Saturday, September 20, 2008

Disciples Values: The Restoration Principle

Acts 3:17-26

"Boy the way Glen Miller played, songs that made the hit parade, guys like us we had it made, those were the days, and you know where you were then, girls were girls and men were men, mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, didn't need no welfare states everybody pulled his weight, gee our old Lasalle ran great, those were the days!"

So sang Archie and Edith Bunker way back in the 1970s. If I were to sing something similar, I would probably change the lyrics just a bit. I might replace Glen Miller with the Beatles or maybe the Moody Blues. I don’t know if I’d exchange Richard Nixon for Herbert Hoover, but I guess I’d have to sing about our old Galaxy 500 rather than an old Lasalle.

When we reminisce about the good old days, it always seems like yesterday was better than today. We call this nostalgia, but when we get nostalgic, it always seems like the best days of our lives happened when we were kids. I remember my father talking fondly about growing up in upstate New York during the Great Depression. I guess it was because he could go to a movie and get a burger for less than a quarter. I too look back to my childhood, back to the days when record albums cost less than four bucks, a 16-ounce bottle came in for less than a quarter, and a movie might cost a couple of bucks. I remember playing wiffle ball in the center meridian and basketball in the snow. Yes, those were the days.

And yet, as we remember the good old days, the preacher in Ecclesiastes brings us up short:
“Do not say, ‘why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl. 7:10).
Just like us, churches have a tendency to pine for the good old days.
“Remember,” we ask our friends, “when the church was full, people were committed, and maybe were even more pious than they are today? Remember the choir and children? Remember that preacher who could preach a stem winder every Sunday. Yes, remember the good old days.”
Church related nostalgia often takes one of two forms – traditionalism or primitivism. Traditionalism takes tradition, which one historian calls the "living faith of the dead," and hardens it into the “dead faith of the living.” We do things simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Primitivism, on the other hand, assumes that the church has lost its way and needs to find its way home. Of course, most primitivists believe that they have found the only pathway home. Of these two temptations our own Disciples tradition has too often fallen prey to the dangers of primitivism, though we often call it restorationism.

Disciples have, for the most part, abandoned restorationist language, but our siblings in the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches still refer to themselves as the Restoration Movement. We abandoned this language in part because we came to realize that there probably never was a golden age of the church that can be restored. But we also abandoned this language because it didn’t deliver on its promise of Christian unity. All of this may be true, but just perhaps there is some value to be found in what Mark Toulouse, our tour guide on this journey, calls the “Restoration Principle.”


Some proponents of restorationism suggested that we can find the blue prints for the perfect church in the book of Acts. They would say to us – read Acts and you’ll find God’s intended pattern for the church. If only we will all adopt this pattern then there will be unity among Christians. The problem is, when we read the New Testament we find more than one pattern of church life. So, which one should we restore? This search for the perfect church seems, in my mind, to be a dead end. But, when we read through Acts and the rest of the New Testament we do find some principles that can help us become God’s missional church for the 21st century frontier. That’s because, instead of finding a blue print for a perfect church, we find the churches adapting themselves to their environment so that they can give a true witness to the love of God for humanity.

This “Restoration Principle” that Barton Stone and the Campbells embraced, reminds us that we have an apostolic inheritance called the New Testament. Although we might not find a golden age or a perfect church, this apostolic inheritance points us to the life and ministry of Jesus, and it’s through this lens that we can examine our own history, traditions, and experiences with God.

This apostolic inheritance is at its root, the promise of a relationship with the church’s founder, Jesus the Christ. Through his life and teachings that have been interpreted and passed on to us by his followers in the New Testament, we discover our pathway to God. And as Mark Toulouse reminds us, the Restoration Principle calls on us to discern God’s will for the church, so that it might "work and serve meaningfully in the midst of a hurting and broken world."


Unfortunately this principle can go awry when we begin to believe that we’ve reclaimed the “perfect and pristine church,” or that we alone have the complete truth of God. It becomes a problem when the means become the end, and we indulge in nostalgia and lose sight of what God is doing in our midst today. Over the years, we Disciples have fallen prey to this trap because:

  1. We developed questionable views of the Bible.
Things got messy when the founders began using American constitutional language as the lens to read the bible. Some became “strict constructionists,” who read the bible as if it were a law book. When they did this, they fell into legalism, and the bible became a word of prohibition rather than a word of freedom. It became a word of exclusion rather than a word of inclusion.

2. We developed questionable views of the Church

This second problem stemmed from the first, because when we started reading the bible as if it was the church’s constitution, we began to believe that we alone had the key to bringing together the whole body of Christ. We got locked into a certain way of being church and forgot that a missional church must adapt to its environment. That is, as Mark Toulouse puts it, we forgot that the church is “rooted in its own historical and cultural setting and is, therefore, constantly changing and developing.” That was true in the first century, and it remains true to this day.


So, can we reclaim the Restoration Principle? I do believe that it’s possible, but we’ll have to restate it in a way that makes sense of our situation today. Again, I turn to Mark’s book for guidance, and in his book he offers us four markers of the apostolic faith that stand out in Disciples thought: and might offer us a way forward

1. The Confession of Christ as Son of God and Savior.

This is our confession of faith, which we make at our baptism and when we join with the church: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.” This is our apostolic inheritance, for it is based on Peter’s confession, a confession that Jesus considered sufficient. He said that it was on this confession he would build his church (Matthew 16:16-18).

2. The affirmation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and inspiration.

We make this affirmation by trusting the Spirit of God to work in our midst. In Acts 1, Jesus tells the church to wait for the Spirit, and then in Acts 2, we watch as the Spirit falls on the church, empowering them and us for service. It’s the Holy Spirit who continues to prod us on toward fulfilling God’s purpose, which is the unity of the body of Christ so that the world might be reconciled to God and to each other.

3. The affirmation of Scripture’s authoritative witness to the things of God.

I like what Marcus Borg says: “I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” In fact, my friend David Matson says it even better: “I take the Bible seriously, but not necessarily literally.” My point is, when properly interpreted and applied, Scripture is our norm in matters of faith and practice. It ‘s this witness to God’s work that will guides us in our faith practice, and as Disciples it alone is our normative creed.

4. The affirmation that the Church is the "Community of faithful worship, witness, and service in the world."

Our structures and our styles of worship and governance might change over time, but one thing remains constant: The church is a community of the faithful who worship, witness, and serve together. In other words, from its very inception the church has been God’s missional people. Or to quote the Blues Brothers, “We’re on a mission for God!”


The Restoration Principle goes awry when we think we’ve recovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which means that we have nothing left to learn. This principle has value when it spurs within us an ongoing and unending search for truth, and a commitment to finding “the integrity of faith." It has value as long as it points us forward into the future, even as it provides us with a solid foundation in the past. Peter spoke of a time of "universal restoration" (Acts 3:21), a time when we will experience refreshment in the “presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19-20). When that day comes, the nations will stream toward the mountain of the Lord, so that they might be taught by God and walk in God's ways. Then there will be peace and unity among all creation. Then and only then will the restoration of all things be complete (Is. 2:2-4). And that is a restoration principle that we can and should embrace.

1. Mark Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, rev. ed., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 57-58.

2. Toulouse, p. 64.

3. Toulouse, p. 68.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
September 20, 2008

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