This month: 189 - Freedom in Christ
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for 101 – Embracing Biblical Restoration

What I’ve loved about Wineskins for over two decades now, is its safe environment to exchange our new ideas, or to even stretch our comfort zone.  I would like to utilize this format now to raise an issue none of us really want to face head-on, yet this common struggle is decimating us.

Take a deep breath, and let’s be brave together.  If there’s one great weakness we’ve mutually experienced through our blessed Restoration Movement, it is the inevitable fracturing within our fellowships.  Our tendency towards fragmentation is the “elephant in the room” and it is our Achilles tendon.

The main factor contributing to our division isn’t necessarily what we typically think it is.  Our main problem does not stem from the way we individually view Scripture, or how we might understand doctrinal positions like women’s roles, or even how we chose to worship.  I think those are all red herrings.

Our inability to maintain unity is due to our lack of one very particular skill.  Conflict resolution.

We are afraid of conflict because we are unequipped to manage it.  Our anxiety levels skyrocket at the mere thought of confrontation.  We therefore repeat an unhealthy cycle, over an over again, one that almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Conflict, to be clear, isn’t the problem, but not knowing how to deal with it is killing our brotherhood.

I know about this fallout from a painful and very personal experience.  Several years back as I ministered in what could be described as a fairly mainline church, we eventually called up the “Church Doctor” when our corporate pain was unbearable.  Yes, we reached out to none other than Charles Siburt.  Two years after our work with Dr, Siburt concluded, the pain was still too raw for a slim percentage of our congregation, and nothing would satisfy this small group short of my departure.

This is a story that feels as old as time itself.  A church has a conflict, the minister moves on or there’s a new set of elders installed, and we repeat the same scenario three to five years later.  As a result, we all limp along, somewhat wounded, somewhat cynical.  Could this be why so many of our younger people shy away from our churches?

But that’s not the end of the story.  We can write a new chapter when God happens to breathe new life into those who are open to His moving.  It seems like the Spirit is closest to us in our most difficult times, or shortly thereafter.  And, afterwards, once the healing begins, we learn to apply some of the core Scriptures that instruct us on how to live as a community, on how to get along, on how to be the Body.

If we want to thrive in our congregations and see God’s Kingdom increase, we need a new perspective on conflict.  If you attempt to implement change, you can be sure there will be conflict.  Conflict is almost necessary for growth, because at its basic level conflict is nothing more the friction that happens as two or more opinions are shared.  Conflict is neither evil nor harmful, what makes conflict healthy or unhealthy is how we manage it.

Sadly, in our Movement we haven’t had the greatest history of dealing with our conflicts very well.  The good news is, once we acknowledge our very real problem, we can turn a new page and embrace our differences, and we can overcome our conflicts through practicing the one doctrine that unequivocally bonds us together, that being, Love.  It’s only by this Love that all people will know that we are His people.

Call me old fashioned, but maybe it’s time we revive an old saying in earnest, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

 

 

I will admit that sometimes conversations about restoration of the early church strike me as a bit dull.  In my time, I’ve heard some stodgy, unexciting, seemingly-endless restoration-centered debates about worship practices, some of them meticulously dissecting such minutia as whether or not Paul would have approved of a woman passing a communion tray from front to back instead of side to side. What a travesty! When we see restoration of the ancient church as stodgy, we have missed the central aspect of life on The Way in the first century.  Life in the ancient church was anything but stodgy.

If we want to restore something of the early church, let’s try to grasp the life-giving celebration of the Holy Spirit inherent in the life of early Christians.  They were being persecuted – imprisoned and even killed for their faith – and yet the Christian life was full of a fresh wind we have sometimes suffocated with our relentless arguments about what early Christians did or did not do when they gathered for a few hours each week.  The New Testament itself provides little detail about weekly gatherings, but what we do have is story after story after story about the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit as the church crossed boundaries in an exciting journey.

Let’s talk about restoration of that!

Early Christians provide a model for us – they show us what it means to celebrate when the Jesus Way crosses cultural boundaries and is planted in new places in fresh ways.  Early Jesus followers had to continually renegotiate traditions that were really important to them.  In Acts 11-15, for example, Peter was challenged to lead the community in redefining lifelong traditions about unclean foods and unclean people; it was not an easy process, and his initial response to changing traditions was, in essence, “No Way Lord!”  Later, however, when he and other believers came to see the power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Gentile people, they were celebratory that the Lord had made a way when they thought there was no way.

