The basic plea of the Restoration Movement has been “to restore the New Testament church”. I understand why Campbell and Stone and all others involved in the early days of this movement chose the emphasis that they did. They acted in response to the complicated hierarchies and numerous competing creeds found in denominational churches of their day. They felt it necessary to break from the institutionalism of the existing denominationalism in favor for a a simpler, more fundamentally biblical church. (Read my post on the plea for simplicity here.)
The teaching of these early leaders, as is natural, emphasised the areas in which they disagreed with existing churches. For instance, they raged against the institution of ordained clergy while teaching the right of every person to read and understand Scriptures for themselves. For this reason they largely framed the restoration of the NT church in anti-institutional and worship focused terms:
- No denominations in the Bible – so they must all be wrong.
- The priesthood of all believers (2 Peter 2:5) means clergy is wrong.
- Elders and deacons are the only biblical church leaders – any other hierarchy is wrong.
- The Bible always refers to a plurality of elders/deacons – so it’s wrong to have just one.
- The NT church met on Sunday – any other day is wrong.
- They believed the Lord’s Supper must be celebrated each Sunday – any other schedule is wrong.
- No creed but the Bible!
When the pioneers of the Restoration Movement established a congregation that looked like this, they believed they had restored the New Testament church.
However, it’s doubtful that a single congregation ever implemented all the New Testament teaching. I believe many churches may have had the qualities listed above, but the majority of the epistles were written to correct the New Testament churches. When the New Testament teaches on how the church should be structured and how it should behave God speaks in a theoretical way. The New Testament epistles don’t really describe an existing church, they encourage the existing church to attain a higher degree of maturity.
So can we restore something that never existed? Stone and Campbell used the word “restore” because they were convinced that existing churches had moved so far from the teaching of the New Testament. Perhaps they more accurately “sought to radically implement the New Testament teachings in a new church movement”. They would have rejected this proposal as they didn’t want to start another denomination, but I think it’s a closer description their teachings.
Further, most items on the above list come from “logical conclusion” rather than explicit New Testament teaching. Surely restoring the New Testament church would mean focusing on the explicit teachings of Scripture, not on extrapolations and necessary inferences.
For example, does the fact that the church described in the New Testament met on Sunday really forbid meeting on any other day? That’s a logical conclusion. On the other hand, James 4:12 explicitly establishes God as the only judge and asks, “But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” However, that hasn’t prevented churches of Christ frequently disfellowshipping other churches and freely “writing up” individuals and pointing the finger at entire denominations. When logical conclusions relegate explicit teaching to second place the New Testament has NOT been restored.
Please understand that I generally agree with the points listed above, some being more important in my mind than others. I just don’t use them to define the New Testament church. Jesus himself said in John 13:35 that his church would be identified by the way it demonstrates love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
- Can you suggest some other CoC “distinctives” related to structure and worship to add to my list?
- Is it important to you for a church to be a New Testament church?
- Do you think all churches today are New Testament churches?
- What identifies a New Testament church in your mind?