Sometimes I think those of us who say we want to restore the “ancient order” of the New Testament church don’t really want to bring the church back to its most primitive state. It is much more comfortable for us to bring the church back to the almost-ancient order of things–perhaps the end of the 1st century–rather than the day of Pentecost.
Yes, we give lip service to wanting to rewind the clock on church history a bit. Hence the catch-phrase “Restoration Movement” (although I prefer the name Stone-Campbell Movement, for reasons I’ll write about later). But few would be comfortable going all the way back to the beginning.
What do I mean by that? Well, consider that by the end of the first century, some pretty horrible practices had already been slipped into the church. To rewind history back to about 96 A.D. still gets us back to a point where the churches of Asia, described by Jesus in his Revelation to the apostle John, taught deviant doctrines and had outright anti-Christian practices taking place within their congregations. I don’t think that’s the “pristine state” we want to restore the church to.
If we rewind history back to 55 A.D., we still end up with a divided church. The apostle Paul had to write to the Corinthian church about that time to discourage them from getting drunk at the Lord’s supper (so much for the idea that Christians can’t drink wine), and forming factions around Paul, Apollos, and other popular preachers. In an odd sort of way, those looking for a “pattern” for the sectarian church we find today can find it in Paul’s first letter to this congregation. I guess it should make us feel slightly better to know that they had a problem with unity and sectarianism, too.
But what would happen if all Christendom rewound the clock back to that pristine day of Pentecost, when the first gospel sermon was preached, making converts to The Way? These people realized they had just crucified the very person who had come to free them. That’s what made their change of heart so powerful and world-changing.
You see, social movements start in their ideal state and decline through subsequent generations of leaders. Martin Luther’s reformation fits this model. So does Alexander Campbell’s; and Christianity itself no different. The subject matter chosen for the inspired epistles, written for the purpose of correcting already-errant practices in the ekklesia of that era, emphasizes this point.
Truth Bomb: The pattern for our ideal church is found somewhere in the days immediately following Peter’s first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost, and NOT later in the first century after the epistles were written. Believers in that primitive state were undivided by opinions, brought together in koinonia solely for the love of their redeemer, each other, and their newfound Way of Life.
Of course, God used the apostles to reveal divine solutions to the problems those early Christians encountered, but it was all with the goal of restoring that primitive state of harmony in the church exhibited during those first days, months, and years.
Not one fact was added to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ after its first presentation by Peter. Did you know that Christians were saved and thrived as a community for about two decades before the first epistle was penned? Stanton doesn’t tell you that, do they?
This means that everything revealed in the apostolic letters, while God-breathed and important, should be seen as attempts to elucidate principles and eradicate human error, rather than attempts to create an appendix to the gospel or a new codebook of legislation. Jesus didn’t nail one codebook to the cross, just to institute another one.
I would say the epistles are not so much “additive,” but “restorative.” Leave it to fallible men to take uniting, uplifting doctrines and turn them into tools of division and factionalism. Men are really good at dividing, but not so good at uniting.
The factious spirit is the ultimate “innovation” in the church that we must purge out. We are called to to return, not to the almost-ancient order of things, but to the truly ancient, primitive order of the church. This is what Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and so many others reformers in the 19th century were trying to articulate. This “ancient order” is the state where Christians knew each other as brothers, not as hyphenated Christians or half-brothers alienated from each other to forever work apart in the great cause of Christ.
We do not have to agree with our brother on a list of creedal matters in order to work with him side by side. If he is our brother, he is worthy of our mutual love and edification. The correctness of our opinions does not justify forcing them them upon lesser (or greater) intellects. This was, at one time, the powerful restoration plea of the early 19th century. As Alexander Campbell once said, “It is cruel to excommunicate a man because of the imbecility of his intellect.”
Those of us who are the heirs of that legacy here in the 21st century might find that level of tolerance a bit startling due to the current factional climate, particularly if you’re fresh out of the Stanton sect or some other militant faction. It might be a little like hearing “cowbells in church” as Alexander Campbell might say.
But I thank God that the pendulum is swinging away from the divisive zeitgeist that infected the 20th century Restoration Movement. I sincerely hope that a new restoration movement–returning, not almost, but fully to the primitive concept of the brotherhood of all believers preached on Pentecost–will take hold in my generation.
We need to truly understand, with no caveats, that the Lord himself adds to His church–not to a particular sect–those who would be saved. He alone strips the sectarianism and self-seeking from the hearts of people with diverse backgrounds and intellects, and allows them work together as one. What God has made clean, let no man call common, unclean, or unworthy of our fellowship. If God has called him, who am I to reject him? That is the truly “ancient order” of things. That is first century unity.