By Jim Putman
As I shared in Part 1, I am skeptical of any new view of original things. My reasons are twofold. First, when speaking about something historical in nature, eyewitnesses and their contemporaries are more likely to have it right. Second, Scripture warns that people will come seeking to change views that were once well understood.
Thomas Campbell, a Restoration Movement founder, coined the phrase, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak, and where it is silent, we are silent.” It captures the spirit of Romans 14 and resonates with me. Freedom exists where Scripture is silent, but we must not refuse to speak (or believe) where Scripture speaks on matters that have been understood from the beginning.
How Do We Evaluate New Ideas?
When someone dreams up a new way of interpreting Scripture, we must be familiar enough with the New Testament to discern and evaluate that change. We must ask such questions as, “What does Scripture say on the subject?” and “How has this been understood since the early church?”
In the Old Testament, God’s prophets pointed people back to the writings of Moses as the standard of righteousness without adding to it or taking away from it. The Jews were judged for not living out what was written in that standard. In the same way, New Testament writers pointed back to what had been written and understood from the beginning without adding to or taking away from it. All of this was for our good—the Word was given by a good God who created us and always wants the best for us.
As I stated in Part 1, two people can read Scripture differently even if they use many of the same hermeneutical tools. Personal experiences impact the choice of the tools we use. The culture we live in, the meaning of words handed down to us, and the passages we use for context impact our conclusions. Established understandings provide a basis for what we believe about Scripture, its writers, and its purpose.
The world was created with purpose and perfection, and Jesus pointed to this when answering questions about divorce. Likewise, Paul shared reasons that pointed to creation, not culture, when he gave his commands concerning women in leadership. So, when we consider a new interpretation that challenges an established idea concerning a Scripture’s meaning, we must ask several questions:
1. What new information have we received that would cause us to reexamine this?
2. What motive is behind this new idea? Is it cultural? Is it based on an experience that is causing the Scripture to be read in a different light? Is it a result of some misuse of Scripture that has caused harm? Is it because our world has changed and now views things differently because of “science” or popularity?
3. How old or new is this new idea? Can I find it in the early church (that is, among those who lived just after the apostles?)
If the challenge to the original scriptural interpretation is being advocated by people who have an unbiblical agenda, the new interpretation is not the answer; rather, Christians should live out Scripture using the long-established interpretation.
Does ‘Nonessential’ Mean Unimportant?
Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell understood that not all truths were equally important. They sought to focus on agreement to bring unity rather than being divided by secondary issues. This created such a stir that the Restoration Movement exploded, but it didn’t mean that nonsalvation issues were unimportant.
The Restoration Movement developed distinctives that sought to restore the original model found in Acts 2 and the rest of the New Testament. For example, many views of baptism existed at that time (the early 1800s), but since baptism was originally by immersion and included a public confession of faith, the movement’s leaders decided to follow that pattern. Their conviction was the early church had done things in a specific way, and that way was worth repeating. Alignment around those distinctives keeps us unified so we can attack the real enemy without fighting amongst ourselves.
Not every truth is equally important, but just because something is nonessential does not mean it is unimportant. These days I’m hearing some in the Restoration Movement saying things like, “It’s not a salvation issue so it doesn’t matter.” I disagree.
Discipleship involves much more than just sharing the gospel. While it should start with declaring the truth about our sin and that we must accept Jesus as our Savior and Lord, it must not end there. Since all authority is his, we are to teach all Jesus commanded in Scripture, through his apostles, in every sphere of our lives. Every part of our lives has been tainted by sin, and that sin has affected God’s design for marriage, the church, parenting, and leadership, just to name a few areas of concern.
God has expressed his design for restoration and re-creation in Scripture. So, when the storms of life hit us, we can stand strong because our lives are built on the solid foundation of his Word.
Is It ‘No Big Deal’ to Redefine Church Leadership in a More Culturally Accepting Way?
Can you be saved and yet not understand what it means to be a good leader? I certainly hope so because far too often I have been poor at leading. I am a work in progress, but I should continue to work toward the definition of a good leader found in God’s Word until the day I die.
But what if someone challenges what God’s Word says about good leadership by redefining it in a more culturally acceptable way? Should I say, “No big deal”? (After all, it’s not a salvation issue.) What happens if I do? As I see it, I will have allowed the world (ultimately the enemy of our souls) to redefine a biblical concept; in doing this, I will have allowed that part of my life to be less godly than it could have been.
Many have sought to improve church leadership by taking cues from business leaders rather than Scripture. This leads to businesses that call themselves churches rather than churches that use Jesus’ methods of leading his people toward his goals. Winning souls becomes more about gathering crowds than making disciples. People become employees rather than brothers and sisters and children in the faith. If I were to adopt those ideas and practices, then those I lead will undoubtedly experience something “less than” what New Testament believers experienced.
If I had accepted such unbiblical views at Real Life, where I serve, I would have been either willfully ignorant of Scripture or willfully disobedient to Scripture.
