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Big C or little c?

Are Churches of Christ truly nondenominational? As numbers decline in the U.S., Christian Chronicle readers discuss definitions and implications — and question whether or not the debate matters.

Discussion of Churches of Christ in 2018 often boils down to a single letter.

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Many of the fellowship’s 1.4 million adherents in the U.S. prefer the lower-case “church of Christ,” in keeping with the King James translation of Romans 16:16, from which the fellowship takes its name: “The churches of Christ salute you.”

“There’s a wide spectrum of what defines a Church of Christ today,” said Hollee McAdams, a minister’s wife who worships with a congregation in Plano, Texas, that refers to itself as “the church of Christ on McDermott Road.”

“Perhaps, though, it could be defined as a community of people that have been clothed with Christ,” McAdams said, “who love God and his people and who do their best to glorify him, using the Bible as their directive.”

Hollee McAdams

Despite the fellowship’s lack of man-made creeds, some church members see the body of believers as a capitalized “Church of Christ” — a group of autonomous congregations, born out of the Stone-Campbell or Restoration Movement, that functions as a denomination in everything but name.

“Much ink has been spilled about how Churches of Christ are not a denomination,” said Alex Ritchie, a member of the Woodbury Church of Christ in Minnesota. “While this may have been true to previous generations, this claim falls flat to younger Christians.”

Creeds are “no longer the standard by which a denomination is measured,” Ritchie said. “The Churches of Christ are unified by a common set of values and practices. While these are unwritten in most cases, they serve the same purpose as a formalized creed.

“To the outsider, the Churches of Christ have drawn clear lines on most theological and cultural positions, so we can no longer reasonably claim to be nondenominational.”

Ritchie was one of 645 Christians, representing all 50 states, who responded to a Christian Chronicle online survey that coincided with the latest edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States” by Nashville, Tenn.-based 21st Century Christian. The directory shows a drop of more than 72,000 adherents (baptized members and their families) since the previous edition in 2015. 

That decline mirrors trends in denominations across the country, said Erinn Harris, who ministers for the Capital City Church of Christ in Sacramento, Calif.

“Our identity was based on concepts that are not true,” Harris said about reasons behind the decline. “For example, (some) people believe things such as Churches of Christ are the only true churches. … Some believe that we are the only ones with the correct interpretation of Scripture.”

Other respondents, including Barry O’Dell, cited a decline in evangelism — changing Jesus’ Great Commission in the Gospel of Matthew, “go and make disciples of all nations,” into “open the building, and they will come” — as a prominent factor in the fellowship’s declining numbers.

O’Dell, who worships with the Mammoth Spring Church of Christ in Arkansas, said that one of his concerns for the future is “that many in our fellowship view the church as just another denomination among the many. When there is no distinction from man-made institutions, the church no longer serves as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

“Every denominational body can be traced to a specific time, place and human originator,” O’Dell said. “The Church of Christ, as found in the New Testament, can and does exist today.”

‘Jesus knows who his sheep are’

Many survey respondents said that Churches of Christ spend too much effort debating the nature of the fellowship itself.

“Our obsession with talking about our own identity is distracting us while the rest of the world moves on,” said Aaron Campbell, a member of the Farragut Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn. “As we continue to fuss, fight, split and grow smaller, we will become irrelevant and invisible to the world around us.”

Others said they see Churches of Christ less as an earthly body and more as an ideal — born from a desire to practice simple, New Testament Christianity.

Regardless of the lettering on their signs, Churches of Christ share a desire to help — especially in times of disaster. In 2011, the Mt. Hope Church of Christ in Webb City, Mo., served as a base for relief efforts after a devastating tornado in nearby Joplin.

“I believe that Jesus knows who his sheep are, and we do not have to delineate exactly where the boundaries of his kingdom’s reach,” said Daryl Beatty, who worships with Hope Fellowship, a church in the Houston area.

Once, on a trip to China, Beatty looked for a church to worship with on Sunday. He found a congregation on the internet.

“On the website, someone had asked ‘What denomination are you?’” Beatty recalled. “The answer was, ‘We don’t have the luxury of worrying about that here.’

“I fear that, if we focus too much on that luxury here, we may get to the point where we no longer have that luxury. Jesus prayed for unity in John 17, and the modern Church of Christ was born as a unity movement. Let it not become focused on division and delineation of exactly who is a member.”

NEXT: To speak with ‘a biblical vocabulary’ — minister questions Christian Chronicle’s use of the term “Church of Christ”

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