We Call Ourselves Disciples

Scripture:  John 17: 17-23

Sometime, just for grins, go on the internet to one of the many Bible sites there, open one of the online Bibles, and type in the search box one word “disciples” and look at the verses that come up in the New Testament.  Because of our familiarity with the Bible, the contexts will pop into your mind as you read the verses. If your judgement is like mine, what you find is not a very flattering picture of the initial 12 disciples. Yet we call ourselves Disciples.

You and I have taken on an enormously challenging program in life, incarnating the loving compassion of God as we have known it in Jesus Christ.

Following the paradigm of Disciples pastor and historian, Dale Suggs,[i] this morning allow me to portray the main elements of our early  history as Disciples by keying in on several maxims and slogans we Disciples have brandished through the years that characterize us.

The first one, the core one, you would likely name from memory, because no Disciples’ slogan is more important — “Unity is our Polar Star.

In the words of the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Teegarten, former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), “The ideal of Christian unity is to the Disciples of Christ, what basketball is to Indiana, hospitality is to the South, and what non-violence is to the Quakers.  It is part of our identity.  It is our middle name.   Unity truly is our Polar Star.”

Let me tell you a story. The year is 1801. The place, 30 miles northeast of Lexington in Kentucky.  A revival is being held there at Cane Ridge where Barton W. Stone is the pastor of a small Presbyterian church. And this was not just any revival, but a massive revival. According to scholars of American Church history, this event was one of the earliest manifestations of what is called, “The Second Great Awakening” on the American Continent.

  • Pastors from many denominations preached the gospel to crowds estimated at 20,000 people.
  • There were so many people and preachers that tree stumps became pulpits.       Historian Paul Conkin called it “arguably…the most important religious gathering in all American history.  It ignited the 2nd Great Awakening such that the prayer of later camp meetings and revivals henceforth was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.”[ii]

This experience left a powerful and abiding impression on Barton Stone. And at the same time, the revival’s capacity to positively affect so many from such wide backgrounds validated a conviction that Stone and some other Presbyterian pastors in the area were embracing…the conviction that the Presbyterian Calvinist doctrine that Christ died only for the “elect” few was wrong.  Christians of every stripe were being transformed by the revivals.

Soon thereafter, five preachers, led by Barton Stone, withdrew from the Synod of Kentucky in 1803 and organized the short-lived, independent Springfield Presbytery.  Less than a year later, realizing that what they sought was to unite the church, not to create yet one more division in the body of Christ, the Springfield Presbytery was dissolved with the pronouncement of, “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”. The proclamation argued that Christians should individually have free access to both the reading and the interpreting of the Bible and that local congregations should govern themselves.  The opening statement of the “The Last Will and Testament” proclaims the desire “that this body,(the Springfield Presbytery) die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.”

 The Stone-led movement simply calling themselves, “Christians”, enjoyed great evangelistic success first in Kentucky and then throughout the Midwest.  Its evangelists cried, “We are Christians and Christians only.”

Let me tell you another story.

The year is 1807.  The place: Washington, Pennsylvania, about 30 east of Bethany, West Virginia and about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, PA.  Thomas Campbell, a Presbyterian minister from Ireland, immigrated that year to the United States seeking to escape the factional squabbling of the churches in Ireland and Scotland.  Upon his arrival, Thomas was given an assignment as pastor of  a tiny frontier congregation of the Old Light, Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church… each of those adjectives supposedly essential in those sectarian days.

Well, having heard of Thomas Campbell’s frustration with the divisions of the church in western Europe, the leaders of the Chartiers Presbytery sent a student minister along with Thomas to the church in Washington, Pennsylvania to well, you know, to keep an eye on him.  In only a few months this spy had a juicy story to tell.

You see, Thomas Campbell was asked to lead a “sacramental celebration” at a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Campbell was pained by the many persons in other branches of the Presbyterian family who had not participated in the Lord’s Supper for a long time.  One such family had traveled many miles by wagon to participate in the celebration and to partake of communion.  Unfortunately, members of this family were “Burgher” Presbyterians and by the rules of the Old Light, Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian church they could not receive communion.  But, out of compassion, Campbell served them anyway.

In the eyes of the church, this was heresy.  Campbell was stripped of his preaching credential by the Chartiers Presbytery and removed from the pastorate in Washington.

Then by early 1809, Thomas Campbell had been suspended by both the Chartiers Presbytery and the Associate Synod of North America, but he was supported by his recently formed Christian Association of Washington.  With that support, Thomas Campbell wrote and published the second-oldest and critically important document in our Disciples history, the “Declaration and Address.”  That document asserts that sectarianism is evil, that Christian unity would be possible if Christians would recognize the supreme authority of the Scriptures, and that local congregations should govern themselves.  Does that begin to sound familiar?

The Declaration and Address begins:

“The church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else, as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.”

That same year, Thomas Campbell was joined his son, Alexander.  Alexander, who had decided to become a minister, read the document, and gave his enthusiastic approval.  Under the leadership of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, the young movement, called themselves, Reformers or Disciples enjoyed great evangelistic success first in Kentucky and Ohio, and then throughout the Midwest.  Its evangelists cried, No creed but Christ” and “No book but the Bible.”

 Over the course of the next 20 years, the two groups, the Christians and the Disciples, discovered each other and realized they had much in common.  There were differences mind you.

-The Christians believed in paid permanent ministers, the Disciples did not.

-The Disciples celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly, the Christians did not.  But in the end, their commitment to unity was too deep for them to stay apart.

So, on New Year’s Day, 1832, the Christians, estimated to be around 10,000 in number, united with the Disciples who numbered around 12,000.  From that day, the movement to unite the church on the American frontier spread like wildfire:  Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, then moving to Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and finally to far away places like New Mexico, Arizona and California.  Only 15 years later in 1847 the Christian Church of Austin was founded.  Today that congregation is named Central Christian Church at Guadalupe and 11th.

By 1900, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) claimed over 1.1 million in adult membership making it the largest church indigenous to the United States, not because of our pedigree, not because of urbane liturgy in worship, or even the most erudite scholarship, or the most persuasive preaching, not even the best potluck dinners.  The reason our heritage has had such a good run as that deep down American Christians have remained open to the challenge that Jesus set before them in the Gospel of John as Jesus prayed to God:

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

And we have steadfastly stood for and worked for the Unity of Church, the body of Christ, at almost any cost.  Our Disciples Identity Statement reads:

“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”[iii]

How important is this unity?   The great Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, put it this way:  Where the church is divided, the Gospel is not true.

If we are to embrace the great challenge of the reconciliation of the Body Christ, we still need to swim against the prevailing stream of human nature to flock together as birds of a feather.  We need to ignore those walls intended to separate us.

We will embrace that wide, inclusive, vision of the reformers that is our Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) heritage by reaching out to everyone who claims the name of Christ in all their wonderfully different though sometimes frustrating ways, recognizing that we are all valuable, honorable, highly esteemed members of One…. Just one Body of Jesus Christ.


[i] https://fullertonfirstchristian.org/1279-2/

[ii] http://bit.ly/2fgxF8O

[iii] Disciples Identity Statement found at http://bit.ly/2dL41n3



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