The word “United” makes a difference

thehouseChurches are such complicated things.

If you look in the Associated Press Stylebook, the entry for the Churches of Christ starts like this:

Approximately 18,000 independent congregations with a total U.S. membership of more than 2 million cooperate under this name. They sponsor numerous educational activities, primarily radio and television programs.

Each local church is autonomous and operates under a governing board of elders. The minister is an evangelist, addressed by members as Brother. … The churches do not regard themselves as a denomination. …

Well, they also have colleges and universities, but that’s another issue. Anyone who knows the churches of the Sunbelt will also note the absence of the crucial words “a cappella.”

You see, this gets really complicated, as you can see on this information page that goes out of its way to state, in bold text, that:

The churches of Christ are not affiliated in any manner with the denominational church known as “The United Church of Christ”.

So what is the United Church of Christ? That’s a liberal mainline Protestant denomination that has been in the news for several rather obvious reasons in recent years. Can you say “Barack Obama“? How about “Jeremiah Wright“? And then there are those “God is still speaking” advertisements.

Back to the AP bible. On the page across from the Churches of Christ entry is another one for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that notes:

The body owes its origins to an early 19th-century frontier movement to unify Christians. The Disciples, led by Alexander Campbell in western Pennsylvania, and the Christians, led by Barton W. Stone in Kentucky, merged in 1832. The local church is the basic organizational unit. National policies are developed by the General Assembly. …

Now this is another liberal mainline church, although there are many local churches — this is true in the UCC, too — that are quite traditional and even evangelical in their approaches to doctrine. It’s a congregational thing.

However, the Stylebook leaves out another piece in this puzzle that’s in the middle, which is a large cluster of churches that are usually called the independent Christian Churches.

What’s the problem? You see, the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Churches and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are all part of the Stone-Campbell movement. And to make matters more complicated, the Disciples have a history of close ties to the UCC, as part of the radically congregational wing of the ecumenical movement.

No wonder newspaper copy desks get confused. I am sure that we will get comments noting that I made errors in what I have just written (“Is the “I” in “independent Christian Churches” upper- or lower-case?”). It’s alphabet soup, with doctrinal and ecclesiastical spices.

Nevertheless, it’s important to try to get things right. Which brings us — finally — to the obits for the controversial social activist Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. Several of the stories that moved at the national level made simple, clear references to this remarkable entrepreneur and activist being rooted in the “Church of Christ.” Here’s a typical reference, from the Houston Chronicle:

By the age of 29, Fuller was a millionaire. Success brought stress and tensions in his relationship with his wife, formerly Linda Caldwell, whom he had married in 1959. His wife left for New York City and Fuller followed. After long discussions, they decided to sell almost everything they owned and give away the proceeds.

In 1966, Fuller became a fundraiser for Tougaloo College, a small, church-funded and predominantly African American school in Mississippi. He soon moved his family to Koinonia Farm, a 20-year-old multiracial, religious commune in Americus, and developed business plans for the group. He spent two months in Africa with the Church of Christ.

Or the Washington Post:

In 1966, Mr. Fuller became a fundraiser for Tougaloo College, a small, church-funded and predominantly African American school in Mississippi. He soon moved his family to Koinonia Farm, a 20-year-old multiracial, religious commune in Americus, and developed business plans for the group. He spent two months in Africa with the Church of Christ.

With that vague reference, I think most readers would assume that Fuller was part of the conservative, non-instrumental Churches of Christ or perhaps the independent Christian Churches. But it’s hard to understand the man or his remarkable story without knowing that he was, in many ways, a man of the left who managed to motivate a wide variety of people, including armies of evangelicals. You also need to know this information in order to know why he was so controversial to so many people.

Thus, it matters that, in the biography “The House that Love Built,” you can read:

After much prayer and consultation, Millard and Linda took a bold step. … As missionaries with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and in association with the United Church of Christ, the Fullers would implement Partnership Housing in parts of Zaire.

Yes, churches are complicated. But the names matter, because doctrines matter if you are trying to understand the lives of the people who live by them.