And they praised God!

They celebrated that the Spirit was moving them across boundaries that didn’t fit their previous patterns. They were happy to have been wrong.  They embraced something new.

Early Christians learned to expect good news “to be continued” in an imaginative and exciting journey. They learned they should not expect good news to be confined to one place and time. So when we lose our imagination for a fresh new vision of good news in our time and place, we do not understand what it means to restore the early church. Today, like in the early church, good news still brings a fresh wind of hope for ongoing movement toward new creation.

Karl Paul Donfried wrote, “The one thing the New Testament forbids us to do is to treat it as a static document to be used as a set of proof- texts for instant solutions to complex and controversial contemporary problems. To misuse the New Testament in this way is to deny its dynamic character and to fail to realize that the Word has to be applied in a specific context . . . . A static interpretation of the New Testament is dependent on a frozen Christology.”

The story of Jesus is not frozen. The story of the Spirit is not frozen.  The story of the early church is not frozen. It is a story of incarnation and can be embodied in every culture and period of time; it’s that journey Christians join.

We haven’t joined a pattern!

We’ve joined a Way forward, and the Holy Spirit is in the lead.

What does it look like to embrace restoration of the ancient church?  It means asking ourselves what the early Christians asked:  What does it look like when the kingdom of heaven is on the move, crossing boundaries, surprising us, and calling us to something fresh and new?

That’s a restoration conversation worth having.

When we speak of restoring the New Testament church it immediately begs the question of what, exactly, that means. Another legitimate question arises at the same time: was it God’s intent to have a first century church in the twenty first century? Was God a God of patterns, as one famous book in our tribe argued at length a few decades ago? And if He does want something restored, is that something an outer pattern or an inner heart? When we restore patterns of outer behavior and apply social peer pressure to keep those patterns unchanged we very easily may tip over into the realm of totem-ism, leaving relationship in its dust.

We may sneer at the totems used by third world tribes but no one is as invested in totem-ism as we are in the west. We all know the power of totems. Walk into any school, mall, or public space and you will see whole family groups wearing them. Some wear Denver Broncos’ jerseys while others wear Red Sox hats or US Olympic Team shirts. None of those people were ON the team… but they wanted to show their support or somehow be identified with their favorite athletes. This can take an odd turn when you see people buy Michael Jordan cologne. I am sure Mister Jordan is a fine man and he was undoubtedly one of the finest players to every play the game but… when you saw him running down the lane covered in sweat, did you really think “I wish I smelled like him!” Of course, that is not what the cologne is all about. It is a totem. It is worn to identify with a hero and, perhaps, share in his essence, ability, fame, or success. To a lesser extent, this explains why people wear clothing with the names of the manufacturer or designer on it. Chaps, Polo, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy and other names on your shirt make a statement about where you shop and place you in a certain group of people (such as the kind of people who wear Ralph Lauren vs. the kind of people who wear Old Navy). We put stickers on our cars with the names of our favorite bands or teams or colleges for the same reason – it gives us an identity and places us into this or that group.

But totemism taken to the extreme becomes… well… formed based religion. You might have to look this up before you believe it but there are religions based on moving bits of this or that around and waiting for a blessing. Called Cargo Cults, the greatest concentration is in the southwest Pacific ocean. The islands of the nation of Vanuatu has three separate cults and others flourish on nearby islands. What are these religions and how did they get started?

Beginning in the 18th century, when ships from developed nations began landing on the islands of Micronesia and Melanesia, natives who lived in a Mid-Stone Age culture were shocked to confront modern, industrial people groups that came out of nowhere. The cults remained a minor phenomenon until World War 2 when, suddenly, vast amounts of ships and materials began pouring into the islands. First the Japanese and, later, the Americans and British arrived out of nowhere with radios, manufactured clothing, fine furniture, huts, inflatable boats, medicines, and so much more. The natives of these islands – most of whom are still in the Stone Age to this present day — were overwhelmed by the materials, wealth, and “magic” these white people brought with them. It is hard to overestimate the power these ships, men, and goods had over their imaginations.

When the war ended, the rest of the world rejoiced and the ships with their crews and materials went home. The Islands were plunged back into isolation and darkness. The tribes had assumed that the arrival of these blessings had been a gift from their gods so… what did it mean when the gifts went away? Gone was the steady supply of medicines, trinkets, shiny things, food, and clothing. Is it possible that they had displeased their gods? Maybe they could find a way to call them back. They were certain that all they had to do was what the outsiders (Japanese, Dutch, Americans, British) had done and the gods would come back. In other words, they wanted to restore the conditions under which their bounty appeared the first time.

