Restoring the New Testament Pattern 

by Robert Hach

 

I spent my college years and early adulthood in a religious group that represented both its appeal and its identity in terms of "the restoration of New Testament Christianity." It claimed to be in the business of restoring "the pattern of the New Testament Church." As such, it was (and continues to be) not significantly different from a variety of American-born religious faiths claiming to represent a return to Christian origins, though these "origins" seem to take a different form for each group. My seventeen-year experience with the particular variety of restorationism to which I paid homage left me believing that the attempt to restore "the Lord's Church" is altogether ill-conceived and misbegotten. The "New Testament Christianity" that I saw most effectively restored during those years was the legalism of the Galatians and the divisiveness of the Corinthians.

Integral to my departure (deliverance?) from "the Restoration Movement" were the gradual dawning on me of two realizations: first, that "the pattern of the New Testament Church" is an illusion and the attempt to "restore" it frustrates the spiritual growth of Christians; second, that the only New Testament "pattern" available for restoration is the pattern of Christian maturity.

The Once-for-allness of Christian Origins

The notion of restoring the New Testament Church assumes that the origins of the Christian faith and the Christian community are somehow available for restoration. In view of the New Testament witness, however, the beginnings of the Christian faith and the community to which it gave birth, it seems to me, are clearly unique and unrepeatable. The earliest Christians had been followers of Jesus prior to his death and claimed to be eyewitnesses of his resurrection. Their leaders, the apostles, were messianic delegates, authorized by Jesus to reveal and proclaim his faith to all the nations of the earth. Not only the apostles but, apparently, all of the early Christians received the power to perform "signs and wonders," only the most obvious being those of healing and speaking in tongues (see I Cor. 12:4-11). Acts of the Apostles chronicles a once-for-all-time chain of events: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the foundation-laying of the international Christian community (see Acts 1:8).

Unlike most restoration movements, the one I joined attempted to "restore the New Testament Church" while, at the same time, denying the validity of present-day "prophets and apostles" as well as present-day "signs and wonders." After having subtracted inspired speakers and wonder-workers from "the New Testament Church," we were left with having restored "the five acts of worship": singing (acapella only), praying, preaching, giving (money, that is), and partaking of the Lord's Supper. These, we believed, were included in "the pattern of the New Testament Church," together with and enforced by, in each local congregation, the authority of an "eldership." (By the time I joined, this "pattern" had become so formulaic and uninspiring that it had prompted a counter-movement-within-the-movement which was determined to restore New Testament "evangelism and discipleship," enforced by the authority of "evangelists" and "disciplers"; we meant to recruit into the movement college students from all over the country and, eventually, the world.)

Rejection of contemporary apostles and prophets and their accompanying signs and wonders is one of the few of my former positions that I still hold. The apostolic period was clearly the time of revelation, during which the foundation of the international Christian community was laid (see Eph. 2:19-22). The wonder-workings of the early Christians were called "signs" because they signified that the apostolic message was "the word of God," the revelation of God's Spirit (see Jn. 20:30-31; Acts 2:22; 14:3; Heb. 2:3-4). As such, the signs were revelatory; the performing of signs cannot be divorced from the revealing of truth.

To be a "Pentacostal" or "Charismatic" Christian today is to risk surrendering to the lordship of a present-day "Prophet" or "Apostle," whose pronouncements and directives easily become synonymous with "the word of God." It is tragically naive to believe, as such Christians sometimes say, that present-day revelations must correspond to scriptural teachings to be authoritative; this is to ignore the fact that the Bible is always subject to interpretation and, consequently, can appear to support a variety of mutually exclusive "truths." In effect, the "Prophet" or "Apostle" at hand becomes the authoritative interpreter of scripture (as Fundamentalist preachers, like me in my former life, also typically assume to be, even without miraculous confirmations), and whoever has a different interpretation, ipso facto, rejects what "the word of God clearly says."

This is the general pattern of restorationism because someone's interpretation of scripture must be authoritative in order to determine which of the variety of perceived New Testament phenomena are to be restored. My former brand of restorationism, after years of comparing him with the apostle Paul, finally anointed its leader, if somewhat ambiguously and semi-officially, with the apostolic title itself. Miracles may be forthcoming.

If the period of revelation and, thus, of "signs and wonders," passed with the apostles, as I think it did, then what remains to be restored is not the "pattern" of some ephemeral and elusive structure which they built, called "the Church"; what remains to be restored, rather, is the "pattern" of maturity that accords with their message.

Does the Church = the Community of Faith?

