Churches who wanna “restore” Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 April
RESTORATIONIST rɛs.tə'reɪ.ʃən.ɪst adjective. Wants to return Christianity to what they consider the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians.
[Restorationism rɛs.tə'reɪ.ʃən.ɪz.əm noun.]

Humans really like to reboot things. Not just Spider-Man movies; there are lots of things we figure have broken, got too complicated, or run down; so maybe it’d be best if we take ’em back to the drawing board and start over. Maybe we can improve upon the original. Or maybe the original was best, so let’s go back to that.

And Christians keep trying to do it with Christianity. We look at all the traditions our culture has layered upon the church and think, “Well that’s not what the ancient Christians taught… and maybe we should never have taught that to begin with.” We wanna get back to basics. Reset the religion to its factory settings, like a phone—where it worked just fine until we started adding all these “useful” apps which just gummed things up.

So every so often, Christians will start a church and claim they’re running it the way Jesus’s first apostles did. They’ve “rediscovered” something which other Christians have left by the wayside. Like certain vital doctrines, or supernatural gifts, or leadership models other than the whole supervisor/elder Christians/congregation setup taught in 1 Timothy. (The fivefold ministry idea has become recently popular; whereas four centuries ago Protestants had decided to try democracy, i.e. congregationalism.) Or they claim they got whole new revelations from God which change everything: The Latter-day Saints claim angels pointed their prophet to extra books of the bible; the Watchtower decided to give Arianism another try; the Pentecostals (originally; few think this way anymore) figured the Holy Spirit turned the miracles back on for the very last dispensation; the Adventists (originally; again, few think this way anymore) figured they had correctly calculated what day Jesus was returning.

And of course there’s backlash: Plenty of Protestants, and people of other new Christian groups, individually decide their churches were wrong to chuck all their valuable traditions, so they quit their churches and join liturgical congregations like the Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, or Orthodox.

It’s all about rebooting their religion: What did Jesus originally teach, and how did the apostles originally worship? ’Cause whatever that was, they wanna do that.

Whenever they ask me about it, I point ’em to the Didache. ’Cause it is what the ancient Christians taught! But I remind them the Didache isn’t bible. Even though some ancient Christians totally wanted to include it in the New Testament, ultimately they didn’t. Because how we worship God is optional. We have freedom in Christ to follow our consciences, and decide for ourselves what’s gonna further our relationship with Jesus… and what isn’t. And if old practices help, great!—do them. And if old practices don’t—’cause sometimes they don’t—don’t do them; to you they’re gonna be dead religion, and we’re striving for living religion.

Those who wanna “restore” Christianity to the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians, likewise are striving for living religion. Which is great. But are they going about it the right way? There’s the real question. It’s not about re-adopting old practices; nor is it about adopting new practices which they’re pretty sure the Holy Spirit gave ’em to fix Christianity. It should always be about following Jesus more closely, and producing good fruit.

The corrupted-Christianity myth.

Restorationists claim Christianity is broken, and they’re repairing it. So the first thing we oughta find out from them is what they think is broken about it, and when exactly it broke.

Sometimes they’ll claim it broke recently. They’re fixated on some relatively new movement in Christendom, and claim that’s where it all went astray. Like when churches ditched the pipe organs and pianos, and went with electric guitars and drums in their worship. (I’m not kidding. Some folks really do think like this.) Or when churches started letting women preach, or take certain ministry titles. Or when churches began to permit “liberalism,” which can mean all sorts of things to them; usually “any new beliefs or practices which I personally dislike.”

But I find one certain myth has really become popular: It’s that Christianity went wrong at the Council of Nicaea.

As the myth goes, Christianity was doing just fine for the first three centuries. The New Testament was completed in the first century. Godly ἐπίσκοποι/epískopi, “supervisors” (whom we’d call pastors, and liturgical churches would call bishops) led churches throughout the Roman Empire, which met in homes and some public places, and preserved and taught what Jesus and the apostles did. Although the way some of ’em tell the myth, corrupt practices began to creep in. Like infant baptism, formal confession, catechism, celibacy for anyone in leadership; basically any present-day Christian practices which the mythtellers don’t approve of. And the supervisors began to create a leadership hierarchy of priests, bishops, and patriarchs/archbishops—and demanded Christians submit to these leaders’ authority.

Where it all came to a head, was Nicaea. First, Roman general Flavius Valerius Constantinus became Christian. (Though according to various mythtellers, he didn’t really; he was one of those politicians who played Christian to win votes, but was privately a sun-worshiping pagan.) Then he became emperor, and decided to promote Christianity because he believed it’d make the Empire more stable. Then he gathered the Christian bishops in the year 325, formally created the papacy, formally decided what books would go into the New Testament, and otherwise manufactured the Catholic Church.

Y’notice these mythtellers are generally anti-Catholic, and wanna object to anything they consider “Catholic”—even though Catholicism still didn’t come to exist for another four centuries. Regardless, the church was corrupt ever since… till their church, or their movement, put everything back the way God wants it. Jesus’s original intent is reflected in the way their churches run, their leadership is structured, their beliefs are taught, their rituals are practiced, and so forth. They get Christianity right. Other Christians—sometimes everybody else—get it wrong. Or are even heretic.

