Can the Church Of the First Century Be Restored?
Daniel H. King
To successfully deal with the question which is the theme of our study, two things are necessary. First, we must appreciate the fact that the church or kingdom of Christ and God saw the light of earthly day in the first century of our own era. This is manifestly evident if one recognizes the thrust of the Master's declaration in Mt. 16:18, "I will build my church" and hosts of statements flowing from the pens of His apostles. For example, that of Paul, "To the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places, might be made known through the church. that manifold wisdom of God" (Eph. 3:10). Also, it should be noted that Scripture sets forth solemn warnings of the impending apostasy of that body. It was thus already revealed to and known by the first generation of the Savior's flock that "the faith once delivered to the saints" would not be held fast by many (Acts 20:29-30; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 1 Tim. 4:1-6; 2 Pet. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1ff; 2 Jn. 7ff; Jude 3-5; etc.). A "falling away from the faith" was to occur, in fact, was already happening at the close of the apostolic age. The digression itself was to be from "the faith," the body of teaching, instruction and admonition delivered by Jesus through His ambassadors, the apostles (Jude 3; 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3; etc.). History declares that the results of this apostasy were devastating, though deceptively so. The saddest and most destructive element of the defection was the fact that so few recognized it for what it was or is.
Therefore, most professed Christians have been (and still are) satisfied to unquestioningly accept and embrace whatever retrogression has transpired since the apostles, the earliest days, and that first faith which bound primitive disciples together. Moreover, there eras and is a startling apathy about recapturing what once was: And yet the reason is obvious; unless one comes to realize that something has gone awry, then he will be content to allow things to continue as they have for centuries. Worse than this, the backward movement only gathers momentum, impetus, and the respectability of age as time marches on.
The Attempts of the Reformers
The sixteenth century witnessed heroic efforts on the part of great and good men .like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and others toward revitalizing and reforming that which the papists had been .perverting and corrupting for nearly a millennium. One of the repercussions of their courageous work was the shattering of papal power over world governments: For such a boon to the common weal, we will all forever `remain in their debt. But more important than this was the unique plea which they contributed (or should we call it rather a statement of fact since it is entirely biblical and their special gift was simply its recognition and popularization). Sold scriptura, "Scripture alone" was their slogan. They tossed it into the face of the irate papists, stole the hearts of the common people with it, and made it their, banner. For all that, as their own movements took separate courses in such areas as church government, polity, and doctrine, they fell prey to the same foul beast that had .conceived and given birth to popery. Creeds took the place of Roman sovereignty for many of those salvaged 'from the sinking hulk that was Romanism.
Now "the faith" had two enemies: Roman Catholicism tire the one hand and Protestant creeds on the other. Both represented something quite other than that which the earliest Christians held as their authority. Sold scriptura had been unseated by the various confessions, creeds and church disciplines. The Bible had been just as thoroughly supplanted by the creeds as it was by the popes. The warring sects and parties were the fruit of another "falling away." The children of this movement had left the original ground of their very existence - which would undoubtedly have eventuated a full restoration of the New Testament order. If only its slogan had meant more to its founders and converts than a mere watchword or rallying-point! But, alas, it did not.
"Restoration of New Testament Christianity"
James O'Kelley of the Methodist church, Abner Jones and Elias Smith of the Freewill Baptist communion, Barton W. Stone a Presbyterian, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell of the Seceder Presbyterian church - these, with a multitude of others, decried conditions current in denominationalism and broke with it in both spirit and allegiance. The movement which has been the result of their toil and travail has come to be known by religious historians as the "Restoration Movement", since its intention was the restoration of apostolic authority and the order which it brought in the early church.
Regardless of this noble ideal, since its very beginning it has had its traitors as well as .detractors and opponents. Sometimes they have posed as friends of the church and "true heirs" of the pioneers. Almost always, though, they have argued the merits of the existence of such an association or union of Christians on the ground that it is unnecessary, even bigoted and prideful. One advocate of this sort of thinking has recently voiced his objection thus:
Segments of God's community need to be reformed and revived but not restored. We restore something, that is missing. If God's new Israel was ever lost we had a head without a body, a king without a kingdom, and a shepherd without a sheep. Churches or religious parties can be started, lost, and restored. But our king has never been without a kingdom.