To attempt to restore "the New Testament Church" is to tacitly acknowledge that "the Church" is somehow different from the Christians of whom "the Church" supposedly consists. If there have been Christians in the world ever since New Testament times, then what could it mean to "restore the New Testament Church" unless "the Church" was something other than the community of Christians? The Christian community is a community of faith in that it is a community of individuals who constitute a community only by virtue of each one's believing the apostolic revelation of the faith of Jesus, the word of God, the good news of the kingdom of God. Wherever that faith exists, so, by definition, does the community; apart from that faith, there is no community. Though there might be something called "the Church."

The word "church" is an unfortunate "translation" of the Greek word "ecclesia," which literally means "assembly." In New Testament times, "ecclesia" did not exclusively signify the Christian community, as "church" purports to do today; instead, "ecclesia" signified any assembly of people for any purpose (In Acts 19:32, "ecclesia" refers to a mob, in 19:39, to an organized public meeting.) In other words, "ecclesia" was not, in New Testament times, a religious word, much less a Christian word.

Its origins are somewhat ambiguous, but "church" clearly entered the vernacular several centuries after the beginnings of the Christian faith. The term "church" ill serves the Christian faith now, it seems to me, because it is synonymous in the popular mind with buildings that are hardly distinguishable from temples and with denominations that divide (though not necessarily in adversarial ways) rather than unite the Christian community. In its broadest popular sense, it signifies an invisible conglomerate of all church-goers everywhere.

In contrast, "ecclesia," in its New Testament uses with reference to the Christian community, refers, in the first place, to all the Christians in the entire world (see Mt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22-23); secondly, to all the Christians in a particular city (see I Cor. 1:2; I Thes. 1:1), often living in or connected to a particular household (see Col. 4:15; Philemon:1-2); and, thirdly, to a meeting of Christians at a particular time and place (see I Cor. 14:19,23,28,35). I prefer the English term "community" (or "communities" when Christians in more than one city are under consideration; see Gal. 1:2, where Paul addresses the Christians in the cities of the province of Galatia) for the first two New Testament uses; this is the "ecclesia," or "assembly," in a metaphorical sense: all those, throughout the world or in a particular city, who are assembled in Christ through faith. For the third use, which is the literal sense of "assembly" (typically referred to as "going to church," or "attending church services"), any reference to Christians assembling, gathering, meeting, getting together would seem to be appropriate to the New Testament idea. It is possible, of course, to use "church" as the New Testament uses "ecclesia" (as, indeed, some Christians do), but whether or not hearers and readers understand it as such is another question.

In any case, the organizations, whether denominations or congregations, that are typically called "churches" are not synonymous with the individuals who comprise their membership; they exist, rather, as separate entities from their members, often incorporated, with heirarchical authority structures that exist on international, national, and/or local levels, corporate entities which have a life of their own. I do not wish to deny the validity, on scriptural grounds, of these organizations and what they do, nor to indict anyone for being a member of such an organization. Christians, I think, are free to choose among a variety of options in terms of how they think they can best serve their Lord. I only wish to point out that the designation of these organizations as "Church" or "churches," because of the unfortunate translation of "ecclesia" as "church" in so many English versions of the New Testament (typically translated by committees of scholarly churchmen), leads to the mistaken assumption that the body of Christ is identical to one or more of these organizations (one or more, depending on how sectarian is one's concept of Christian fellowship).

Instead, I would suggest that the body of Christ consists simply of Christians, some of whom serve their Lord within and others outside the boundaries of church organizations; at the same time, church organizations typically include at least some in their membership who have little more than an ancestral or a social connection to the Christian faith. Church organizations, at their best, serve to facilitate Christian fellowship and service, but they should not be mistaken for Christian fellowship and service itself. When they are, church-going tends to be equated with believing the gospel and serving the Lord.

The attempt to restore "the Church of the New Testament," as if it were a biblical "pattern," is as misconceived, in my opinion, as the attempt to restore the New Testament miracles. Rather than attempting to restore what is either unrepeatable or never existed in the first place, Christians would do far better to attempt to restore what is available to them and has been ever since the apostles finished their work and fell asleep: the "pattern" of maturity that accords with the New Testament message.

The Message and the Pattern

The New Testament message can most simply be understood as a series of claims regarding Jesus, first and foremost of which, of course, is that God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus comes first because without it, there would be no Christian faith and, as a result, no Christian community and no New Testament. The Christian community was born and the New Testament written in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, apart from which neither can be clearly understood nor adequately explained. The vision of both the early Christian community and the New Testament was of the risen Jesus as the glorified and exalted man, the image God designed for a mature and complete humanity (see I Cor.15:42-49). The first Christians' faith consisted of an identification of themselves with this image as their hope of salvation.