They constructed crude approximations of landing strips, desks, phones, radios, etc. and moved bits of bark or scrap paper around, picking up the “phone” (think of something the professor would have made on Gilligan’s Island out of coconuts and straw) and barking out orders before going down to the beach and waiting for the ships to come in. They thought that their actions would call their gods back to them. When years went by without any response from their gods, they began to search for better ways to move things around and better models to build, dividing from each other when disagreements arose. That is why there are three major denominations of Cargo Cults on small Tanna Island in the nation of Vanuatu alone.

There is the John Frum cult – a name that has never been adequately sourced. It is thought someone heard someone called by that name or something similar and the natives decided to use him as an intermediary, somewhat in the same way that some Christians pray through saints. There is also the Tom Navy cult which is generally thought to have been named after the US Navy and a few fellows named Tom (any common name would have done, but this denomination believes Tom is the superior, true name). And then there is the Prince Philip Movement which worships Queen Elizabeth’s husband who visited the islands back during the war. Each believes the others are moving the wrong bits, or moving them in a wrong manner, or moving them out of order, or saying the wrong words, or saying the right words in the wrong way… you get the idea.

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And they are not alone. There is also the Yali Cargo Cult on Papua that shares land with other Cargo Cult denominations such as the Paliau Movement, the Peli Association, and the Pomio Kivung.

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All of these practice sympathetic magic – some of them even building airplanes out of straw and sticks, carving wooden headphones, sleeping in abandoned Quonset huts, and trying to mimic the day to day activities of the men who were there during the war including sitting at long tables to eat, marching with sticks in the place of guns, etc. in the belief that when they get it right, the gods will come back.

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There is more than a little of this in many Christian churches. My late cousin, Frank S. Mead, wrote a book called the “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” which was revised and reprinted every few years until he passed away. Now, a committee has taken up that task and prints a new version every so often. I make it a point to read each new edition because it reminds me that each of these tribes thought that the other religious tribes of their day were missing something very important and, if it were added, THEN Jesus would be happy and salvation would be assured. Some go further and teach that when they get their religion right, Jesus will come back and start a thousand year reign on earth…but only when they get everything exactly right. When they looked around them, they saw that this church took the Lord’s Supper THIS way when it should be taken THAT way. In my own religious tribe there are divisions (all of them very minor and making up, collectively, just a few percent of the total) who are divided over whether we should pray for the bread and then break it or vice versa, whether we should use one cup or many, etc. They draw lines of fellowship over these distinctions. Five divisions over how to take this simple bit of bread and wine (and, yes, others are divided over whether it can be wine or if it can be grape juice), each convinced that the way they do it pleases Jesus.

These divisions grow more common – if less official – when we add in rules on music, organization, and association. I know of churches that split because some clapped during a song or a baptism. One side was convinced that Jesus would remove his blessing if they clapped while the other side believed Jesus would like them better if they did. Mess with the “order of worship” at a great many congregations and you will find terror and fear in the hearts of many as they believe we have left “the old paths” and no longer please God. Some “coat and tie” churches will never let you up if you aren’t wearing proper clothing while the “untucked shirts and hairy toes” churches wouldn’t be comfortable with an Armani clad scripture reader.

All of these fears originate from a misunderstanding of who we are and what we have in Jesus. Since the Bible compares our walk with God with marriage several times, allow me to do the same. I have been married to my sweet Miss Kami for over 34 years (i.e. not long enough). If I tried to make our lives fit a certain form and ritual to make sure that she was happy, she would be miserable. She doesn’t want a form, but a friend; not rote, but relationship. Marriage is a dance where each leads this way and that and each pulls and allows themselves to be pulled. It is not stagnant… or, if it is, it is doomed.

And so it is in our dance with God. He released us from the temple and told us that His intention was that we would be like Him (see 1st Peter 1:14; Genesis 1:26; First John). We enter the family and then become more and more like the family as we continue the relationship with Him. That is why there is no detailed explanation of how we are to worship Him in the New Testament (as opposed to the incredible detail we find the in Old Testament). God tried giving us ritual AND relationship and we went for the ritual even though He continually told us that He was much more interested in the relationship (1st Sam. 15:22,23; Psalm 40:4-8; Psalm 51:16-19; Jeremiah 7:21-23; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 9:13 and SO many others). Now, we are children of God through faith in Christ and we are to take on the characteristics of the new family; our adopted family. We are the continuing canon of scripture – God’s people moving about the planet with His Word – Jesus – writ large on their hearts and in their words and deeds.

