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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Fred Thompson’s Faith: Churches of Christ 101

When James Dobson told U.S. News & World Reports’ Dan Gilgoff he didn’t think GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson was “Christian,” that sparked a have-you-seen-Fred-Thompson-at-church contest and other blogosphere debates over Thompson’s religious beliefs. Though the former Tennessee senator was baptized in the

Church of

Christ, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, at a United Church of Christ, which, confusingly enough, has no relation to the

Church of


So what is the

Church of

? Some quick facts:

  1. Number of adherents in the United States: 1.3 million (2006)
  2. Other famous members: Lawyer and former independent counsel Kenneth Starr; Christian mega-author Max Lucado, and serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer
  3. Former U.S. presidents: James A. Garfield

To find out what the Churches of Christ are all about, ReligionWriter called up Kevin Youngblood, a professor in the

School of

Biblical Studies at Freed-Hardeman University in

Henderson, Tenn.

ReligionWriter: How would you describe the Churches of Christ in one sentence?

Kevin Youngblood: Churches of Christ are a group of Christians striving to be undenominational and as biblical as possible.

RW: So it’s a denomination that is undenominational?

Youngblood: Being undenominational is an ideal we strive toward. Every congregation is self-governing and self-supporting; we have no organizational structure beyond that. We lack the governing body that denominations typically have.

RW: Are the Churches of Christ related in any way to the United Church of Christ?

Youngblood: No, there is no connection whatsoever. We have completely separate histories.

RW: Are the Churches of Christ related to any other denominations?

Youngblood: The Churches of Christ grew out of the American Restoration Movement, which was part of the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s in the

United States. Several people who were disenchanted with their home denominations tried to form a group to be non-denominational. Up until the turn of the 20th century, those groups were united. But in 1901, they split off into two and later three streams: the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ.

RW: The Tennessean reported that Fred Thompson was baptized when he was nine or 10 years old. Is that a normal time to be baptized in the

Church of


Youngblood: We subscribe to the notion of “believers baptism.” A person is not a candidate for baptism until he or she can consciously place faith in Christ and express that faith in a verbal confession, saying, “I am trusting in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for my salvation.” We want it to be an individual choice, not something imposed on a child by parents. We don’t have a set age for baptism; it could be anywhere from eight or nine on up.

RW: What kind of role do women have in the

Church of

? Can they be ordained?

Youngblood: We don’t have formal ordination of any kind. If a person is called by God to preach, that is sufficient. But we don’t believe women are called to preach to a mixed assembly of men and women. The apostle Paul tells us there are two roles women are not permitted to fulfill: one is to serve as preacher or teacher for a mixed congregation, and the other is to serve as spiritual leader over a mixed congregation. Those two roles are exclusively male in the Churches of Christ. There might be a rare congregation breaking away from that, but most Churches of Christ would hold fairly strongly to that New Testament requirement.

RW: How does the church view divorce?

Youngblood: Our church is not entirely theologically uniform; on this issue, you’ll get different views depending on who you ask. In general, however, we believe there are legitimate reasons for getting divorced and illegitimate reasons. The real question is: What kind of divorce gives you the right to remarry? If a spouse is sexually unfaithful, that is a legitimate reason for divorce, and it allows for the right to remarry.

RW: Is there a criteria for membership in the church? Or if you’re baptized in the

Church of

are you then always a member?

Youngblood: There is no criteria for membership in the Churches of Christ beyond what the New Testament itself requires, which is simply faith in Christ and the expression of that faith in baptism. Now, if one chooses to depart from the lifestyle of the New Testament, then a church may withdraw fellowship, which is a way of saying, “You have chosen a lifestyle that is not biblical, and we want to warn you to bring your life back into conformity with New Testament teachings regarding ethics and personal holiness.”

RW: Does that actually happen? Is it common for fellowship to be withdrawn?

Youngblood: It’s hard to say how common it is. Every congregation is responsible for encouraging its members to live a holy life in accordance with biblical teaching. I do know of instances where it has taken place, but it’s always done with love and gentleness. It is not intended to castigate a person; it’s just an attempt to protect the other members of the congregation from the negative influence of those who claim to be Christian but don’t live a Christian lifestyle.

RW: What about abortion and gay marriage?

Youngblood: It’s fair to characterize members of Churches of Christ as being pro-life. We would be opposed to any kind of government-sanctioned same-sex marriage. Most ministers would refuse to conduct a marriage of that kind.

RW: What about having a gay person in the congregation?

Youngblood: It would depend by what you mean by having a “gay person.” We have people within the Churches of Christ who struggle with homosexuality, but the key word there is “struggling.” They are attempting to avoid living an actively homosexual lifestyle, since that would be an illicit form of sexual behavior according to both the Old and New Testaments. We are supportive of people who struggle with it. A person who wants to be actively involved in a homosexual lifestyle, in most churches of Christ, would be dis-fellowshipped, as we call it.

