The “New Testament Church”?

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.

7 thoughts on “The “New Testament Church”?

  1. Great two posts on restorationism.

    I think that the point about the holy spirit not being on holiday is the key one. I once asked Terry Virgo what he thought had happened between the supposed biblical early church and the first century christianity that we encounter in the surviving litrature. I was told that this was a good question. Which I suppose is good as Andrew Walker asked me the same question once.

    It is so true that most NFIers (growing up in nfi and going to the same church as steve did) that there is no real grasp of the early church. It as if no one wants to put any spade work into defending the restorationist position. I guess, from my own opinion, is that it is terribly hard to defend.

    I do, however, think that there are lots of good things that the restoration movement brought, but i think it would have been better channeled in a charismatic renewal of traditional churches.

    richard

  2. Good post Mark,

    I’ve been doing a *lot* of reading and research into early liturgical forms (pre-nicene) and have been comparing these with early 2nd temple jewish forms and Hellenistic forms.

    The interesting thing is that one can just see the very early emergence of organised and corporate worship within the church (with Paul ‘leeking out’ early creedal/liturgical ideas in his letters – Phil 2 etc…). This is what I mean by the early church being anciently ‘eastern’ in its shape.

    This is the ‘foundation’ on which the church was built and every Christian owes their heritage to this ancient and apostolic (capital T) Tradition.

    However we constantly need to ‘recontextualise’ as we seek to act as God’s ‘agents of restorative justice’ in the world. This will mean having one foot in what has gone before and ‘re-appropriating’ it to our present tense.

    This is a difficult task and requires humility, dialogue, cooperation and a need to really *get into* the scriptural roots of God great plan in creation (including a proper understanding of the ‘story of Israel’ i.e. the OT!).

    We work out the mission in partnership and clarity comes through contrast. There is so much diversity of culture, history, personalities and tempraments that there will never be ‘one’ shape or form that fits all! However we all stand on the ‘one’ foundation of Lord, Baptism, Faith and Spirit (Eph 4).

    From the ‘historical’ or ecclesiological insight we get of the ‘NT church’ we find out there was indeed:

    -Worship – but we don’t have the ‘definitive’ pattern
    -Leadership – but the ‘shape varies from place to place’
    -Communion – but with undeclared frequency
    -Baptism – seemingly with ‘households’ (inc. children!!!) involved

    The point is that there is so much glorious ‘silence’ within the NT and room for options!

    I don’t find myself ‘anti-restorationist’, since I see so much good and love and God in what has been achieved. However I don’t think that the ‘shape’ of modern indepenant evangelicalism (or charismatic restorationism) is the ‘only’ or even the ‘fullest’ or ‘final’ version!

    Where are the modern liturgies? What role of the sacraments within the life of the church? Could vision imagery (?icons) still have a proper role to play? If Mary said that ‘all generations shall call me blessed’ – where is the proclamation of ‘blessed’ from the evangelical church??

    I’m being provocative since my own background is decidely protestant – but I would love to develop these ideas more for the sake of unity, maturity and thus mission effectiveness with the church.

    Newfrontiers is doing a *great* work and I would love to see it mature and develop deeper into God’s will through the communion of the saints (perhaps dead as well as living….perhaps that’s a step too far!!)

    All the best,

    Richard

  3. Mark,

    In addition….

    I think that one cannot separate Ecclesi-ology from Ecclesi-praxy, and so, perhaps, one cannot fully understanding 1st Centuary church ‘principles’ without grasping 1st Centuary church ‘culture’ along with it.

    In an attempt to ‘recover’ principles of church governance, mission and ‘worship’ (whatever that is defined as!) one *must*, therefore, take account of the Judeo-Romano-Greco ‘sitz-im-leben’ which drove *that* particular ecclesiology and thus that particular ecclesipraxy and vice versa.

    We, then, who are ‘heirs’ to what has gone before need to interpret wisely, understanding our own ‘sitz-im-leben’ as we seek to build in our own time. (This is how I understand the NT as being ‘foundational’ and ‘formative’ in keeping with Tom Wright’s ’5 act hypothesis’).

