Thursday, September 30, 2004

The soul of the restoration movement

If restorationist Christians should not have formed their own denominations in the attempt to fight denominationalism, then what is the relevance of the restoration movement? Would Campbell and others have started the movement if they had the view that Christians were not to separate from other Christians over differences of opinion? These are fair questions and deserve answers, but first we need to decide if we are determining the relevance of the present state of the restoration movement or of the original principles that first shaped it.

Since the first century church strayed from the simplicity of early church practices within its first century of existence, it should not surprise us that the restoration movement of the early 1800s, based on a plea for unity among all believers, has devolved into a field of factions whose favorite pastime is debating. It doesn't take long for a movement to lose its soul. All it takes is one generation to mimic the forms of its predecessors without understanding the meaning behind those forms. Very soon, like a series of photocopies, the next generation comes along, twice removed from the original concepts. Each generation lacks a little more of the clarity of thinking that came with the first generation. There are subtle signs of the devolution of this non-sectarian movement back toward sectarianism as early as 1826.

My greatest mistake in understanding the restoration movement was in thinking it was unlike all other social and religious movements in history. This time was different, I thought. I understood this to be a progressive movement, not the usual regressive one. I believed that the concepts advanced in the first generation were refined and hammered out on the anvil of the scriptures to arrive at greater truth for subsequent generations. In fact, it appears that humans stepped in to do what we usually do: with good intentions, we messed up a good thing.

It shouldn't be surprising that this happened when we look at the revivalism of the Jewish nation in the days of the judges. They were brought back to God in fits and starts, usually in a burst of energy followed by years of subsequent decline. That's not to say that the Lord's church has declined in the last 175 years or so since the restoration movement got underway. No, the Lord's church has survived and prospered as it always has, just like the faithful of Israel prospered in each of its dark periods. The Lord's church has survived because it is not a visible organization or association of organizations, but a spiritual body of believers who have been washed by the blood of the lamb, scattered over the face of the earth.

Remember, the Lord adds to the church, we don't, when someone obeys the gospel. Just as it is not necessary to understand all the blessings of American citizenship prior to becoming a citizen, there is nothing in the scriptures stating that it is necessary for an immersed believer to understand at the time of his entry into citizenship in Jesus' kingdom that his sins were being washed away. That means that the Lord has added a lot of people to his flock who have been baptized into Christ and have risen with him just as we have, but who are getting fed in denominational pastures.

The question we face, then, is whether the restoration plea of unity among all believers should be realized by replacing mainstream denominationalism with our own brand of denominationalism, or if it should be used to change, one by one, the hearts and minds of Christians who mistakenly rally around a denominational banner rather than the banner of Jesus Christ himself. The fruit of the first method is more division, not less of it. The second method was the one adopted in the early restoration movement, but its fruits, when put into practice once again, may not be fully visible in our lifetime. We have to be patient to see these spiritual fruits, because they are not visible by counting organizational membership.

The Roman apostasy made the mistake of thinking the cause of Christ was a top-down movement. They thought the heavy lifting of God's will was done by the brass at the top, rather than the foot soldier on the ground. We can't make that same mistake. The cause of Christ was a bottom-up movement from day one on Pentecost. Individuals took the cause and marched to spread the good news.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, he told her that there would come a time when people would not worship in this place or in that place, but in spirit and in truth.

    John 4:23-24 - Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

That, of course, does not mean that true worshippers won't unite together to encourage each other. They will do so and should do so, even if they have imperfect knowledge of how to do so. But true unity is when God's people are united together, not by written or unwritten agreements of association, or this or that pattern of church practice, but to further the cause of faith in our one true Pattern. That is the soul of the restoration movement and of the primitive gospel, and it is not until that is achieved in the hearts of Christians everywhere that we will see a true restoration of a unified New Testament church. Form, as is often said, follows function.

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