RW: Is it fair to describe members of the Churches of Christ as “evangelicals?”

Youngblood: I would be hesitant to embrace the label “evangelical” hook, line and sinker. We agree with evangelicals that the Bible is the inspired word of God, without error; in that sense we resemble evangelicals a great deal. But typically evangelicals don’t believe baptism is the point at which a person receives the forgiveness of sins and becomes a Christian and we do. In that point, we differ from evangelicals.

RW: Anything else you’d like people to know about the Churches of Christ?

Youngblood: Frequently in the media, the Churches of Christ are portrayed as a cult. That’s not even possible, given our non-hierarchical structure. In fact, I would say Churches of Christ are the furthest thing from a cult because we have an organizational structure that specially discourages a cult-like following. Our structure helps us avoid having dominant personalities in center stage.

There Are 14 Responses So Far. »

  1. Fred Thompson’s Faith: Churches of Christ 101…

  2. Dear ReligionWriter,
    I don’t mean to disparage the good professor from Freed-Hardeman University, but I would recommend casting your net a little further. FHU has traditionally been part of the conservative (some would say ultra-conservative) side of our little fellowship of churches, and you might get a clearer picture of our beliefs and practices by searching out religion faculty at Abilene Christian University (one of the more progressive schools in our fellowship), or even Pepperdine University in Malibu. I’m confident they could provide more insight about our history, and our beliefs and practices that would give a more well-rounded perspective.

    Thank you,

  3. Dear Kendall-Ball,

    Thanks very much for your insightful comment. You’re exactly right. I was interested in Freed-Hardeman because Thompson spoke at the school in 1997, and there is a scholarship in his mother’s name there, so he seems to have some particular ties. I picked a more conservative person for the interview in part because Mark Elrod’s blog posting was already so prominent. In any case, your point is well taken, and I look forward to speaking with others about the Churches of Christ.


  4. Deer Ms. Andrea,

    If you would like to do some more research on churches of Christ you may check out gospelgazette online or Christian Courier, Also, a book is online called Introducing churches of Christ, on the TheBiblenet. Hope you have had a good day!……………………….Jamie Suiter

  5. Uh, excuse me, but yes Greg, you did mean to disparage the good professor. I personally know Kevin Youngblood. The interviewer could not have picked anyone any better to interview regarding this than Kevin. GKB is making assumptions about Kevin whom he knows absolutely nothing about and is basing his comments on a limited, stereotypical knowledge of FHU. Kevin is a first-rate scholar, period. He is currently working on translation projects in conjunction with Oxford University. I can guarantee you that either of those other schools he mentions would be delighted to have someone on their faculties of Kevin’s academic pedigree and intellect. It is unfortunate that Greg did not bother to check on his facts before he made such an arrogant and ignorant post.

  6. Dear JGS,
    I recommend you re-read my comment. I’m sure the good professor himself would find nothing personally offensive in there.

    I merely mentioned what is a verifiable historical fact: Freed-Hardeman University has historically been aligned with the more conservative wing of the Churches of Christ. As the son of a graduate, I would know.

    And, no matter the intellectual or academic pedigree of a particular faculty member, the history of the institution is what is in question.

  7. Dearest GKB,

    The history of no institution was in question in regard to whether Youngblood was a good choice to interview on the topic at hand. Therefore, you are throwing up a red herring on that point. You said that someone from ACU or Pepperdine could provide “more insight” and a “more well-rounded perspective.” That is bogus and, as I said before, is not based upon anything you know about Kevin Youngblood because it is obvious you do not know one thing about him. If you did, you would not have said what you said. Your post implied Youngblood was not a good choice because he taught at Freed-Hardeman. I seriously doubt you would have suggested she interview anyone from FHU or Faulkner in order to cast her net a bit wider had she first interviewed someone from ACU or Pepperdine. Your post was elitist and arrogant toward the institution and written in ignorance with regard to Youngblood.

  8. you mention Jeffrey Dahmer as being a member of the church of Christ. this is a little prejudicial to the casual reader. Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized after he was in prison. it is not unusual for prisoners to study the bible and to seek to put their religious life in order. i’m sure most religious people would assist a prisoner in his/her attempt to obey the bible’s teachings.

  9. As a former Church of Christ member and someone who was raised in the church I felt that there was just a few points which needed to be brought forward, especially considering the little “debate” between GKB and JGS.

    First, since I grew up in Tennesse and attended several churches both in Tennessee and KY, I can testify to the fact that the statements made by Mr. Youngblood in your interview are accurate statements, and that his answers convey a fairly reasonable portrait of what the Church of Christ is like, at least in Tennessee.

    Second, it should be noted that, since, as Mr. Youngblood points out, the Church of Christ has no central authority but rather is governed by the Deacons and Elders of the individual congregations, there are often inconsistancies in what is taught within the Church, and what ‘dogma’ shows up. Beliefs vary from congregation to congregation, and since (again, as Mr. Youngblood points out) anyone who is called to preach may do so without specific restrictions on training, it is as easily possible for a congregation’s dogma to be set by a minister and group of elders who are poorly educated as it is for it to have a well educted minister and council.

