Recently, Sven and Richard have made some very insightful comments on my post Am I still a Restorationist?, so I want to continue my look at the ongoing relevance of Restorationist thinking. This post has got a bit long, and isn’t quite as polished as I would like, but it might spark off a bit more debate among those working out where they stand on these issues.
One of the favourite themes of the Restorationism is getting back to the New Testament pattern of early church life. This notion often comes under fire from those from other church backgrounds as being both theologically and historically naïve.
First, it is questioned whether we indeed want to be like the early church. Was it really all that great? The church in Corinth was riddled with problems, the seven churches of Revelation were in a sorry state, the church of 3 John had an out of control leader, the church of Galatians were in danger of losing the gospel altogether, while the church of Acts had full-blown apostolic confrontations. Add to that the repeated pattern of heretical splinter groups arising during the first centuries of Christianity (some early enough to warrant opposition in the Pauline epistles), and it begins to look like the Restorationist vision of the early church is romantically viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.
Second, churches that have their stated aim to be like the early church are quite at ease with a number of features of modern church life that were unheard of in those early days. Worship leaders playing their guitars with a full band behind them and computerised words projected onto a big screen are assumed to be an obvious implication of being a New Testament church. Youth ministers, Kidz Klubs, worship CDs, What Would Jesus Do bracelets and teaching tapes are standard fare though the first apostles had not even heard of such things. Who gets to decide what parts of early church life we go back to? And how do we know what it was really like anyway?
Of course, most Christians in most denominations have simply not read up on their church history. The little they know is from deductions from the New Testament and biographical accounts of various believers. So the Pentecostals know about the healing evangelists of the early 1900s, and the Reformed Evangelicals know about Calvin and Luther. Others know a bit about various saints, missionaries and communes. But the fact is, when it comes to the early church, most of us know very little. And those who have done their reading of ancient history are wont to point out the many differences between a Jewish 1st century church and a western charismatic megachurch.
But much of the criticism of the Restorationist “New Testament church” tends to miss the point, probably thanks to careless rhetoric by Restorationists. What is being advocated is not a recreation of “early church practise” which was undoubtedly a mixture of good and bad, but the belief that there was an “New Testament pattern”, which the early church was in touch with in a way that has been lost somewhat. In other words, the basic principles of church government, community and worship were there right from the start. It makes New Testament the standard, and has no interest in embracing ecclesiastical structures or liturgical traditions that developed later.
Now to many evangelicals, this is not overly controversial. But the contention of Restorationists is that certain things have been lost over the years, that were part of this “New Testament pattern”. These include the charismatic gifts, the role of apostle, and a bigger vision of the “kingdom” that calls for a radical discipleship affecting every area of life. The established churches were seen to have jettisoned these dynamics of church life, resulting in a compromised and powerless church. This stands in stark contrast with the church in Acts in which the Holy Spirit was powerfully moving. But not everyone is convinced. Non-charismatic evangelicals do not take such a dim view of the post-apostolic early church, and see the reduction in supernatural Holy Spirit activity as a natural “salvation-history” progression, and the apostolic office as becoming redundant.
Where you stand on this debate will depend on your hermeneutics, theology, church background, and knowledge of church history. But I think there are lessons to be learned on both sides of the argument. Let me offer a few – first to the Restorationists (and evangelical charismatics, who tend to think along much the same lines):
- There is a need to be continually willing to evaluate all we do in the light of Scripture. For example, in the area of worship, there is a danger of becoming performance oriented, experience centred and commercially driven, while treating “joy” and “freedom” as though they were the only Biblical essentials of worship.
- It would help to have a better understanding of the ‘early’ years of church history (pre 1600s if you are reformed, pre 1900s if you are Pentecostal), and to take a slightly more respectful attitude to those who have gone before us. We may have theological differences with them, but the Holy Spirit has not been on one long holiday since Pentecost, and there is much to be learned from, without the need for uncritical acceptance.
- Exegesis is becoming a lost art in the charismatic movement with less and less expository preaching. If we are serious about following a New Testament pattern, then we should be serious about understanding what it is really saying.
But let me also offer Challenges to the critics of Restorationism:
- Just because you doubt that the Restorationists have rightly understood what the New Testament pattern is, doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything that needs to be restored. Too often the arguments of the Restorationists have been dismissed by appealing to their inconsistencies, without asking what the New Testament does teach in these areas.
- Similarly, there is no point continuing to knock down a straw man that argues for a Restoration of the faults and heresies of early church life.
- The point that Acts was not explicitly designed as a manual of church life does not mean that it can teach us nothing. A level-headed hermeneutic will still be able to deduce facts about many important aspects of mission, church government, priorities, community life, which give us a window onto how the apostles themselves saw fit to organise church life.
- The phrase “salvation history” is not sufficient to explain away any hint of the experiential or supernatural dimensions of the Spirit’s ministry in the New Testament.