What Is A “Restoration Movement”?



What Is A “Restoration Movement”?

In the early 1800s a surge of interest in undenominational Christian swept through parts of Kentucky, Ohio, and western Virginia which historians later came to refer to as the “Restoration Movement.” While the history of this period is of great interest to me, I am more concerned with the biblical ramifications of such a movement. What does “restoration” mean? Is it biblical?

My Mom liked to buy old pieces of furniture and restore them. I have many of those pieces in my apartment. When Mom restored our dining room table, for instance, she worked to remove the accumulated blemishes several decades and repair the table until it looked and functioned like it did when it was first made. In the same way, to restore New Testament Christianity means to remove the accumulated errors and mistakes of past generations and line up our faith and practice with the original pattern given by Jesus and the apostles.

The impulse to restore is built on two assumptions. First, that there was a pattern given in the first place; and second, that there have been departures from that pattern which necessitate the work of restoration. Are these assumptions valid?

When Jesus gave the apostles the “Great Commission,” He intended for the apostles not only to spread the gospel, but also to teach the new disciples “to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). He further promised that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this, who would “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). To accept or reject them is to accept or reject Christ (John 13:20).

For this reason, the apostles intended for their hearers and readers to accept their instructions as the word of God. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Failure to heed these instructions resulted in censure (2 Thessalonians 3:14).

Recently, some believers have expressed reservations as to whether the apostles intended for their writings to be considered a pattern establishing norms for faith and practice. After all, none of the epistles was addressed directly to any of us. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that the apostles intended for their instructions to be considered normative. First Corinthians is probably the most “occasional” book of the New Testament (that is, written for a specific occasion), and yet Paul repeatedly states that the instructions he gives to them are the same as what he gives everywhere. He told the Corinthians that he sent Timothy to “remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church” (4:17). In 7:17 he urged, “and so I direct in all the churches.” His instructions concerning spiritual gifts focused on orderly peace, “as in all the churches of the saints” (14:33).

The apostles did indeed expect their readers to accept their epistles as authoritative and normative. But they also expressed concern about digression from the faith they revealed. Paul admonished the elders of Ephesus to be in guard against apostasy from their own ranks (Acts 20:29–30). In 1 Timothy 4:1 Paul wrote that “the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith.” John also warned that “even now many antichrists have appeared” (1 John 2:18).

Given these dire warnings, what hope is there for modern Christians to know whether they are living according to apostolic teaching? Catholicism and Protestantism each provide unacceptable answers. In Catholicism, the solution is found in the authority of the church and its sacred tradition. In Protestantism, the solution is found in adherence to certain creeds or confessions. I believe both approaches are wrong, and that the real solution, the biblical solution, is to appeal to the original pattern given by the apostles rather than to what we have always believed or practiced.

After Paul warned the Ephesian elders about departure from their own ranks, he said, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up” (Acts 20:32). Following his warning to Timothy over the apostasy of later days, Paul told the young preacher, “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following” (1 Timothy 4:6). Likewise, John told his readers, “As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).

I think John’s statement is key. In his day there were false theories about the nature of Christ swirling around the early Christians and threatening their faith (see 2 John 7). John’s antidote is to appeal to what they heard “from the beginning.” This is the very essence of restorationism. And for believers today, the same answer applies. Our faith must not be based on the pronouncements of church councils or ecclesiastical authorities—not even on what we have always thought or practiced. It must be based on the apostolic pattern revealed in the beginning.