    Because of this beliefs can vary broadly, although I’ve never attended a church which wasn’t on the “conservative” and of the spectrum. GKB & JGS demonstrate a strong part of the tradition - debate… and members are expected to learn their bible and to be able to debate it effectively, but the scholastic level of interpretation can very broadly. I’ve attended congregations in the country (where my family, who were tobacco farmers, is based) where the average educational level was around 8th grade - and thus they were lucky if the minister had even a high school education. I’ve also atttended churches where the ministers attended prestigious CoC universities.

    So as far as I can see, your interviewee was accurate, but GKB’s statement is also valid - because of the “undenominational” nature of the Church of Christ, to get a fair view of the Church one must keep in mind that interpretations vary broadly, and one must indeed “cast the net wide”. Mr. Youngblood may indeed be an exceptional scholar - I have no reason to doubt that what JGS says about him is true and I find no errors in his interview - however no one, no matter what his scholastic background, has the “authority” to speak with a broad brush about the Church of Christ, as the Church of Christ has no Pope and no authority beyond the congregational level.

    Cat Deville

  10. Dear List,

    I’ve read through Kevin Youngblood and have formulated this response: Please visit the following articles of which I’m a member and also webmaster.


    Perhaps those articles written by Dr. David L. Lane will clarify the Churches of Christ. He is one of 5 persons in the world entitled as “Clinical-Theologist”.

  11. Dear RW and KGB,

    I believe the main concern here is the two opposing views of the church of Christ (traditional vs. progressive). It seems logical that the conservative view which strives to adhere more closely to the church of the Bible should be considered the “clearer picture” as opposed to the progressive view which apparently is moving away from it. Just remember, the newer generation wants to make changes in church to make it more appealing, but eventually the new songs become old ones; thus, this is not the solution. No church is perfect.

    David Cruz

  12. I am a minister of the Gospel,a former missionary,and 6th generation
    member of the churches of Christ. I was educated in three separate colleges and universities supported by churches of Christ (FHU was not one of them), I preach for the church of Christ in Gatlinburg, TN and serve as an adjunct instructor at the East Tennessee School of Preaching in Knoxville. I was baptized in 1953 and have preached in 25 states and 18 nations. I began preaching in 1960. I feel I have a fairly extensive acquaintance with churches of Christ. As such, I assure you that Kevin Youngblood correctly represented the views of the churches of Christ overall. There are some deviations from the mainstream including a more liberal wing which would like to see the church restructured into a denomination. Some of your correspondents betrayed that mindset. My understanding is that Fred Thompson no longer attends the church of Christ except when he is visiting his elderly mother in Nashville, TN.

  13. I was raised Catholic and converted and was baptized in a church of Christ. Since my conversion I’ve always considered myself to be non-denominational. Although I’ve primarily attended churches of Christ I’ve been known to be at Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God churches as well. Kevin Youngblood’s statements are generally accurate regarding publicly stated and accepted church of Christ doctrine. Having said that and personally knowing a number involved with ministry I can tell you there are Gay and Gay-friendly church of Christ ministers out there…and yes I’m talking about the “Stone-Campbell” churches of Christ. Although their general Memberships and Elderships have no knowledge of the sympathies these ministers have toward same-sex orientations.

    One case I’m aware of the minister sends out an email notification to Gay and Lesbian members when the Elders demand he preach down same-sex lifestyles so they can miss out that week. Others have performed same-sex marriages and commitments off church property, etc.

    Churches of Christ do like to pretend they are nondenominational and independent and mostly this does seem to be the case. However, my observations suggest there is at least subtle Catholic and Vatican influence within larger churches of Christ. I’m aware of Church directors and Elders with degrees from Jesuit colleges who married Catholics. Further it seems the long standing doctrine of adult baptism within churches of Christ is being slowly changed in to an infant baptism. The “adults” have been getting younger every year, and now there is a new tradition of “Baby Dedications”. I expect these trends to eventually cross and be replaced with infant baptism. Most members are ignorantly blissful not realizing where these slow changes are taking them.

    I no longer attend any church, there are a lot people I appreciate within churches of Christ, and a few I could have done without.


  14. I stumbled upon this rather late, so I write this for future stumblers. I found the discourse rather humorous. I studied under Kevin Youngblood, and even though he taught at FHU, which is a conservative school, he is not your cookie-cutter conservative. In fact, FHU recently let him go, largely in part to his comparatively progressive beliefs. He would actually be right at home in Abilene, and he has even spoken on their lectureship, something that cannot be said of any other FHU faculty member. Most Bible faculty at Freed would have a deep conservative bias, but Dr. Youngblood does not. Not only were his remarks adequate and accurate, but his doctrinal position is far from what has been alleged. I just thought that was worth noting.

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