In churches of Christ we are heirs to the mantle of the Restoration Movement, an attempt to overcome the divisions of denominationalism by returning to the pure apostolic doctrines of Christ as revealed in the New Testament. For generations many have attempted to “speak where the Bible speaks” and be “silent where the Bible is silent,” to “call Bible things by Bible names,” and “do Bible things in Bible ways,” and to maintain “no creed but Christ.” Such people have desired to be “Christians only,” recognizing that the church which belongs to the Lord Jesus is not to be denominated by the names, parties, and traditions of men (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
As a result, many have attempted to compel such people to fit into a denominational paradigm, placing churches of Christ within the ideologies of the early nineteenth century, and not a communion with the Christians of the first century. To do so is to miss the point of the restoration impulse, an impulse now also powerfully felt within Evangelicalism as many seek to shed their denominational infrastructures and just “go by what the Bible teaches” to some degree or another. Nevertheless, on account of this association, many members of churches of Christ prove willing to downplay their heritage lest they be seen as just another movement or just another denomination. While this concern is understandable, we do well to understand who we are and from where we have come, and we cannot do that without investigating the Restoration Movement.
I agree strongly with the core mission of the Restoration Movement. It is my strong belief that the Scriptures reveal God’s intentions for His church through what is presented in the New Testament, mostly in the series of letters written to first century churches of the Mediterranean world. It is my belief that we should strive, as much as possible, to emulate what God desired from Christians in that era, since God’s expectations for His servants will not change. The difficulty, of course, is that we are now twenty centuries separated from those events. Traditions have developed over those twenty centuries that have obscured much of what God desired for His church. Some of these traditions prove benign or perhaps even beneficial; many others, however, have led people astray from God’s purposes as revealed in Christ. Thus, there is a need for restoration; there is a need to call people back to what the Scriptures teach, to get away from the denominational paradigm of modern Christendom, and to restore God’s purposes for the church revealed in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11).
The Restoration Movement is also called the Stone-Campbell Movement on account of the strong influence of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell upon the search for the ancient order. Despite the views of many in Christendom few among us would canonize Campbell and Stone: they were not inspired, nor were they “prophets” in the purest sense of the term. We can (and should) appreciate their recognition of the need to restore New Testament practice, and their efforts in terms of baptism and the Lord’s Supper especially toward that end. Nevertheless, neither Stone nor Campbell fully distanced their association from all the traditions piled up before and current then: instrumental music was maintained and missionary societies were promoted with great fervency. The ecumenical trend in the desires of Stone and Campbell are illustrated in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)’s full participation in the ecumenical movement. The Stone/Campbell brand of ecumenism is worthy of praise: all Christians united by obedience to God according to His word. The modern ecumenical movement does not share the same values: they seek the pretense of unity without the substance thereof.
Yet, within many corners of the Restoration Movement today, it would seem as if many would imagine that the task is a fait accompli: it is believed that the job has been finished. As long as a group of Christians uphold “the distinctives,” they have accomplished the work of restoring the New Testament church. Such people would not canonize Campbell and Stone, but they seem to have canonized the “standard church positions” of our own day.
Can restoration truly be a fixed event? Can we ever say that we have fully restored the “New Testament church”? Or is there always more work to do toward that end? It is a difficult question, and one we may not want to face. After all, it is easier to continue to believe that we have a complete handle on the revelation of God, and understand all things within that revelation through the perspective we have developed. It is easier to pat ourselves on the back, say that “we have done it,” and seek to maintain what we believe we have accomplished.
While the truth is always uncomfortable, we gain nothing if we avoid it. If we are truly “doers” of the word, and not hearers only, then we will continue to see our deficiencies (cf. James 1:22-25). And the truth of the matter is that we are constantly in the work of reformation and restoration.
Can anyone uphold what the Bible teaches about sanctification and deny the need for continual reformation and restoration in one’s personal walk with God in Christ? Peter commands the Christian to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18); such is a present imperative in Greek, a continual and progressive command. Paul commanded the Thessalonian Christians to abound more and more in how they walk and please God and love one another even though he commended them for doing so (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9); “to abound” is again in the present tense, continual and progressive in aspect. Our journey in faith is compared to a race to the finish (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2), an upward progression (Philippians 3:14), and a journey to a narrow gate through a difficult path (Matthew 7:13-14); these illustrations speak to a continual process that ends only when we obtain the resurrection. Thus we must constantly reform ourselves according to the standard of God in Christ; we must constantly strive to restore God’s truth and turn way from Satanic lies and deceptions. In this process we may mature but we never “arrive”; we can always grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18).
If such is true about each individual Christian, is it no less true of the whole Body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28)? Many congregations struggle with fostering the tight-knit, accountable, yet welcoming and hospitable community which were to mark the churches of the New Testament (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 4:7-11). Even where there is doctrinal unity, how many congregations can look at Philippians 2:1-4 and honestly say that such is a good description of how the members work with each other? In these respects there is no doubt that the work of restoration is not done and never will be: there will always be more opportunities for the Body to edify and encourage itself, to strengthen the community, to appeal to God in Christ, etc.
