Churches of Christ in Decline: A Response to Carl Royster

The compiler of Churches of Christ in the United States posted a defense of his decision in his blog. I wrote the following response in his comment section. It’s a moderated blog, so it won’t be posted on the internet until approved.

Brother Royster,

I’m posting here to directly respond to your decision to exclude churches with both instrumental and a cappella services from the directory. Let me explain my thinking, and perhaps you can correct me where I am in error.

Statistical reality

The goal of counting congregations and members is to measure what is in fact there. It’s not to measure some entirely arbitrary fact. Rather, good, useful statistics shed light on what they measure. They don’t obscure the underlying reality. Obviously, no group of people can be adequately described by mere numbers, but the numbers matter and have validity if they reflect and illuminate the underlying reality.

Now, in counting members and congregations of a denomination (for want of a better term), boundaries must be drawn. Not all believers and not all immersed believers are properly classified as part of the “Churches of Christ.” However, the boundaries of the Churches of Christ — as is true of all denominations — shift over time. The perceived markers that distinguish “us” from “them” have changed over the years and likely will continue to change. A proper statistical effort reflects today’s boundary markers.

The Churches began as a separate denomination in 1889 (not 1906 as so often stated) with the Sand Creek Address and Declaration by Daniel Sommer. This was the beginning of a new denomination because those who followed Sommer denied any fellowship or brotherhood with the others in the Restoration Movement. They refused to have anything to do with rest of the Movement, making the boundary real.

What were the boundary markers in 1889?

* The “one-man, preacher-pastor as the feeder and watcher over the flock after it had been gathered and established.” In other words, a church should not have a paid preacher after an evangelist has founded the church. The elders and other gifted men should preach.

* A “man-made missionary society with presidents, secretaries, boards of managers, life membership, life directorship and so forth on a money basis.” The local church is the only scripturally approved missionary society, Sommer argued.

* Any “modern, humanly-devised methods of raising money.” In other words, according to Sommer, if the teens have a car wash to raise money to free children caught in slavery, they stand damned. Funds may only be raised by donation. Sommer condemned all “fairs and festivals, pound parties and box-suppers” used to raise money for any cause, no matter how worthy.

* And then, listed last, “But no one ever did or ever can believer [sic] that it is the Lord’s will to play on an instrument in the worship.”

Sommer railed against all four “innovations” and damns over all four. Instrumental music was not the unique or especially defining practice.

If you’d interviewed Sommer immediately after this event, he’d have denied having formed a denomination but would have insisted that the remainder of the Restoration Movement was certainly a denomination — a denomination that had left the Movement. However, at this time, Sommer had relatively few followers, and the statisticians at the US Census took little note of this event.

Of course, by 1906 the split that began in 1889 was fully realized, and so Lipscomb declared the split a reality when asked by the US Census. But his declaration did not cause the division. The division had already happened.

Although the division was real enough to be recognized by the statisticians, the two parts of the Restoration Movement continued to seek unity. Even the Gospel Advocate published notices of periodic unity meetings — until 1939, 50 years after the fracture in the Movement first appeared. At this time H. Leo Boles, then-editor of the Gospel Advocate spoke to a unity meeting and declared unity impossible unless the Christian Churches agreed with the Churches of Christ on three points —

* The missionary society.

No other organization is needed for the conversion of sinners and the sanctification of saints — any other organization is an addition to New Testament teaching and is condemned by the word of God.

Notice the breadth of his condemnation. It’s any organization at all involved in missions other than a congregation.

* The instrument

Boles condemns any use of an instrument of music in worship.

* Using the word “denomination”

In acknowledging itself as a denomination the “Christian Church” betrays the Restoration Movement and surrenders to the enemy the cardinal principles of New Testament teaching.

Thus, in 1939 the boundary markers of the Churches of Christ, in contrast to the Christian Churches, were these three things. For whatever reason, the fights over located preachers and fundraising had been re-thought as no longer being fellowship issues, and the question of being a denomination had been added. The markers moved.

