Is the Restoration Principle Valid ?

By Mike Willis

The American religious movement which is commonly called “The Restoration Movement” and which was led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Barton W. Stone was as much a unity movement as is the twentieth century ecumenical movement. However, the basis on which unity was to be attained in that movement was through the restoration of the New Testament church. When Alexander Campbell began the publication of the Millennial Harbinger, he proposed these as his goals:

“As the harbinger of such a millennium, the periodical’s aim was to be: (a) to restore the faith, ordinances, organization, and terms of admission of the apostolic church; (b) to do this by resting directly upon the teachings of Scripture; (C) thus to come to what Thomas Campbell had called ‘simple evangelical Christianity’,- and (d) to make this the basis of union ” (W.E. Garrison and A. T. DeGroot, THE DISCIPLES OF CHRIST, A HISTORY, pp. 206-207).

Notice that the Campbells proposed a union contingent upon the restoration of the New Testament church.

Today, some of the historical descendants of the movement have denied the very foundation on which it began; they have denied the validity of the restoration principle. Here are some sample quotations from those who deny the validity of the restoration principle:

“This is the, first great illusion embodied in the Restoration Principle: that there is an Original Pattern or code of laws in which are ‘ outlined the corporate structures of the Church, and that a Christian must observe in every point to be ‘acceptable to God.’ . . . The Restoration Principle is not found in the New Testament; it is, rather, a method of interpreting the New Testament” (Don Haymes, “The Restoration Illusion, ” INTEGRITY, Vol. V, No. 5, pp. 68-69).

‘From the foregoing survey of the experience of Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ, we may conclude that the more specifically the restoration plea has been defined in terms of governmental, organizational, and ritualistic patterns of behavior, the less success it has had as an effective and cohesive force in the Christian world” (A.T. DeGroot, THE RESTORATION PRINCIPLE, p. 160).

“The early church was not itself a rigid structure; the development of it, as seen through New Testament letters, shows this clearly. To talk about ‘restoring’ the early church requires that we designate WHICH early church-for example, the one of Corinthians, or the one of the pastoral letters . . . . Historical criticism has shown that with the process that produced the Scriptures it is impossible for any coherent pattern to be found. Thus, far from being a basis for unity today, patternism or restorationism may become a sure and certain barrier to unity and has, as a matter of fact, resulted in more divisions” (JP. Sanders, “Failures of Fundamentalism, ” VOICES OF CONCERN, Robert Meyers, ed., pp. 39, 44).

“The problem with a restoration theology is that it, rests on the premise that the mission of the church is to set up a ‘true church’ in which all the details of church life are exactly like they were on a first century world. It functions on the assumption that there is a blueprint or pattern in the New Testament that the church is to reduplicate in each succeeding generation. Such a theology makes the church’s mission egocentric and past-oriented rather than outward looking and future-oriented” (Victor L. Hunter, “Some Thoughts on Theology and Mission, ” MISSION, Vol. V., 9, March, 1972, p. 6 as quoted by Roy Deaver, “The New Testament Is The Pattern,” THE SPIRITUAL SWORD, Vol. V, No. 1, p. 16).

Several other writers from Voices of Concern could be quoted to demonstrate their repudiation of the restoration concept.

I have no particular interest in the restoration movement as a basis for determining what I should believe and practice. However, I do believe that the restoration idea is the only one which is biblically sound. The idea is indeed based upon the presupposition that the New Testament contains a pattern for the original church which original pattern must be followed in the Lord’s church of all ages.

Patternism In the Old Testament

Under this section, I plan to demonstrate that the pattern idea was present in the Old Testament. God communicated a pattern to Noah by which he was expected to erect the ark (Gen. 6:14-1-6). Noah was commended by God when he had built the ark exactly as God had revealed in His pattern. Similarly, Moses was given a pattern for the construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 25:9,40; 26:30; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:2,5). The pattern revealed not only the pattern for the construction of the tabernacle but also revealed how to offer services in that tabernacle, specifically describing the service at the incense and brazen altars (Lev. 16:11-14; 1-7), table of shewbread (Lev. 24:5-9); etc. Anytime men departed from this pattern, a restoration of God’s original pattern was necessary. Josiah’s reform was nothing other than a restoration of the ancient system of worship-a restoration movement (2 Kgs. 22:26-44). (Is not this restoration movement one of the things which we should learn from our study of the Old Testament? See Rom. 15-4). Every king in -Judah and Israel was judged wicked or righteous on the basis of how well he followed the pattern laid down in the Mosaical law.