The only alternative is to play at Cargo Cults in our churches and God already gave us a story to show us that was not what He wanted. In the parable of the Loving Father – often misnamed the parable of the prodigal son when it is not really about the son(s) but the father – one brother stayed home and did every single thing the father required of him and, yet, was unhappy and not fulfilled in his life with the father. He had tried to get by with duty and ritual, not relationship, and found himself bitter when the father was rejoicing.
I recently read Michael Coren’s book “Why Catholics Are Right” and found it fun, informative, and very helpful, even if less than convincing on many points. The problem I had while reading it was that I had read other books before I got to this one – “Why I Am A Member of the Church of Christ” and a hundred tracts by A.G. Hobb, Batsell Baxter, and their ilk – that used the same method to proclaim their rightness: they had the correct ritual handed down in the right way and performed with exact precision, thereby gaining the favor of God. To be honest and fair, I don’t see our books, or Coren’s book, or the books written to prove the “one true church” nature of the Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans saying that if we have our ritual right, the heart and relationship don’t matter… but neither do they spend much time on relationship, narrative, and the journey with Christ. It seems that most of these tribes (and I am making a judgment here which may not be accurate, but it fits with my experience so far) are far more likely to accept someone whose ritual is right but whose heart is wrong than vice versa.

For example, in my tribe, Mother Teresa would be considered lost because she was not immersed, called men “Father” on earth, and a dozen other ritualistic “errors.” At the same time, they will often call another person brother or sister because their ritual is perfect and Biblical even though they are unkind to their neighbors, unsacrificial in giving, known to complain and whine, and hoarding possessions. Ritual trumps relationship and the heart in most religious tribes, turning them into modern day versions of cargo cults.
There was a booklet available decades ago that tried to introduce young men and women to the subject of sexuality. It was available via Christian bookstores and its main thrust was that happy and satisfying sex in marriage was due to the person, not the performance. In other words, it wasn’t a mechanical act, but an emotional one with physical expressions flowing from those emotions. About the same time, an MD named David Reuben wrote a mega-bestselling book called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.” After writing several chapters on our bits and how they functioned, he walked the reader through a sex act between two people who did everything right, physically. He asked at the end of that narrative if this, then, was the perfect sexual experience and he answered his own question with a firm “no.” Why, when the ritual had been performed perfectly and both parties were happy with the result? Because, Dr. Reuben said, there was no emotional aspect to the act. There was no love, commitment, or mutual feeling – it was just physical.

If we are speaking of the outer, physical aspects of worship and church organization when we speak of “restoration,” I fear that we are headed toward a lifetime of division and unsatisfactory worship experiences. A lot of people leave worship each week feeling like they did everything right but it “just isn’t working for me.” They have fallen into the Cargo Cult error and are shoving bits of cracker and juice around, standing and sitting, and even saying/singing the words at the right time… and leave emotionally untouched and unchanged because they are not dancing, walking, singing, talking, and living with God the rest of the week. They replaced relationship with ritual and their ship just isn’t going to come in.

Perhaps…just perhaps…God wants us to restore the relationship He had with Adam and Eve before the fall and the relationship He had with His Son, our Savior (and John 17 indicates this rather strongly) and not an outer set of movements that leave many of us wondering why it just doesn’t seem to make us better or less fearful year after year.

I grew up in Restoration Movement churches in Upstate New York. During my “pre-memory” years (0-5 years old) my family attended a Church of Christ. I have only the vaguest impressions of this church: a basement with flaky-paint, cinder block walls; a kitchen with leftover grape juice shots; and a cappella songs in minor keys (“We Are One in the Spirit,” “The Lord Is in His Holy Temple,” etc.).

Around the time I started kindergarten, we began to attend a Christian Church, where I was baptized at age 9, and where we stayed until sometime in mid-elementary school (age 10 or 11, so 5th or 6th grade). Again, I don’t remember much about this church, except that it was instrumental (which did not strike me as either odd or exciting), and that they had children’s concerts and plays for me to perform in (which struck me as very exciting).

