The Churches of Christ are a primitivistic body of Christian believers, ideologically related to some extent to the German and Swiss Anabaptists. While they have an intellectual interest in doctrinal developments throughout the history of Christian thought, their purpose is to reproduce the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians in their assemblies and lives. Historically, they are the more conservative heirs of the American Restoration Movement, which began between 1790 and 1810. First generation leaders included Thomas (1763-1854) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) in Pennsylvania, and Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) in Kentucky. The Stone and Campbell movements formally united in Lexington, Kentucky, on January 1, 1832. The Disciples of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches also have their roots in this Restoration Movement.
The original leaders of this movement were scattered from North Carolina to New England and unknown to each other. They shared a concern over divisions among believers in Christ, which they attributed to perpetuation of strict adherence to historic creeds. They further believed that those creeds included departures from, and corruptions of, Biblical doctrines. They urged the unity of all believers, a goal attainable by a return to the Bible as the sole guide for all religious practices. Early success led to membership growth from approximately 22,000 in 1832 to 192,000 in 1860 and 1,120,000 in 1900.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, divisions began to plague the movement. Among the several controversial issues, heightened by geographical and social divisions, the use of instrumental music in worship and organized societies for mission work proved to be crucial. By 1906 the divisions were complete, and the United States census added the new listing of Churches of Christ as separate from the Disciples of Christ.
Churches of Christ were, and continue to be, heavily concentrated in the southern and southwestern regions of the United States. The 1906 census recorded 159,658 members, almost two-thirds of whom lived in the eleven former Confederate states. Over 41,000 lived in Tennessee, and Nashville became a center of the movement.
According to the most recent worldwide statistics (1990), there are 13,908 congregations composed of 747,568 members outside the United States and its territories. Churches of Christ are found in 121 of the world's 177 nations. Serving in other countries are 660 American missionaries from Churches of Christ. In the United States, according to 1994 statistics, there are 13,013 Churches of Christ, with a total membership of 1,260,838. The largest concentrations are found in Texas (290,190 members) and Tennessee (168,190 members). Tennessee and its eight contiguous states include over 5,000 congregations and 500,000 members–40 percent of the U.S. membership.
Churches of Christ are completely autonomous, with no central governing authority. Centers of influence tend to be associated with Christian universities, periodicals, and area-wide lectureships.
Of the nineteen colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ, two are in Tennessee–Lipscomb University and Freed-Hardeman University. A self-perpetuating board of trustees governs each of the schools.
Approximately seventy-five periodicals are in publication. Two of the more widely circulated–Gospel Advocate and Twenty-first Century Christian–are housed in Nashville. Individually or family-owned commercial enterprises, these publications are not subject to any control by the churches except through influence or paid subscriptions.
Congregations and individual members of Churches of Christ support several service and outreach programs in Tennessee. These include a Federal Prison Ministry, twelve K-12 schools, twelve child and family service organizations, nine preacher training schools (nonaccredited), nine campus ministries on state university campuses, and twelve camps (largely in summer) for teens.
Separatistic, Churches of Christ seldom participate in common causes with other religious groups. Of the two earliest goals of the Restoration Movement, the goal of unity of all believers, has become subordinated to the goal of strict restoration–conforming to the New Testament in all congregational practices. Churches of Christ, however, accept much of mainstream historical orthodoxy as Biblical. Their view of human knowledge of God is that God reveals himself primarily in scripture, ultimately in Christ, but also in nature. The Bible is accepted as entirely trustworthy. They understand God in Trinitarian terms–as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They believe God created everything that exists ex nihilo. Evil entered the human experience through the fall of Adam and Eve; original (inherited) sin is not accepted. Jesus is understood to be both God and man; His death accomplished sacrificial atonement for all human beings who genuinely trust in Him. The Christian hope is for eternal life in heaven; eternal punishment is a reality as well.
Their principal points of difference center on the doctrine of the church. Congregations use strictly a cappella music, members administer the Lord's Supper each Sunday, and they practice believer's baptism for the remission of sins as new converts are received into membership. Worship practices also include prayers, scripture-oriented sermons, and voluntary contributions of money. During the past decade congregations have experienced more diverse worship styles, particularly in hymnody. Worship assemblies vary from quite formal to very informal.
Historically marked by internal and external controversy, the Churches of Christ remain committed to their ideals. While some representatives have claimed these churches include the only known Christians, others insist that their commitment is to be “Christians only”–an ideal which reflects the original goals of unity (nondenominational) and restorationism (restoring primitive practices of the earliest churches).