For my Disciples History and Polity course at Eureka College this summer, I wrote a final paper to complete the polity requirement. I enjoyed the experience of writing a reflection paper on the history and traditions associated with our denomination. Here is the script of my paper.
Sarah Taylor Peck
July 21, 2010
Intensive Seminar on Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) History and Polity
Paper Prompt: Imagine you are speaking to someone who is generally familiar with the Christian tradition but who is “unchurched” and is seeking a church home. S/he asks you: “Who are these Disciples of Christ? What do they believe or practice that might make them an attractive church home for me?”
When a Christian pilgrim came to me and asked me about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I welcomed the questions. This seeker knew about Christianity, faith, prayer, and hope, yet she sought a denomination and a religious context to call her own. She wished to find a faith that would allow her to explore, question, interpret, and imagine the possibilities within her belief system. When she came to me, asking about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I said: Welcome Home.
We are a church of welcomers. We are a church of thinkers. We are a church in motion.
We are interested in diversity of: thought, background and interpretation. We are interested in growth and we are interested in the appreciation and value of the light of God in all of us. We know that none of us can reflect, fully, the image of God if we stand alone. It is in our unity and diversity that we represent the body of Christ and God’s church. In the beautiful words of Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): “Christian unity is a given. It is also a goal—because in the long history of humankind we have not yet fully experienced the world of God’s desiring: that place and time where wolf lies down with lamb…Disciples long for that day … that is the Disciples way. And so we keep coming together…” (from “Multicultural Consultation: For Disciples: Christian Unity is both a Given and Goal” 2008). We, as a church, wish to join hands with our neighbors and live into the love, unity, and mission of God as we embrace the many parts of God’s beloved and diverse Church.
As a church, we are willing to allow the Spirit to enter into our sanctuaries, pulpits, lay ministers and preachers and we willingly anticipate the manifestation of the Spirit in all of these places.
We use the Bible as our primary source of influence on our worship practices. Disciples of Christ value unity, diversity and biblical access for all. We break bread together to honor the Lord’s Supper every time we meet. We affirm a priesthood of all believers, therefore, any of our members can administer communion. We affirm an open table during the Lord’s Supper. We invite anyone who feels called to participate in communion to do so. We know that it is not up to us to judge or dictate who partakes in communion, instead, we understand the communion table as God’s table, and we allow God’s grace to unfold there without our disruption.
We are a church that values and believes in baptism. We recognize previous baptisms that our members experienced, even if this baptism did not happen in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We also offer baptism by full immersion to new members, if they feel so-called. For those of us raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we practice adult baptism because we embrace the right of every person to choose her own spiritual journey and knowingly decide on her own baptism. For all pilgrims and Christian seekers, we offer open doors and open practices that can easily be claimed by new members to our church. We see baptism as an act from God and with God where the baptized person is adopted into the family of Christians and Christ for eternity (Tolouse, 142-143, Joined in Discipleship).
We, as a denomination, can be found across the United States, Canada, and in a few other places around the world. We have long-standing roots in Tennessee, Illinois, and other mid-southern states. We have congregations that are quite diverse. We have mixed churches, predominantly African-American congregations, Korean congregations, Hispanic congregations, and many other colorful, unique, and dynamic congregations within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We value the depth and breadth of our denominational body.
Much like our 4 founders adventured across the frontier, we value the quest for freedom, individuality, exploration, and simple truth to bind us together. Our Christian Church entered the world in the context of the exciting revival landscape of American Christianity at the start of the 19th century.
We value the ministerial gifts of all our members and we see all our members as ministers. We are not afraid of change or evolution or revision within our faith communities because we affirm congregational polity. Each congregation within our denomination calls their own ministers and members of the congregation participate in the democratic formation of their unique style of worship. If you have ideas or gifts that you wish to bring to our church, we will embrace your contributions and value your uniqueness. We value the diversity within our denomination and within our very congregations across North America and the world.