Then my family began attending a Church of Christ again – not the cinder-block basement church, but a traditional, “upside-down boat auditorium” church. I attended here through high school and on breaks throughout college. This is the church that raised me, taught me, shaped me, challenged me, and kept me accountable and faithful through the awkward and challenging middle and high school years. It was where I felt most at home. In this church, I learned about true community: the members of the youth group were my friends, the adults were my mentors and examples, and the younger children provided me opportunities for leadership and service. In this church, I learned to love and engage the Bible.

I have attended CofC-affiliated schools for undergrad (Rochester), graduate school (ACU), and now doctoral work (Lipscomb). My education has always been informed by Restoration Movement beliefs and values. Even as some of my opinions, beliefs, and perspectives changed, they did so in the context of Churches of Christ, which were the churches I attended throughout my education, and the churches I had in mind for my future ministry. My relationship with Restoration Movement churches is long and complicated, but committed. These are my people (whether they want me or not).

Of course, I have also always had meaningful relationships with non-CofC Christians. (“If there is such a thing,” says a voice from my past, a voice I deny but still hear.) At the beginning of fourth grade, I began to attend a private, non-denominational Christian school instead of public school. At this school, I learned and worshiped with students from many other denominations. So, very early I had to ask myself whether I really thought that the children on the playground with me were not saved just because they were not baptized (as an “adult,” for the purpose of remission of sins – although I would hardly call my nine-year old self an adult).

Throughout high school, I found myself needing to explain Churches of Christ to my other Christian friends. This is a position in which Jamey and I now regularly find ourselves, since we live in a community (Princeton Theological Seminary) made up of primarily high church (Presbyterian and Lutheran) folks.

If you have never tried to talk about Churches of Christ with “outsiders,” you should prepare yourself for a number of confused, befuddled, perplexed looks. Our friends understand how certain CofC practices result from the specific values and goals of the Restoration Movement. Their confusion comes one step before that: Why are those the values and goals? Why would you want to restore the New Testament church? These conversations are always in the spirit of seeking understanding. No one is trying to convince us to leave and join their tribe; they’re just trying to understand why we stay, especially given the fact that standard practice and belief in Churches of Christ creates vocational difficulty for me.

Nonetheless, these conversations always conclude with me saying something like: Restoring the New Testament church is not necessarily a goal of mine. But I stay in Churches of Christ because this is the church that raised me. I would be “Church of Christ” regardless of where I attended. We may not always get along, but I cannot deny that this is my family (any more than they can exclude me by denying that I am their family). I want to use my gifts to serve the church that shaped them. I know the minefields here, and would have to learn them anew in another group.

Really, the primary reason(s) I stay is because there are strengths here. There are aspects of the Restoration Movement that I love, that I think are healthy, that I think have the potential to facilitate communities of people that are joining God’s mission of reconciliation as exemplified most perfectly in Jesus. To name a few: congregational autonomy, priesthood of all believers, emphasis on scripture (although I’d like us to think a little different about what scripture is doing, but that’s another subject altogether), a cappella worship, and weekly (or at least consistent and frequent) participation in the Lord’s Supper. For these reasons, and others, I like it here! These are the aspects of the Restoration Movement that I wholeheartedly embrace.

 

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About once a week I get the prompt from Google informing me that Chrome has failed to shut down correctly.  In their eagerness to simplify my life they always offer the, ever so helpful, option of just clicking restore. If only life were that easy.

We’re talking a lot about Biblical Restoration these days, but I wonder if we’re truly prepared for what that might involve. And seriously, what exactly is it that we want to be restored to? Is it the church circa 1950? Is it doing Bible things in Bible ways like foot-washings (John 13:14), lifting holy hands (I Timothy 2:8), women praying and prophesying (Acts 21:9, I Corinthians 11:5), or calling for the elders to anoint you with oil as they pray over you in the name of our Lord (James 5:14)?

What exactly will we pick and choose to bring about this restoration? And who gets to make that decision?

Maybe it’s time we come to the realization that restoration isn’t about the early church. It’s about the empty tomb.

It’s about the avalanche of awe, joy, and peace that came from standing in front of Jesus and seeing those wounds (John 20:19). It is being certain of the fact that He walked our dusty roads and that He will return. And it is wanting to take as many people with us as we can on that great day.

Restoration isn’t about the worship service. It’s about the worship lifestyle but sadly, we’ve taken Christianity and tied it up in a neat, nice little box. We’ve even put a sign out front. We beckon the world to come to us when restoration is about going out into the world. It’s time that we get out of that building and get with the broken.

For true restoration, every Christian needs to preach Jesus (that means you, too, ladies).

