The Future of the Restoration Movement, Part 3

thefutureIn my earlier posts on this topic, I pointed out two trends I see for the future of the Restoration Movement. My observations were:

First: the institutions of the Restoration Movement are undergoing massive shifts and changes.

Second: the Restoration Movement is becoming less about principles and more about people. 

My third observation is: the people of the Restoration Movement will be important players in the new movement for a unified church.

What, you say, there is a new movement for a unified church? You hadn’t heard about it?

Let me offer you a parallel from my field, biblical studies. In 1906, a great German scholar, Albert Schweitzer, published a book entitled The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Briefly, this was the culmination of 19th century efforts to sort through the theological formulations about Jesus and recover the story of the man who lived in Galilee in the first century. Schweitzer was a brilliant mind, having the equivalent of doctoral degrees in music, philosophy, theology, and medicine. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. However, many believed that his “Quest” book left many questions unanswered. He lost interest in biblical studies soon after the publication of this important and controversial book. Schweitzer’s work spurred many other books, but little consensus. It marked the end of the first “quest.”

In 1959, James Robinson published A New Quest for the Historical Jesus. Robinson noted that the “quest” had been revived and had shifted from a rigorous historical investigation to one based on the philosophical driver of the day, existentialism. This is not the place to trace the developments of this second quest, but simply to say it quickly reached dead ends (or drove over cliffs, depending on your chosen metaphor).

In 1993, an evangelical British scholar, N.T. Wright, announced that a “Third Quest” had begun, what I remember hearing described as the “New New Quest for the Historical Jesus.” This time, conservative and not-so-conservative scholars plunged headlong into analyzing and debating every piece of evidence about Jesus and his world, both from the Bible and other ancient sources. The results were things like Wright’s colossal series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, now at four volumes out of a projected six. The second volume, Jesus and the Victory of God is a hefty 700 pages and is the epitome of this third quest, exploring every possible avenue to recover the best and most accurate picture of the man, Jesus.

Three quests pursuing the historical Jesus, all having the same goal but different presuppositions and results. Each was a product of its historical context.

The Restoration Movement as envisaged by the Campbells and Barton Stone was a quest for Christian unity. They saw this as possible if Christians would abandon divisive creedalism and look to the Bible as the sole source of doctrine. However, even among the ranks of their immediate followers, complete consensus concerning the doctrines of the Bible was never reached. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone themselves disagreed over something as central as the nature of God, Stone being semi-Arian and Campbell being clearly Trinitarian. Yet they agreed in principle to cooperate and have their churches be united. After their passing, the movement was split over things that seem almost comic in retrospect. Using pianos in worship? Paying ministers? Observers of the Restoration Movement in the first half of the twentieth century must have been amazed the a unity movement had so many hard-line sectarians.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a second quest for unity. This seemed to be motivated partly out of the dismay that the Restoration Movement had splintered so badly and needed to restore its own unity if it had any hope of being an example to the church at large. Several things happened, including the founding of the Stone Campbell Journal, a publication that had writers from all three branches of the movement. But while on a scholarly level the SCJ was a success, the churches were still separated. Perhaps they had lived apart for too long, a little like childhood friends reunited in old age who have little in common but distant memories.

I think there is now a third quest for Christian unity underway and it has little to do with the Restoration Movement. The sectarianism that has so permeated the church in America for 300 years makes little sense to many today. The megachurch phenomenon has congregated Christians of many backgrounds served by pastors with equally diverse educations and experiences. As I have said for twenty years, it is not about doctrine anymore and certainly not about doctrinal warfare. There are a few essentials: the authority and value of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, and the necessity of faith for a saving relationship with God. But no one wants to fight over premillennialism anymore.

There is a growing sense that Christians should be active agents for good in their communities, far beyond just inviting people to Sunday services. If the church is to matter to the next generation, it must do things that matter. Social justice is high on the agenda of the millennial generation, and this will not go away.

I believe the churches and the leaders of the Restoration Movement are poised and able to make a substantial contribution to this new quest for unity. Can we truly be Christians only again? Can we quit drawing lines that divide and find reasons to unite with other Christians?

There are some big issues here, and they are found throughout the evangelical community. Can we quit treating Catholics as sub-Christian enemies? Can we leave our right-wing or left-wing politics at home and no longer let our churches be political tools? Can we finally banish racism from our churches and accept people of all skin colors and ethnicities as brothers and sisters, even as church leaders?

The result of this may be that the Restoration Movement becomes a footnote in church history books. But it may be that its influence will be evident in a more unified church for the next century. That would be a good outcome, I think.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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5 thoughts on “The Future of the Restoration Movement, Part 3

  1. Another very thoughtful post, Mark. Thanks. Here on the West Coast, the mega-churches and Christian Universities have (by and large) moved well beyond the regional and denominational sectarianism of the past. That’s a good thing. I sometimes wonder, however, if it emerges from the pursuit of unity or a general apathy about theology. The one will strengthen the church; the other will undermine it. Any thoughts?

  2. I agree that the West Coast has places where sectarianism is in the rear-view mirror, but I also think it is strong in places, too. This isn’t just 4C churches, but in evangelicalism in a larger sense.

    There is less interest in theology, to be sure, maybe described as apathy. I’m not sure that is all bad. Maybe we had an era with too much emphasis and theological precision, and that is partly what caused the sectarianism.

    So , admittedly, this third move toward unity may not be so much a quest as a set of circumstances. Unity is assumed as a necessary thing by many Christians today, starting with the millennials.

  3. Thank you.

    It seems to me that principles are only good when they are lived out. I am the Restoration Movement as I live out the tenants of this heritage. I encourage those in my influence to not draw borders with these significant ideas but to live them out and see what happens in their relationships with other Christians and those who are not yet following Jesus.

    I will admit the need to teach the principles in a more thorough and systematic way in the local church. (Any help on this is appreciated.) People cannot be the Restoration Movement by living out its principles if they do not know them.

    • Yes, A. Campbell himself said that doctrine is what you live (by implication, not what you believe).

      I don’t think seminars in the church on Restoration stuff will work any more, but the principles can be included in preaching and teaching in the church. At Westwood Hills, I did a 5-week series on the “Five Fingers of Salvation” that was well received and often requested for copies.

  4. I fear for the future of the Restoration movement in general. In order to have the unity mentioned above, there seems to be a need to not emphasize doctrine out of fear of “sectarian battles”. But what you end up with is a church that seems to stand for everything or nothing at all. Relationships are good, but even the early primitive church had to be taught to stand for doctrine. I no longer see this happening in the 4C’s church any longer. Eschewing creeds in general as “documents of exclusion” (as I was taught by Professor Gene Sonnenberg, in Apostolic Hermeneutics, at PCC), but simply having slogans (“no creed but Christ”), just kicks the can further down the road. This church seems to not hold fast to sound teaching any longer, or at least, not taking any stand on doctrine. Finding unity in essentials, but which ones? Even your own admission to sectarianism within this movement speaks volumes. And finding unity in high visibility celebrity pastors or leaders? This is not a basis for unity. I now believe that doctrinal indifference will lead to Restoration churches professing/practicing open heresies (and there are really such things).

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