The Future of the Restoration Movement

            Teddy Roosevelt once said, “I believe that the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.” When one considers the great movements of history that changed the world, there is a common thread in many of those paradigm shifts. That thread is a going back to the past to move forward. The Renaissance went back to the Classical era to recover a way of looking at the world that drastically changed middle ages Europe. The Protestant Reformation changed the Western Church by going back to the sources (ad fontes) of Sacred Scripture with the help of the Early Church Fathers to recapture what they thought had been lost.

Currently, the churches of Christ face a crisis as we consider our future in the worldwide Christian movement. We can deny that the house is on fire, but when the attendance patterns are considered in our fellowship, it is obvious that we are in deep trouble. An article found in the Christian Chronicle that was published in August of 2018 entitled, “Can Churches of Christ be Saved?” served as a jolt like a strong cup of hotel coffee for many within our movement. So, what is the way forward?

As a father of three daughters, this question becomes a personal one. I love my heritage, and I want to see a robust Church for them and a vibrant future. I also believe that the Restoration principle is one that is needed. The Restoration is a movement worth fighting for because the greatest part of our heritage is a call to radical discipleship and an unwavering devotion to Jesus by turning to Scripture to challenge all human traditions. I believe the Churches of Christ within the wider Stone-Campbell tradition is worth saving for the following reasons: a deep devotion to discipleship, a high view of the local church, a sacramental view the assembly, the Supper, and baptism, and our history of seeing all Christians as a priesthood of believers. In this article, I would also like to present a theology of many things that we take for granted in the Restoration Movement that would give us more intellectual firepower to demonstrate why our heritage is a blessing. There is a beautiful simplicity about the Restoration Movement that is needed amongst the confusing tides of the consumeristic arms race between many evangelical churches today.

I am hearted to know that many ministers that I have talked to recently feel a sense of urgency when it comes to this topic. They see the need for a clear vision for the future as well as a prophetic call to return to the discipleship that we see in the New Testament. My prayer is that God’s Spirit is stirring within us to waken us from our materialistic, deistic, compromised slumber. The revival of our movement will have to be Spirit-powered, and I believe it will be led by going back to the foundation of Scripture, aided by the wisdom of the church throughout the ages, and understood through the lens of our Stone-Campbell heritage. In this article, I would like to humbly propose the beginnings of a way forward for our churches, and I would like to focus on the following: the perfect storm against us, a renewed ecclesiological vision, and a sacramental view of church life.

            To begin with, there are many reasons for the decline in our churches since the 1990s. With the rise of postmodernity, we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in emancipation from all authority, a suspicion of any narrative that claims truth, and a deep ambivalence toward anything traditional. This postmodern view of reality has filtered into the members of our churches and has led to a lack of certitude about anything, especially in matters of faith. Some charge that our fellowship has depended on rationalism to a fault, but we should remember that the Bible does lay out certain things that are to be accepted as true. When the influences of secularism come to bear upon the average Christian, it is almost insurmountable when adherents have no certainty of truth. When one couples this lack of confidence in revealed truth along with a steady diet of shame that the Churches of Christ should have for our past judgmentalism it leads people to ask, “is this heritage worth saving and why does it matter?”[1] The other element arrayed against us on this battlefield is the idol of personal peace, affluence, and comfort. Our members have relegated Christian ethics to a type of therapeutic, moralistic, deism, which makes it easy to chase the dream of personal peace and wealth. Taking into consideration that we lack certitude of truth, feel shame for our past judgmental sectarianism, have truncated Christian ethics to moralism, and drank deep from the American well of comfort and ease we realize we have a daunting task ahead of us in reviving our heritage. Some in the Churches of Christ are feeling the tractor beam pull of the attractional church model and the seeker friendly church model as the only path to our survival.[2] We have a massive hill to climb in just convincing the average member that our heritage is a blessing to Christianity and the answers to their biggest questions and needs are not going to be found in other evangelical fellowships. Research has shown that many other evangelical fellowships are also in decline and have many problems of their own.