Restoration will take us into uncomfortable places and situations. It will surround us with the outcast and may even turn us into one. It will test our faith and everything that we think we’re certain of. It will cause broken hearts and open old wounds. It will make us wonder how we can keep loving that person when they just don’t really deserve it. It will be dangerous, inconvenient, and will put several of our sacred cows at risk but restoration brings revolution. And Christians, isn’t it about time?

“All creation has an instinct for renewal.” –Tertullian

A few months ago I read about some research done between the Universities of Oregon and Kansas about how what we believe about what God will do in the “end times” affects how we live now.

And it was disturbing.

They discovered that people who believed in Hell were less likely to do bad things, like commit crimes or like Nickelback. But they also discovered something shocking…people who believed in Heaven, were more likely to commit crimes and do violence toward other people.

Maybe you’ve heard the statistics about how, when the Genocide happened in Rwanda, it was (per-capita) the most Christian nation in the world. In fact, it was so Christian that there were other churches that rose up and killed entire other churches that weren’t in their tribe.

As we backed up and tried to unravel how this entire tragedy happened, Christian missionaries discovered that the story about Jesus that Rwandan people had been told was that if you believe in Jesus, then wait until you die, then you will be able to go to Heaven.

Does that sound familiar?

Imagine There’s No Heaven

For the longest time the Jewish faith didn’t talk about the afterlife. In fact, there is a Jewish tradition that says that after someone has died, you shouldn’t say a word about the age to come.

This tradition comes from the recognition of the human tendency for avoiding death. It knows that we tend to  want to imagine that there is no death and to give pat answers to complex questions.

But it also comes from the faith that God made this world good, and death was not a part of it. The Jewish Christian faith is a very “worldly” faith. It is a faith about this world, and this life and to speak in the face of death about another time and another place is to dis-regard that this time and this place matters.

I like the way that Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says this:

Judaism is always very “this worldly” oriented. And the moment people start getting fixated on an afterlife, it can have the effect of diverting their attention from their work in this world.

In other words, our focus on the age to come, can actually make us miss what God is doing in this age. And if that sounds strange consider again how rarely Jesus talked about Heaven, he was fully invested in this world.

In fact, I think this is why we need to talk about Heaven a bit more, and quite a bit differently.

Because for most of us, when we think about Heaven, we were taught to think about pie in the sky when we die (by and by). We grew up singing songs about Flying away, and reading passages like 1st Thessalonians 5 in a very different way than the first Christians would have read it.

Think about the way the Bible ends.

Heaven comes down.

The tree of life and the rivers and the garden that we read about in the beginning of the Bible are back. And so is God! Fully and finally all things are made new. Which is different than God making all new things.

God restores the whole world.

Which means that this world matters right now.

Restoring Restoration

The reason that people who believe in Heaven are more likely to commit violent crimes is because what Christians have started teaching about Heaven is nothing like what the Gospel talks about for the Age to Come.

When we disconnect Heaven and this world, then we probably shouldn’t be surprised when people do that in their lives. We probably shouldn’t be surprised when there is actually a correlation between a belief in Heaven and violent crimes on earth.

We shouldn’t be surprised, but we should start telling a better story

The dirt and trees and babies and business and food and wine and friendships and commerce and family and justice and compassion and technology and  our acts of service and worship…all of this matters more in the present because of what God’s future is.

There is not going to be a single part of creation where God is going to allow Satan to say, “At least I won there.”

In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons makes the observation that the upcoming generations of Christians will be known as Restorers. They don’t start their Bible in Genesis 3, and they don’t end them in Revelation 20.

They believe that the story is bigger and better than we had thought. And that’s a very good thing. Specifically for people in our particular tribe.

Because we are after all, A Restoration Movement.

Sometimes God lets us stumble into things that are bigger than we thought.

For years, we’ve been using language that connects (in surprising ways) with a whole generation of people, we just didn’t know it!

Happily Ever After…After All

I don’t know about you, but I love a happy ending. I love the stories where the dog doesn’t die in the end and the Hobbits get to go back to the Shire.

But the problem with happy endings is that is rarely how reality goes.

We live in one of the few eras of history that thinks that a happy ending means it must be inferior art. I get why we think that, it seems like any story that is close to reality must also include suffering. But there is a deeper kind of despair to this isn’t there? Most of us have a kind of low-grade gloom about life. We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the bottom to finally fall out once and for all.

Happy endings are for children, and now that we know life is meaningless, the last thing we want to do is be seen as naïve.

