Must Restoration Divide?

by MARK JOY, once of Kansas City, Missouri
now in 2010 teaching in South Dakota.
VOL. 5, NO. 3 (JULY 2010)
of the quarterly ONCE DELIVERED.

      Early leaders of the Stone-Campbell reformation (a “Restoration” Movement) in the U.S.A. were very confident and hopeful. They believed the movement they had launched, to return to New Testament teachings and practices, would eventually lead to complete unity of the churches of Christendom. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Moses E. Lard, a Christian preacher in north Missouri, surveyed the religious scene in this country. Many major religious denominations had divided as a result of the sectional crisis that led to the war. If the Christian (Disciples) movement could survive such a crisis without dividing, he concluded, “we can never divide.”
      Sadly, his prophecy was proven incorrect, and in a relatively short time. Instead of uniting other groups, the Restoration Movement itself divided, into three major branches and a number of sub-branches. Because of this tragic, ironic history, some have concluded that the principle of restoration itself is wrong. They have argued that there is something inherently divisive about restoration. This is the question I hope to answer in this article: Must restoration divide? Is the principle or the conceptof restoration inherently divisive?
      Surveying the history of Christianity, one sees many attempts to restore the early church. Such attempts have often been divisive. During the reformation of the 16th century, the Anabaptists were a primitivist movement which sought to restore the early church. But eventually divisions occurred among them over exactly what was to be restored. New Testament practices only, or Old Testament practices as well? How much should Christians embrace the contemporary world? This was the source of the later division between the Mennonites and the Amish, for example.
      The Pentecostal movement is another example of a group very much oriented toward restoration. They want to restore the spiritual gifts that were present in the early church. That in itself has proved divisive, as other groups have maintained that such gifts are not present in the church today as legitimate miraculous gifts from God.
      There have also been divisions among Pentecostals concerning allegations of compromise with the world, as for example with the neck tie issue. A neck tie serves no practical purpose. So some have argued that wearing one must be a fashion statement, an example of giving in to worldly self-aggrandizement. Therefore, a sincere Christian should not wear a neck tie.
      Within the Stone-Campbell movement, the strong emphasis on restoration has often been at the root of many of our divisions. The movement originally emphasized two keynotes: restoration and unity. Restoration was seen as a means to unity. In the early 19th century, virtually all Christians claimed allegiance to the Bible. Early advocates of the Restoration Movement believed that all who claimed to be Christians should be able to unite on adherence to the Bible alone. They believed that divisions had arisen over the centuries because of man-made systems of trying to interpret the Scriptures. If we abandoned those man-made attempts to explain the Bible and simply took the Bible alone, there could be unity.
      Over the course of our history, however, we have tended to follow one or the other of those ideals--restoration OR unity, but not both. Some have become extreme and rigid in an emphasis on the restoration theme, i.e., “We are the only Christians.” Others have emphasized unity at the expense of virtually everything else, and have downplayed the restoration theme.
      But does it have to be either way? Can we be restorationists without being divisive? Is there something about the concept, message, or principle of restoration itself that causes division? I do not believe there is. I firmly believe that restoration is a Biblically sound concept. And if it is Biblical, it cannot be inherently wrong or internally contradictory.
      In its most basic terms, resoration is simply the idea of going back to the Bible for the norms, for the source of authority for the church. Various religious groups appeal to a variety of sources of authority on issues of doctrine and practice within the church. But what we call “Restoration Principles” simply means we will return to the Bible for the source of authority. All those who hold to the restoration principle will accept this same source of authority.
      Where the early leaders of the Restoration Movement may have been mistaken, I believe, was in their optimism about how easy it would be for people to come to an agreement on what the Bible teaches. Even if we all agree to make the Bible the source of authority, and if we try to get behind all traditional systems of theology and handed-down interpretations there still may be disagreements on what we believe is the plain teaching of Scripture.
      The key, I believe, is that each member of the body must hold this attitude of seeking the authority of the Bible as an ideal and a goal, not assuming they have arrived and therefore have nothing more to learn, or that there is nothing more to be restored than they have discovered. I do not believe the problems within the Restoration Movement and other movements with similar goals have been because of the message itself. Disunity has been caused by other things such as inherited prejudice that keeps us from truly trying to understand other positions. Or by a sectarian attitude that we alone are right and that our position is the only possible right way to go.
      The heritage of the Restoration Movement includes two key emphases: 1) An open Bible, accepted as the Word of God. We search the Scriptures for what they teach, for the examples and precedents that might guide us to our goal of restoration of apostolic teaching and practice. 2) Our heritage, not always, but at its best, has stood for liberty of opinion.
      We must allow the greatest liberty as long as that liberty does not violate plain statements of Scripture. And there’s the rub, of course. What is opinion? What is essential teaching? It is difficult but not impossible for us to see the difference. But to pursue restoration without divisiveness or sectarianism, we need to more radically apply this concept of freedom of opinion.
      Could we approach the restoration of Biblical practices without a dogmatic position that ours is the only way? When we see an example in the Bible (we call it an approved example), I believe we can be sure this is a correct way of doing something in the church. It may NOT be the only way! Perhaps we should look at the matter of examples and precedents in a less dogmatic light such as, “This is how we believe it should be done. We believe we’re on safe ground if we’re following the example of the early church. But we don’t necessarily insist that anyone who practices differently cannot be a fellow Christian.” Is it possible to be restorationist in our approach without being dogmatic? I think it is.

Created on ... August 23, 2010