Fuller was a remarkable and complicated man and, if you want to tell his story, it helps to understand some of the details of the faith that drove him.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • hoosier

    I grew up in the Church of Christ, the one that isn’t United and doesn’t think of itself as a denomination, the one that shuns instrumental music (and church choirs), the one that is preoccupied with the procedures of worship. It’s a highly fractured organization (I think that word, organization, doesn’t really apply to the CofC) that has had churches split on the question of whether communion should be taken from one cup or from many little cups. Many in the denomination frown upon dancing, the wearing of shorts, and, at least this is how it seemed to me growing up, anything that is either fun or not related to a reason to refuse to associate with someone else.

    This is all to say that you do a pretty good job of laying out the differences and connections between the Church of Christ and the Disciples, but for those who don’t know, the Church of Christ has a whole level of wackiness that can be mindboggling. Things that other churches take for granted, like organs and choirs, are seriously considered bricks in the road to hell. Every Christmas brings up interminable discussions of how Jesus wasn’t really born on Dec. 25, so keep it secular and light and let’s talk about the birth story some other time. I could go on, but you get the idea. My people are a nervous people, constantly splitting with each other for fear that hellfire will be their reward for missteps.

  • Mike Hickerson

    It’s not just confusing for reporters. I belong to an Independent Christian Church, and it usually takes me a good five minutes to explain to someone what that means (if they really want to know). Because of the “Indpendent” part, it’s also darn hard to tell a Stone-Campell church apart from the many other non-denominational churches that have been planted over the years. I do not envy a reporter on deadline stepping into the running river of church history. Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches don’t make it any easier, either, because of our penchant for names like “National Missionary Convention” (which doesn’t include anywhere near all of the nation’s missionaries) and “North American Christian Convention” (ditto). At least the Disciples and UCC have a home office you can call. :)

  • Pingback: RIP Habitat for Humanity cofounder Millard Fuller « BaptistPlanet

  • Jerry

    My head hurts from trying to follow your discussion.

    There’s one point I would comment on: a single unproven allegation against him does not make him controversial in my eyes.

  • Jim

    Never thought I would see the North American Christian Convention mentioned on Getreligion. I am an Independent Christian Church minister and wanted to throw one more stick into your wheel. There are some Independent Christian Churches that go by the name Church of Christ. Because they are independent, they would not align themselves with the COC wing you’ve discussed. There are also many Independent Christian Churches that were started by the Disciples of Christ. Most chose to disassociate with the DOC for multiple reasons over the last four decades. Ironically, the entire movement was started with the goal of bringing unity among Christians by dropping denominational names. Praise God that he loves us in spite of us.

  • tmatt


    Hey! I taught at Milligan College for six years.

    I have SPOKEN at the North American!

  • Steve

    Lord, this is confusing. Isn’t there a blooper in “On the page across from the Churches of Christ entry is another one for the Church Church (Disciples of Christ)”? “Church Church”?

  • Sara

    Any discussion of the various off shoots of the Stone-Campbell movement is immensely complicated.

    I grew up in what sounds like the same branch of the movement that hoosier did (I think) before I swam the Tiber. Dancing was a sin, wearing of shorts was frowned upon and the support of schools, colleges or other institutions with church funds was grounds for cutting off fellowship with another congregation.

    I agree with hoosier that organization isn’t a good word to describe that particular branch of the movement.
    There are independent Christian Churches that also go by the church of Christ name. I remember asking my mother once why we couldn’t go to the “Church of Christ” that was five minutes from our house versus the “Church of Christ” that we attended in the next town. Turns out the congregation closer to us was an independent christian church.

  • Margaret

    Thank you for pointing this out. I, too, grew up (a few years with my mother’s 2nd marriage) in the Church of Christ. I was fascinated — coming from an Evangelical Methodist background — with the a capella singing, the idea that the birth of Christ indeed happened as it says in the Bible, but probably not on December 25th, and that the Ressurection doesn’t need to be discussed on the day the world calls Easter! (One church actually discussed their yearly finances one year on Easter Sunday, they put out extra chairs for people they knew searched out a church twice a year!!!)

