By Jeff Faull
Attitudes toward the Restoration Movement from within the movement are greatly varied. They range from a blind, unquestioning loyalty to the movement—its founders, champions, and slogans—to a lack of interest and an assessment that our historic plea and positions are irrelevant, all the way to an overt disdain and intentional distancing from our heritage and history.
Myriads of articles have been written about the ongoing decline of denominational loyalty. The editors of Christianity Today even put a tombstone under the headline “Are Denominations Dead?” on their June 2010 cover, highlighting a piece on waning tribal commitment by Ed Stetzer. Some welcomed declining denominational loyalty as a positive development, while others have bemoaned it as another sign of an unraveling culture. How should we in the Restoration Movement respond? How is loyalty to the Restoration Movement different from denominational loyalty, and when, and in what way, is our loyalty appropriate?
First Corinthians 1 offers warnings and a framework for considering loyalty to our movement. It can help us answer this question: When is loyalty to a plea or a movement appropriate?
• When it still acknowledges the beauty and breadth of the church
Paul began his letter to the very flawed church in Corinth by addressing them as fellow believers, belonging to Christ as saints under the lordship of Jesus. His acknowledgement of their standing is clear. He wrote “to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours”
(1 Corinthians 1:2).*
This is not a sort of ecumenical tolerance that commends and acknowledges every brand and stripe of theological diversity, but it is a realization that despite all the imperfections and flaws in the Corinthian church, God still saw them as his church. Marshall Leggett, in his book Introduction to the Restoration Ideal (Standard Publishing, 1986), aptly defined the Restoration Movement as, “A movement within the church calling all believers back to the church as it was given to the apostles.” Loyalty to New Testament Christianity means calling for truth and purity while, at the same time, acknowledging the scope and magnitude of the body of Christ.
• When it attempts to be of the same mind
The New Testament consistently calls us to be of the same mind, to agree with one another. Of course, that does not mean we all think exactly alike. That will never happen on this earth, nor does God intend for it to happen. People come from different backgrounds, environments, and perspectives. We will never be exactly aligned in everything, and perfect agreement is not the intent of Paul’s directive. But neither does it mean we need to compromise truth for the sake of agreement. The Holy Spirit reveals through Scripture that the church is to be the pillar and support of the truth. We are to contend earnestly for the faith and guard what has been entrusted to us. Further, we are to watch out for false teaching, hold fast the word of life, and stand firm, rejecting teaching and teachers that contradict the truth of the gospel. We are called to test everything. A primary purpose of the letters in the New Testament is to correct false teaching—to draw some lines—and keep us on track as Christians.
However, we cannot force everyone to agree with us. I once heard Don DeWelt say, “I considered writing a book entitled Agree with Me or Go to Hell, and then I realized that God had already written a book by that title, and he has his copyrighted.” He also said, “We say we have the truth, but everyone who has the 66 books of the Bible has the truth . . . the question is, what do you do with it?”
This is not a call for forced tolerance. Scripture makes it clear there is a foundation for oneness. We need to have the right authority in order to agree with one another. It’s been said, “To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click ‘I agree.’” The Bible is God’s authoritative Word, and we seek to teach and follow it. We must not follow man-made creeds or regard the word of any person as authoritative. We attempt to follow the Word of God alone. We all may value different traditions, opinions, and preferences, but we all submit to one authority—the Word of God. Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent. When we do this, we’re more likely to be on the same page! We can’t just say, “We all believe in Jesus and that’s all that matters.” We are committed to follow all Scripture. We have more consensus when we simply let God speak. There is still value in the saying, “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.” We can disagree without being disagreeable. We can contend for truth without being contentious for truth. We can insist without being insulting.
In The Sermon on the Mount, a book written more than 50 years ago, Clovis Chappell wrote, “The fact that the way is narrow does not mean that those who walk it must themselves be narrow. The opposite is true. It is as we travel the narrow way that we become broad. Real Christians are never narrow.”
An anonymous prayer written decades ago characterizes the proper allegiance to truth: “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half-truths, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, O God of Truth, deliver us.”
• When it openly examines our level of maturity and allows us to question our own motivations
These admonitions to Corinth make it very clear that division, schisms, a party spirit, undue confidence, and identification with and in human leaders is an indication of spiritual immaturity. Is it jealousy, strife, or pride that quietly motivates us? Are we taking positions that simply toe the party line because of what the “faithful crowd” would say, or are we taking positions that blur the line because of what the “forward crowd” would say? Over the years, I have observed that being pleasers of people is a problem for both liberals and legalists. In Paul’s rebuke, some claimed to be of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, while others claimed to be of Christ. And though belonging to Christ is an accurate statement that is used again in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul seems to include the “Christ party” in his rebuke here, as well. At its root, denominationalism is a pride and attitude problem as well as a doctrinal problem. Appropriate loyalty to the Restoration Movement calls us to that realization.
