I have a love/hate relationship with the desire in Churches of Christ for restoration of the New Testament church. For much of my life, I was driven by goals, by checklists, by A’s at the top of my school assignment, so making a church check list according to the model of the New Testament church appealed to the over-achiever in me. I liked the idea of having a definitive checklist with which to assess church practices, and I was taught that check list can be found in Acts and the New Testament epistles. Later in my life, however, I became disillusioned with unhealthy forms of achievement based on perfectionism – it turns out it’s a tiring way to live! The same can be said of church life, and I witnessed exhausted and futile efforts to restore the New Testament church practices as congregations divided over what should and should not be on the church checklist in the first place.
It turns out that not everyone reads the New Testament and arrives at the same conclusions. It makes sense that chaos would ensue when we try to make a definitive checklist based on a narrative about the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit in the first century. Sometimes, I have been tempted to stop talking about restoration altogether because of the chaos such conversations have brought. I can understand why many of my friends have left the Restoration Movement because of all the pointless arguments. Restoration of the New Testament church, however, is not a bad ideal; it’s actually a very good one. The restoration conversations I am interested in these days is what kind of restoration we should pursue.
I can remember a time when I was first called a “Campbellite,” by my high school algebra teacher, and from the tone in his voice, I perceived it wasn’t a compliment. He was making reference to a father of the Stone-Campbell movement, Alexander Campbell, who represents one type of restoration, the type that has primarily characterized Churches of Christ: ecclesial primitivism. Campbell was actually in the company of other well-known church reformers before him, although he did distinguish himself from them because they were reformers, while he saw himself as a restorationist. H. Zwingli, for example, a Zurich reformer in the 16th century eliminated both singing and the use of organs in the church because there was no evidence of the practices among the apostles. Closer to Campbell’s time and locale, John Glas preached ecclesial primitivism when he wrote, “Church in the days of the Apostles . . . was a pattern for all time.” In other words, Campbell and Churches of Christ are certainly not the only advocates of returning to the practices of the ancient church.
Alexander Campbell spent quite a lot of ink outlining what are and are not characteristics of the “ancient order of things” in the New Testament church. The church, he said, was not originally about elaborate creeds as tests of fellowship, so he and others in the movement welcomed all believers to the Lord’s Supper instead of requiring adherence to long, complicated tests before an invitation to communion. The original church, Campbell was convinced, was a priesthood of all believers, so he advocated returning to that original ideal instead of clergy being given undue authority. In addition to identifying what is not in the ancient order, Campbell identified what is in the ancient order. Breaking bread on the first day, congregational autonomy, immersion of believers for forgiveness of sins, singing (whether with or without instruments): these are examples of practices he identified in Scripture and explored in his writings.” Campbell’s method of deducing such practices, influenced by Lockean philosophy and Scottish Common Sense Realism, did not mean that he was unconcerned with Christian living, but it did mean that his approach was to advance ethics, Christian living, and evangelism through focus on ecclesial practice. He advocated ecclesial restoration as the starting point in order to restore more than patterns and practice, in order to restore right living.
Identifying and recognizing Campbell’s original intent, right living, is significant in discussions about restoration, but equally significant is an exploration of how his original intent was practiced in reality. While Alexander Campbell did not desire restoration to be a mechanical process, and he hoped for dynamic engagement with the scriptural Word as a means of arriving at unity, his commitment to the ability of human beings to rationally and with common sense arrive at knowledge, primed the movement for patternism and legalism, and ultimately, ecclesial primitivism served to divide, not unite. Disagreements about millennialism and doctrinal issues were seen as central divisive issues in the Stone-Campbell movement, but it can also be argued that restoration Biblicism was the underlying factor in the majority of divisions in the movement and in individual congregations. Looking to the New Testament as a pattern to restore the ancient order of things has proven time and again to be a divisive formula.
Perhaps another leader in the movement, Barton W. Stone, represents a better form of restoration in his approach: ethical primitivism. This form of restoration remedies the situation of Christianity gone astray by advocating a return to discipleship, especially rooted in the Gospels. Stone defined primitive Christianity, not in terms of the forms and structures of the ancient order of things, but instead as radical discipleship expressed in terms of sacrificial service to one’s neighbor. Stone emphasized both primitive Christianity and the coming kingdom of God. It led him to such things as freeing his slaves and giving up possessions.
While ethical primitivism is more elusive than ecclesial primitivism, it does seem to lean more deeply into the work of the Holy Spirit than the work of humans in bringing about unity. For example, “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” which Stone signed, states, We will, that candidates for the Gospel ministry henceforth study the Holy Scriptures with fervent prayer, and obtain license from God to preach the simple Gospel, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, without any mixture of philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, or the rudiments of the world.” The emphasis here upon the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching the Gospel is one that was not primary in the history of the Stone-Campbell movement.
I appreciate ethical primitivism because of its emphasis upon the Gospels, sacrificial service, and ideals of the Kingdom of God as already inaugurated but not yet consummated. If the Stone-Campbell movement had followed the path of these emphases instead of restoration of the ancient order of the primitive church, perhaps we would not have seen the major divisiveness we have. We can’t be certain about the “what ifs” of life, but at least, it does cause us to rethink what kind of restoration we should undertake in our own time.
While some version of my self resonates with the desire to restore the early church to its primitive state in hopes of attaining Christian unity, my more mature self understands Christianity as more mysterious than ecclesial primitivism allows. While the apostles and the early church should be held in high esteem as an example, they should not be idolized as the one means of life in the Kingdom of God. I prefer a definition of unity restoration that includes return to the Gospels, to the example of self-sacrifice we see in Jesus Christ, and to dependence upon the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven as the source of bringing the unity we desperately desire. These desires do not neatly fit on a checklist, but they are much more likely to help us in our ultimate goal, through the power of the Holy Spirit, becoming like Jesus Christ in our own time and place.
Blowers, Paul et al. The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
Campbell, Alexander. “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” The Christian Baptist, (1825-29).
Holloway, Gary and Douglas A. Foster. Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ: Abilene: ACU Press, 2006.
Hughes, Richard. The Primitive Church in the Modern World: University of Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
 Alexander Campbell, “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” No. 1
 Richard Hughes. The Primitive Church in the Modern World, (University of Illinois: University Press, 1995) 109
 Alexander Campbell, “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” No.1
Paul Bowers, et al, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 636
 Richard Hughes, 114
 Paul Blowers et al, 636
 Paul Blowers et al, 636