UCC's founding built on church unity, not doctrinal purity

UCC's founding built on church unity, not doctrinal purity

May 31, 2004
Written by Staff Reports
Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

The history of the Christian church is the story of hundreds of "denominations." Sometimes church divisions reflect theological disagreements about doctrine and liturgical practice. Sometimes they are caused by cultural, racial or ethical differences. Sometimes they come into being to add something new or recover a "lost" idea or practice.

The formation of the UCC in 1957 grew out of the early 20th-century belief that the proliferation of Christian denominations had gone far enough. Not only were so many Christian churches confusing and embarrassing, but they embodied a theological flaw. Christ prayed that the church might be "one" (John 17:21). Therefore, responsible Christians needed to reclaim the unity of the church.

Louis Gunnemann (1910-1989), a long-time historian of the UCC, documented this effort. He wrote that the founders of the UCC believed that that church union was "Christ's will." Out of that conviction they subordinated "doctrinal differences to the goal of Christian unity." In fact, Gunnemann argued, the UCC neglected and even avoided formal theological or ecclesiological questions about its identity as a church for many years. Furthermore, in its commitment to unity the UCC embraced social activism without taking adequate "time and energy for sustained theological reflection," he wrote.

Gunnemann was probably right. Yet, at the time, the willingness of the UCC to downplay doctrinal concerns for the sake of Christian unity was applauded. Its open approach to union was seen as a turning point in United States Protestantism and in the ecumenical movement.

Later, however, the failure of the UCC to develop its theological self-understanding generated criticism. Observers inside and outside the UCC began to say that the UCC had a dangerous "ecclesiological deficit."

People still joke about the lack of theological substance in the UCC. However, such judgments are out of date. By the early 1980s, the theological vitality of the UCC expanded dramatically. Theological questions were engaged, and diverse insights developed in statements and by groups concerned about sound teaching, human sexuality, biblical witness, theological ferment, ecumenical partnership, just peace, racism, sexism, confessing Christ, and justice action. The list could go on. The deficit was paid in full.

Furthermore, in 1985 the seminaries of the UCC began publishing "Prism: A Theological Forum for the United Church of Christ." This journal, produced twice a year, provides deeper guidance into the theological mind of the UCC. The UCC is not of one mind, yet it remains steadfast in its commitment to the "oneness" of the church of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a church historian, was a teenager involved in Pilgrim Fellowship at Mayflower Congregational Church in Detroit, Mich., when the UCC was formed in 1957.

Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ. Currently, she is a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board. She teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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