For several weeks, we have been telling the history of the Restoration Movement in this space. If you missed any of the articles in this series, you can find them on our website. Throughout its course, we have covered a lot of ground: we noted the impulse toward recovering the New Testament church in several movements from the Middle Ages; saw the principle of restoration applied in different ways by groups like the Anabaptists and the Puritans; explored the simultaneous emergence of a number of movements in different parts of the United States in the late 18th and early 19thcenturies; and, in our last installment, told the story of two of those, one led by Barton W. Stone and the other by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, uniting their efforts in what has come to be known as the Restoration Movement or Stone-Campbell Movement.
We could take our story further, of course, even into the present, and it would be worthwhile. But our purpose has primarily been to think about our roots and the emergence of churches of Christ in this country; to that end, we have gone as far as we will go for now. In thinking over the previous weeks, I encourage you to consider three lessons that have emerged.
The Restoration Principle has deep roots among professing Christians.
The idea that we should allow Scripture to be our only guide—to look at the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians, as revealed to us in the New Testament, and hold them as normative for what we teach and do—is not some novelty that is only applicable to “Campbellites.” It has been a deeply held conviction for a number of different groups. The Waldenses, the Lollards, and the Hussites all looked to the example of the NT church, sought to place Scripture in the hands of the common people, and called for a simple piety based on the Bible in the Middle Ages. The Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation in particular rejected church tradition and stressed Scripture, influencing the Puritans that we mentioned above. That Anabaptists looked to the ethics of the early church and sought to live them out in their communities. All of this should encourage us in that our view of the authority of the Bible and the example of the early church is not historically unusual but is a common impulse for professing Christians.
More importantly, the grounds for this shared desire are found in Scripture itself. Whenever a doctrine of God gets lost, for lack of a better term, there is a strong thread in Scripture that God’s people need to restore it. The Jews in Nehemiah’s day dropped everything to build huts when they found they had been keeping the Feast of Tabernacles wrong for centuries (Nehemiah 8). King David was appalled when his man, Uzzah, was killed transporting the Ark of the Covenant—till he studied and found they were moving it improperly, and so he restored the correct practice (1 Chronicles 15). King Josiah was distraught when the lost Book of the Law was recovered, immediately ordering that the Passover be kept properly for the first time in generations (2 Chronicles 34-35). We must not let anyone discourage us from the Restoration Principle. It has the weight of Christian history behind it and the support of Scripture.
Restoration and unity can coexist.
That last sentence is important because a number of contemporary voices in churches of Christ are urging us to dispense with Restorationism as the naïve relic of a bygone age in the name of unity with other religious groups. As Stone and Campbell’s groups demonstrated, however, these two goals can coexist. In fact, they saw restoration as the means of unity—let’s look at what Scripture says in its essentials and not bind our speculations on anyone. Now, admittedly, that takes serious study and a deep commitment to unity so that we do not elevate our opinions to the realm of doctrine. But unity SHOULD be a goal of Restoration! Jesus prayed for it (John 17). The early church lived it. We cannot be serious about emulating the first-century church if we are not grieved at the divided state of the religious world. But we dare not throw out a commitment to Scripture for a watered-down ecumenism at all costs.
Restoration is comprehensive.
In churches of Christ, we have characteristically thought of restoring the early church in terms of church organization, worship practice, immersion of believers—outward forms, in other words. All of those things are urgently important. But other groups, like the Anabaptists, point us to other dimensions: restoring the life of the apostolic church. Think about the example of the Jerusalem congregation in Acts 2:42-47: do we have a common life as they did? Do we pray and study like they did? Do we do good works like they did? Are we as highly spoken of by outsiders? We need to focus on those neglected aspects of the early church too. They are every bit as important—arguably more important, since we have failed to emphasize them as we ought. We should renew our focus on being disciples of Jesus and how that affects our lives.
This points out that Restoration is not a destination; it is a journey. We will never be everything that God intends us to be in this life. We should not expect otherwise, given not only that we are creatures flawed by sin, but that even the early church was not always what God called it to be! After all, that’s why Paul wrote many of his letters. For that reason, we should never be content to rest on our laurels, thinking we have all the answers or that we are perfectly Biblical. We must always hold ourselves up, individually and collectively, to the light of Scripture and be willing to follow wherever it leads us. Restoration is a worthy, Biblical goal—and one that is never done. We must be Restored and always Restoring.