    Now my Church of Christ grandparents by marriage were a blessing and they made me feel very loved and welcomed and I know that God was with them daily. (They also didn’t argue the above points!)

    However, it is important to post this about the founder of Habitat for Humanity. His background and religious reasoning is very different from the folks supporting David Lipscomb University here in Nashville, and it is only fair after a life lived contributing to the world as Mr. Fuller did that the folks supporting Lipscomb not be confused with his efforts!

  • FrGregACCA


    I just learned something.

    I had been under the misimpression that Fuller was a BAPTIST.

    Weird. Maybe I had that belief because Jimmy Carter has been so active with Habitat.

  • Ruth

    A fine outline of the Stone-Campbell Movement—or the Restoration Movement, as we of the Church of Christ (and Disciples too?) tend to call it. Though of course this is not even to mention the International Church of Christ (which broke off from the Church of Christ) and the Church of Christ, Scientist (which has no relation at all).The Church of Christ is composed of autonomous congegations. These congregations vary widely in wackiness. Some are as mindboggling as those described by hoosier and Sara. Others are not. And wackiness, where it occurs, is not necessarily a function of commitment to a capella worship. The small, “conservative” congregation I grew up in had greater personal and doctrinal variety and yet was also more stable than the large, “liberal” congregation I assembled with during college.

  • Phil Hawkins

    I also grew up in the independent Churches of Christ and graduated from one of their Bible colleges in Cincinnati. The history is even more convoluted than the story says–part of Stone’s group didn’t like Campbell and stayed out of the merger, but joined a New England group called the Christian Connection, which later merged to become the Congregational-Christian denomination, which in the 1950s merged again into the United Church of Christ. When I was in elementary school in rural Ohio, we attended a church that had left Stone and ended up in the UCC.

    The name usage seems to have a lot of regional variation. In Cincinnati, where I went to high school and college, many of the older churches used the name “______Christian Church (Church of Christ), while most of those formed after the Disciples developed into an organized denomination (1930s to 1950s) reverse the order “_____Church of Christ (Christian Church)”. The Disciples congregations use “_____ Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)”. I now live in Indianapolis, where most of the independent congregations use the “C.C. (C. of C.)” formula. But what I have heard of other states shows a lot of variation, including some that seem to go by what sounds better with the church’s local name. “Church of Christ” without any parenthesis usually means a “non-instrument” group.

  • tmatt


    Oh my. I am getting old and feeble.

    Thanks for the hilarious tip on that typo.


  • FrGregACCA

    And, then, of course, there are those, such as Sidney Rigdon, who left the Campbell-Stone “restoration” to join another “restoration”, that of Joseph Smith, Jr.

  • Jeff

    Ruth, there’s plenty of us Disciples who still refer to the Restoration Movement . . . but we don’t say “Brotherhood” quite as often! Inclusive language, y’know. ;-)

  • Bobby Ross

    Hi Terry,

    Like hoosier, I grew up in the Church of Christ (and I remain there today). I’d say I’ve had a much more positive experience than he describes. To his somewhat negative depiction of Churches of Christ, I’d point out that we are a generally loving, caring group of people whose members are among the first to feed, house and clothe their neighbors and strangers after almost any natural disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, Churches of Christ almost immediately donated tens of milions of dollars to the relief effort. I read repeated references by New Orleans residents, even in secular media reports, to the fact that “the federal government didn’t help us, our insurance company tied us up in bureaucracy, but the Church of Christ was there.” Certainly, our fellowship (yes, we avoid the term denomination) has its internal squabbles, but which denomination doesn’t?

    I serve as managing editor of The Christian Chronicle, an Oklahoma City-based international newspaper for Churches of Christ. We are an independent newspaper committed to the highest standards of journalism, and we recently were pleased to win 11 awards in competition against The Daily Oklahoman, the Tulsa World and other large newspapers published in Oklahoma. More on point to Terry’s post, we reported last month on new stats showing less than 13,000 a cappella Churches of Christ in the United States. I don’t know where AP’s 18,000 figure comes from. Perhaps that’s based on inflated numbers from decades ago, or perhaps it includes instrumental Christian Churches. Our story also notes that the largest a cappella Church of Christ added an instrumental worship service in recent years, further complicating (especially for a secular reporter coming to this fresh) characterizations in the media.