Now, by 1989 the missionary society issue had been nearly forgotten by the man in the pew. And the use of “denomination” no longer seemed a salvation issue. The basis for separation from the Christian Churches was perceived by many to be solely about instrumental music. Indeed, we often taught that the split had been solely about the instrument, which just isn’t true — but it was embarrassing to admit that we left the then-larger Restoration Movement over located preachers, given that we now all have located preachers. We like to think that our reasons for damning each other are built on eternal truths, but the reality is that they often are not.

Now that was a long way of saying that the boundary markers not only moved, they continue to move. And they will likely move again in the future.

So how do we know where the boundaries are today? Well, certainly not by asking why we split in 1889 or 1906 or refused unity in 1939! No, the proper statistical analysis looks to the reality on the ground.

And here’s the reality. The lines of a denomination are actually defined by how people and churches relate to each other. The lines are the lines of fellowship — not necessarily of doctrine. If you read the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, you’ll find very many denominations that are doctrinally identical to others and yet remain distinct denominations. The boundaries aren’t doctrinal. They are more institutional or ecclesiastic. Boundaries are wherever they may be, which isn’t always doctrinal.

In short, boundaries are found by asking such questions as: when a church hires a preacher or a missionary, as a rule, do they hire him from a “Church of Christ” college? Or a Christian Church college? Do they read the Christian Standard or the Christian Chronicle? Do they send their children to Abilene Christian? Or to Cincinnati Christian?

Do they cooperate with other Churches of Christ in supporting missionaries? Or do they cooperate with Christian Churches? Do they support Church of Christ-affiliated disaster recovery efforts and foster family programs? Or Christian Church efforts?

Those are the real boundaries. They always have been. Sommer’s “Address and Declaration” drew a denominational line not because of doctrinal disagreements, but because he decided that the doctrines should be boundaries. Doctrines are only boundaries when we, the members, decide they are.

For the last 100 years, instrumental music was a shortcut, a convenient boundary marker. But it only limited fellowship and cooperation so long as members of the Churches of Christ agreed that it should. They no longer do. There’s a new reality.

You see, my church is a cappella. I attend the Pepperdine Lectureships, and when I’m there, I find speakers and fellow attendees from instrumental Churches of Christ. We are in full and complete fellowship. We are actually more in fellowship with Richland Hills than with several Churches of Christ in my hometown! And so, unless you include the instrumental Churches of Christ, you’re measuring nothing but a ghost of how fellowship used to be. The boundary markers have moved.

Drawing lines in the gray

You appropriately ask,

From the perspective of reporting statistical figures, these half and half congregations do find themselves in a statistical “no-man’s land.” Can they correctly be counted as a cappella? Should they be counted among the instrumental Independent Christian churches as some have openly chosen to do? Should they be counted among the Non-charismatic, Independent churches (Community churches) as some have also chosen to do? How many instrumental services does an a cappella congregation have to offer before it is no longer called a cappella? I think you can see our dilemma.

I propose a simple solution: Ask them.

If a church wishes to no longer be thought of as a Church of Christ and prefers identification with the Christian Churches, send an email to the Christian Church equivalent of yourself notifying them of the new contact and delete them from your database. If they think of themselves as a Church of Christ and act like a Church of Christ other than having instruments of worship, include them and note their instrumental practices. If they wish to be independent, email the guy who counts independent churches, and delete them from your database.

There will be no double counting, no one will be excluded, and your database will reflect reality on the ground.

Good decisions have good effects

The final point deals with the practical effects of the information you’ve gathered.

If you exclude Richland Hills and other instrumental or partly instrumental Churches of Christ, they won’t be included in the electronic mailing list people use to raise funds — for missions, for disaster relief, for foster care, for orphanages, for Christian colleges. I can think of no good reason to burden these good works by making it harder to raise the funds they need to operate.

