The Early Church

Excerpted from “A History of the United Church of Christ” by Margaret Rowland Post

All Christians are related in faith to Judaism and are faith descendants of the first apostles of Jesus who roamed the world with the good news of God’s love. Within five centuries, Christianity dominated the Roman Empire. Until A.D. 1054 when the church split, it remained essentially one. At that point, the Eastern Orthodox Church established its center at Constantinople (Istanbul), the Roman Catholic Church at Rome.

During the 16th century, when Christians found the church corrupt and hopelessly involved in economic and political interests, leaders arose to bring about reform from within. The unintended by-product of their efforts at reform was schism in the Roman Church. Their differences over the authority and practices of Rome became irreconcilable.

Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin held that the Bible, not the Pope, was sufficient authority as the word of God. Paramount was the message of Paul that persons are justified by the grace of God through faith alone. Such faith did not lead to rank individualism or moral indifference, but to good works out of love for God.

Protestantism spread throughout Europe. Lutheran churches were planted in Germany and throughout Scandinavia; the Reformed churches, originating in Switzerland, spread into Germany, France, Transylvania, Hungary, Holland, England, and Scotland. The United Church of Christ traces its roots back to those movements to proclaim the good news based on biblical truths led by the Spirit of God. It presently binds in covenant nearly 6,500 congregations with approximately 1,800,000 members. One of the youngest American denominations, its background also makes it one of the oldest in Protestantism.

The United Church of Christ, a united and uniting church, was born on June 25, 1957 out of a combination of four groups. Two of these were the Congregational Churches of the English Reformation with Puritan New England roots in America, and the Christian Church with American frontier beginnings. These two denominations were concerned for freedom of religious expression and local autonomy and united on June 17, 1931 to become the Congregational Christian Churches.

The other two denominations were the Evangelical Synod of North America, a 19th-century German-American church of the frontier Mississippi Valley, and the Reformed Church in the United States, initially composed of early 18th-century churches in Pennsylvania and neighboring colonies, unified in a Coetus in 1793 to become a Synod. The parent churches were of German and Swiss heritage, conscientious carriers of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions of the Reformation, and united to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church on June 26, 1934.

The Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches shared a strong commitment under Christ to the freedom of religious expression. They combined strong European ties, early colonial roots, and the vitality of the American frontier church. Their union forced accommodation between congregational and presbyterial forms of church government. Both denominations found their authority in the Bible and were more concerned with what unites Christians than with what divides them. In their marriage, a church that valued the free congregational tradition was strengthened by one that remained faithful to the liturgical tradition of Reformed church worship and to catechetical teaching. A tradition that maintained important aspects of European Protestantism was broadened by one that, in mutual covenant with Christ, embraced diversity and freedom.