A New Testament Pattern

There is also a uniform pattern revealed by God for the early church. The apostles were given the task of revealing that pattern to us (Mt. 28:20). Whatever they bound or loosed for man had already been bound or loosed in heaven (Mt. 18:18, NASB). The early church was expected to adhere to the “apostles doctrine” (Acts 2:42). What the apostles revealed was expected to be handed down from generation to generation (2 Tim. 2:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). Every commandment and instruction regarding false doctrine operates upon the presupposition that there is a uniform pattern of doctrine from which men cannot depart (2 Jn. 911; Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Cor. 4:6; Rom. 16:17-18). There was uniformity in the revelation of the apostles (I Cor. 16:1-2). The rules which they gave are called “laws,” the comments of those who call this legalism notwithstanding (I Cor. 9-21; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 1:25). (Would those who deny the existence of a New Testament law please explain the New Testament usage of these terms: “lawgiver,” “lawful,” and “lawlessness”9) No wonder the author of Hebrews compared the patternism of the New Testament church to that of the tabernacle!


It seems strange to me how many among us want to restore the New Testament doctrine about Jesus and the New Testament ethical code but have no desire to restore anything about the doctrines of the New Testament church. (They want to be a part of a restoration movement, regardless of what they might call it, which restores the New Testament doctrines about Christ but not of one which restores the New Testament doctrines about the church.) Not one among those who deny the restoration principle is consistent in his denial of a pattern. Those who deny a pattern of church cooperation and organization believe in a pattern for worship; those who deny a pattern of worship appeal to a pattern of conversion; those who deny a pattern of conversion appeal to a pattern of ethics; those who deny a pattern of ethics appeal for a New Testament pattern of situationism!

If there is no pattern, there can be no violation (Rom, 4:15)! If there is no pattern of worship, any worship of God invented by man is pleasing to Him. To admit this would make Paul’s ordinances in I Cor. 14 absurd! If there is no pattern of organization, any organizational arrangement is acceptable, including the papacy. To deny the existence of a pattern for the New Testament church logically leads to antinomianism, whether those who deny the patterns are personally openly advocating it or not.

Intellectual Honesty?

There have been several clever dodges employed by those who deny the restoration principle, such as the following:

“Patterns for congregational organization, worship, etc. are vague and open to debate. We have argued about them for more than a hundred years. There is no well-defined pattern for organic unity, so primitive congregations differed in many respects. Those bent on restoring the New Testament church should tell us which congregation they are restoring” (Carl Ketcherside, “The Body of Christ,” MISSION MESSENGER, Vol. 34, No. 10, p. 148).

Frequently, the barbed comment is added that some have done a good job of restoring the factionalism of Corinth, the indifference of Ephesus, and the legalism of Galatia. That is a rather clever and ingenious dodge; nevertheless, it is a dodge! Our brethren know what we are trying to restore no one particular congregation but the ideal given for the church in the New Testament! I think I therefore have legitimate reason to question the intellectual honesty of these brethren!

Where They Are Headed?

Let us not forget where those who are denying the validity of the restoration principle are headed. They are trying to find some type of system whereby they can fellowship the Christian Church and liberal churches among us. They no longer believe the preachers for these congregations to be false teachers. But if God has revealed a pattern of organization which the liberal churches have perverted ir the sponsoring church arrangement, a pattern of work which the liberal churches have perverted with their recreational activities and social gospel, and a pattern of worship which the Christian Churches have perverted with its mechanical instruments of music, all of those who preach for these groups are false teachers which cannot be fellowshipped. Since our brethren want to fellowship these men, they are making an assault on the principle of the restoration of the New Testament church. Such a denial of the restoration principle is heresy which leads to antinomianism and those who teach it are heretics who must be marked and rebuked.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:37, p. 9-10
July 25, 1974