The Plea to Restore the New Testament Church (1)

By Mike Willis

We Christians are committed to the restoration of the New Testament church. We are not interested in “reforming” any established denomination. The denominations are religious bodies established and governed by men. Rather, we are interested in reproducing in all essential parts the church of the New Testament, especially wherein there has been a departure from the faith and practice of the inspired apostles of Christ.

The plea to restore the New Testament church rests upon the conviction that the Bible is an infallible revelation from God which is all sufficient to meet man’s spiritual needs. The Scriptures record Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would “guide” the apostles into all truth (Jn. 16:8). As a result of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, what the apostles taught was the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 14:37). The revelation which they communicated to man is sufficient to provide man with all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4). There is no spiritual need which man has for which God has not provided in his word.

The plea to restore the New Testament church is a plea to return, in all things, to the simple teachings of the Scriptures and a plea for abandonment of everything in religion for which there can not be given a divine warrant. This idea is expressed in the slogan, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

The Restoration Plea Condemned

In recent years, the restoration plea has not only been abandoned by many but also condemned as an instrument of division. In his book The Restoration Principle, A.T. DeGroot, noted historian of the Disciples of Christ, wrote, “Legalistic primitivism or restorationism has stunted the spiritual development and limited the growth of scores and scores of prior movements of this kind” (7). He later added, “From the foregoing survey of the experience of the 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” (160). DeGroot viewed the restoration plea as a hindrance to the unity of the church.

J.P. Sanders wrote, “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” (Voices of Concern 39). He continued, “Thus, far from being the 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” (44).

Victor Hunter reached the same conclusion in this comment: “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 in 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” (Mission Magazine V:9 [March 1972] 6).

James O. Baird recently wrote in defense of the restoration plea in the Gospel Advocate [January 1992, 20], “Well platformed and highly profiled men in churches of Christ are mounting a barrage against the validity of the restoration principle which was the germinal idea of the movement to restore the New Testament church.” He then proved his statement by several quotations of his brethren condemning the restoration plea. He concluded that the liberal brethren are facing a major threat from those who have rejected the principle of restoration of the New Testament church.

Max Lucado was quoted by the Tulsa (OK) World as follows:

He said, “I have a gut feeling that we (the church of Christ) have approached the Bible as an engineer, looking for a certain design or architectural code. And I think we find that everyone finds a different code. As a result, we split into 27-28 splinters or factions.

“There is no secret code. The Bible is a love letter as opposed to a blueprint. You don’t read a love letter the same way you read a blueprint” (quoted in Behold the Pattern by Goebel Music, 114).

Rebel Shelly of Nashville, Tennessee said, “Pattern theology has been our undoing. Pattern theology we have learned to generate by a hermeneutic of command, example, and inference . . . it assumes the Bible is all of a kind in terms of literature, that all of it is case study legislation, so you take this system and you put a grid over it and what you come up with is your pattern” (Music 301).

These statements reject and condemn the restoration plea. Similar statements have appeared with greater frequency in journals published among our liberal brethren, such as Image. Also see documented statements condemning the restoration plea quoted in Goebel Music’s Behold the Pattern. Added to this is the incorrect perception that some among us seem to have that the restoration plea is a plea to restore the restoration movement. These things being so, I wish to reaffirm the basic principles of the restoration plea in the next several articles.

The Restoration Principle Affirmed

Thomas and Alexander Campbell are not authorities in religion, but they plead for all men to return to the New Testament as the word of Christ and final authority in religion. Let us briefly review their plea for the restoration principle. When Thomas Campbell published The Declaration and Address, these fundamental propositions were believed and accepted by them:

“1. That the church of Christ upon the earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

“2. That although the church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another; yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them to the glory of God. And for this purpose, they ought all to walk by the same rule, to mind and speak the same thing; and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and the same judgment.

“3. That in order to this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion; but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them, in the word of God. Nor ought any thing be admitted, as of divine obligation, in their church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament church; either in expressed terms, or by approved precedent.

“4. . . . the New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline and government of the New Testament church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members; as the Old Testament was for the worship, discipline, and government of the Old Testament church, and the particular duties of its members” (16).

The Restoration Plea Is a Plea for Unity

The plea to restore the New Testament church is a plea for unity. Campbell had given up hope of finding peace and harmony “by continuing amidst the diversity and rancor of party contentions, the veering uncertainty and clashings of human opinions” (1). They thought peace could be found only in God’s simple word. Thomas Campbell wrote, “Our desire, therefore, for ourselves and our brethren would be, that rejecting human opinions and the inventions of men, as of any authority, or as having any place in the church of God, we might forever cease from farther contentions about such things; returning to, and holding fast by the original standard; taking the divine word alone for our rule” (1-2).

The restoration plea was the means for bringing reconciliation to brethren torn by division. Campbell desired to see the church return to its original unity, peace, and purity. He asked, “Is there any thing that can be justly deemed necessary for this desirable purpose, but to conform to the model, and adopt the practice of the primitive church, expressly exhibited in the New Testament?” (10)

“Who then, would not be the first amongst us, to give up with human inventions in the worship of God; and to cease from imposing his private opinions upon his brethren: that our breaches might thus be healed? Who would not willingly conform to the original pattern laid down in the New Testament, for this happy purpose?” Then he committed himself to give up whatever he believed, taught or practiced for the sake of the unity of the church. “But this we do sincerely declare, that there is nothing we have hitherto received as matter of faith or practice, which is not expressly taught and enjoined in the word of God, either in express terms, or approved precedent, that we would not heartily relinquish, that so we might return to the original constitutional unity of the Christian church; and in this happy unity, enjoy full communion with all our brethren, in peace and charity” (10-11).

The divisions which pose a threat to the Lord’s people today can be healed by a commitment to the restoration plea – a plea to restore the belief and practices of the New Testament revelation of the word of God. In further articles, we shall see just what such a plea is and what it demands.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 10, pp. 290, 309-310
May 21, 1992