By Steve Wolfgang
Since at least the second century A.D., people from many cultures have been intrigued with the idea of “restoring” various facets of New Testament Christianity. The pages of church history are footnoted with occasional references to the multitude of movements which attempted to restore the doctrines or practices of the Christians and churches described in the New Testament. For twentieth century Americans to imagine that they are the first or only to attempt “restoration” or “restitution” of the first century church would be an ignorant sort of chronological snobbery.
We would not leave the impression that such groups are to be applauded or imitated for their own sake. Many such attempts at restoration have had limited or even perverse notions of what should be restored. Others, with broader or nobler goals, have fallen far short of their ideals. Occasionally, those involved in such efforts have emphasized one item, or a small cluster, to the exclusion of other equally important elements of New Testament life and worship. Sometimes the adherents of such groups have seen “restoration” only as a way-station to some more exotic religious expression.
We Are Not The First
The main value of recalling such efforts lies not so much in what they accomplished, or in whether or not they were successful in their attempts, but rather in the direction in which they were looking and moving. Though some today seem bent upon “restoring the Restoration,” most thoughtful Bible students understand that establishing “authority” from human precedent can only lead to further fracturing factions. We can, however, learn from what others have discovered – let us not be put off by those who scorn the lessons of history. (Charles Spurgeon’s remark in Commenting and Commentaries is appropriate here – It is strange, Spurgeon remarked, that those who think so much of what the Scripture reveals to them think so little of what the Scriptures reveals to others.) If it is true that we can see more clearly than some who have gone before, perhaps it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.
We are not called to restore anyone’s restoration movement, nor to exalt any of the leaders of such attempts, however noble they may have been. It may be encouraging, though, to realize that we are not the first to make such an effort.
One of the problems encountered in attempting to chronicle the various attempts at restoration is that so much of the information about them has long been lost in the backwater of history. Perhaps because such attempts would have been seen as minority rebellions against the religious, political or economic “establishment,” the records of such groups have been suppressed in much the same manner as the groups themselves. We do know enough, however, to sketch an outlines.
Though it would be a mistake to consider groups such as the Cathars, Albigenses, or even the Waldensians as “medieval restorers,” they remind us of the fact that there have often been small bands of those who, believing some fundamental biblical truths, rejected many of the perversions and excesses of corrupt religion. Most of the records of these dissenting groups have survived, if at all, only through biased references by their tormentors, but the closer one comes to “modern” times the more evidence one discovers.
Although by the sixteenth century there were clear differences among individuals bent on reforming polluted religious bodies, as one historian has remarked, an idea common to them all was “that the Christians of the sixteenth century were called to reproduce in thought and life the intellectual beliefs and usages of the primitive Christians” (T.M. Lindsay, History of the Reformation, 11, 441).
Thomas Grantham published a series of essays on Primitive Christianity in 1678, referencing, among other passages, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:12, and Acts 10:47-48, and citing faith, repentance, and baptism for remission of sins as “the way of incorporation into the Church of Christ” (preface). Benjamin Grosvenor’s book of sermons, published in London in 1728 urged all to be simply Christians Only. Robert Sandeman, son-in-law of the Scottish “Independent” (i.e., “Congregationalist”) preacher John Glas, came to America in 1763 and organized a congregation in Danbury, Connecticut (he died in 1772 and was buried in the city cemetery in Danbury). Among other things, Sandeman distinguished between Old and New Testaments, advocated weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and placed church government in the hands of elders.
More Than Slogans
Not all such efforts produced desired results. John Dunlavy, co-signer with Barton Stone and others of “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” published, in 1818, The Manifesto, or a Declaration of the Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Christ. Unfortunately this was not what it might appear to be at first glance. Published at Pleasant Hill, KY, it was actually an exposition of the doctrines of the sect of Shakers which Dunlavy had joined.
Nathan Bangs published a book entitled An Original Church of Christ with the regrettable subtitle, A Scriptural Vindication. . . of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York, 1837). Joseph Smith produced a Mormon church which even today styles itself a “Restoration Movement” (see essays by that title edited by F.M. McKiernan, Coronado Press, 1973). Both Smith’s non-biblical revelations and the “charismatic church leadership” which produced Daniel Warner’s “Church of God” at Anderson, IN (and another group of the same name at Cleveland, TN) demonstrate that lofty slogans are insufficient to produce true restoration’of the Christianity outlined in the New Testament.
Extreme attempts to restore “primitive lifestyle” which have spawned countless Amish/Mennonite groups warn of the danger of isolating one item to be restored at the expense of others equally important. However well-intentioned we may be, attempts to isolate Scripture from other portions of Divine revelation, or to elevate one set of practices or doctrines as the “Fundamentals” or the most important part of God’s will, often prove to be counter-productive, as history attests.
A restoration ideal which can be taken seriously by twentieth century humans is one which emphasizes a properly balanced search for the emotional, moral, doctrinal, and intellectual, “ancient order,” individually and corporately (cf. Mt. 22:36ff). Emphasizing doctrinal over practical or moral precepts; individual over collective activity or vice versa; of any other artificial division of the Word will result in schism and strife, not restoration of the divine order.
In a “restoration” context found in the Old Testament, Ezra “set his heart to study the law of the Lord, to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel” (7:10). In our day, the task is the same.
We are not the first to embark on such a journey, nor will we likely be the last. But we are called in our own generation to continue the never-ending task of becoming and being, truly, “Christians only.”
Guardian of Truth XXX: 11, pp. 352-353
June 5, 1986