            To start moving forward out of this morass, we must reclaim a radical ecclesiology that is fed by Sacred Scripture and understood considering our history. I propose that two things must inform our view of the church. First, we must reclaim the radical view of the church that Paul lays out when he says, “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:10 ESV).” God’s original plan was to use the local church to take down the strongholds of the principalities and powers in the spiritual realm. God did not plan to use parachurch organizations, governmental agencies, or armies to take down the forces of darkness that have hijacked, distorted, and defaced God’s good creation, but He chose the church. This view should elevate our perception of the role of the church and give us a sense of awe and wonder to be a part of God’s grand story of redemption. We need to understand the church as part of God’s Kingdom movement in this world. God’s kingdom has come to bear upon this world and our local churches, no matter how big or small, are kingdom outposts in enemy territory.[3]

Another revisioning of our ecclesiology is the taking on of an ‘exile’ and ‘sojourners’ mindset. One great example of how God’s people should live in a world that is hostile to faith is found in Jeremiah 29 in God’s letter to His people as they went into Babylonian exile. God exhorts His people to build houses in Babylon, have families, plant gardens but poignantly He says, “but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV).” The example of exile shows us a way forward as to how the church can remain distinctive and holy but at the same time bring shalom to a decadent culture. Just as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego remained pure and holy, we can retain our distinctiveness in a sinful generation. At the same time, we can bring blessing, wise counsel, and excellence to our cities and communities just as those faithful Hebrews did in Babylonian exile. Peter seems to make this same argument when he writes to a group of Christians in a difficult situation when he writes, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12 ESV).” In this passage, we observe both the exhortation to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” as well as to “keep your conduct among the Gentles as honorable.” There are both the components that we read in Jeremiah 29 in which the church is called to purity as well as being a blessing to those around us through our good works. I believe that without a good theology of the church that is based on the exile model we will continue to compromise with the wider culture as well as base our decisions as churches on our wants and needs. We cannot recapture the radical view of discipleship as we see in men like David Lipscomb if we don’t see ourselves as sojourners in this world.[4] We should revision our churches as places where holiness is celebrated as well as existing for the sake of others. This is a very difficult balance because many times when churches focus on holiness, people tend to become more self-righteous in their attitudes to outsiders. On the flip side of this, when churches get involved in social justice issues, they tend to compromise Christian ethics. The way of Jesus is to be both holy and exist as a blessing to the world around us. We should ask the question, “would this city/community miss this congregation if it were to vanish tomorrow?” The other question we should ask is, “how can we offer the world something like holiness and sanctity when we lack it ourselves?”

I believe one thing that is missing in evangelical Christianity is a sacramental view of the world. I am afraid that what many Christians are sinking into is a type of neo-Gnosticism. I know that Gnosticism was a multifaceted heresy, but one of the common threads of Gnosticism was a rejection of the physical and material world. I have heard people say, “I cannot believe a physical action like baptism could impart real grace or spiritual blessing.” That line of thought would have been comfortable among the Gnostics. In the Churches of Christ, we have had held onto a sacramental view of reality even though we did not have a deep theology as to why we did. I believe our view of the assembly, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism is a needed corrective to the low view of the sacraments in many evangelical fellowships today.

One may ask, “what is a sacrament?” The word sacrament is derived from the Latin term sacramentum, and it referred to an oath of loyalty that one would take. For example, a Roman soldier would make a sacramentum of loyalty to the Roman emperor. An early Church Father named Tertullian used this term about baptism. To the earliest Christians, a sacrament took on two connotations. In one sense, a sacrament such as baptism was an oath of loyalty that one would make to Jesus Christ, but another aspect of the sacrament was the mystery of God’s work in the sacramental action. In other words, God really ‘did’ something in baptism and the Supper. God imparted His grace, His presence, and His future reality for us in the sacrament. Sacraments are forward-looking in that they bring to our present God’s future reality.

An example of this would be when the spies went into the land of Canaan and brought back some of the fruit of the land for the Israelites to eat while still ‘outside’ the land. In the sacraments, we get a taste of God’s new creation that was inaugurated through the resurrection of Christ. In our baptism, we are immersed in water, our old person is put to death, and we are raised up in view of our future resurrection from the dead. In some sense, in our baptism, the gift of our future resurrection comes flooding into our present (Colossians 2:12 & Romans 6:4). In the sacramental view of baptism, we see the emphasis on personal faith and trust in the promises of God as well as God’s actual impartation of those gifts promised.