And unless I badly miss my guess, when the US Census Bureau, the World Almanac, the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, and other consumers of your data compile their own books and databases, they’ll also leave Richland Hills out. After all, if your database doesn’t include them, whose does?

Or will you tell them that there are over 20 churches that you’ve excluded that should nonetheless be treated as part of the Churches of Christ for purposes of the US Census and the like? And when you tell them they are no longer part of the a cappella Churches of Christ but also not part of the Christian Churches, will they conclude that the Restoration Movement has birthed yet another denomination? Will 2009 be the next 1906?

It shouldn’t be. You see, there really is a split going on, but it’s not between instrumental and a cappella churches. It’s between progressive and conservative churches, that is, grace-centered churches and the rest. If there is another split — and I pray it won’t happen — that’s where it will be.

Instrumental music is not the issue that is dividing the Churches of Christ. It’s the scope of grace. If you must draw a line to divide the Churches of Christ, you’ve drawn in the wrong place. But it’s too early to declare that there are two denominations, and by the grace of God, perhaps it will never happen.

Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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25 Responses to Churches of Christ in Decline: A Response to Carl Royster

  1. Alan says:

    Well said, Jay!

    The historical perspective raises a question. I wonder if today's conservatives would consider their conservative forefathers as saved, since they disagree with them on where the lines are drawn. And I wonder whether their forefathers would consider today's conservatives as saved, since they have located preachers. What a mess! Thank God for grace!

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Clearly, the editors of the Gospel Advocate would consider the Campbells, Stone, and Scott damned — for their positions on baptism and for accepting the "denominations" as saved. They'd also damn Lipscomb for his positions on baptism and women.

    Alexander Campbell would consider as a heretic (his word) anyone damning the Baptists over misunderstanding the purpose of baptism. Thus, he'd consider the current Gospel Advocate's editors heretical.

    Of course, Daniel Sommer would have denied the salvation of all us for having located preachers.

    Now, one of the great ironies of history is that Carl Ketcherside was Sommer's prized pupil, and for many years, Ketcherside taught against located preachers — and was an ardent advocate of the anti-institutional movement that divided so many churches in the 1950s over orphans homes and the Herald of Truth. But Ketcherside was the father of the progressive movement, arguing for unity across party lines while simultaneously arguing against located preachers and church-supported orphanages.

    Of course, over time, he came to see the pointlessness of those views, but his unity views came first.

  3. Weldon says:


    I have no clue how long it's been up, but Christian Church Today (A website that has a fairly comprehensive list of Independent Christian Churches) has recognized Richland Hills:

    While it's good that CCT lists them, I'm somewhat torn. My fear is that our more the conservatives of our movement will take Richland Hills' inclusion in the CCT list in conjunction with 21st Century Christian's exclusion, and conclude that Rick Atchley et. al. have finally taken their collective advice and "gotten out of 'our' church."

  4. Rich says:


    Thanks for the information.

    Richland Hills has been heading in this direction for quite some time. People should not be surprised. They recently made one of the more visible changes that moves them from alignment with traditional church of Christ to traditional Christian Church beliefs.

    From my perspective, I'm interested in knowing whether this is Richland Hills' (and others) stopping point or do they plan to move even farther away. Reading the posts here and elsewhere, it looks like the progressives' master plan is to create a whole new church with a whole new belief system that no one has seen before.

  5. Weldon says:


    I may have been a bit unclear. Richland Hills was removed from 21st Century Christian’s Churches of Christ in the United States against its will. Meaning that for a while it was in a “no man’s land.” (To use Mac Lynn’s quote from the <a>Christian Chronicle Article Time has proven however, that Richland Hills is not an island as they are now listed amongst the Independent Christian Churches. I have a suspicion that this fact: 1. Will prompt some to essentially say “good riddance,” and 2. Does not represent Richland Hills’ heart as congregation. (I believe that they would prefer to be listed in both publications so as to transcend our two faith tribes.) I hope that’s a bit clearer.