I know many Restoration Movement leaders who have allowed their ideas about church to be formed by those who are seemingly wise in the business world. How did this happen? A hallmark of the Restoration Movement is to go back to the purity of the beginning.
What About Redefining Women’s Roles?
A hot topic in churches today is men’s and women’s roles, particularly in leadership. I have heard from many in the Restoration Movement about a new way to look at this subject, and because it’s not a salvation issue, it shouldn’t matter.
A new view about women’s roles is pushed at conferences and other platforms. I should note, to those folks who are pushing the new view, it seems to matter a great deal!
Thirty-five years ago, when I started full-time ministry, I was shocked to find many Restoration Movement scholars, professors, and pastors joining with a minority of liberal churches that were creating new ways to disregard the clear historical understandings of Scripture pertaining to men’s and women’s roles in the church. Back then, it was a small percentage. Problem was, many of these scholars held prominent positions in our colleges and seminaries, where they were influencing future pastors.
These Christian church “scholars” echoed a strain of Christianity (e.g., the Disciples of Christ) that had already made that jump years earlier to mainline denominationalism. Those who had led the way pushing for female leadership in the church didn’t stop there but moved to affirming homosexuality in the church and in leadership.
Early in this process, most pastors and scholars did not agree with those espousing new ways to look at women’s roles, but they didn’t think it was that big of a deal. “It’s not a salvation issue,” they said then. But was it unimportant? Was it not an issue the enemy used as a stepping stone to create a new way of understanding and then dismissing Scripture? If it was an issue important enough to be clearly spoken about in Scripture, then it is an issue that could cause us great trouble if we get it wrong.
The early church clearly understood this teaching, so utilizing women as pastors with newfound authority and responsibility is a new phenomenon. If it wasn’t, the tension wouldn’t be there.
For nearly 2,000 years, the church has maintained a consistent view on the issue of women pastors and teachers. To be clear, women did teach women and children and they have long been an essential part of the ministry of the church. No one I know is questioning that, but in what roles and what conditions?
When it came to the gathering of all the believers for teaching and leadership authority, there is no single example where a woman led the gathered church as an elder, pastor, or teacher in early Christianity. I know of no early church example where a woman was the central teacher or even a minor one when the church gathered.
I am aware of the arguments concerning women and prophecy, and I think there are right answers given by scholars today, but they fit with what we know about history. The clear reading of Scripture directed to “the gathering of the believers” tells us they are not to do that. The early church understood it that way and the only women who sought that role or were given it were in the early Gnostic cults.
I cannot take on every objection here, but I do provide a clear principle: the best people to tell us what a passage meant are those who were there in the beginning. If a modern scholar tells me they have a new understanding of something, I am immediately skeptical. Frankly, I should be skeptical, because the Scriptures tell me that some will come as false teachers. I am told to hold to the faith—once for all entrusted—and the role of men and women are included in that.
One might argue that the original model of male-only church leadership won’t help us win people in the world we live in today. I would respond, however, that in discipleship, we become the family of God as we grow in our knowledge and application of the Scriptures. Leaders lead humbly and sacrificially—like Jesus did. Followers are submissive and humble—like Jesus was. And as we become ordered around God’s design and filled with his love, we become something altogether different in the world.
The enemy will seek to divide and infiltrate us so that we cannot win against him, but as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds and become mature, we will become the body of Christ, which functions completely differently from those who live in the world. Then the Lord adds to our number daily.
If it is true that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God and the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, then we must ask, “Am I looking more (or less) like what the world would see as acceptable?” If I lead like those at Microsoft, am I seeking to be approved by the world? If my view of men and women, sex, and marriage is more acceptable and understandable to the world, should I worry or not?
Is It Time for a Restart?
Recently, I have been watching many national Christian leaders fail morally. Some are falling because they have rejected God’s version of submission and authority within the structure of a church. A person’s ability to attract a crowd can be more important than their character. Another famous and influential pastor just told me that homosexuality is not sin.
The percentage of pastors in the Restoration Movement who now dismiss Scripture’s roles for men and women is growing incredibly. These shifting views seek to reshape the church . . . but for what purpose? Is it feminism, a rejection of patriarchy, a desire for inclusion, or a desire to gain status, money, or power? At what cost? Why do it? Rejecting God’s plans for worldly things may get us more of the world but it results in less of God’s blessing. How many times will we ignore God’s counsel and suffer before we learn?
Maybe it’s time for a new Restoration Movement. Most of us were handed something, but it has become something we take for granted. Maybe it’s time to remember the problem the Restoration Movement faced . . . a bunch of opinions not found in the Scriptures and not endorsed by New Testament church practice. The Restoration Movement’s founders decided to disregard those opinions and rely, instead, on the first practices of the first church.
Let’s make our stand—not to be the only Christians, but to be Christians only. Let’s define that by going back to the Scriptures as understood by the early church, for this is precisely what the founders of our movement did. Let’s not just use the name Christian, but let’s also live out its principles.
Jim Putman serves as senior pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho. He is the author or coauthor of several discipleship books, including Church Is a Team Sport, Real-Life Discipleship, and DiscipleShift.