We humans seem to have a natural tendency to glamorize our past, reinterpret our miscalculations, rationalize our mistakes and develop an idealistic “history” in retrospect. The official chronicles of nearly every king of antiquity provide sufficient evidence for such a judgment. Religious movements generally do the same.
There is reason to think the popular account of the Restoration Movement of Campbell and Stone has also enjoyed cosmetic touches here and there. Literature and filmstrips used in outreach efforts often include an integral section on the movement’s history. It tells a fascinating story of the one, true church – its glorious beginning, its early defection, and its marvelous restoration. The high points of the story are usually something as follows.
There originally was but one, true church. It was established by Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost about A.D. 33. At the first, the church enjoyed universal harmony and unity, teaching everywhere the same doctrine and maintaining identical practices. Pristine purity prevailed, and the gospel spread worldwide. Before the New Testament Scriptures were completed, however, another trend set in. Over the years the original church changed into something Jesus never envisioned and did not approve.
This corruption touched almost every aspect of church life and work, the story says, but especially its name, form of worship, organization, government, and terms of admission or “plan of salvation.” The Roman Catholic Church was the formal result of apostasy, in this account. Although there might have been some true Christians from the second or third centuries until the nineteenth in this view, their identity is practically unknown today.
The Protestant Reformation made an effort to turn things around, the story goes, but since it only sought to “reform” rather than to “restore,” it did not go nearly far enough. It was therefore by and large a failure, its primary result being a multiplicity of denominations, each with its own peculiar set of errors.
In the nineteenth century, however, God was ready to restore his true church. Men such as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Elias Smith and Abner Jones were used by him in the effort. And their work, combined with that of others, “restored” the desired product – the New Testament Church, as pure and sweet as the day it was born!
The listening prospect is awed by the grandeur of this tale – as are those to whom Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others go with the identical outline but different details. But such a presentation raises several important if troublesome questions.
How, in light of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18-19, could his church have vanished from the face of the earth for most of the Christian era? Of what does the church’s purity and unity consist in the New Testament – in every external form, or in its essential gospel and life? If the first, how does one account for the believers being called different “names” from the very first – “disciples” in Jerusalem, but “Christians” at Antioch?
Did not the Jerusalem church from the first show a willingness to modify externals to meet the needs, first practicing a communal style which was later dropped? Were they not governed by the apostles in the beginning, later adding deacons in fact if not in name when the occasion demanded? Did not Jewish believers (especially in Palestine) continue their Hebrew heritage of Mosaic customs, synagogue worship and structure something never imposed on Gentile churches as such? And does not the New Testament show a diversity among Gentile churches, some functioning along a charismatic model (Corinth) while others had more formal structure (Ephesus, see I Timothy).
How does one account for the numerous divisions within the Restoration Movement, divisions which can in nearly every case be traced to disagreements over which external “marks” must be “restored”? In a larger context, why have the different “restoration” groups come up with different sets of New Testament distinctives, along with other areas in which they overlap? And how is it that these differences generally reflect either firm similarity to their respective backgrounds, or else reactions against them?
Why, regardless of background, do such groups almost always concern themselves with external, visible matters? Does anyone’s “pattern,” for example, include the “marks” Paul specifically lists in Philippians 3:3, all of which concern the heart? Might this be because visible externals are either to achieve, easier to check, and easier to use for self-justification?
This “history” is questionable also because of the way it underplays every other work of God through the centuries of the Christian church. What of great gospel preachers like Augustine and Chrysostom? What of the great company of martyrs who gave testimony to Christ with their own blood, but who are remembered today only by the Roman, Orthodox or Anglican communions? And the sixteenth century reformers, were they nothing more than amateurs who made a few minor contributions but finally missed the boat?
More fundamental, were none of these people true Christians at all, because they supposedly “missed the boat”? Were Thomas and Alexander Campbell themselves true Christians – before they “restored the true church”? If so, when? While they were Presbyterians? After they joined the Baptists? After they left the Baptists? What of others who now occupy the same ground from which they began their quest? Are they God’s people, even though they have not yet “arrived”? Has any of us “arrived”? Has God run out of Presbyterians (or Baptists, or Anglicans, or Catholics, or members of Churches of Christ) through whom he can do his work?
Aside from these biblical and theological questions, there is the simple matter of historical accuracy. Does this popularized history reflect what actually happened in those years of the 1800’s? Would the restoration pioneers recognize themselves in our story? How would they tell what they were about and what they hoped to accomplish, if they were to tell the story?