  6. Weldon says:

    My link above didn't work. I meant to use the following link:

  7. Alan says:

    Reading the posts here and elsewhere, it looks like the progressives’ master plan is to create a whole new church with a whole new belief system that no one has seen before.

    RIch, comments like that create obstacles to mutual understanding. If there is a progressive "master plan" I wasn't invited to the meeting. My personal "master plan" is to try to do the work God has given me to do on this earth, so he will tell me one day "Well done." I presume that is your master plan also. One part of that work is to make every effort toward unity with other Christians. So that is part of my "master plan."

  8. Stephen says:

    There are actually hundreds of Churches of Christ on that site. Just search Church of Christ. Also don't miss our Summer Spectacular this year is Esther "For Such a Time as This!" I will be playing King Xerxes! It will be a blessing to all! There will be two semesters since last year we actually had to many people there. I am guessing we will have close to 10000 people. Also you can now watch RHCC's services on the internet! God Bless!

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Richland Hills has been quite clear that they wish to be identified with the Churches of Christ. They continue to have a cappella services and their ministers remain active in CoC lectureships and events.

    Two assumptions we need to avoid are (1) a church must be part of only one "denomination" — and (2) that you need a church's permission to list them in a directory.

  10. Rich says:


    From my knowledge of the restoration movement, there were three most popular names for local congregations within the movement. They were the Disciples of Christ, Christian Church and church of Christ, .

    In the late 1800's a three way split occurred. Some adopted the central missionary society and added mechanical musical instruments. Some rejected the missionary society but accepted the musical instruments. And some rejected both.

    In general, the Disciples of Christ adopted both. The Christian Church adopted instruments but not the missionary society. And the church of Christ rejected both. However, the three names did not always align with the three way split. For example, there are several instances where a local congregation kept the church of Christ name but adopted the belief system of the Christian Church.

    I suspect, but don't know for sure, that the church of Christ locations listed in the CCT are probably instrumental rather than acapella based.

  11. mark says:

    The decline of the church of Christ is really about its distorted history and every changing theology. It is because of this we have not yet cultured a foundation on which we can teach the next generation. Case in point can we teach our history and follow the Bible only? History has exposed the restoration as a concoction of man. In fact the American restoration is really a hobbyist debate. Most in the coC neither understand nor care about Campbell. So where does that leave us only to graft back into our denominational counterparts. Perhaps that’s not a bad place to be!

  12. Jay Guin says:


    Actually, I think Stone and the Campbells were on to something very, very important. They wanted to unify all Christians based on faith in Jesus and penitence. They offered instruction as to worship, church organization, etc., but were clear that their instruction was not a creed and hence should not define fellowship. It was the generation that followed Alexander Campbell that began binding positive commands as the highest of all commands, quickly leading to making positive commands salvation issues — which the founders of the Movement would have found abhorrent.

    The point of studying the writings of these men is to better understand where our own theology comes from, to gain some perspective on ourselves, and perhaps to do a little better.

    Do we graft back into our denominational counterparts? Which denomination? I'd prefer to continue the original Restoration ideal and consider the denominations irrelevant. Most people already do. Rather than thinking in denominational terms, I'd rather think in terms of cooperating with all fellow Christians to serve and convert our communities.

  13. Ken Sublett says:

    You may remember that the instrumentalists exited and then attempted to confiscate the property. This went to the Illinois Supreme court and lthey decided that the instrumentalists could not confiscate property.

    A rabbi decided to steal the synagogue in Germany in 1815: the judges then (and would now) insisted that to IMPOSE defined another sect and he could not take over other people’s property.

    Instrumentalists of course say that anyone who refuses to be confiscated is narrow: that’s cool in the words of lincoln.

