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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