Churches of Christ have understood that their mission is to restore the New Testament Church in the twenty-first century. After all, Churches of Christ are part of the Restoration Movement. However, restorationism as a historical project is, at best, selective.
Because we sought to restore the forms and practices of the early church, we have been especially concerned about the Christian assembly and what we do on the first day of the week. These are valid concerns. However, if it remains our only concern, we miss the needed restoration of Christian living in our times. Even so, we should not apologize for even the provisional and incomplete nature of our mission as any project of restoring the New Testament church is necessarily and always selective and provisional based on our current understanding of the will of God.
Our concern to restore New Testament church life gives us a decided strength against the backdrop of modern evangelicalism. For instance, evangelicalism has only recently given focused attention to the nature of the church while we have given sustained attention to the nature of the church for the last two hundred years. From the beginning of the restoration movement, our earliest leaders, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, in the United States, and James Black and Joseph Ash, in Canada, were deeply committed to restoring the New Testament church in present times. For them, to restore church practices was the means towards recapturing the apostolic church in its pristine first-century glory. To be sure, the restoration of church practices fit into a much larger program: a restored church would lead to a united church that would lead to the winning of the world for Christ before his return.
In the 1820s, Campbell ran a significant series of articles in his Christian Baptist journal entitled, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” where he set forth a program for such a restoration. Most of the articles deal with the restoration of church forms and practices. Only in one article did he take up the restoration of the spirit, or disposition, of the early church. Through this series, Campbell makes the “restoration of the ancient order of things” the mission statement for the fledgling Disciples movement and over time, this slogan became the raison d’être for the Churches of Christ.
However, “restoration” did not belong exclusively to the North America Restoration Movement (called the Stone-Campbell Movement by some scholars to distinguish from other restorationist attempts). It was an essential plank in Protestantism, in general. Church historians have traced the call for restitution (restitutio) in such forerunners of the Reformation as Hus and Wycliffe. Later Luther and his colleague Melancthon made restorationist appeals in their stand against Roman Catholic corruptions. Additionally, restorationist tendencies have been found in the reformatory programs of the Swiss Re-formers, John Calvin, in Geneva, and Ulrich Zwingli, in Zürich. Zwingli, interestingly, promoted a kind of restorationism similar to what Churches of Christ would later promote in North America.
The hope that the New Testament church would be restored fired the imagination of several radical reformers who did not think the magisterial reformers (such as, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox) were thoroughgoing enough. These Anabaptists (as they supported rebaptism for those baptized as infants) sought to restore such elements as congregational autonomy, elder-rule, separation of church and state, and church discipline.
The Puritans, reacting to the Anglican and Reformed churches, attempted a more rigorous type of restorationism. They sought to embody a restitution of the Old and New Testament in their formation of government in the New World. For them, the Old Testament was equal to, if not more important than the New, as precedence for political protocol. This legacy still informs the civic religion of the United States that blends patriotism and evangelical Christianity.
Sadly much of the fragmentation of Protestantism in North America has been done in the name of some form of restorationism. Even the most heretical religious leaders sometimes claimed a restorationist platform. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, preached and envisioned a restoration of the church that included apostolic power. One twist in Stone-Campbell history was when Sidney Rigdon led his Disciples congregation en masse into the Mormon Church because Rigdon believed Smith offered a more convincing vision of the restored church. Again, rather uncomfortably Rigdon’s association with the Disciples of Christ is partly responsible for the full name of the Mormon Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Though, for Campbell, the restoration of the true church did not require the restoration of apostolic power, since he, like many of his heirs today, believed that the apostolic periods and the miracles belonged exclusively to the first century. Not everyone in the Stone-Campbell movement, then or now, agreed with Campbell on the cessation of miracles. For example, William Kinkade, an early associate of Barton W. Stone, passionately disagreed with Campbell on the issue of apostolic power and miracles. In his Bible Doctrine (1829), Kinkade responded to Campbell in chapter playfully entitled, “The Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” As to be expected, he actually defends the continuation of the miraculous with the same logic Campbell had used to disprove their continuation. From the beginning of the Restoration Movement, people have had competing visions as to what restoration actually entails.
