By Gary Weedman
For the past 100 years or so, churches and Christians in our fellowship generally have professed to be part of the Restoration Movement. We have not always been clear, however, about what exactly we are working to restore. To this day, perhaps with a bit too much hubris, we say of our early leaders that Thomas Campbell restored the ancient book, Alexander Campbell the ancient order, Walter Scott the ancient gospel, and Barton Stone the ancient life. Work done. Case closed.
But for much of the 20th century, many of the heirs of this historical movement thought in terms of restoring the church of Christ. At different times and places we focused primarily on what we thought the ancient worship of the church looked like, or what we saw as the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), or what we thought the polity (governance structure) of the church should look like, or how the church should do missions (sometimes with an intensity that made the means of “missions” the end, and with the result that “missions” has merely been one among many activities the church “does”).
Richard Phillips, in a study of the use of the term restoration in our history, concluded the word generally was not used until the second generation of leaders of the movement1. Rather, the early leaders used “reformation of the 19th century” or “the current reformation.” However, in the first half of the 20th century, “Restoration Movement” came into frequent use, especially by the churches of Christ2 and the Christian churches and churches of Christ.
For the last few decades, though, many heirs of the movement have come to prefer “Stone-Campbell Movement,” especially since the publication of Leroy Garrett’s Stone-Campbell Movement: An Anecdotal History of Three Churches in 1981; the establishment of the Stone-Campbell Journal (in 1998) and its affiliated conference; and the publication of The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement in 2004.
I must confess it is hard for me to think about giving up the term restoration as we have used it throughout much of the 20th century. For many years I taught the course “History of the Restoration Movement.” I am a fifth-generation member of this movement, from both the Campbell and the Stone streams. I have read widely in our thought and history, and embrace so many of the goals of these founders.
If we are going to call ourselves a restoration movement, however, we must be clear about what we are trying to restore. There are three areas where the idea of restoration corresponds to a biblical vision of the church and its mission: (1) its use in the Scriptures, (2) the biblical description of the nature of the church, and (3) the grand plan of God’s restoration of all things.
Biblical Concept of Restoration
There was confusion about the restoration movement even among Jesus’ disciples. After making the good confession that “you are the Messiah, the Son of God” and after witnessing the crucifixion and the resurrection, the apostles still didn’t know what to think about restoration. Just before Jesus ascended to Heaven they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6, author emphasis). They simply did not get this mission of restoration.
The apostles were not alone in their confusion, which may be why so many New Testament writers discussed the idea of restoration. It is important to note, however, that the New Testament writers rarely connected restoration with the book, the order of the church, the gospel, life, worship, the means of “missions,” or the church. Those items are mentioned, of course, throughout the narrative of the Scriptures. However, when it comes explicitly to the issue of restoration, writers describe restoring right relationships to God and to others (Hebrews 6:6; 13:19; Galatians 6:1; 2 Corinthians 13:9, 11; 1 Peter 5:10); or restoring all things [as they originally were] (Matthew 17:11; Mark 9:12; Acts 3:21); or restoring the kingdom (Acts 1:6; 15:16, here called “David’s fallen tent”).
Almost all of the biblical uses of the term restoration describe the narrative of the Christian gospel—that grand, unifying story from Genesis to Revelation. God makes all things new through the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom. God makes the world aright again, restoring lost relationships, restoring God’s rule, and restoring “all things.” The biblical focus of restoration was the end of God’s purpose, not the means to that end.
This does not imply that means are unimportant; the end does justify the means. But a persistent temptation is to make the means of a thing the end and to have the end forgotten in the glow of satisfaction having used the right means.
The Church Eternal
The use of restoration seems to contradict the biblical description of the church’s purpose in God’s great design. After Peter confessed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:16, 18). Jesus built his church on people just like Peter—fallible, mistake-prone, and shortsighted, but people who were bold enough to bear witness to the lordship of Jesus. And nothing could destroy such a church.
Paul struck the same theme, claiming his purpose was “to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Ephesians 3:9, 10, author emphasis). In the next chapter, Paul stresses the need for unity in the church for this goal to be fully realized.
But the church, always filled and led by imperfect and flawed people, succeeds not because it’s perfect. It succeeds because God works through human frailty to accomplish the grand purpose to restore his rule over all creation. When we talk about “restoring the church,” the restoration we seek is the restoration of God’s purpose for a united, reconciling church, one that is not necessarily perfect, but that fulfills “the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus.”
So, the church’s mission of restoration must be in terms of its God-ordained purpose, and in the end, the biblical concept of restoration is closely tied to God’s mission for the church, his people, and all of creation. Contemporary missiologists call this concept missio dei, the sending of God.
God certainly cares about how the church is structured, though we must confess that significant variations exist even in the New Testament narrative. God surely cares about the ways the church expresses its corporate life in worship, again with significant variations apparent. We do need to embrace the purposes and forms of the biblical practices of baptism and the Lord‘s Supper in order to stress their true meanings.
But having done all of those things and more, we still could miss the true restoration of the church. From God’s perspective, it is not the church that needs to be restored, as though that were an end in itself; it is the world that needs to be restored to God, and the church’s mission is to help bring about that restoration.
One contemporary theologian described the missional dimension of God’s relationship with the church this way: “Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.”3 The church exists as a “sent” body to proclaim to the entire world, even to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10), that God is restoring all things unto himself.
It is far too easy to become satisfied with restoration, thinking that it is our project, our work that can be achieved by putting various practices in place and insisting various beliefs be held by church members. Practices and beliefs are important and are to be informed by the Scriptures, to be sure. Yet, the grand story of the Scriptures is that God through Christ and through his body on earth, the church, is the One who effects true restoration, not us.
And the restoration is God’s work of reestablishing rule over all creation; it will not be completed until the end of the ages, what New Testament writers call “the last day,” the eschaton. May God be praised for including us in this ongoing task of restoring all things new as we wait in hope for the last day.
1Discipliana: A Journal of Stone-Campbell History, Spring 2011.
2Restoration Quarterly; The Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene Christian University.
3David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 389, 390.
Gary Weedman serves as president of Johnson University, in Knoxville, Tennessee.