Sound familiar?

Officially, your church might teach no such thing. But there are still a number of Christians in many a church who totally believe this myth. Catholics claim it’s true of the Orthodox; Protestants claim it’s true of the Catholics; Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have based their entire movements on it. So have many a church which calls themselves Primitive, Apostolic, Restorationist, or Fundamentalist. The rest of Christendom is wrong, but they do everything just the way Jesus wants it.

For many, it’s their convenient excuse for dividing his church further.

Tied together with it is frequently the idea the Holy Spirit abandoned these wayward churches. They stopped following him, so he went elsewhere, and abandoned all the people of these churches to corruption and hell.

Now, not every restorationist teaches this. Many simply teach the Spirit went underground. In the Fundamentalist churches I grew up in, sometimes Christians would point to one ancient or medieval saint, and say that guy was all right… but he’s one of the few exceptions in a hellbound movement. Like St. Francis of Assisi: Various Protestants recognize Francis’s life was so radically Jesus-focused, it’d be stupid to say he wasn’t Christian. Although there are still restorationists who claim even Francis was no Christian: They’re so intent on the Spirit being their possession, and no one else’s, they’ll deny him to anyone outside their group—no matter how orthodox and fruitful they were and are.

Christianity itself is restorationist.

You might remember when Jesus first began to preach about God’s kingdom, he contrasted it with what Jews had been taught by the Pharisees.

Matthew 5.43-44 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”

Despite their good intentions, despite many of ’em honestly and earnestly seeking God, Pharisee traditions had given people a distorted picture of God, which Jesus had to set right. He restored the proper thinking about how to view the Law, how to love God, and how to love our neighbors.

And through Jesus’s work, God restores us to a right relationship with himself. The Pharisees presumed they had such a relationship because they inherited God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses, but they took God’s grace for granted. Or they went to the opposite extreme of legalism. But Jesus taught God’s covenant isn’t based on ancestry or karma, but faith and love.

From time to time, someone notices Christendom is getting awfully ritualistic and legalistic (like the Pharisees) and decide to be this generation’s John the baptist and straighten ’em out. Or that Christendom is getting too libertine (again, like the Pharisees), hypocritically tolerating too many unholy things, and wanna again mimic John the baptist and preach righteousness. But not always with love, patience, generosity of spirit, kindness, goodness, and so forth. Too often it’s with the fleshly schismatic attitude we see among pagans and fake Christians. Disguised, of course, as orthodoxy and holiness. And half the reason they gripe about the power structures of the other, “wrong” churches… is because they covet that power.

I’ve been to churches who spend way too much time (sometimes all their time) criticizing and mocking other churches. Sometimes they single out churches in their city, or certain TV preachers, or denounce particular movements—they’re anti-Catholic, anti-Calvinist, anti-Pentecostal, anti-cessationist, anti-Democrat, anti-whatever. And because humans are creatures of extremes, it doesn’t take much before they escalate things from “I don’t care for their practices” or “I don’t agree with their beliefs” to “They follow Satan instead of Jesus.” It’s a handy way to justify all the cruel things they say about these groups. It’s also an easy way to stumble into blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but you won’t find ’em talking about that.

But I remind you: Freedom in Christ. Every church is free to add traditions and customs to the way they worship. “Primitive” churches might insist they only do as the bible describes, but in reality they’re also following man-made customs… because the New Testament actually doesn’t proscribe how to do church. It tells us some things about some ancient Christian practices—like how they shared resources, fed the needy, met regularly for prayer, teaching, dinner, holy communion, baptism, singing—but the NT didn’t give specifics. Christians always fill in the blanks.

So if your thing is Jewish Christianity, you’re gonna make all your worship practices look Jewish. No, not necessarily as the ancient Hebrews did ’em, nor even as the first-century Pharisee Christians did ’em. A lot of “Messianic Jews” actually borrow a lot from medieval rabbinic Judaism… and ironically, never bother to ask whether Orthodox Jews weren’t also corrupted after centuries of evolving Mishnaic and Talmudic traditions.

Same as Christians whose “restored Christianity” resembles middle eastern practices, Greek or Russian or Turkish Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, iconoclastic Presbyterianism (with its wholly undecorated worship spaces and no music), or Quakerism (with no order of service whatsoever; people get up and do things as the Spirit leads). All these practices were invented by humans. And that’s fine!—so long that they truly lead us to follow Jesus.

The Holy Spirit gives us lots of leeway to worship him in creative ways. Nothing wrong with that. We can pile on the interesting practices, or strip ’em bare and worship God as simply as we know how. (Which often takes a bit of creativity to figure out just how to do that without turning it into non-worship.) But let’s not confuse our invented practices with God’s commands. Otherwise we’re just another type of legalist.

And when we promote our favorite worship practices by mocking other forms of worship, and driving out fellow Christians, we’ve violated Jesus’s command to love one another. So let’s really avoid that one.