Mistakes Restorationists Can Make
The reign of King Josiah is a model of restorationism. When the book of the law was discovered by Josiah’s workers, even though the law was written centuries earlier, it was possible to clear away the countless departures from God’s will and establish faithful service in Josiah’s day. In the same way, it is possible for us to conform our faith and practice to the apostolic standards revealed in the first century. This is the essence of what it means to be a restorationist.
However, this is challenging work. There have been many “restoration movements” in religious history, with varying degrees of success. What mistakes must we avoid if we are to succeed?
Mistake One: Focusing Only on Externals
Sometimes the goal of restoration is said to be “restoring the New Testament church.” What is meant by this is aligning our work, organization, and worship in the local church with the New Testament pattern. As I explained in the first article in this series, that is a worthwhile, and indeed an essential goal.
However, the New Testament teaches far more about the way in which individual Christians should behave than it does how the local church is to operate. The inner aspect of Christianity is especially emphasized, “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). It is easy to focus on a few basic collective works of the local church, or a few basic obligations of individual Christians, and check them in comparison to Scripture. But what about the work of restoring attitudes?
The Pharisees were deeply committed to the notion of purity under the Law. But their commendable desire gave way to hypocritical focus on things like washing hands and tithing spices, while neglecting the “weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
I have read articles in which brethren disparage emphasis on love as somehow being equivalent to doctrinal softness. Love is a Bible doctrine! And lack of love is every bit as much a doctrinal error as is infant baptism. Just as the local church has marks of identification, so do individual disciples, and love is chief among them. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
By neglecting the restoration of inward virtues, we are setting ourselves up for spiritual failure and hypocrisy. What a shame it is for members to know the plan of salvation but gossip and backbite; or for preachers to be able to dissect arguments for the rapture but live in immorality. God’s will commands complete personal commitment, and that should be the extent of restoration.
Mistake Two: Pride
The Bible teaches that knowledge can cause conceit (1 Corinthians 8:1). Since restoration depends on knowledge of the Scriptures, there is therefore an inherent danger of arrogance. After all, our society knows less about the Bible now than probably any era in American history. It doesn’t take much to know more about the Bible than your neighbors and co-workers. For this reason we must guard against arrogance toward others, and prideful stubbornness to change when we see we are wrong.
Many of the Pharisees and scribes relished their position as experts on the Law. But this knowledge actually worked against them because of conceit. “The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, ‘Why did you not bring Him?’ The officers answered, ‘Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.’ The Pharisees then answered them, ‘You have not also been led astray, have you? Not one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this crowd which does not know the Law is accursed’ ” (John 7:45–49).
Just because we may know more about the Bible than someone else, or come closer to God’s standards of conduct than others, this offers us no reason for pride. Jesus told the story of the haughty Pharisee and humble publican for this very reason (Luke 18:9-14). And besides, we will stand or fall before the Lord based on how we stack up to His word, not how we compare to others. “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).
Mistake Three: Concluding That the Restoration Is Over
As I said earlier, there have been many restoration movements in history. In the Middle Ages many believers were outraged by the follies of the Catholic Church. The result of this was the Reformation, in which many unscriptural practices of Catholicism were rightly jettisoned. Ironically, after chaffing under the authority and tradition of the Catholic hierarchy, these reformers and their followers codified the fruits of their study into creeds and confessions they bound on others. Creedalism is the inevitable result of closing the door on restorationism.
Any time we get to the point where we decide that the restoration is over, we are doomed. In the first place, to claim that is to claim that I am perfect, and that is far from the case. In the second place, to allege that the restoration is over is to claim that every spiritual virtue and attitude in my life is at the level it should be, which means there is no longer room for growth. And in the third place, if I claim that the restoration is over, then I am arguing that there is no need for further study or investigation, robbing future generations of their divine command to examine everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Some people see the restoration as a completed task, with the results proudly on display as in a museum. The results can be viewed, but there is a velvet rope which prohibits closer examination and further investigation. I prefer to see the restoration as on ongoing exploration, the complete fulfillment of which we will never realize, but the pursuit of which will make us holier for the doing.
“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude” (Philippians 3:12–15a).