What is the United Church of Christ? - History and Beliefs

Christianity.com Editorial Staff
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The United Church of Christ is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination based in the United States, with historical and doctrinal origins in the Congregational, Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist traditions.

The UCC maintains an association with other mainline Protestant denominations. Learn more about this denomination's history, beliefs, characteristics, and membership.

History of the United Church of Christ

History of the United Church of Christ

The United Church of Christ was established in 1957 with the merging of two Protestant denominations: the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. Each of these was the result of joining two previous traditions. Historically, the United Church of Christ is a succession of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches established under the leadership of New England Puritanism.

The Congregational Churches were formed when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation (1620) and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629) recognized their official consolidation in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. The Reformed Church in the United States drew its origins to gatherings of German settlers in Pennsylvania founded in 1725. Succeeding, its churches were grown by Reformed immigrants from Switzerland, Hungary, and other countries.

The Christian Churches sprang up in the late 1700s and early 1800s in reaction to the theological and organizational rigidity of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches of the time.

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Features of the United Church of Christ

According to occ.org, the features of the United Church of Christ can be compiled in part by the terms that formed their union: Christian, Reformed, Congregational, Evangelical.

Christian. By our very name, the United Church of Christ, we declare ourselves to be part of the Body of Christ—the Christian church. We continue the witness of the early disciples to the reality and power of the crucified and risen Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

Reformed. All four denominations arose from the tradition of the Protestant Reformers: We confess the authority of one God. We affirm the primacy of the Scriptures, the doctrine of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the principle of Christian freedom. We celebrate two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Holy Communion or the Eucharist).

Congregational. The basic unit of the United Church of Christ is the congregation. Members of each congregation covenant with one another and with God as revealed in Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. These congregations, in turn, exist in covenantal relationships with one another to form larger structures for more effective work. Our covenanting emphasizes trustful relationships rather than legal agreements.

Evangelical. The primary task of the church is the proclamation of the Gospel or (in Greek) evangel. The Gospel literally means the “Good News” of God’s love revealed with power in Jesus Christ. We proclaim this Gospel by word and deed to individual persons and to society. This proclamation is the heart of the liturgy—in Greek, the “work of the people” in daily and Sunday worship. We gather for the worship of God, and through each week, we engage in the service of humankind.

Beliefs of the United Church of Christ

Beliefs of the United Church of Christ

The motto of the United Church of Christ is "That they may all be one" inspired by John 17:21. UCC states that this slogan "reflects the spirit of unity on which it is based and points toward future efforts to heal the divisions in the body of Christ. We are a uniting church as well as a united church."

As a national body, the United Church of Christ officially subscribes to the theology of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Small Catechism, the Kansas City Statement of Faith, the Evangelical Catechism, and the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ. 

Yet, the UCC’s constitution says that the “autonomy of the Local Church is inherent and modifiable only by its own action,” signifying that each local congregation decides its own faith and practice. The effect is a theologically liberal inclination. The United Church of Christ represents itself as “an extremely pluralistic and diverse denomination,” and the denomination is regarded as a leader in the social gospel movement.

The following beliefs are presented by the UCC, saying:

All members of the United Church of Christ are called to minister to others and to participate as equals in the common worship of God, each with direct access to the mercies of God through personal prayer and devotion.

Recognition is given to those among us who have received special training in pastoral, priestly, educational, and administrative functions, but these persons are regarded as servants—rather than as persons in authority. Their task is to guide, to instruct, to enable the ministry of all Christians rather than to do the work of ministry for us.

As individual members of the Body of Christ, we are free to believe and act in accordance with our perception of God’s will for our lives. But we are called to live in a loving, covenantal relationship with one another—gathering in communities of faith, congregations of believers, local churches.

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Fellowship of the United Church of Christ

At the time of its formation, the UCC had over 2 million members in nearly 7,000 churches. The denomination has suffered a 44 percent loss in membership since the mid-1960s. By 1980, membership was at about 1.7 million and by the turn of the century had dropped to 1.3 million. In 2006, the UCC had roughly 1.2 million members in 5,452 churches. 

According to its 2008 annual report, the United Church of Christ had about 1.1 million members in about 5,300 local congregations. However, the 2010 annual report showed a decline of 31,000 members and a loss of 33 congregations since then. 

The decline in the number of congregations continued through 2011, as the 2011 Annual Report shows 5,100 member churches. As of the 2014 Annual Yearbook of the UCC, membership is listed as 979,239 members in 5,154 local churches. According to the 2020 report for 2019 statistics, the membership has declined to 802,256 members in 4,852 congregations.

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Famous Members of the United Church of Christ

These are notable people known to have been past or present members or raised in the United Church of Christ or its forerunner denominations.

  • Amy Klobuchar - U.S. Senator from Minnesota (Democrat)
  • Barack Obama - 44th president of the United States of America
  • William H. Rehnquist – Chief Justice of the United States
  • Jackie Robinson – Major League Baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers
  • Meredith Willson – popular composer of "The Music Man"
  • Andrew Young – Civil rights leader, ordained UCC pastor, and former member of Congress

Sources:
The National Council of Churches
The United Church of Christ - UCC.org
United Church of Christ - Wikipedia

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Originally published April 14, 2021.