instead of strengthens. Thanks

  4. Mike says:

    Some members of my family are now attending North Shore Community Church in Everett, WA. It appears they were once affiliated with the Church of Christ – maybe they still are?
    http://www.northshorechristian.org/

    • Mark says:

      Their website says they are part of the Christian Church, which was a split in the Churches of Christ/Christian Church/Restoration Movement in 1840-1860, over instrumental music. Most denominations in the United States split between 1760 and 1860 over instrumental music, starting with the Congregational Church (Puritans/Pilgrims) who added a cello to their a cappella singing in 1760.

      • Mike says:

        Wow …complicated. It’s ironic how an original plan for unity has led to so much disunity. Thanks for the information.

  5. Mae bys Marianne wedi brifo says:

    I have a friend with mental health problems. She lives in Cardiff, Wales, but was converted to the COC by a Texan missionary who was briefly in the UK. This woman still gives her advice on the phone eg she should ditch her boyfriend. I’ve recently found material to the effect that the COC is a mind control cult. I thought these people were giving my friend emotional support although it came with a cost – mindless conformity. Now I fear it may be more sinister. Could they be ripping her off financially, well aware as they are of her vulnerability?

    • Mark says:

      The ICOC is reputed to be a mind control cult. The rest of the COC is a little gentler, but not much if they are doing evangelistic efforts in Wales. The ICOC demands about 15 to 20% of one’s income. The hard line COC asks for about 10%. Either group believes they are helping people.

      • Ryan S says:

        Sir, thank you for trying to shed light on churches of Christ. I have to disagree with you on this point however….all churches of Christ I have ever been in fellowship with do not ask for any percentage of the members’ money. I often give a short speech during the assembly about the “collection of the saints” in 1 Corinthians 16:1&2 where it says to give as you have prospered, so there isn’t a percentage/necessary amount involved. If one truly has no money to give, then that is between them and God.

        Peacefully,
        Ryan

      • garycummings says:

        I always heard sermons in the COC about the minimum amount to give is 10%. Then I also heard that “our righteousness should exceed the Pharisees.” This was interpreted to mean we really should give more than 10%. Thanks, Gary

      • Mark says:

        Yep, that’s the way I heard it, too. In the OT they had to give 10%. We should be giving 10% plus.

  6. Marie says:

    I recently started dating someone from an Independent Christian Church. I am not personally familiar with the Independent Christian Church, but I have researched it online and it seems to be affiliated with the Church of Christ. I am familiar with the beliefs of the Church of Christ and have discussed Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, etc. with him and he seems to believe like me (I belief most similarly to a Baptist.). I was wondering if the Independent Christian Church has the same false beliefs as the Church of Christ? Thanks so much for your time!

    • Mark says:

      Hi Marie,
      Independent Christian Churches are mostly much less severe than the hard line Churches of Christ, having split off from each other in the mid-1800s. There are not many similarities, though you will find some that are firm on adult immersion for the forgiveness of sins, and communion every Sunday.

  7. Jonathan Ashbeck says:

    Man, the Churches of Christ not only get legalistic about their doctrine of worship, especially a capella singing, they also get legalistic on Christmas, they do not celebrate Christ’s birth. You CAN celebrate Christ’s birth. They get legalistic on so many things, including their beliefs that if you are a Christian and you are NOT a member of a church, you are not going to heaven. They are so legalistic.

  8. Kathleen says:

    I am a member of the CoC but haven’t attended for about a year. Started missing due to a family emergency, had a hard time getting back, more family drama and stress, and lots of questions. Don’t know where to go from here. Only know that I need to meet with and associate with other Christians. The 2 biggest things that are now holding me back are 1.) A family emergency regarding my 12 year old daughter and 2.) and probably the most important is my study into the different biblical manuscripts and my local ministers insistence that modern versions are more accurate than the the King James.
    I have been in a huge crisis for over a year now. I have more questions than answers, and am frustrated beyond belief. How can a person understand the bible without someone to teach him or her. And how do you know who is teaching the truth? There are so many different denominations that my head spins. So many different beliefs. Yet there is only one God, one Savior, and one way to salvation.

    Please feel free to email me if you think you can answer any of my many questions. I know that this is not going to make sense but here goes… I have faith and I don’t have faith. I have faith that God exists. I have faith that he sent his son Jesus. I have faith that Jesus died and rose again. All of these things I believe with all my heart and have since I was of the youngest age. Not sure how since my parents did not teach Christianity in our home but I did and I do. Nothing can ever shake my belief in those things. My lack of faith comes from not understanding things that seem to contradict themselves in the new testament. Such as can you lose salvation or not. Paul says even he is in danger of it. That is the one question that brought me to the Church of Christ in the first place….

    Sorry this was so long.

  9. Bill D says:

    I find it interesting, in a sad way, that you accuse members of churches of Christ of bitterness and hatred when the members I know are loving, hospitable, kind and serving. They feed children in the community, teach in the prisons, visit the sick and the lonely, and encourage those who need encouragement. Yes, they do respect God’s word and follow it in obedience and thankfulness. This makes one legalistic in your eyes? Frankly, the bitterness and hatred you exhibit here, along with false accusations, is the only bitterness and hatred I see. May you find the source of your pain and turn it over to God.

    • Mark says:

      Hi Bill, We’re only complaining about the hard line Churches of Christ on this website. They believe they are the only true church and comprise about 10% to 20% of Churches of Christ in the United States.

  10. garycummings says:

    Bill D. , the abusive religion you espouse has been the source of pain for many people. For ANY church to say THEY are the true church marks them as a cult.

