Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Pattern or Passion?
I grew up in Churches of Christ. I have followed the restoration principle all my life. I have learned the “pattern” from childhood. But I can’t defend it! It is a deeply flawed way to read the Bible, it is inherently inconsistent, and inevitably divisive. In February I had one of those hinge moments – a small thing that changed how I think. I was teaching a class, and asked the question, “How does this ancient teaching manifest itself in the modern church?” I was hit with a barrage of objections to the phrase “modern church.” It’s not one of our authorized code words. They wanted me to say “New Testament church.” My answer was, “look around the room. There’s the modern church.” But we were talking on two different levels. The “NT church” is code for a church that has restored the pattern of worship, doctrine, and life precisely as outlined in the NT. I no longer believe we can do that. I still believe in faithfulness to scripture of course, but the history of restoration movements is so full of disunity, sectarianism, anger, and contention that I don’t want to perpetuate it. Anyway, common sense dictates that restoring the NT church in the 21st century is impossible! Which church should we restore? Jerusalem? Antioch? Corinth? Rome? Those are all different expression of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. What about churches not listed in the NT record?
Thanks to Bobby Valentine for this research, here is a brief overview of the quest for the pattern among various Christians and what that pattern looked like to them. I think it is instructive to ask the specific questions of how and why the pattern they perceived has been different from what we have claimed the pattern to be.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was the great Swiss Reformer who sought to return to the purity of apostolic Christianity. Beginning in 1519 he announced that he would only be preaching from the New Testament. Zwingli soon became focused on the notion of "the law of Christ." With this in his mind he rejected vestments, images, mass, and introduced the primary motif for the Lords Supper that Churches of Christ still cling to – a strict memorial only. Zwingli introduced a hermeneutical principle that has had far reaching effects: the Regulative Principle. As used by Zwingli this principle simply states that whatever scripture does not explicitly command is forbidden. To illustrate how serious Zwingli was about this we need only look at his views on singing in worship. According to Zwingli the divine pattern only explicitly directs three acts of worship: preaching, prayer and the Lords Supper. But what of singing? Audible singing was to be rejected in worship on the same principle instrumental music was rejected - there was no authority in the divine pattern for it. After all, Zwingli argued, Paul commanded us to admonish one another "in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" but he specified that the only music was to be "in your hearts." Zwingli felt that the pattern forbade public singing.
The New England Puritans were on a restorationist crusade. John Cotton (1584-1652) a leading figure in colonial American history was an ardent pattern seeker. His quest for the divine pattern was as strict as any in history. He wrote: “No new traditions must be thrust upon us but that which we have had from the beginning. True Antiquity is that which fetches its original from the beginning. If they have no higher rise than the patristic Fathers, it is too young a device. Live ancient lives; your obedience must be swayed by an old rule, walk in the old ways." (John Cotton, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated Into English Meter, 1640) Cotton was committed to finding and reproducing the biblical pattern. So great was his quest for doing it exactly as they did it in "true Antiquity" that he agonized over whether Christians were to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the morning or in the evening. In 1611 he published, "A Short Discourse of Mr. John Cotton touchinge the time when the Lordes day beginneth whether at the Eveninge or in the Morninge." In this volume Cotton argued that evening is the truest observance for the Lord’s Day and the Supper because it had been set forth in "the first institution of time" and thus was the “old and good way.” Moving to a morning observance was to innovate and to depart from the "practice and judgment of the primitive Church." Cotton finally states, "I see no footstep of Christ or his disciples . . . that go before us in this path." That is the path of morning to morning rather than evening to evening. It is clear that Cotton was a devoted restorationist in an honest quest for the pattern of the church. In Cotton's pattern a group of men would test each other for doctrinal soundness and relate their conversions before starting a local church. Then they entered a covenant pledging to uphold the laws of God and the purity of the congregation. The gathered church selected a teaching pastor; ruling elders and deacons. Future members would be examined by the ruling elders then asked to profess their faith publicly and sign the church covenant. One more example of Cotton’s understanding of the pattern is his understanding of singing. Cotton, like Zwingli, rejected instrumental music though not congregational singing as did Zwingli. Instead, Cotton rejected any song written in post-biblical times. The only "authorized" singing in worship was that of the Psalms. Man had no authority to lift up his own tainted and unholy words to the throne, for Paul had commanded that we sing Psalms. To go beyond what was written was dangerous, it was to depart from the pattern. John Cotton was convinced that the churches formed under his leadership in New England were in fact identical to the New Testament churches. He writes that the churches are exactly as they would be if "Jesus were here himselfe in person."
The Baptists grew out of the Puritan movement because they felt the Puritans did not go far enough in the quest for God’s pattern. The New England Puritans still accepted infant baptism but the Baptists rejected this as against the pattern. Two Baptist theologians wrote treatises to demonstrate the true marks of the true church: Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) and James R. Graves (1822-1893). Edwards book was entitled "Customs of Primitive Churches" outlining what he viewed as the unassailable Baptist position as being the true New Testament church. Graves engaged in mortal combat with Alexander Campbell, whom he believed to be a Bible denying liberal! For Graves the true pattern was found in the Jerusalem church. He wrote, "The Church which Christ himself organized in Jerusalem is an authoritative model to be patterned after until the end of time. The Catholic and various Protestant sects were originated and set up many ages after the ascension of Christ. They are therefore not divine but human institutions." Graves sought to confront all, "human traditions, and mutilated and profane ordinances, and those who impiously presume to enact laws in place of Christ, and to change the order of his church." Graves claimed that his brotherhood was the one true church and that they alone were Christians. Graves stressed that each element of the pattern was of equal importance. Thus if a congregation fell short in only one area it was no longer a true church.
In our own movement (Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ) Barton Stone was a primitivist, but Alexander Campbell had a different reason for restoring the pattern of the NT church. Campbell was an ardent postmillennialist (the view that human progress would usher in a utopian era that would lead to Christ’s return). That is almost a uniquely American view. Campbell believed that the church had to be restored before Christ could return. This extreme, motivated, argumentative patternism got out of hand a generation or two later. No one embodies this better than Daniel Sommer (1850-1940). He is responsible for the rabid, ultra-conservative, combative tenor and reputation of Churches of Christ since the split was recognized in 1906 – actually this man’s movement led to the split. In 1889 he held a meeting in Sand Creek Illinois, and issued a document called the Address and Declaration. It stated: “It is therefore, with the view, if possible, of counteracting the usages and practices that have crept into the church, that this effort on the part of the congregations hereafter named is made. And now, in closing up this address and declaration, we state that we are impelled from a sense of duty to say, that all such as are guilty of teaching, or allowing and practicing the many innovations to which we have referred, that after being admonished and having had sufficient time for reflection, if they do not turn away from such abominations, that we can not and will not regard them as brethren.”
How do we account for these radical differences? How do we evaluate one reconstructed pattern against the other? Should we be dogmatic like Cotton and Graves? Or should we dismiss these and others on the quest as dishonest? Should we claim they did not believe in Bible authority? What makes our pattern right and theirs wrong? What makes some things a mark of the church and other things not? Perhaps the pattern does not concern itself over the organization of the church but rather following the way of the cross in discipleship. Perhaps we should learn that often the pattern we recognize is more a mirror of the person reconstructing it than scripture itself. One lesson is that the quest for the pattern should teach us the virtue of humility. The quest for the pattern has resulted in harsh judgementalism rather than the love of Christ, which is the one pattern we must follow.