The challenge is acute in doctrinal terms as well. As each generation arises and must develop its own faith (cf. Romans 1:17), each generation must revisit “the distinctives.” Even though we tend to emphasize “the distinctives,” at least in pretense, many do not understand the cost paid to uphold certain principles of faith as true. The hard-won affirmations of truth of one generation may seem inconsequential to the next. If nothing else, communicating the restoration impulse and instructing in why we believe what we believe according to the Scriptures is a continual process. Even if we could maintain confidence that each successive generation could fully understand and embrace “the distinctives,” we would still need to maintain the goal of restoration in our endeavor to stand firm against new assaults on the truth of God in Christ, formulating Biblically based and rooted answers to questions and challenges which could not have even been imagined in previous generations.
We have developed an understanding of history that should be instructive for us. We believe that God established His purposes for the church in the New Testament. We recognize that no local congregation has ever perfectly reflected what God intended for His church; even churches like those in Philippi and Thessalonica had room for improvement. Nevertheless, churches in the New Testament were united in Christ and maintained a consistent doctrine which proved as true in Rome as in Jerusalem, in Corinth as well as Antioch, and were to hand those teachings down to future generations (1 Corinthians 4:17, 2 Timothy 2:2). Yet soon after the apostolic period Christians ever so subtly, and then very clearly, departed from the pattern of doctrine established in the New Testament. The development of the Roman Catholic Church over the first millennium is seen as the greatest point of divergence from the teachings of the New Testament. Ever since, we believe, there have been impulses to get away from such traditionalism and excess and return to the teachings of the New Testament. We can commend the Lollards, the Hussites, and the Reformers, even if we believe they did not go far enough in their “reformation.” If nothing else, they paved the way so that the work of restoration could continue apace in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Furthermore, we believe that in some respects the work of restoration needed to go beyond Campbell and Stone who believed and taught things about church practices and eschatology which we believe today were influenced by denominations and not consistent with the New Testament.
In all of this we recognize that good was done but more was necessary. How, then, can we be so sure that as of right now, all has been done, and more is not necessary? History is littered with stories of people who were convinced that nothing more was necessary, nothing more needed to be invented, all had been done, and were proven very wrong. And so it is with the work of restoration even in terms of doctrine.
Is it possible that many of our teachings still have denominational influence that ought to be purged? Much of what passes regarding discussions of “worship” prove little different from what is said in denominational sources and is rooted in imposing Old Testament physical shadows on New Testament spiritual realities. In such matters it cannot be honestly said that many are using “Bible names” for “Bible things”; the terms are not used that way in the New Testament. In a similar way many views of the afterlife have again fallen prey to the Gnostic temptation of envisioning eternity as disembodied bliss and an implicit rejection, to some degree or another, of the Bible’s teaching regarding the resurrection. Many find the idea of a presently risen and embodied Lord Jesus, the consistent teaching of the New Testament, as somehow “denominational,” when in fact a disembodied view of Jesus is exactly what the Apostles condemned (1 Corinthians 9:1, 1 John 4:1-4). In such ways the views of many are more influenced by the leaven of popular hymns written by Evangelicals than by what is actually revealed in Scripture by God in Christ.
Is it possible that, having left denominational error, some have been tempted to return to it, and “restore” such error to the Lord’s people in the process? We are aware of such “regression” in terms of the use of instruments and the use of the Lord’s treasury beyond what He has explicitly authorized. But are we willing to see it in terms of political participation and the implicit embrace of ecumenism inherent in the expectation that the United States should be a “Christian nation” to some degree or another? Disciples of Christ at the end of the nineteenth century put much effort into the cause of Prohibition and strongly allied with Protestant denominations to the same end, and by the twentieth century they drank the full dregs of ecumenism. Should that not be an instructive lesson for us?
Is it possible that we need to go further in our work of restoration of certain doctrines? We have recognized the errors of “original sin” and “total depravity,” yet our theology of the relationship of children, especially the children of the saints, with God and His people proves deficient. The Restoration Movement was born as a revival movement, yet now has existed for many generations; what aspects of revivalism can assist us in promoting the Gospel and encouraging the saints, and what elements of revivalism prove counterproductive toward those ends?
No doubt other examples or issues could be adduced. Christianity has been around for almost two thousand years; traditions have inevitably developed. One generation is able to perceive the challenges in some traditions, and it is left to another to examine other traditions. We therefore have no basis or right to believe that we can rest on our laurels because we have finished the work of restoration; that work is not done. That work will never be fully accomplished. We must continue to aspire to restore the New Testament church, to prove willing to critically examine doctrines and practices, to learn from those who have come before us and chart a way forward for future generations. May we all continue to seek to reform ourselves to conform to the image of Christ, and in all things attempt to continue to learn of God in Christ to better reflect His purposes to His glory!
Ethan R. Longhenry