In this case, a sophistic detractor avoids the real issue raised on historical and scriptural grounds and introduces a false charge against those of us who urge "restoration of apostolic Christianity." I do not recall preaching, nor do I remember anyone else ever saying; that God's new Israel was ever lost or that. the body of Christ ceased to exist. Should it be obliterated from the face of the earth even now (a thing which may well be impossible), still would that "heavenly Jerusalem" persist, yea "stand forever" (Dan. 2:44; Heb. 12:22, 28). The promise that it would "stand forever" includes its earthly sojourn but embraces something more: its existence beyond time and eternity. This same point would assuredly cover any period when saints were either few or absent from this world's multitudes. Additionally, the presence of saving grace, of the blood of Christ, of the ekklesia, and the rest in Scripture absolutizes that which may seem to be abstract in any generation or among any race of men. After all, the same knife cuts both ways, so to speak. How would our accuser explain the fact of any nation or race of men or geographical area where the message seems now or in the past to have had difficulty in taking root, much less flourishing? India, China, and Africa are excellent cases in point. Recall that the passage says also, "it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms" (Dan. 2:44). As a matter of simple observation it is clear that these two are parallel in every respect. If there can be a nation at a given period which does not accept the truth of the gospel, then there may certainly be an entire generation of men that may so decide. Whether that has ever happened I do not pretend to know, nor are any of us in a position to tell. I am perfectly willing for God to know that which it is impossible for me to ascertain. I would counsel all others to do the same (Deut. 29:29).
Another thought strikes me at this juncture with regard to our critic's censorious blast: our use of the word "restoration" is in complete harmony with both the dictionary definition and common sense. "To restore" is "to bring back to or put back into a former or original state" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, p. 1936). That is precisely what we intend on all fronts, just a few of which we shall mention here:
1. Restoration of the baptism which the early church practiced: immersion "for" or "in order to" remission of sins (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12).
2. Restoration of the government of the church: congregations were autonomous, severally overseen by a plurality of elders (bishops, pastors) from their own number, qualified for the task (Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:1-5; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:lff; Tit. 1:5ff).
3. Restoration of apostolic authority over the individual churches, and the Lordship and headship of Christ over the entire body through the acceptance of Holy Scripture as the full and complete revelation and the sole Divine Law for all Christians (2 Pet. 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:14-17; Jude 3; Rev. 22:18-19).
4. Restoration of the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" by the forsaking of denominational titles and names which demonstrably serve only to separate and divide would-be disciples of Christ (1 Cor. 1:l0ff; 3:4). Let men who follow Jesus be called Christians (Acts 11:26), and aggregates thereof simply "churches of Christ", or "of God" (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 1:2).
5. In short, restoration of the church of Bible times, of fellowship with God. Divinity has always been in the "restoration" business, since Eden anyway. All that God has done in human history has been toward the restoration of alienated humanity to Himself. The church represented in the very first place a "restoration" of this broken relationship. Albeit men are evermore moving away from Him in a plentitude of ways - moral, doctrinal, ecclesiastical, etc. God says to them, "Return, O backsliding children," and to those who would restore that attitude of harmony, "restore such a one."
The. aforementioned writer has obviously rejected the historic vision and aim to cultivate unity without regard for Divine authority and with precious little concern for Divine truth.
Another contemporary of ours has expressed himself in this area under the caption, "Restore What?" He objected to the thinking of many with: "Which one of the `New Testament churches' is it proposed to restore? They were all different in some important respects." To which question he also replies, "None of them in particular, and not all of them in the aggregate." He further argues that the ideal for the church is in the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, rather than having been perfectly demonstrated by a first-century congregation:
There is a standard against which the church is to measure itself. That standard is the apostolic description of the church as the body of Christ, agent of reconciliation and redemption in the world. To speak of `restoration' is not to suggest that once there existed a perfect group of congregations after which all subsequent Christian communities were to be modeled. It is rather to point to the true character of the church disclosed in apostolic testimony.