To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is, as a corollary, to believe that Jesus is God's Messiah, that is, literally, the one whom God anointed to rule God's kingdom. To believe that Jesus is the risen Messiah is, then, to anticipate the kingdom that he will rule upon his promised return (see Mt.13:36-43; Phil.3:20-21; II Thes.1:5-12); it is also to act as if one has already entered the kingdom, by obeying the commandments of the King, that is, to follow Jesus' example of love for God, brother and neighbor (see Mk.12:28-34; Jn.13:34-35). Herein is the maturity of life in the kingdom of God: a life of love.

To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead is also to believe that Jesus died for the sins of all. The theory of orthodox Christianity notwithstanding, the New Testament presents no authoritative theory of the atonement, in terms of why Jesus' death may have been necessary for the forgiveness of sins. What is clear is that, in view of Jesus' death, the Christian conscience does not condemn Christians for their shortcomings, as if they were guilty of transgression, but, instead, admonishes and encourages them to act consistently with what they are: the people of God (see Rom.8:1-17,31-34; Heb.10:1-25). This, again, is the maturity of life in God's kingdom: not fear, which has to do with punishment, but love, which comes from faith and hope (see I Jn. 4:18).

What remain from the work of the apostles, then, are the claims--that God raised Jesus, the Messiah who died for our sins, from the dead--and a pattern for living that is derived directly from those claims: through faith, the Christian lives in the same hope of resurrection and in the same love for God and others in which Jesus lived and which Jesus shared. This is the New Testament paradigm--"the mind of Christ" or "the law of Christ"--that shapes the Christian life by the power of God's Spirit (see Rom. 6:17; II Tim. 1:13 for references to the "tupos," or "pattern," according to which Christians live; see Rom. 13:14; Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3:9-11, for references to the putting on of Jesus' pattern for living; see Rom. 15:3,7; I Cor. 8:8-11; 10:31-11:1; II Cor. 8:8-9; Gal. 6:2; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5-8; Col. 3:13; Heb. 12:1-2; I Pet. 2:20-21; I Jn. 3:16-17; 4:10-11, for references to behavior that accords with the pattern). These claims and this pattern are what remained of the faith of the early Christians after the passing of the apostles and prophets and the signs and wonders. And they yet remain.

The New Testament Gospels explain these claims and this pattern in the context of their narratives of Jesus' words and deeds, death and resurrection; the New Testament letters apply the claims and the pattern in the context of their admonitions and encouragements of the Christian community. The Old and New Testaments together function not as a blueprint for the rituals and regulations, the structures and systems of "the Church," nor as a collection of magic formulas and incantations for the working of wonders; the Bible is inspired, rather, to explain the meaning of and persuade of the truth of the messianic claims of Jesus, and to encourage and admonish believers in those claims to live consistently with them, according to the pattern.

The meaning of the New Testament claims regarding Jesus' resurrection, messiahship, and sacrifice are by no means self-explanatory; they call for an ongoing persuasive discourse among students of the Bible and a continuing challenge to orthodoxy. At the same time, it seems to me that a growing understanding of the meaning and a deepening persuasion of the truth of the New Testament claims regarding Jesus provide the most compelling motivation, on the part of individual Christians, for restoring the New Testament pattern of maturity.

Backward or Forward?

The chief problem with restoration movements, I think, is that they tend, necessarily, to move in reverse, backward toward what they perceive existed in the past. As a result, their members can seem oblivious to the complexities of life in the present and resentful when confronted with questions they are not intellectually prepared to face.

How different is the approach described by the apostle Paul, who, in view of the claims of Jesus and the pattern of life for which they call, says, "forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead, I press on ..."; and, "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind" (Phil.3:13,14,15). The New Testment word for "mature" is "teleios," also translated "perfect," "whole," or "complete." Somewhat paradoxically, Paul uses the same word in the same context to acknowledge that he has not yet "been made perfect." Maturity, in the Christian sense, is not a static condition but a dynamic continuity, which begins by leaving "childish ways" behind (I Cor.13:11) and faithfully restoring the pattern for living revealed in and embodied by Jesus the Messiah. Ultimately, the completed form of that pattern of maturity awaits the coming of the kingdom of God.

 

CHRISTIAN

DOCTRINES