    The instrumentalists are defined by Christ as guilty of blasphemy in my review. You have to be marginally marginal to find a single instance of congregational singing with instrumental accompany. Neither sideS remotely grasp that the church is A School of Christ. Disciples don’t attend Bible Class to watch not-so-cute praise singers.

  14. HistoryGuy says:

    I struggle to make my point and condense my thoughts periodically, and it seems to me that you are very studious, but struggle with communicating so that people can understand. Thus, whether or not I agree with you on any particular subject, I wanted to say that your post above is the clearest writing of yours that I have ever read. Thank you for those insightful and concise thoughts.

  15. Orion says:

    Ken said, “You have to be marginally marginal to find a single instance of congregational singing with instrumental accompany.”

    If you can’t find and instance of instrumental accompany and that makes it wrong, where in the Bible do you find an example of or authorization for the church to own property.

  16. Ken Sublett says:

    But, the Bible does so outlaw “vocal or instrumental rejoiciing” which words includes elevated forms of speech when the Holy Convocation on the first and seventh days of festivals and every rest day later on was held for. Jesus “synagogued” with the disciples two first days of the week without any congregational singing. The civil ekklesia was totally removed from the marketplace and any personal matter was outlawed (Rom14) and the resources supplied by a higher authority.

    The qahal, synagogue or Church in the wilderness was a set-time-place in even smalll areas to Rest, Read, and Rehearse The Word of God: this would be availaible to all area elders handed down either orally or written.

    Psalms 74:8 They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.

    Synagogues (houses) existed in larger towns. Synagogue, like Ekklesia is a Greek word defining both the assembled body and the place including house,

    Jesus stood up to READ in the synagogues and so endorsed them although the side of a hill would do.

    The Campbell defined
    Church as A school of Christ
    Worship as reading and musing the Word

    The point is that you can obey the pattern in a house and we may not need a command to get in out of the snow.

    Acts 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every
    sabbath day.

    2 Corinthians 3 Paul defines READING and SPEAKING as functions of the assembly.

    A protected, utilitarian, closed space can be an AID or even necessary in a driving rain to teaching that which is written for our learning.

    In the case of Gabby Giffords, singing was an aid in learning to speak because her left speech centers were damaged. However, since the preacher will not allow a choir to aid HIS teaching we can assume that true loud music is — based on modern medicine — pretty effective in shutting down the rational (spiritual) hemisphere which prevents our making any decision about the content.

    Most of what we call “church” is pretty effective in defining the root or “music” or “mystery” which was to make the lambs dumb before the slaughter.

  17. Ken Sublett says:

    Sorry about that, HistoryGuy, but I don’t have time (or time left) to write prose. Therefore, I try to use the whole context or thought pattern, define words by showing how they were used, and quoting lots from the Greek and Latin resources. I would hope that people would use the clickable links as a hard-complied resource. If I do that then others have to go beyond the sermon outlines and the blue song book and put it into a form which will not get you fired.

    Congregational singing of non-commanded Biblical resources with lots of “doing my part” complex harmony has done a good job on “making we lambs dumb before the slaughter. It’s called Organum or “in the style of the pipe organ” and may just be a legal end run around the instrument. In the shell game, the nut is under neither shell.

  18. Doug says:

    Ken said ” You may remember that the instrumentalists exited and then attempted to confiscate the property”. Actually Ken, I don’t remember that one and since I was an “instumentalist”, you’d think that I would remember that one. Are you talking about a single congregational split that was resolved in a court of law or what. Sweeping generalizations like this don’t serve any purpose.

  19. Ken Sublett says:

    It is not judgmental to say that the Disciples/Christian Churches and what Became Churches of Christ (as Campbell left the Baptists) were never connected in any sense of the Word. After the 1932 handshake of a few preachers affirming the Campbell view of authority, Alexander joked that a handshake could unit the two diverse groups. The restoration urge was strong among many groups and based on the OKelley movement came out of the Methodists/Anglicans.

