The Standard asks,
If megachurches and new churches are a prophetic whisper of who we are becoming, are we making ourselves vulnerable as a movement by not expecting them to preserve and teach the best of our heritage and demonstrate family loyalty?
It’s a thoughtful, important question. But we need to be careful here. Who is the “family”? Is it the churches in the Restoration Movement? Our piece of that Movement? Those churches that agree with us on the issues of the day? Well, “family” in Biblical terms is the family of all believers (Gal 6:10), right?
Now, when we, as Alexander Campbell advised, use Bible words for Bible things, well, the question has to be re-phrased. Do we properly expect new churches to demonstrate loyalty to our part of the family? Saying it that way has a very different resonance, doesn’t it?
It’s just not a given that there’s anything in our heritage as a human movement that has to be preserved. Maybe so, but we can’t start with that assumption. That would be nothing but pride.
Some of us, myself included, find ourselves wanting to be Restoration reformers, that is, throwing out the bad of the Restoration Movement until we’re left with a good Restoration Movement — assuming that the Restoration plea has continuing vitality and importance. But which aspect of the Restoration Movement is the ideal? The “Declaration and Address” of Thomas Campbell, which says nothing of baptism? The Lunenburg letter vision of Alexander Campbell, which denies the necessity of baptism for salvation? The “Sand Creek Address and Declaration” that makes a long list of opinions tests of salvation?
The “Declaration and Address,” for all its broadmindedness, sought to turn the New Testament into a legal document, a “constitution” for the church. Recent scholarship finds that view flawed, and I agree.
We are an Arminian (non-Calvinist) fellowship, but Alexander Campbell repeatedly denied that such questions should be tests of fellowship. Hmm …
As we consider who we are and our place in the larger world of Christianity, the answers aren’t very obvious. We aren’t Catholic, Orthodox, or Pentecostal. We’re pretty much “evangelical,” but that’s not a very well defined term. As a practical matter, it means we can go down to the local Bible bookstore and find that most authors have something to say we can learn from, whether it’s Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, or emerging church pastor Mark Driscoll, or Church of Christ preacher Max Lucado, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren or Bill Hybels.
And this should tell us that we fit in pretty well with whatever it is that’s going on in mainstream American Protestantism. Like everyone else, we don’t agree with all the opinions being expressed, but we are moving toward a middle that’s being newly defined, along with lots of other people.
Some with a more independent streak worry about this (I know that I do!), but there’s comfort in seeing this as the work of the Holy Spirit. When Methodist Stanley Hauerwas and Mennonite John Howard Yoder and whatever Jim Wallis is all speak to me and help me in my spiritual walk, even though I certainly don’t agree with them on all things, surely the Spirit is drawing people from many different corners of Christianity into a conversation that helps us all … and more importantly, helps the cause of Christ. We live in exciting times.
Therefore, long, long before we start defining who “we” are in contrast to Christianity in general, we really need to get comfortable with just being Christians and celebrate who we get to be with and talk to and learn from. We need to be cool with the idea that the Holy Spirit may well be drawing us all together into a new kind of fellowship, and new kind of unity, where we disagree on a bunch of stuff and yet keep on talking to and learning from one another, treating each other are brothers and sisters and not as the competition.
Now, that’s a kind of Restoration Movement that’s different from what the Campbells attempted, isn’t it? I mean, it has a lot in common with the Campbells, but it differs in some critical aspects. The Campbells insisted that faith in Jesus (which includes submitting to Jesus as Lord) is sufficient to save and establish a common fellowship. This much is, I think, exactly right. There are large parts of the “Declaration and Address” that’ll preach today and that need to be preached.
However, the Campbells also attempted a common praxis. They could not imagine being a common church with different ways of worshiping and organizing a church. But 200 years of experience demonstrate that we aren’t likely to ever agree on how to run our worship and our church organizations. We can’t even agree among ourselves!
You see, as Martin Luther worried 500 years ago, insisting on First Century practice as essential leads to a kind of legalism that is very destructive. I mean, who gets to decide where to stop? Do we meet in houses? Take communion as part of a common meal? Wash feet? Have apostles? Speak in tongues? Establish orders of widows? Have all things in common? Have 7 deacons handle food for widows? Serve wine at communion?
Therefore, building a new Restoration Movement on the ideal of restoring First Century practices is always going to be divisive — if we insist on it. That’s not to say that we don’t study, learn from, and often emulate First Century practice. We should. We just shouldn’t define ourselves as separate from the rest of the Christian world by which practices we want to insist on and which ones they do or don’t. We aren’t going to agree and we aren’t going to be able to say that, say, a plurality of elders per 1 Tim 3 is essential while having an order of widows per 1 Tim 5 is not.
We’ve always picked and chosen. We’ve never attempted all First Century ecclessiology or all First Century worship practices. Rather, we’ve picked out the ones that seemed relevant to today’s church and quietly ignored the rest. And what seemed pretty sensible, even obvious, in the 19th Century sometimes seems less so in the 21st Century.
Oh, and we’ve added a bunch of stuff that’s quite foreign to the First Century practice, like the invitation, going forward after the sermon, and such like, being practices invented in the 19th Century.
Hence, my answer is “yes.” Yes, we should “preserve and teach the best of our heritage.” But we need to pick out the “best” with the greatest of care. We’ll get more detailed in the next post.