• When it elevates the nature and the sacrifice of Jesus and our baptism into him
The apostle asked, “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). Isn’t it interesting that Paul used the subject of baptism to call us to unity? He did the same thing in 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and Galatians 3. The elemental tenants of the gospel call us to unity and truth at the same time. Loyalty to the Restoration plea is loyalty that champions those truths and continues to build on a solid foundation.
In Christianity Today, sociology professor William Weston reported that growing churches tend to be conservative. He identified such churches as “those with clear authoritative doctrine, rigorous religious practices and demanding membership responsibilities.” Churches that try to accommodate the secular world by diluting the faith keep losing people.
This refers, of course, to the part of the passage that says every person’s work will be tried by fire. But our work is tested in other ways as well. As a matter of fact, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul maintained that divisions and factions ultimately identify who genuine believers really are. Sectarian, denominating thought, actions, and doctrines can serve the dubious purpose of standing in stark contrast to genuine Christianity. Rather than diluting or polluting our faith with every wind of doctrine and practice, we should be testing everything to see if it is of God.
• When it recognizes the ultimate inadequacy of human leadership
You would be hard-pressed to find any leaders more powerful and knowledgeable than Paul or Apollos, but listen to the words of Paul himself:
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
Healthy Restoration loyalty is not loyalty to historical figures and names like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and “Raccoon” John Smith. It is not loyalty to institutions, gatherings, conventions, publications, or organizations. It is not loyalty to a certain group of people or thought leaders. Instead, healthy loyalty is allegiance to the one perfect leader while connecting with like-minded followers who are subject to him.
• When it savors and embraces the beautiful images of the church
According to Paul, the church is a flock, a field, a building, a body, a family, a group of fellow workers, a bride, even an army. Rather than providing a technical definition of the church, the New Testament gives us an array of images, metaphors, and analogies to help us build and flesh out what it means to be in the kingdom of God. Loyalty to a movement that liberates and enables us to do and be the church described in the New Testament is a rightly placed loyalty.
An old Standard Publishing workbook series on the Restoration Movement contains a booklet written by Enos Dowling. His little volume was prefaced with a brief attempt to contextualize the beginnings of the Restoration Movement in America. He listed nearly a dozen bullet points. Though times are now radically different, the conditions surrounding the rise of the Restoration Movement are not entirely dissimilar to the characteristics of our culture today. In fact, there are some striking parallels:
• a spirit of individualism and independence and an insistence on no religious “restriction”
• a volatile political and economic landscape
• a declining interest in and respect for the church as a relic of the past
• deteriorating moral conditions (Dowling wrote, “even the clergy participated in drinking”)
• a heavy influence of Calvinistic thought
• a renewed influence of the expression of “written thought”
• a reaction against creedalism
• religious confusion and division
• a corrupt ambitious and arrogant clergy class
• neglect and misuse of Scripture
• leaning toward experiential spirituality
• some stirring of religious awakenings.
It has been said that the Restoration Movement was born to die. And that is true . . . when its work is finished. Any movement that has lost its purpose or fulfilled its mission no longer has any reason for existence. But has the Restoration Movement lost its purpose or fulfilled its mission? Do the factors which called it into existence no longer exist? Are there standards other than the Bible in Christianity today? Is the church still divided? Has the babble of voices directing sinners given place to the language of God?
Dowling then quoted something Alexander Campbell had written long ago in the Millennial Harbinger:
If we fail it can not be in the object proposed: for in this none can claim higher, more rational, or more scriptural ground. If, too, Christianity is ever to be restored . . . if the disciples of Jesus Christ are ever to be united, if sectarianism is ever to be put down, if the world is to be regenerated and its kingdoms bow to the scepter of Jesus . . . it must be by placing the apostles upon the thrones which Jesus promised them, by making them the infallible arbiters of every question of faith and morals. If there be a rock, if there be a sure and well tried foundation on which to build in the moral and religious desolations of Christendom, this is the foundation.
So, when is loyalty to a plea or a movement appropriate? Loyalty to the Restoration Movement is appropriate and healthy when it is an allegiance to a plea and a people with principles that discourage the negative aspects of tribalism and engender the positive aspects of it. It is healthy when it focuses on promoting unity within the framework of New Testament authority under the lordship of Jesus. Our loyalty to the Restoration Movement is healthy when it truly upholds the dream of restoring the New Testament church!
*Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
Jeff Faull has served as senior minister with Mount Gilead Church, Mooresville, Indiana, since 1988.