Welcome to the world of the disciples on Easter morning.

Death has once again taken someone you love and you know that this is the final ending of all stories. Cancer seems to be relentless. Poverty and injustice are overwhelming. It seems like most marriages start off happily just to end in divorce.

There are days when a happy ending just seems impossible.

JRR Tolkien actually wrote his epic happy ending in a world much like ours. When he wrote the Lord of the Rings, people accused him of telling an escapist story, one that didn’t deal with the harsh reality of the world.

But Tolkien’s response was soaked in the Gospel. He responded to his critics that the reason that people love Happy endings is because they are somehow true to the deepest parts of reality.

In other words, at the heart of the Universe is a God who is telling a story that will resolve in the best possible ways.

But the Gospel is that what God did for Jesus, He will do again. That what God did for Jesus’ body is what He will do for all of us, and for all of Creation.

When the last shoe drops, when the final plot of story line is told, when the final turn comes, all shall be well.

Death itself will die, and Hell will pay back what it owes.

God will be with His people.

And they live Happily ever after.

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.[1]  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.”[2]  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.[3]”  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[4]. 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.[5] 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.[6]  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.[7]

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.

 

Bibliography

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.


[1] Alexander Campbell, “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” No. 1

[2] Richard Hughes.  The Primitive Church in the Modern World, (University of Illinois: University Press, 1995) 109

[3] Alexander Campbell, “On the Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” No.1

[4]Paul Bowers, et al, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2004)  636

[5] Richard Hughes, 114

[6] Paul Blowers et al, 636

[7] Paul Blowers et al, 636

Restoration projects generally seek to conform the present to the past.  But this is not God’s restoration ideal.  God’s restoration project is the realization of the future.

I understand this is a fairly significant twist to an old and comfortable idea. Many of us have lovingly embraced the idea of returning to the past in order to restore the church to its pristine condition. We thought conforming to past patterns was the way to faithfully implement God’s intent for the present.

And this may be, in some sense, true…but only if we have first immersed ourselves in the future God imagines for the creation.

The story of God has a telos, a goal. It is a concrete goal; it is located within the creation rather than in some celestial heaven with Caspar the Ghost bodies. The new creation is the world imagined by Scripture. It is the fullness of the kingdom of God filling the earth with the glory of God.

The Hebrew prophets imagine this future where nations will learn war no more and everyone will live in prosperity and without fear (Micah 4:1-4). Jesus lived this future as his ministry reversed the curse through healing diseases, defeating demons and raising the dead (Mark 5). Paul envisioned this future when he counseled the congregations to accept one another and live within the kingdom of God without concern for the distinctions rooted in the old, even broken, creation (Romans 14). Scripture bears witness to God’s intended future for the creation and narrates how that future, at times, broke into human history, and broke in climatically in the ministry of Jesus.

We look to the past to see where the future has already broken through. We look to  Scripture to see the future world God imagines.

This kind of restoration does not reduplicate the past but seeks to realize the future in the present. But how is this a restoration? It restores the creation to God’s original intent.

I don’t mean that we seek to restore the original creation. That would be to return to square one. Revelation 22 is not a restoration of the garden but its transformation into a city.

Instead it restores the trajectory embedded in God’s original creative act. Redemption brings the creation back on line; it realigns the creation with God’s original telos. It restores the goal of God by actualizing it in the present.

Restoration is a reclamation project; it reclaims God’s dynamic agenda for the creation.

The ministry of the church is a restoration ministry; it seeks to restore the future.

Restoration.

I have experienced way too much of that in my life.

Going to the dentist is painful and difficult when you have had mouth trauma over the years.

It is also financially painful.

At age 51, I (and my wallet) remain terrified of dentists and the work they do.

Why?

Because at age 15, I totaled a Volkswagon Beetle. In the process, I ate the steering wheel and knocked teeth out and tore gums away. Not a pretty sight, for sure. But, the docs were good and wired it all up and things stayed well for a number of years until some of those teeth died.

And when they had to be removed, we found out that a prescribed acne medicine had caused chemical bonding of those dead teeth to the bone. Getting them out of my mouth required some uncomfortable surgery.

My teeth woes have gone on and on throughout much of my adult life.

But wait.

This is a place for theological discussions, not bad oral health stories.

This is a blog post that is supposed to be a part of a theme on Biblical Restoration.

Amazingly enough, there are some similarities between the two.