    The 1906 census had the first census taker question whether the Diaciples/Christian churches could claim ownership of churches of Christ in Tennessee.

    There was a lot of cross-polination especially in Indiana and Illinois.

    The paper written by Sommers is not judgmental in any sense other than it articulated the views of Churches of Christ immune from instruments for 2,000 years. The record of the trial gives some better insights: I knew one Sommeritse in Washington (the only Evangelist I knew) and Leroy Garrett.

    “hard to understand” may be my parsing the data so I can read long paragraphs.

  20. Doug says:

    So the generalization you made, “instrumentalists exited and then attempted to confiscate the property” was really just one congregation, the Sand Creek congregation and the court case decided which of the two rival groups of congregants had title to the Sand Creek property. That is in no way a conspiracy, Ken. Just two factions in a Congregation who both think that they own the rights to a piece of property and wound up going to court to resolve their differences. To me, the big failure of both groups was that they had to go to court to resolve the issue and in doing so, sullied the name of Christ’s Church. Incidently, I think the Judge got it right in this case but what that case means today is unclear. I supose it means if your incorporation papers clearly indicate that the Church is acapella, a Instumental faction of the Church will lose in a court case where they attempt to gain title to the property in defiance of the incorporation papers define. That’s all it means to me… no big conspiracy that I can determine.

    There were many Churches who alternately choose the name “Christian Church” or “Church of Christ” without the attached meant “Instumental” or “Acapella” at the time ( and even later) of this court case. In fact, the Church of my childhood, located in Washington County, Tennessee” was a “Church of Christ” but had both piano and organ inside of it. They only fairly recently changed their name to “Christian Church”.

  21. Charles McLean says:

    I’ve read Bro Sublett’s writings on a number of occasions, and have perused his website, and the more I read, the more I realized that there was nothing there. Now, reviving a two-year old thread to call 99% of the church “blasphemers” and to revive an ancient dispute over some property? Why?

    But speech is free, I suppose, and sometimes it’s priced about right.

  22. Doug says:

    Charles, I think you are correct. I will try to stop responding to Ken’s posts. He does have a good memory though, I couldn’t pull something 2 years old out of my memory.

  23. Ken Sublett says:

    I was responding to the ABOVE-posted blue link that Sommers caused the split in two groups which were never organically or doctrinally united before 1906: I posted that paper as well as the Supreme Court decision which must be read in connection with the Declaration.

    Where one dominant pastor forces instruments is also forced to abrogate the bylaws (My old church in Seatte) and to take over the property “bylawed” to outlaw instruments. That still happens. I am not aware of one of the 21 (out of 18,0000) who left and purchased their own property. I might be wrong about that.

    Remembering that the Spitit OF (preposition) Christ wrote through the Prophets and Jesus of Nazareth (whom the one God made to be both Lord and Christ) made the prophecies more certain;

    And the Church is built upon (educated) on the Prophets and apostles and 2 Peter 1 says that is not subject to private interpretation (further expounding) as the way to identify false teachers (2 Peter2). Nor to corrupting (selling at retail)

    If one says that God commanded something which God did not command/ And Christ in the Prophets says that God did not command sacrifices or burnt offerings; Then Christ in Jeremiah 23 calls that blasphemy. That is something THERE. Christ defined the future rest inclusively and exclusively in the PROPHETS and warned about the writings of the Scribes. I believe that is SOMETHING that one must have majored in to qualify as mediators of the Word.

  24. Ken Sublett says:

    Well, shucks, guess I will just go to the study hall!

    I keep hoping someone would give me some insight as to why people work so hard to impose instruments and performance singers — typically purposing driven for about a decade — so they can be entertained (history knows of no other conscious purpose) for an additional hour or so each week knowing that they will sow massive discord and offend up up to half of the “owners” who are invited to get over it or get out (case of J.W.McGarvehy)?

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