Reformation, Revival, or Restoration?
Roman Catholic theology has always fascinated me, not least since I made a systematic study of the theology of Hans Küng during my student days at the University of Basel in the early 1980s. Indeed, one of the most significant renewal movements in the twentieth century (along with the church growth movement, the charismatic movement, and the ecumenical movement) was the emphasis in Catholicism to bring the church up-to-date in order to face (and answer) the challenges of modern society. Since Vatican II (1963-1965) this movement has been called aggiornamento, a term that emphasizes the need for the church to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.
In the Protestant world in which I live and work our favorite words for church renewal have been “reformation” and “revival.” We might say that the former term is preferred (quite naturally) by the Reformed churches, while the latter term characterizes the emphasis found in Baptistic and Charismatic congregations. Both are appropriate expressions to characterize the work of God in our times. If there is a difference between them, it is one of emphasis only: “reformation” accentuates the Word of God, while “revival” highlights the Spirit of God. A major preoccupation with the contemporary “emergent church” phenomenon, it seems to me, goes beyond reformation and revivalist strategies by emphasizing the “missional” aspect of the church’s life. So mission becomes the obsession of modern emergents in their quest to restore the church to health and vitality.
Here, then, are several strains within the modern church that stress a particular aspect of ecclesiastical renewal. Certainly other movements could also be mentioned (I am here thinking of what some of my colleagues are calling the “convergent” church, which pictures the true church as one that is both conservative and emergent). There is another way to view renewal, however, one which combines what is true in several other renewal movements and which recognizes that we have a fundamental responsibility to return to the teaching of the New Testament in both our faith and practice. This is the church restoration movement, by which is meant that the church’s task is one of returning to the teachings of the apostles in our ecclesiology. Nobody has exemplified the meaning of fidelity to apostolic patterns of church life better than Paul himself:
I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church (1 Cor. 4:16-17).
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Cor.11:1).
If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16).
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:33b-34).
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thess. 2:15).
…we command you to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the traditions you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example (2 Thess. 3:6-7a).
These are merely a few of the passages that show how important apostolic patterns and precepts were to Paul and his churches. Little wonder, then, that the earliest Christians had no church buildings, no priests, no youth programs – nothing, in fact, that might have originated in their own minds rather than in the teachings of the apostles. They had no professional “clergy,” and the leaders they did have enjoyed a fellowship of leadership as they served together in humility and equality. These early believers had meetings that would amaze us today – highly interactive and participatory, focused on doctrine and teaching, and oozing with koinonia (genuine relationships). What a contrast to the institutionalized, professionalized, clericalized, human-centered operations we call “churches” today!
In our day the commonest fault is for the church to be structured for the sake of man-made traditions rather than for the sake of fidelity to New Testament patterns. This is the emphasis in J. L. Dagg’s now classic work, Manual of Church Order, first published in 1858. One does not have to agree with everything in the book to appreciate this statement (pp. 84-86):
[The apostles have] taught us by example how to organize and govern churches. We have no right to reject their instruction and captiously insist that nothing but positive command shall bind us. Instead of choosing to walk in a way of our own devising, we should take pleasure to walk in the footsteps of those holy men from whom we have received the word of life…. [R]espect for the Spirit by which they were led should induce us to prefer their modes of organization and government to such as our inferior wisdom might suggest.
More recently this idea has been taken up by Steve Atkerson, who directs the New Testament Restoration Foundation. Atkerson recommends “a conscious effort to seek to follow the traditions of the Twelve in their church practice. In short, we believe that the patterns for church life evident in the New Testament are not merely descriptive, but are actually prescriptive (1Co 11:2, 2Th 2:15). Thus, even though we are quite ‘traditional’ in the New Testament sense, what we advocate is rather nontraditional by contemporary standards.” In other words, the New Testament offers a marvelous model of Christian community, even if that model is rarely followed.
Mercifully, in recent years a tremendous change has taken place. As an illustration, let me mention a congregation that is located not far from where I live, the Southwest Wake Christian Assembly in Cary, North Carolina. The leadership there decided that the church needed above all else a biblical understanding of it principles and practices. They decided, for example, to forego salaries for their pastoral staff:
We certainly believe there is freedom to have paid staff and biblical examples of the same (1 Tim 5:17-18). We have found that some modern churches elevate paid staff (which is not required by Scripture) as a priority over other commands of Scripture (such as caring for the fatherless & widows). Some modern churches tend to rely too heavily on paid staff to provide spiritual food to families rather than expecting men to both lead their families and participate in corporate praise & worship. Therefore we will refrain from paying elders or administrative staff for anything other than reimbursement of legitimate expenses and small stipends until we have firmly established the opposite patterns (caring well for fatherless and widows and men actively participating in corporate praise and worship).
In short, the leaders asked, “Why should we spend the Lord’s money on salaries when other needs are more pressing?” They also refuse to spend money on a church building for the same reason.
Your church (and mine) might well ask some similar questions. Has our church grasped the meaning of every-member ministry? Or is it a pyramid with the “clergy” and the “professionals” at the top of the pinnacle and the “lay people” at the bottom? Are parents, and especially fathers, taught that they are the main delivery systems of truth in their homes? Or are they encouraged to abdicate their responsibility to youth group leaders and children’s workers? Do we imprison members in programs? Do we ensure that biblical truth is taught and embodied? Do we spend money on buildings that could go instead to missions? A dozen more questions could be asked.
Without this emphasis upon and fidelity to apostolic principles and patterns, the church will never recover or fulfill its mission. The church must organize itself in such a way as to reflect the New Testament’s understanding of the Body of Christ. Its structures and practices must reflect those handed down authoritatively by the apostles themselves. There is no secret about how to do it. It just takes time in which to allow the Scripture to sink into our minds and hearts and so regulate everything we think and do, translating its message into action. An example might be the way we engage in teaching in the church. Teaching is clearly a vitally important function of the pastoral ministry (Eph. 4:11-12), but at the same time Paul would remind us that any member of the assembled congregation is free to contribute a “teaching” (1 Cor. 14:26; cf. Col. 3:16). He would be a proud shepherd indeed who asserted that he has nothing to learn from others in his flock!
In this brief essay there has been no room to say much about the reasons for the church’s departure from biblical norms. Could it be that we lack the prime essential for ministry – a personal commitment to the Lordship of Christ? I ask myself: Where are the young men and women of today’s generation who are determined to stand upon the Scripture alone, who are resolved to live by it, and who are committed to obeying it in their lives, their families, and their churches? I venture to say that the twenty-first century church is at a vital crossroads. If we should dare to submit ourselves anew to the full biblical witness to Christ and His church, I believe that the most significant renewal movement in the history of the church may yet await us.
April 7, 2014
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.