It is easy for us to see the sacramental reality of baptism, but it is a bit harder for us to accept the sacramental nature of the Lord’s Supper and the Sunday assembly. Many people in the Churches of Christ have been influenced by Ulrich Zwingli’s[5] view of the Lord’s Supper. In Zwingli’s view, the Lord’s Supper is simply a memorial service. It is like a funeral service for Jesus that we celebrate on Sundays. I want to propose a more biblical view that understands that the Lord’s Supper is a goal that God has had for us since the fall in the garden. If one were to track through Scripture, there is one theme that tends to manifest throughout, and that is that God’ wants to have fellowship and communion with us. The entire meaning of the Tabernacle and Temple was for God to have fellowship and communion with His people. It was through the eating of forbidden food that man lost shalom and fellowship with God. But in the Lord’s Table, we are being invited back into God’s presence to dine with Him. We can see that the Lord’s Supper is a fulfillment of the sacrifices in the OT. Under the Law of Moses, a worshipper would offer up a burnt offering (Olah/Ascension) that served as a general atonement for sin. Sometimes a worshipper would offer a peace offering along with the burnt offering to celebrate fellowship with God. In other words, the burnt offering achieves shalom with God so the worshipper would celebrate a peace offering (shelem -the verbal form of shalom) to celebrate peace with God. What made peace offering different was that the worshipper could eat from the sacrifice in a communal table with others. The other sacrifices of Israel were consumed by only the priests. One example of this type of offering is found in the story of Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and 70 elders eating in God’s presence on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. In Exodus 24:11, we read that they ‘saw God’ and ‘ate and drank.’ I propose that the cross of Jesus was our once and for all sacrifice for sin, and the cross completed our atonement. In the cross of Jesus, we see the true Christian altar. The Lord’s Supper is where God’s children come together to eat and drink in God’s presence and celebrate the shalom that we have in Jesus. Jesus is truly present at the Supper as the host, and in the Supper, we are imparted grace because of His presence. Once again, a sacrament is a physical action in which God makes Himself present in our space and time and imparts a blessing.

In the assembly, we also have an intersection of heaven and earth. There are two passages that make it clear that Christ is ‘really’ present when we assemble with the intention to do so in His name. In Matthew 18:17, the Lord demonstrates that the context of his teaching in this passage is for the assembled church that has come together to make a judgment decision about a dispute among followers. In verse 20, Jesus makes the promise that He will be present with us whenever two or more assemble in His name. Even though the passage is about helping settle disputes, the kernel of truth that we can glean is that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the saints. The book of Hebrews takes this doctrine one step further. Why is the assembly sacramental? Hebrews 10:19-25 gives an amazing view of the assembled church when it states, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” This passage is packed full of OT imagery, and I am tempted to tackle some of those themes, but this article is already growing to an unwieldy size! The one statement that will grab many that have grown up in the Churches of Christ is the command not to neglect or forsake the assembly. We tend to equate this concept totally with the idea of ‘mutual edification,’ but we miss what the writer of Hebrews said earlier. One of the reasons given for the assembly is that we are invited into the Holy Place through the work of Jesus. The church assembly is elevated into the inner sanctum of God’s presence. We come with bodies washed through the waters of baptism, just as the high priest on the day of Atonement, and we enjoy His presence. The actual assembling of Christians in the name of Jesus brings about the real presence of Jesus in our midst. Our assemblies have lifted us into the heavenly places where we are invited to draw near in fellowship with our creator.