To understand who we are, we must look at where we came from. Four imaginative men founded what we now call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Barton Stone, an American born man, grew up with inspirational mentors who taught him that every individual has the right to search for religious truth through one’s own process of understanding. Stone went on to preach at the Cane Ridge revival in 1803 where he focused on preaching to the people, not at them. He began to model what would soon become the foundational practices of Disciples preaching, teaching, and understanding. He participated in the dissolving of the Springfield Presbytery as a co-author of the Last Will and Testament. Through this act and others, Stone established himself as an important influence in the creation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Thomas Campbell, an Irish immigrant from a Presbyterian background, marks our history with his exciting and simple method of lively preaching, convincing debate skills, and his ability to preach messages of Unity and Hope that frontier people were eager to hear. He arrived in America in 1807 and in 1809, he uttered a now famous motto among Disciples: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
Thomas Campbell’s son, Alexander Campbell, followed in his father’s footsteps as a dynamic preacher, writer, and powerful force in the American frontier and Christian revival. A. Campbell wrote sacred articles for the public as a testament to his faith and as an act of his own ministry. He wrote for the Christian Baptist and in 1830 he founded the Millennial Harbinger, where he wrote inspiring editorials about the freedom and individuality in discovering religious truth through personal scriptural exploration within the Christian Church. A. Campbell’s writings greatly influenced the growth of the Disciples through his articulate enthusiasm for this new frontier Christianity.
Finally, Walter Scott participated in the formation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). We can think of Scott as the anchor within the formation of our faith. While others were attracted to the emotional charge and excitement around the American religious revival, Scott developed a foundational, simple 5-step explanation of the true gospel. He developed these steps in the 1820’s. He used these steps to explain the core of our beliefs: 1) confess faith; 2) repent sins; 3) undergo baptism; 4) God forgives you; 5) the Holy Spirit is granted within you (and you have eternal life).
I share this history with my questioning pilgrim because, we must remember that since our beginning, we have valued faith, individual freedom and exploration, simplicity in our core beliefs and openness all those who are on their own frontier, sorting out the in’s and out’s of religious identity and faith. Our founders saw the Bible as a sort of “constitution” for Christian life. We all have the ability and right to explore the Bible on our own and search for the essentials of Christian life which we believe are rooted in love, justice, and service.
If anyone wishes to join our denomination or one of our churches, we say, all are worthy and welcome. We know that it is actually not our church, but the Lord’s. It is not our communion table, but God’s. We are the hosts of God’s church. All may choose to join us on our journey through discipleship and continued learning. We only ask that new disciples bring their whole selves to faith. Bring a reasonable compass to navigate through our faithful learning and biblical interpretation. Bring your willingness to participate in our democratic, unity-inspired quest to become the people God intends us to be.
When one of our founders, Thomas Campbell, was asked to write down the core essentials of his belief and hope for this church, he composed what we call the Declaration and Address on September 7, 1809. One of my favorite supplications for all Disciples is recorded in this document. Campbell writes:
That all… should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same Divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whom God hath thus joined together no man should dare to put asunder.” (Declaration and Address, 1809)
Today, we have ministers and preachers that are interested in bringing the Holy Spirit into the world through simple, dynamic Disciples preaching. To demonstrate this to my questioning Christian pilgrim, I would take her to a worship service at my home church, Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, MA. This church has taught me to not only live out my faith through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) but this church also inspires me to remember that the gospel lives, God is among us in everything from the mundane to the stunning sacred, and we all have access. The Church’s ministry demonstrates much of the Disciples thought, action, and faith expressed through the world.
With my journeying pilgrim, we would go together for worship service at Hope Central to hear another simple, inspirational, open engagement of Christian faith and hope. We would talk about our shared inspiration and guidance found through biblical beauty. We would talk about our interest in a church that unites, embraces, and invites all Christian pilgrims to the table, God’s table, for fellowship.
After my afternoon with my new friend, I would repeat again: Welcome to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bring your whole self, bring your heart, bring your faith, feel our embrace and invitation. Welcome home.