Others like John Wesley, deeply influenced by this reading of post-apostolic church leaders, longed for the restitution of the spirituality of the early church in their day. Before Wesley started the Methodist church in the United States, he sought to recapture the spiritual intensity of the early Christians through his holy clubs, something akin to our small groups today.
When spiritual lethargy overtook Methodism, the Holiness movement grew out of it in the nineteenth century. The Holiness movement wanted to restore the church’s spiritual and moral life. But it too gradually grew cold and lifeless and so the modern Pentecostal movement, in its place, sought to recover apostolic experience of healing and speaking in tongues. These believers sought to recover the experience of the New Testament church. More recent charismatic movements, and such new churches as the Vineyard, are still seeking what they believed was lost in the fallen church(es) of Christendom.
So as we look into the history of Protestantism we see that many different people and groups have tried to capture something of the meaning of “restoration.” What we learn from history is that no one does it right and each group tends to choose its own self-chosen identity markers. What also seems to be true is that cycles of excitement are replaced with times of dryness to be then sparked again as people catch the dream of restoring the New Testament Church afresh.
However, we, the Churches of Christ, do differ from other groups in a significant way. Restoration was not one of our themes, it is our theme. Restorationism shapes the core of our being. Yet, the unpleasant and unwanted byproducts of our attempts at restorationism have been pride and prejudice, division and separation. A real danger of any project of restoration is that restorationists can come to believe that their way is the only way to restore the true church and that no one can do it better. Worse yet some will even come to believe that their efforts at purifying the church have re-established the True Church of the New Testament in its pristine glory. Perhaps, to guard against this, we should embark on a restoration of the humility of Christ—I don’t know of a group yet that has taken that up as their platform.
Essentially, as shown in this brief historical sketch, there are three major kinds of restitution or restoration: ethical, experiential, or ecclesiological. There may be other ways to categorize these, but in the main, any attempt to restore the church will fit one of these broad types. No group to date —including us, the Churches of Christ—has been able to concentrate on all three at once, but have tended to focus on one of these to the exclusions of the others.
An ethical restorationist would seek to restore the Christian life to what we believe the New Testament requires. Because of our sometimes-myopic attention to what we do in the assembly, we have not always stressed that correct church practices must be coupled with the highest ethical standards rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament plainly gives substantial attention to this area of our existence and common life. The direct result of our baptism is that we live new lives. Our reception of the Holy Spirit causes us to produce the fruit of the Spirit. Living more ethically may well be the most important kind of restoration we could undertake today.
Experiential restoration implies there is a need to recapture the experience and power of the early church. While this can be taken to an extreme, there is a need to recapture the kind of spiritual authority the apostles had. This is not to supplant their unique role, but to walk in the same spirit of boldness they had. People in our churches long to experience the power of the gospel but do not really expect to find it at our assemblies. This accounts for a great deal of the apathy church leaders face every week. We have people leaving us every year in search of the power of God they cannot seem to find among us. If we have the same Spirit as the early church, why do we walk so weakly and deal with difficult situations so timidly? Why can we not successfully discipline wayward members?
Of course, restoring every church practice to its pristine New Testament quality would not guarantee that people’s hearts would be more devoted to God. More would still be required than the simple restoration of the forms and practices of the early church. I believe we have come to a time when our guiding principles (more assumed than articulated in most places) need some reassessment and our project of restoring the New Testament church is in need of some serious course adjustments. Someone called insanity doing the same things over and over yet expecting different results.
Is there still a role for restoration of church practices and forms—the kind we have tried to practice for the past two hundred years? I believe so, but this venture is going to need a much broader base than it has been. The mere restoration of church practices is empty if unaccompanied by ethical and experiential restoration.
We have built a house that many now find empty, lifeless, even soulless. There are signs that the foundation of our house is cracking and attempts to shore up that foundation only seem to amplify the problems. Why do we think we can somehow build a superstructure and so impress God by the soundness of our work? The focus on restoring church practices has produced exclusion and endless wrangling among our churches. Jesus died for a more significant reason than for us to get all of our practices right. The prophets give testimony that correct practices without the right spirit and experience of God is empty and something God does not want. The prophetic voice still resounds, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”