I want to take a second to show how this concept of supper and assembly work together to help us truly ‘know’ Jesus. As mega churches and evangelical churches slide into ‘evan-jellyfish’ when it comes to worship practices, discipleship, and sacraments let me share with you a fresh picture (from ancient sources!) of how it all fits together. On the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we meet two followers of Jesus that are despondent. They have heard the teachings of Jesus and know the OT Scriptures, but they still do not understand the cross of Jesus. I find it compelling to look to Luke 24 and Jesus’s appearance to these two followers as a paradigm for our Sunday assemblies. Let me make my point. Jesus appears to these two followers on a Sunday. He walks along with them and explains to them from the Scriptures why He had to suffer. They don’t know Him or recognize Him until He breaks the bread.

Interestingly, Luke constructs Jesus’s breaking bread with these two exactly like his institution narrative in Luke 22 in Luke 24:30 when it says, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.”  The most compelling part comes from the report of the two when they say in verse 35, “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Think for a minute what this passage is explaining to us. These two did not know Jesus by just the Scriptures, or the report of the empty tomb, or the teaching of Jesus before his death and resurrection. They finally ‘knew’ who Jesus was when the act of the Supper occurred. It was at the breaking of the bread that they recognized Jesus. We as Westerners have a hard time with this. We think that we ‘know’ Jesus by studying a bunch and listening to multitudes of sermons. I am not saying that study and hearing God’s word is not important; I am just making the point that in ‘doing’ things we come to know things. Luke is telling us that it is the entire action of the Scriptures being expounded along with the table that brought about the ‘knowing.’ Think about how many times in the OT you read of the Israelites ‘knowing’ God through the rituals of their festivals and sacrifices. I believe that the Sunday assembly complete with the Supper is a grand narrative that we are invited into where we begin to really ‘know’ Jesus.[6] Maybe we have not considered how assembling on the Lord’s Day and celebrating the Supper changes us and helps us see Jesus in ways that we don’t fully understand at this time. The assembly and the Supper come together with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We come together in the assembly, the Scripture is taught, our hearts burn within us as we are challenged, we partake at the Lord’s Table and experience his presence, and then we are sent out of the assembly as disciples and priests to minister to a decaying culture. It is also interesting to note that when they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, He disappears. How would the early church understand Jesus’s disappearance? Possibly they understood it to say that now Jesus exists through His church – the body of Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus would be present through the church. The Lord’s Table would be a time to be reminded that we have been given the charge to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Just as the Father sent the Son, the Son now sends us out into the world after we are fed at the family table.

In conclusion, I believe the Restoration Movement is a wonderful gift to worldwide Christianity. The phrase ‘always restoring’ is one that all Christians should embrace, especially when calling Christians to put Jesus back at the center of all things. The view of returning to Sacred Scripture as our only guide to challenge all human traditions and norms is a noble endeavor. In celebrating and reviving our heritage, many things could have been said. My choosing of discussing a renewed ecclesiology and promoting a sacramental view of church life does not mean that I don’t think our heritage as a unity movement is not important. I chose the topics that I did because of the problems that I see in the greater evangelical church and how we are called to be a church that is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant. I propose that the Churches of Christ represent a third way. A way that embraces a sacramental view of the world but also champions personal faith and discipleship with a radical view of the church as exiles and sojourners. It is a way worth sharing with others and saving!


[1] I am not arguing that our past lack of charity toward others is something to be winked at, but I am saying that some have stayed in apology mode for sins of the past generation while we try to minister to a generation that knows nothing of that past. As Rome burns to the ground, we play the fiddle to a small group that know why we are apologizing.

[2] Jared Wilson in his book The Gospel Driven Church challenges much of the tactics and deficiencies of the attractional church model. His book along with Tim Keller’s Center Church are good resources to challenge us to always place the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of everything we do.

[3] I highly recommend John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine’s book Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding to get a picture of how this radical Kingdom vision fits into our heritage. We have a wonderful history of this viewpoint in the Churches of Christ and we need to reclaim that vision.

[4] To flesh out more fully how a church in exile may look I recommend Richard Hughes’s book Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul and Future of the Churches of Christ, especially chapters four through six.

[5] Ulrich Zwingli was a Reformer of the church that was based in Switzerland and was a contemporary of Martin Luther.

[6] I heartedly recommend Dru Johnson’s work Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology or his more popular book Human Rites to learn more about how rituals and actions in Scripture are connected to knowing and epistemology.