    In Pauls day he was part of a multi-cultural, diverse church which was working out its commission under a varied leadership. This diversity, Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers *et al* was, to him, the will of Jesus – the ascended Lord – and was his plan to bring the body to unity and maturity *despite the diversity*, which was JUST what the circular letter for the province of Asia needed (Ephesians/Colossians).

    He was not writing conscious of church structure within 100 years time but describing his world as he met it and attempting to make sense of it to his churches.

    What then is the hermeneutical understanding for us in the 21st Centuary? Perhaps, that diversity of ‘leadership’ within God’s church (Bishops, Pastors, Ministers, Elders, Deacons, Evangelists *et al*) is part of his ‘wisdom’ and leads the church into unity and maturity. Through the diversity comes unity (surely the true ‘ecumenical project’?).

    Less a case for the ‘re-institution’ of modern day ‘apostles’ than an understanding of the sovereign purpose of Christ through whichever diverse form of leadership (or whatever else e.g. varied ‘gifts’) one finds within the church.

    What d’ya think?

    Richard

  4. Thanks for the comments Richard. You’ve raised a lot of interesting issues. I’m composing a response to your first comment which I hope to post sometime this week.

    I think this boils down to hermeneutics in the end. It a bit like the debate between those who hold to the “regulative principle” of worship versus the “normative principle”, which causes different groups to take the same scriptures to different applications.

    Similarly in this debate we have the ‘formative’ versus ‘normative’ ecclesipraxy (I like your word) from which we must either ad lib a fifth act, or alternatively ‘restore’ the pattern. The first want to work with what they’ve got, the second to get back what they had.

  5. Hi Mark,

    Great blog by the way!! I don’t usually get caught up in ‘online debating’ but this has been a great context to discuss these ideas – and I’ve partly needed to air some thoughts after having been ‘stung’ a bit by Newfrontiers.

    So sorry if I’m posting faster than you can respond!

    I agree that ones ‘hermenutical position’ is the heart of this debate.

    I like your distinction between ‘normative’ and ‘formative’. Instinctively I find myself wanting to be ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’, and feel drawn back to the idea of ‘critical realism’ where we follow a cyclical dialogue between both positions and find that the ‘truth’ exists beyond the synthesis of both positions.

    So, we need to allow our current structures (what we have) to be transformed and influenced by the apostolic ‘norms’ (what we had) and vice versa. In this way the NT is *both* normative AND formative. We are *all* improvising within the 5th act and it’s just a case of how carefully we have understood the previous scenes and our current role upon the stage we are on!

    We therefore move between an overconfidence in being able to clear the ground and ‘start again’ and a scepticism that one can ever truly ‘get back to where we once belonged….’

    The cycle of critical realism forces us to do our history, maintain appropriate humility to be ‘changed’ ourselves and to be confident that we can actually move forwards with the results and act upon them.

    I think the wider church ‘needs’ the challenge that the restorationists provide (as well as the catalysm) but, in turn, the restorationists ‘need’ to see that they are but ‘one member’ of the wider body… (and not the body entire!).

    My impression from your writings are that you are a ‘thinking’ restorationist who probably agrees with my assessment. I don’t know, however, to what level this ‘thinking’ critical assessment goes within the ‘power structures’ of Newfrontiers itself. As I said before, I was (and still am) very good friends with a number of the ‘leaders’ and feel that their confidence is, perhaps, a bit ‘over strong’ towards the pure ‘restoration’ model. I can understand this, because one hardly gives up their job, suffers relative poverty and opposition, and devotes the majority of their time (including family time and evenings) to a cause that they are ‘appropriately sceptical’ about!

    However, maybe much of this sacrifice was (and is) slightly misplaced???? Any how – the heart is right and God is wonderfully gracious and won’t lead any of his children too far into error. So I feel that the nature of Newfrontiers will transform with time and become a self-consciously vital part of the whole body in the task of bringing God’s reign ‘on earth’ as ‘in heaven’.

    all the best,

    Richard

  6. I’m leaving my church.More than that in fact, I’m also
    moving away from the charismatic movement in which I have spent the
    vast majority of my nine years as a Christian. This is a huge and scary
    shift for me, and it has happened for so many reasons and …

  7. My posts on Restorationism continue to stir some interest, with Richard Collins weighing in with his assessment of what can be known of the very early church with a number of interesting comments. You can read three comments starting here and two more sta

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