  11. garycummings says:

    I do not believe that Alexander Campbell or Stone were the founders of the Churches of Christ.
    They started the Disciples of Christ/Christian movement in the time frame you mentioned. In 1889, Daniel Sommer broke off from the Disciples of Christ and started the Churches of Christ at Sand Creek. This was the real formation of the Churches of Christ. They broke away from the DOC over missionary societies and the use in instrumental music. Later, the efforts of the COC moved South to Nashville with David Lipscomb. Lipscomb, who was an abolitionist and pacifist, joined forces with with Daniel Sommer. In 1906, the Churches of Christ were officially recognized in the US Census. From 1906 onward, the COC staked out its claims and theology, kicked out the pacifists and millenarians, and became the truly hardline group by the start of WW2. Foy E. Wallace Jr., was the unoffical “pope” of the COC, and he drove the pacifists out. Then Geirge Benson from the end of WW2 began his anti-communist crusade and made the COC into an utra right-wing religious movement. The 50’s and 60’s were the heyday of the COC< when they experienced their greatest growth. Now they are shrinking about 5% a year. Their membership is about 1.5 million ( a few years ago), and they lose about 76,000 members a year through people leaving (mostly young people). In another 20 years, the COC will cease to exist except in greatly morphed forms.

  12. Jonathan Hughes says:

    wow reading this blog is amazing – I grew up C of C too. But I can say this, it’s not just C of C in Texas anyway – it’s rampant and it’s just plain Christian Fundamentalism. I have some Southern Baptist relatives that are exactly the same way, and they are literally driving me insane txting me bible verses ‘because they are worried for my soul’ – I know all these verses by heart btw, and I pray daily read the bible and study early church history – so it’s not like i’m a satan worshiper! but it’s always the same ole stick. got this one last night 1 Peter 5:8-9 – because my family saw a post about a book I was reading on Gnosticism and flipped out. I am honestly to the point I’d much rather burn in hell just to get away from them!

  13. Jonathan Hughes says:

    reading these just reminded me when I was in C of C we went Sunday morning, Sunday Night, and Wed night EVERY week.

    they had communion Sunday night in a little room for those who couldn’t make Sunday morning, but you were always kinda shamed and told that was for the sinners who couldnt make Sunday morning.

    We had two services on Sunday morning – but everyone knew the ‘best’ Christians went to the early service – the old timers even joked about it saying if you went to the early service you could beat the Baptists to Wyatt’s Cafeteria for lunch!

  14. John says:

    This article helps put some light on the COC. I speak with a man, at work. who is hardline COC. No matter the conversation on God he always asks ‘How does faith come?’ And ‘what does the bible say a man must do to be saved’.Acts 2:38 is at the forefront as well as everytime baptism is brought up in the context of ‘whosover beileves and is baptized’. He is very dogmatic about this and says that I don’t totally believe the bible as a result. It is useless to bring up Romans 10:9-10 to Eph 2:8-9. He reacts as JW doesn. diversion to other scriptures of his liking. I tell others that he believes in Baptismal regeneration but the bible doesn’t say that. He also doen’t believe by faith alone. He says a work has to be involved to repent. People have to obey God and so that is the work. Very seductive and very deceptive. I visited his church. Nice people to fellowship with and very opposite of his attitude. It shocked me and surprised me.

    • Mark says:

      Any hardline church is going to be similar, I think, when you visit. Everyone will be super nice. It’s when you ask, “Do you think I’m saved?” that you will find out their real attitude.

      Your best bet is to camp on Acts 2:38 and ask him if he has received the Holy Spirit like that verse says. When he says, “Yes”, ask him if he received it like they did in Acts 2. He will quit using Acts 2 after that and start using a different verse. Read that new verse in context and ask him if he believes in everything around that verse as well. Slowly all his favorite verses will crumble. But you won’t convert him.

      • John says:

        Would that be because He doesn’t believe he received the Holy Spirit when he was baptized? Let me add that he has an attitude that is very complainy and I think it is because of his job, but if you talk about the bible he gets all smiles, but the moment you say something that he/coc disagrees with then he stops you and begins to ask you questions in a way that makes you conform to his belief and if you disagree then you disagree with the bible. I find it to be very cultlike.

        I am careful with what I say to him. I am have good talks with him and some very bad talks, but he doesn’t carry wisdom, because a bible disagreement should not take place in front of unbelievers, but he will do that. I walk away.

      • Mark says:

        The coc is very skittish around the topic of the Holy Spirit. They fall into two camps: either they deny they have received the Holy Spirit, or they say the Holy Spirit only operates non-miraculously thru the written word. Some will say they have received the Holy Spirit, but are vague about what the Holy Spirit does. In any case the context of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 is the greatest pouring out of the Holy Spirit in the entire Bible, and so if you ask him if he has received the Holy Spirit like that, then he will have to change the subject quickly. But you will never convert him, because he is not loyal to the Bible or Jesus, he is loyal to his group.

      • John says:

        I am going to try that. you said that they will either deny they have the Holy Spirit or He operates in non miraculous ways. Yeah……..I have wondered this after hearing him speak because I have often wondered if he was born again. His attitude, how he reacts out of irritation and when he quotes scriptures he also cites the verse first and then quotes it like a bible machine yet I wondered, because of his demeanor, is he really a Christian? IS he really born again? He dismisses testimonies when someone tells him of a healing. He says the gifts have passed away similar to reformed theology only with him I don’t think he believes God does the miraculous.

        Loyalty to group is the dangerous part of this whole thing. It is the same as the JW. They are loyal to their org and not to the bible.

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