    In my days of religion reporting for AP, I always assumed that even AP editors wouldn’t take the time to check AP style before editing in their own preconceptions on religion stories. So I’d include a note at the top of stories mentioning Churches of Christ pointing out that “this group does not refer to its ministers as ‘the Rev.’” I’d put similar notes on stories related to other religious groups where an editor’s assumptions might cause problems for my effort to be accurate.

    One final note: The Religion Stylebook online (by the Religion Newswriters Association) is a great tool for religion writers. I see references for Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). But again, the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ do not merit an entry, despite roughly 1.2 million members nationwide and some of the fastest-growing megachurches in the country. Interesting.

  • Rebecca Woods

    Wow – fascinating discussion here. United Church News editor Gregg Brekke and I (news editor of DisciplesWorld magazine with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were talking about this very issue the other day (the confusion re Fuller’s religious ties). tmatt, thanks for tackling this — you and others have created a great explanation of the nuances. I hope reporters will find your post and read the comments.

    Phil H., thanks for pointing out the Stone-related group (Christian Connection) that later became part of the United Church of Christ too. Bobby – thanks for the link to the religion stylebook.

    I don’t have another two cents to put in except to say it’s cool to see how this discussion grew and evolved over a day’s time. This is why/how Wikipedia works (even though we double check sources.)

  • Mike Hickerson

    Yes, I find “Church of Christ, Scientist” to be troublesome, too, especially when I’m trying to talk about Christian scientists, not Christian Scientists. It’s tough to insert a capital letter into my speaking voice. :)

  • Bobby Ross

    In our reporting on a cappella Churches of Christ, we rely on Google alerts, LexisNexis, etc., to tip us to what’s being written in the secular media. As I scan these reports, words like “United” and “Scientist” tell me to go on to the next item, but often so do references to the “Living Word Church of Christ” or the “St. Paul Church of Christ.” We conservative C of C’ers tend to like to name our congregations after streets, intersections and even cities. If the other signs (such as a proper geographic church name) are in order, I look for other red flags, such as a reference to a choir or a praise band. :)

  • Jennifer

    Has anyone considered a visual aid or chart of some sort, or a wiki?

  • Jay


    Thanks for posting an article about the coverage of religion, to give us a break from all the articles about the culture wars. (The latter are important but sometimes it seems that’s all the site is). This is a very straightforward case of factual accuracy.

    Why did you list the same article twice? Patricia Sullivan’s article was picked up in Houston so you’re double-counting on your faux pas.

    However, you could go to Fuller’s home state paper — which has much more rich detail on his life, ministry and controversy

    and find this

    • 1968-72: Director of Koinonia Partners Inc. Developed business operations for Koinonia Christian Community in Americus, Ga.
    • 1973-76: Became Church of Christ’s director of development in Zaire. Initiated housing project for low-income families in Mbandaka, Zaire.

    If the metro in his own back yard — which has presumably been covering him for decades — can’t get it right, than who’s going to blame the far away Post which probably relies heavily on secondary sources (like inaccurate local newspaper coverage).


    PS: I think the term “controversial social activist” is perhaps redundant, but to Jerry, the AJC article suggests that there was more than just the unproven allegation to make him controversial.

  • tmatt


    I read the ajc article. I thought the language in the others that I cited was more typical of the coverage overall.

  • Kirk

    I grew up in the (non-instrumental) Churches of Christ. A few more idiosyncrasies to note:

    1. Lord help the newspaper editor who refers to the local Church of Christ preacher as “Reverend” or “Pastor.”

    2. Many of the more conservative congregations have developed the near-universal practice of “uncapitalizing” the word ‘church’ and refer to themselves as the “church of Christ,” as in the “Anytown church of Christ.” The justification is that capitalized word “Church” connotes a denomination.

    Wacky, yes; but at least we all use the same calendar… ;)