Churches of Christ and the “Restoration Institution” – Part 1

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Restoration Movement, of which I am a part, it started in the late 1700s in an attempt to bring unity to Christianity. The Restoration ideal was that if we all just went by the Bible we could restore New Testament Christianity and bring unity to the diversity of denominations in Christianity.

I have not read extensively from men like Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone but I have read enough, heard enough and seen enough of our practice to have a clue what this was supposed to be and what it has become. Oddly enough, it has become exactly what it was intended to become and that leads to its own set of issues over time. What we call the Restoration Movement has really become more of a Restoration Institution. I think that shift was inevitable based on a few things. I will start with what I believe is the main one and in a later post or two will mention some more.

The Restoration movement was birthed in Western Enlightenment culture where 99% of people were Christian of some variety. It was just a matter of which type or denomination of Christianity were you…not are you atheist, agnostic, unchurched, dechurched, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc? The world in which the Restoration Movement was birthed was awash in Christian culture as well as modern, Enlightenment culture. So the missionary spirit of the movement wasn’t an attempt to tell people who didn’t know about Jesus about Jesus but an attempt to convince people who already believed in Jesus a better way to be Christians, do church, doctrine, etc. Foreign missionaries to non-Western cultures would be an exception to this. So we never developed a very good apologetic and instead developed some very consistent arguments about our hotbutton issues via a hermeneutic that was questionable and still needs some reworking (more on that later).

Here is the issue….that approach works great and is even appropriate as long as the world remains predominantly Christian. The challenge is, that predominance is slowly (or even somewhat rapidly) shifting and it leaves us in a bit of an identity crisis in figuring out what church is. We have our ecclesiology (how we “do church”…worship teachings and practices) down pat because we spent countless hours locking it down in an effort to distinguish ourselves from other groups and get it right (no problem trying to get it right as long as you don’t think your hard work in and of itself saves you). We have it down pat because we have hung our hat on correct worship being an identifying marker of who is really a Christian and who is not. So we have talked and taught on that a lot.

But something was missing in all of that. The something that was missing was a missionary spirit not just of converting baptists or methodists but a missionary spirit of reaching and conversing and loving those who haven’t heard of Jesus or who have heard of him but don’t yet believe in him. What was missing was a sound apologetic paired with practices that show we are actually interested in people besides ourselves.

So our ecclesiology and doctrine of the church was our mission work, again, you weren’t on a mission to get people to put their faith in Christ…you were getting people to change their doctrine to be more in line with the New Testament. That means that we really didn’t have much missiology/mission because, again, most people were already Christians of some stripe. We know how to talk church and worship and doctrine with people who already believe and who don’t need to be convinced that the Bible is true or that God exists. But the number of people who are already “bought in” on some level isn’t keeping pace with the number who are falling away, losing their faith or just not being brought up in faith as their parents had been.

I think we are a bit behind the curve on this and need to catch up. Instead of rehashing the same topics over and over again we need to relearn how to have a viable voice in the marketplace of people who don’t know Jesus. That also means that we have to redefine mission in a way that doesn’t start with the presupposition that Jesus is the Son of God because for many people out there that will be one of the first things we will need to learn to help them understand. That means we have to redefine our mission away from convincing people who already believe in Jesus to worship differently to teaching people who don’t know Jesus about Jesus. I think that has been a challenge to us, albeit, a very needed challenge that we must face and be better for making the adjustment in our thinking and our approach. We can no longer see ecclesiology as our Gospel and as our mission…we must (ironically) get back to the same mission the early church had…and that was reaching people who needed Jesus with the message of Jesus Christ…the resurrected Lord.

Here is the good news…all of this has been in the New Testament all along. We just need to spend some more time out of the epistles and into the Gospel and Acts narratives that literally flesh out what a missionary spirit among God’s people looks like and do what we find there: plant churches, send missionaries, teach Jesus and the kingdom, serve the poor, etc. We are wired to do what we find in the Bible…I think our problem is we narrowed our Bible to Paul’s letters…written to those who already believed in Jesus because that is where we found ourselves and the audience we were interested until the last few decades.

6 Responses

  1. On first reading the correctly reading would be: “it started in the late 1700s in the USA and nearby areas” INSTEAD of just “it started in the late 1700s”. [More comments after I finish reading the post.]

  2. Jesus the Person (primarily in His role as Savior) needs to be presented / held up to the world. That’s what I’ve been doing for some time now in the congregations of our Lord whenever I’ve been called upon. Jesus said, “Come to me,” and “I am the bread of life” “the Light of the world”. It is Him we should see and know and lose ourselves in. God offered Jesus to the world. We have to receive Him. He is God’s gift to us – to the whole world. God looks on the heart; He knows us and our needs better than we know ourselves! I eagerly look forward to [as I always do] more on this topic you have embarked on. Recently one of our elders, who is currently taking Bible Class, got it so wrong in presenting “doctrine” before presenting Christ to “prospective members” that they never returned! People need a Savior more than doctrine. We’ve got to get the message of reconciliation and restoration back to God in the Person of Jesus Christ out to the world. Doctrine will follow. We have to drink milk before we eat meat. But people must see the Provider before they can receive what He is providing.

  3. When converting someone to the cofC, the argument was made over how you “did church” and most of whatever you did in the past was wrong. That was all that mattered and beliefs were taken for granted. People were converted from other branches of Christianity since the rest of Christendom weren’t really Christians and were hell-bound. However, doing church correct did not guarantee salvation. No one felt like they were saved and so everyone was kept in fear that one minor infraction would get you sent to hell by an angry God who does not really love you.

    “I think our problem is we narrowed our Bible to Paul’s letters.” This is too true. I never remember the gospel being discussed or even mentioned in a sermon. The only thing said was “obey the gospel.” This led me to wonder why Jesus could not be mentioned. Every sermon opened with “if you have your Bibles, turn to Book chapter:verse where we will begin this morning” and then the jumping around began. However, Paul had some concern for people but then loved them at the same time. However, what was preached from Paul’s letters was only the “correct it” parts and none of the love.

    My suggestion is to not even start with Jesus is the son of God, but start with God exists and cares. You have a lot of agnostics out there who aren’t even sure of the existence of God.

  4. You make some excellent points, but I feel you are too dismissive of the past and too optimistic about the future. Let me explain. I think the past understood that Christians cannot convert unbelievers until they get their act together by finding unity on key points. If we cannot agree among ourselves as Christians on the correct answer to the simple question, “What must I do to be saved?,” it is doubtful we have a compelling message to present to atheists. The gospel is primarily about finding salvation from sin in the kingdom of God. We first have to have an answer to that question. That was a primary objective of the Restoration Movement that has still not been achieved. If such an objective cannot be achieved, I doubt that the conversion of agnostics and atheists can be achieved either.

  5. Matt, a very good post. I enjoyed it.

    What I see is, the Restoration Institution has become mostly a Southern entity. I believe most moderate CoC leaders and colleges in the South, in their resignation that the Restoration Movement did not take the nation by storm the way they believed it would a few decades ago, have settle into being the best Biblical Southern culture church it can possibly be. This does not mean they have given up on “scriptural positions and practices”; but because of the changing landscape of society they have circled the wagons to protect the culture which they have rationalized is closer to Biblical Christianity than any other. However, this is in itself creates the problem of, “nothing gets in…nothing gets out”.

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