Many who read this work, and especially those who are members of the fundamentalist and what I term “restoration” churches, will likely wonder how someone who grew up in such a conservative Protestant faith could write what follows. It may cause the reader to ask how a Christian who owes so much to the church that nurtured him throughout his childhood (and, indeed, most of his adult life as well) could dare author a book that “attacks” his former church and the things it teaches.
But I must state at the outset that this book was never designed to be an attack on any church or any Christian tradition. I began this book as a way of reexamining the teachings with which I grew up. I have no vendetta; I am not trying to be contentious. I was indeed brought up in a fundamentalist, “restoration” church from my earliest days, and I loved this church and the people in it. As a teenager I even decided I wanted to become a missionary for this church and gave up a promising musical career to pursue that goal. I received my bachelor’s degree in Bible from a Christian school and, although I never became a missionary (for reasons having nothing to do with any disillusionments with the church), I participated actively in the work and worship of this church wherever I lived. I still feel a deep indebtedness to the church of my youth and to all those who instructed me in the Lord from my earliest days in Sunday school through my undergraduate studies. To this day most of my closest friends and all my immediate family are faithful Protestants. I was well-treated by every congregation with which I had to do and bear no ill will toward any within its fellowship.
With such positive experiences in this church throughout my life, why then did I begin reexamining its teachings? I did so because, as much as I love the church in which I grew up, I love my Lord Jesus more. I wanted to be sure I was where He desired me to be. I wanted to become more secure in my belief that the church as we know it is in fact the Body of Christ on earth, the church He established on the day of Pentecost circa A.D. 33, the church upon which He poured His Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth, and the church of the Holy Apostles and Prophets against which He said the gates of hell would never prevail.
One thing this church has always asked of others is that they be willing to reexamine carefully what their own church teaches and, when necessary, to change. It tells others that the summum bonum is to follow Christ — and I believe it is correct in this. Converts to the church, after studying the Scriptures and becoming convinced they should leave the denomination in which they grew up, are always highly regarded by its members. This is only natural. Those who have cast their lot with the church in direct opposition to the wishes of their family and friends — sometimes to the point of being formally disowned — are specially honored, and their courage and devotion (their “martyrdom,” so to speak) are highly praised.
Yet people with whom members of the church study and who do not convert — unwilling to make the change because to do so might break up their family or cause other strife within their circle of associates — are usually accused of loving their families and friends more than they love Christ.
But should we ask of others what we are unwilling to do ourselves? Should we not be willing to reexamine our own church’s teachings to be certain they are correct? And if we do, and if we find them to be different from what we know of the New Testament church (which restorationist churches claim to be), should we not then be willing to change? After all, it is true that our first duty is to Christ our King and not to any particular denominational line or to our family or friends.
As I started my own reexamination I began to see that what we had asked and expected of others for so long is no easy task. To consider that one’s actions could easily divide a family is a frightening prospect, even if the division did not result in any actual separation of husband and wife or in a disinheritance by family members. Even when all members remain on friendly terms, the rift that can result from differing faiths between husband and wife, child and parent, friend and friend, can be a grievous thing to consider.
It has always been my sincerest desire to follow Christ as He would have me do. It is also my desire that I may be united with my family and friends in this discipleship. It would be devastating to me to have religious division in my family. Yet, if one becomes convinced that the Lord is leading him on a path different from that which he has been following, can there be any real choice? This is what the Restoration Movement churches have always asked of those outside their fellowship. It is what I now ask of those within its communion as well.
The crux of the matter
I suppose that one of the crucial disagreements I found with many members of the restorationist churches is the way in which Scripture is understood. To many restorationists, and in large measure to fundamentalists in general, the New Testament is looked upon as a thoroughly legal document. It is felt that everything (and I mean literally everything) is spelled out in the New Testament regarding the organization, life, work, and worship of the Lord’s church. It is claimed that we must have a specific Biblical example for everything we believe and practice. Yet, (and this is a big yet) we do not find these divine directives spelled out as they would be in a legal document or as God’s instructions to the Israelites were written out in the Pentateuch. Instead they are scattered throughout the writings of the New Testament and can only be discovered and collated by careful scrutiny of the entire corpus of New Testament documents. (The famous “Five Steps of Salvation,” for example, which one might consider to be of tantamount importance to the early church, are enumerated by combining various passages from Romans, Acts, Luke, and Galatians. Likewise, the “Five Items of Worship” are comprised of scattered verses taken from Acts, Ephesians, and I & II Corinthians.) It is as though God intentionally made it a puzzle so that only those dedicated to solving it could ever fully understand and obey.
It seems clear to me that those of us who grew up in the restorationist tradition were taught largely to discount the traditions of the early church, where we find most of the actual practice of living Christianity in evidence and where we see the early church’s understanding or interpretation of Scripture actualized. This will be the principal discussion in the next chapter of this work.
Yet while the restorationist churches largely eschew tradition, they nevertheless clearly recognize some of these unwritten traditions as legitimate. For example, there is no clear reference in the New Testament to the type of music to be used in Christian worship. Arguments made from Ephesians 5.19 alone are hardly convincing, and so proponents of a cappella singing quickly turn to the example of the tradition of the early church to press the point. They likewise hasten to remind us that the traditions of the early church included observance of the Lord’s Supper at least once a week on Sunday and the practice of baptism by immersion. We will discuss these seeming inconsistencies as well.
