This is actually the second time I have read this book, and for someone who’s church background includes considerable Restorationist influence, it is a fascinating read. Those who have not had much contact with Restorationism may not find it quite so interesting. Dr Andrew Walker writes as a sociologist and a Russian Orthodox Christian. He is not a charismatic evangelical as Restorationists are, but he does write sympathetically and is very fair even when dealing with and making criticisms of the movement.
It is now in its fourth edition, which has been expanded to include accounts of what the author believes to be the decline of Restorationism (p23: “They did not merely slow down: they settled into a regular church life and a principled charismatic evangelicalism”). For those not initiated, Restorationism is the name he gives to a broad range of apostolic house churches that grew significantly during the 80s in Britain. These include Pioneer, Ichthus, New Frontiers, Covenant Ministries and others. They held strongly to a vision of an end times move of the Spirit to restore the church to its New Testament pattern including restoring values of apostleship, discipleship, shepherding, theocracy, a pentecostal doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit and a non-denominational approach.
Walker provides a number of chapters on the historical influences, focussing particularly on key leaders such as Arthur Wallis, Bryn Jones, David Tomlinson, John Noble and how they came to work together as a team of apostles. He discusses the input of the American “Fort Lauderdale Five” including Ern Baxter, and how tensions with them emerged. More than that, he delves back to find the ‘roots’ of Restorationism in Brethren, Pentecostal and even Catholic Apostolic churches.
He detects that at some point Restorationism as a movement came to separate into two distinct streams which he calls R1 and R2 (R1 being the more conservative and pure version of Restorationism), citing the law-grace issue as being one of the divisive issues (not so much theology as emphasis being the problem).
A few more chapters are devoted to the doctrinal distinctives of Restorationism. He particularly highlights the belief that the ‘new wine’ needed ‘new wineskins’ (i.e. new churches rather than simply reforming existing denominations). He suspects that sociologically Restorationism is a sect on its way to becoming just another denomination. The subjects of ‘shepherding’ or ‘covering’ and tithing open the door for him to examine some of the criticisms of the movement.
He acknowledges that it is a ‘radical’ movement, and that some of the allegations of heavy-handed authoritarianism are deserved. But he also indicates that many of the critics of Restorationism were guilty of bitterness, jealousy and even hypocrisy. In short, the movement was certainly not without its faults, but was not quite the devil that some made it out to be.
Of great interest to me was the discussion of the decline of Restorationism. R2 has all but disappeared, but R1 has survived in modified form, principally in movements like New Frontiers. He detects new features such as emphasis on big churches and even flirtations with the prosperity gospel. He also notes the decline of emphasis on issues such as shepherding. There is even a good relationship now with the denominational churches, although the belief in apostolic ministry remains strong.
What are those of us who are “Restorationist” to make of this book? It is humbling and enlightening. Is there still a vision of what the church should be? Are we still passionate about demonstrating the kingdom of God? Or are we now a bit embarrassed about our naïve enthusiasm and optimism? Perhaps reading this book will drive us back to the Bible and back to our knees in prayer, asking God to impress his own agenda for the church afresh onto our hearts.