Churches of Christ have their origins in what is commonly referred to as the “Restoration Movement” of the 1800’s. The movement’s name comes from its goal of “restoring New Testament christianity” or “restoring the New Testament church”. The early pioneers were reacting to the excesses the witnessed in existing denominations. Their solution was to begin anew by returning to Scripture and following the pattern they found there, rejecting subsequent human innovations.
As I have been teaching a class on the history of the Restoration Movement it occurs to me that the goal of “restoring the NT church” is equivalent to chasing the wind. The stated goal implies that at some point in time a pure, perfect, original church existed and that over time it was corrupted. However, I’m not sure which church this would be?
The first church in Jerusalem was overseen by apostles, not elders and deacons. It met in the temple every day; not something we can or would do. Did they do the 5 acts of worship every time they met? Or did they only have a “real” worship service on Sundays? We’re not told these answers. Although it consisted of Jews from many parts of the world, its first membership was still only Jews. How long did it take for the church in Jerusalem to have a significant number of Gentiles? Is monoculturalism really something we want to restore? How much do we really have in common with that first church described in Acts 2:42-47. With as little information as we have, we certainly can’t just study the Jerusalem church and use it as a complete pattern for church today!
The difficulty we next face when we go outside the first 12 chapters of Acts is that most of the NT letters are written to churches facing significant problems. We might want to restore the NT church, but not the Corinthian church with its infighting and lax moral standards.
The Philippian church apparently tolerated an open dispute between two members (4:1). Paul had to encourage some Philippian church members to “live worthy of the gospel” (1:27) and “Do everything without grumbling” (2:14). Shouldn’t these have been things the local leaders addressed? Do we really want to restore a church with this reputation?
When churches today speak of “restoring the NT church” they’re not really picturing an actual church. They’re referring to an ideal church that they’ve created by pulling together teaching from various Biblical writers to create what must be the “pure pattern”. The underlying assumption (which may or may not be accurate) is that if Paul told one church to do something, then every church was doing or to do the same thing.
So Paul tells the Colossian church to sing (3:16) and pray (4:2-3), but says nothing to them about the Lord’s Supper, or making a regular or weekly monetary contribution. Did the Colossian church practice the Lord’s Supper and regular collection? We’re not told! But since the Lord’s Supper and the regular collection are instructed in 1 Corinthians, then all these components become part of the ideal New Testament church.
Furthermore, it took several centuries for the New Testament to be collected and distributed. Apparently even after spending so much time with Paul, Timothy and Titus were unaware of the qualification of elders and deacons. So for the first 50 years of the church there were no clear criteria for appointing church leadership!
When we recognise this process we also must acknowledge that we cannot have a goal of restoring the New Testament church because, IT NEVER EXISTED!! Basic grammar dictates that you can’t restore something that hasn’t existed.
I am not dismissing the numerous teachings that this process has promulgated. I believe in the importance of weekly Lord’s Supper, communal prayer, singing etc. However, if we’re to be a true NT church, shouldn’t we emphasise the things the New Testament emphasises. According to my count, only 7 NT books mention singing, yet we are known as a capella Churches of Christ!
If we really restored the NT church, wouldn’t we speak a lot more on righteousness? Wouldn’t we discuss peace and unity a lot more? Wouldn’t overcoming racial and cultural barriers be a bigger part of our identity? The list could go on….
I am extremely indebted to my spiritual forefathers for their “rediscovery” of believers immersion for the remission of sins, for their teaching on regular open communion, and even for their calling us back to the heart of worship with a capella singing. But I believe we have a lot more to restore before we’re truly a New Testament Church.