On the opposite side of the coin we also observe that, while the restorationist churches place much emphasis on the need for Biblical example, there are a number of New Testament practices not followed in these churches today. One of the most critical of these is that of the Holy Spirit’s use of church councils to guide the church in settling disputes on major issues (a fulfillment of John 14). The example of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is viewed by nearly all fundamentalists as a singular and unrepeatable event. (It will be remembered that there was a dispute as to whether Gentile converts should be circumcised according to the custom of Moses, and there was “no small dissension” over this issue. How was the church to settle this dispute before it resulted in a major rift? There were no written guidelines to address this question, and no doubt God in His divine foreknowledge knew that there would be questions the future church would face for which specific Scriptural examples would not be found. So, He guided the church to have a general council at which the Holy Spirit directed the participants into the right interpretation to settle this issue. Obviously we learn from this example that when the church meets in general council, the Spirit of God is with those present as verse 28 attests: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden than these necessary things.”) This seeming contradiction too will be discussed at some length in later chapters.
Fundamentalist and restorationist churches place a good deal of emphasis on individual study and individual interpretation of Scripture. And while it is freely admitted that individual study is very important, it should also be recognized that individual interpretation can lead to unbridled division. One need only look closely at the “restored” church today to see this, for this body, which originally came into being to put an end to sectarian division, has itself become divided into more than 30 different types of “restored” churches. This has happened because many have largely ignored I Peter 1.20-21, and also because these groups have never recognized the validity of church councils to settle disputes over doctrine and interpretation.
Another area of conflict lies with the restorationist understanding of church polity. Most fundamenatalist and restorationist churches maintain that there can be no higher authority on earth than the local eldership of each congregation. The result of this belief has been one of the reasons why there have been so many divisions within these bodies: When one group of people disagrees with another group within one congregation, they simply withdraw themselves, appoint elders from their own number, and voila! we have a new church with its own “highest authority” that supports their position.
From a reading of early church history, one will find that at least as early as the end of the first century (during the lifetime of St. John) the church recognized three offices rather than the two insisted on by the restorationist churches. In addition to deacons and elders (also called “presbyters” and later “prests” for short, and which eventually evolved into the term “priests”) there were bishops who typically oversaw congregations within a particular city or region. This pattern was already widely established by the end of the first century as is evidenced by the seven letters of Ignatius, who died in A.D. 107. If, then, this pattern of church polity was already well-established within John’s own lifetime, why is it denied by the restorationist churches today? Would John not have addressed so serious a detriment to the furtherance of God’s Kingdom on earth if it were contrary to God's will?
The rise of episcopacy, rather than being the beginning of the “great apostasy” as most fundamentalists see it, seems instead to have been the method of governance ordained by God during the time of the apostles and which expanded to shepherd the entire world of Christendom as the church grew from a few thousand believers in Jerusalem on Pentecost to millions throughout the whole world.
The insistence by most fundamentalists on ignoring any extrabiblical examples that can be found from history results in a mindset which views the New Testament as a legal document that contains a blueprint or pattern for everything regarding the work and worship of the church. But with a blueprint, everything is static. Was it Christ’s intention to establish a static church? Hardly. The true church is not static, but instead is a living organism. The church is the body of Christ (Col. 1.18), the family of God (I Tim. 3.15), the Kingdom of God and Christ (Eph. 5.5). That is why Jesus promised to send the Spirit to guide His church, His living body, His family. If it were indeed to be static (if all we had to do was follow the “pattern” laid down exclusively in the New Testament documents), what need would there be for the Spirit? Would it not then be a highly legalistic system that one could follow simply by observing the letter of the law? That is not the church of our Lord. Just as each of our bodies is directed and governed by our spirits, so the Body of Christ on earth is directed and governed by His Spirit.
Does this mean, then, that we ignore Scripture? Do we throw out the standard? By no means! The written Scripture is the standard. No tradition or example can stand if it contradicts the written word of God. Tradition often does, however, expand upon or elucidate our understanding of Scripture. To use some examples already cited and accepted by most restorationist Christians, we may look at the extrabiblical examples of a cappella singing or the interpretation of marriage and divorce or the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Each of these elucidate (but in no wise contradict) the New Testament Scriptures. They bring us to a fuller understanding of what the New Testament teaches on these matters. For instance, although the doctrine of the Trinity is supported by Scripture it was not fully articulated until the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This, I believe, is an example of what Christ meant when He said He would send His Spirit to guide the church into all truth.
Our task, therefore, must be not to limit ourselves only to the 27 books of the New Testament in order to answer literally every question that can confront us, but instead should be to consider also the traditions and teachings of the early church. If in our examination we find traditions that contradict Scripture, then these are to be rejected outright. But when a given tradition or doctrine held by the early church merely elucidates Scripture, it should be accepted and practiced by the church at large throughout all generations.
With that in mind, then, I wish here to begin a careful examination of some of the major traditions of the early church that are rejected by the restorationist and fundamentalist churches of today. In this way it is hoped that we may discover whether theses churches are, as they often claim to be, the true New Testament Church, or whether we ought instead to look to the early (subapostolic) Church to find the continuation and maturation of the infant Church revealed in the New Testament.
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Copyright © 2004 by All Saints Orthodox Church