Today the Restoration Movement resembles a venerable family that has occupied the same house for many generations. The rooms are comfortable, the furnishings are familiar, and the attic is full of fascinating memorabilia. But now the time has come for a thorough housecleaning.
God has given the men and women of our Restoration Movement certain valid insights, as even those outside our churches are free to say. But it would be foolish and naive indeed for us to suppose that no dust has settled, no broken antiques have been closeted, no trash has been mixed mistakenly with the treasures. In the spirit of preserving what is good, therefore, and in hopes of a cleaner, fresher house, we offer the following modest suggestions.
1. We can use “restoration” as a tool without regarding it as an end. Any individual or group of persons needs some basis for discerning God’s will as revealed in Scripture. The ideal of restoration can be a useful tool for such a purpose. All will agree that biblical Christianity was quickly polluted by the influx of many sources: Greek philosophy, Jewish tradition, pagan life-styles, Roman structures of order and Catholic syncretism. The Protestant Reformation, for all its contributions, led to additional incrustations, as common opinions were codified into orthodoxy, then were transmitted without question to later generations. The Restoration Movement has accumulated its own traditions as well, in both teaching and practice.
The restoration ideal can serve a valuable purpose as a scraper, a handy tool for cleaning layers of dried and encrusted paint from the furniture in an attempt to make it shine as at the first. This can be done without glamorizing the first-century church beyond its true state as revealed in the New Testament. We must also remember that restoration is only a tool that can be helpful in serving God, not an end within itself. It is not the only tool, nor is it indispensable, for others may approach the Scriptures with a humble heart and learn what God ultimately desires, even if they never think in terms of “restoring” anything.
2. We can cherish the ideal of a pure church without making it an idol that competes with Jesus. Surely no one can quarrel with the desire for a pure church, especially if it is accompanied by Christ-honoring humility and a becoming manner. Yet the quest for a pure church has too often become a mere slogan, disconnected entirely from a vital personal knowledge of God in Christ. It is then easy for carnal people to twist this proper ideal into a cover for their own selfish ambition and pride. More than once, the goal of a pure church has been the excuse for mistreating others for whom Christ died, a warped mirror which always flatters the person who uses it.
Even worse, the ideal of a pure church can itself become the basis of one’s confidence before God now and in the day of judgment. This finally leads either to deceit and conceit on the one hand, or to discouragement and despair on the other. In either case it serves Satan’s ends, not God’s. Either way, it comes very near perverting the true gospel, as it corrupts an ideal which could honor God into an idol that blasphemes him instead.
Christ must be our message, not a historical movement or an idealistic church. Paul said: “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). There is a great tendency for any restoration movement to do the very thing Paul here renounces. It is very easy to preach the church (ourselves) instead of Jesus Christ. This has often taken at least three forms.
First, one can preach an idealized church of the ancient past, directing men’s attention to a hypothetical dream which never existed on earth in the first place. Second, one can preach his own historical movement or fellowship within church history instead of preaching Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom is far greater than any religious movement, in any country in any century. Third, one can preach the theory of a pure church rather than preaching Jesus Christ. Given the power of sin, this is an impossible dream, since, as Jesus himself said, there will always be tares among the wheat.
One has only to read the Book of Acts to see the content of the earliest Christian preaching. That message concerned a Savior, not a competitive church system. Regardless of where they began, all roads for the earliest evangelists finally led to Jesus Christ. Today we must also preach the Son of God, not sinful men of the past or the present. Jesus must receive our primary attention, not merely passing reference. We must make Christ our central message if we intend to continue naming him on our signboards. Otherwise we will be guilty of false advertising, and in that we will fool no one but ourselves.
3. We can relate to our historical heritage without losing our perspective. Although we like to say that the New Testament church was established on Pentecost in A.D. 33, and to say that is all we are, we simply cannot erase 1900 years of history as if it never transpired. What is knowntoday as the “Churches of Christ,” the “Christian Churches” or the “Disciples of Christ” had a historical beginning in nineteenth century America, under circumstances we have outlined above. That is unvarnished, historical fact. One may deny facts, or ignore them, but they will not go away.
We might say that we wish to be nothing more than simple Christians after the New Testament order – with all the risks and ambiguities that aspiration will involve. We might insist that “our” congregations are free under Christ alone – wondering whether the very pronoun “our” contradicts such a claim. We might scrupulously avoid linking local churches by any formal denominational structure – yet honestly acknowledging the informal interlocks, networks and influences that more or less control us all. Whatever we do, however, we must realize that we, like all others around us, are a part of history. Our movement did not fall out of the clear blue sky. It had roots, ancestors, environment, just as all movements among men do.
We can give thanks for every insight our forefathers gained into the Scriptures. But we dare neither stop where they did, nor to assume that they were right in all their own judgments and teaching.
We can recover the sense of being a “movement” in at least two respects. We can remember first that we belong to the church universal, and at best make a contribution within that larger picture. Second, we can remember that one never “restores” unless he keeps “moving.” It is unmitigated hypocrisy for anyone to urge all his religious neighbors: “Just go by the Bible, regardless of what your parents, church, or anyone else has ever taught you to be,” then respond to his own critics within by intoning “what faithful gospel preachers have always taught.” Our children are neither blind nor deaf to such foolishness, and those we have taught to be honest will reject it outright. Still some will shake their heads and ask why so many are “leaving the old paths.”
Our “identity” must finally be no more than that of any faithful Christian in any age of the world. Separated from trusting faith in Jesus Christ, “distinctives” are worse than worthless. Then they also instill self-righteousness and compete with the true gospel. In the day of judgment there will be no point in bringing God a package of tracts proving our “soundness,” or dragging in a bundle of arguments that state our “identity” and distinguish our “distinctives.” Nothing we can bring will see us through that Day. We can only point then to the sinless Son of God, slain for our sins and raised for our justification. Better to lighten our baggage now in preparation for what will then be inevitable! We can appreciate our history (everybody has one) while keeping it in perspective.
4. We can remember that managing the church is God’s work, not ours. The “glorious church” does not depend on man’s efforts, hard work or mental agility. The “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) will be the work of God himself, in his own good time, and by his own power and might.
Jesus is building his own true church from living stones, drawn together by the Holy Spirit as the gospel goes out throughout the world. Mere man can never build that church, destroy it, restore it, or preserve it. Anything that we can erect or protect is fleshly in origin and not from God. The only “true tabernacle” is the one the Lord builds, not man (Heb. 8:2). Anyone who is so beguiled by ideals of “restoration” that he forgets this fundamental truth dooms himself to walk a dead-end street and guarantees his final disappointment.