Dentists and those who practice dentistry with bigger and fancier names know all about tooth decay and gum diseases. They have seen the results of accidents. They know the stench and damage of rotting teeth.

Sounds a lot like sin, does it not?

Sin causes spiritual decay. It causes the very fabric of our lives to become rotten to the core. And the following physical, emotional, and mental trauma is often spread into the lives of others.

The consequences can be really really high and very very hard.

The man who murdered my first wife and our handicapped son didn’t start out life as a child molester, rapist, and murder. But the effects of sin caught up with him—resulting in an even greater sin spiral that eventually spilled over into our lives in a horrific way.

Please don’t take this as somehow blasé. Because it most assuredly is not. Sin always has consequences. And sin often has ramifications that are unintended in our own lives and often claim innocent victims as well.

So how does all of this work into the theme of biblical restoration? The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That word all is a funny little guy. It leaves no one out. We are all guilty. And, the result is all are also in need of restoration as well.

So, I am very grateful for the forgiveness, mercy, and grace God grants me. But beyond all the  wonderful forgiveness, I need a full scale restoration. I need a life obsessed with living for God in all respects.

This heritage many of us call the Restoration Movement is a great thing. Restoring the church of the New Testament is a lofty goal. But when you get down to it, the church of the first century was full of the same kind of folks as the church of the 21st century (no matter what name is on the door). Sinners all, we are a people who need to be healed and forgiven. We are a people whose lives need a total transformation. And only God can create the kind of total make over that fundamentally restores perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors in redeeming fashion.

As it turns out, restoration or restoring people to God saves not only them from pain, but also others who might otherwise be hurt.

Hey kids. Brush your teeth good before bed tonight. But before then, consider those areas of your life that need to be restored to Him.

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Desperately Wanting to Believe Again

There has been a lot of discussion about the future Christianity in the Western world and what things are going to look like in the future. This discussion has focused on everything from the loss of our young adults to rethinking what “church” is all about and why we do the things that we used to take for granted. These are important conversations that will be pivotal for many of our churches to understand and address looking ahead.

At Wineskins, our goal is to provide a place where we can discuss the topics that are more relevant and important looking ahead. But it is more than about putting words on a webpage. You can find that all over the internet. We are intent on producing an environment or ethos that fosters genuine, Christ-like and spirit-led conversation. In other words, an atmosphere that is open to honest inquiry done through a spirit of love and mutual edification for all.

We understand that these conversations can be very sensitive as they deal with things that are near and dear to our hearts. That means there is a certain vulnerability that comes with these discussions that, if handled in a godly manner, can be a catalyst for transformation and genuine restoration. If not handled with a Christ-like spirit, we recognize that same vulnerability can produce a defensiveness and hostility that is detrimental to our conversation being acceptable to God much less being productive or beneficial. We want you to know that you are welcome here and that you will find an environment where people are encouraged to be patient, kind, honest, and humble. The goal of this conversation is to help strengthen the faith of those who are also struggling through many of these same paradigm shifts so that we can build and encourage the next generation of faith.

In order to do this we are going to make Wineskins a resource to you and to the churches you attend. The resource Wineskins is becoming hinges on three things: 1) the Featured Authors we have recruited to weigh in on various issues, 2) the resources we provide and host through the site (resources for elders, small group ministry, ministry connect, and so much more) and 3) your input into the conversation so that you aren’t just a spectator but a participant. Through commenting on posts and in the forums we want you to be a part of the conversation here at Wineskins and to invite others who you know are working through many of these same issues to get involved as well.

As we kickoff Wineskins we begin with the theme of “Embracing Biblical Restoration”. Over the last few years restoration has become one of the big “buzz words” in Christianity today right alongside being missional. Our movement has embraced a vision for biblical restoration for well over 200 years. Past generations often focused that restoration on proper worship and church leadership but as the younger generation searches the scriptures and reads about God’s restorative process they find it is really about so much more than was often recognized or appreciated in past generations.

In this issue we want to talk about what it is, exactly, that God is restoring from a biblical perspective. We also want to explore examples of ministries, churches and individuals who are living out biblical expressions of restoration today so that we can learn from their examples and re-envision what biblical restoration looks like in our current cultural context.

Our features authors have been invited to weigh into that discussion and we hope you will as well through commenting on their articles and, once they are live, adding to the conversation in the discussion forums on the site as well. God bless you on the journey here at Wineskins. Pray that this can be a catalyst for God’s loving kindness to be expressed in ways that will humble us all.