That disclosure is permanently relevant and authoritative. Any assembly of people calling itself `church' is authenticated or accused in the light of its resemblance to, or deviation from; the scriptural norm (Fred P. Thompson, in Envoy for November, 1978; quoted in Fred O. Blakely, "Pertinent Thoughts on Restoration," Banner of Truth, August, 1979, p. 2).
Much of what the author of the above says is on target. Howbeit, there is present in these thoughts a discernable effort to loosen the authority of apostolic examples contained in Scripture. The standard is significantly more than what the author alludes to as "the apostolic description of the church as the body of Christ, agent of reconciliation and redemption in the world." This is a part, but only that. It is one aspect of a larger whole and may be simply defined as one man's condensation of a multifaceted truth. Indeed, the early church is exemplary for- us in the. role of "agent of reconciliation and redemption," but from whence do we learn that this is the sole measure for the church today? Will a mere claim to such suffice, or must it be proven in other ways? Did the apostles not demand and receive absolute adherence to their word in the first century? Were the churches not completely submissive to their rule (a rule not their own but that of the Spirit for the Head)? And if that rule is to extend to our own day, then how shall it be determined what they would have the church to do today aside from the examples of that which they commanded the early congregations to do and the instructions which they delivered to them in their letters or the oral edicts provided in Acts? It is manifestly a question of apostolic authority! Such human sidestepping of the plain sense of Scripture serves only to dethrone the apostles! Remember that Jesus told them that "in the regeneration" (a period which none would say we have left behind), "when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mt. 19:28).
It is altogether beside the point to claim that one congregation exhibited the ideal for which we should strive. We arrive at the model by a simple "composite," in this case allowing the full New Testament to speak in the matter. That is exactly what we do in all cases (or at least what we should do). All that the Bible says about any subject represents the Word of God on that point. If that particular is found absent or perverted, then it needs to be "restored" to its original purity in order for that man or group of men to be "restored" to God's grace and favor.
Too, it will not do to allege as Thompson does that "they were all different in some important points." Naturally the churches of the New Testament showed individuality and even diversity in areas important and unimportant. However that may be, the unimportant aspects are precisely this and require neither definition nor discussion, while the significant ones were subject to apostolic rebuke and refutation. For example, the Corinthian disciples diverged from the practice of eating the Lord's Supper at the same time in the assembly apart from ordinary meals or feasts. With a stern hand Paul put them back on the right track in their observance in 1 Cor. 11. A church which similarly digresses from the apostolic pattern today would be similarly rebuked by the same divine guidance found in the precise document in the exact location. Corinthian or any other kind of deviation from the apostolic norm offers no refuge and provided no comfort for those who question the existence of such a New Testament ideal or pattern for the church. The same would apply to all other instances in the same category. "For this cause have I sent unto you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, who shall put you in remembrance of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Cor. 4:17).
Our reason for introducing this point and for arguing it with such vigor is quite plain: rediscovery of the apostolic pattern, renewed appreciation for its place in the individual and common life of Christians, and reapplication of the pattern to both is the very heart and soul of genuine "restoration." Nothing is really restored if we fail to restore this primitive norm in outward form, inward piety and conviction, and acceptance of the actual teaching of Jesus and His apostles.
To the question "Can the church of the first century be restored'!" we are compelled to voice a resounding "Yes!" Whenever and wherever the pure seed of the kingdom, the Word of God (Mk. 4:14) is planted, the crop may be expected to be unswervingly synonymous with that of the first century: Christians. As they individually and collectively follow the instructions of Jesus and His apostles and prophets in working and serving God in both spheres, it may truly be said that the church of the first century has been restored then and there. Men have been restored to their former fellowship with God, and the Lord has been glorified. May God bountifully use us all to that end!
Truth Magazine XXIV: 3, pp. 50-53