To the surprise of some, churches of Christ are not the result of a so-called “American Restoration Movement” in the 19th century, which is associated with famous names such as Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, Elias Smith, and Walter Scott.
Take, for example, a book I have in my possession from 1645 by Daniel Featley, called the Dippers Dipt. Featley was an official of the Church of England and one of the translators of the King James Version. In this book he chronicles an exchange he had with some early Christians. In a derogatory fashion, Featley calls them “Anabaptists” – a name which they despised. Why? Because they only wanted to be called “Christians.”
Since this book is in Early Modern English and was written to be antagonistic of anyone who questioned the teachings of the Church of England, it is sometimes difficult to paint an accurate picture of this strange “Anabaptist” religious group. But here are a few discernable traits I can make out of these people:
- These early Christians preferred to use the simple identity of “church of Christ.” Nowhere in the book do they describe themselves with any other name.
- They vehemently rebuked the idea of “infant baptism,” which was practiced by the Church of England. Instead, they argue that children are innocent and therefore do not need baptism.
- They argued that any male Christians could preach and administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because they understood that all Christians are now priests (1 Pet. 2:9). This was in contrast to the Church of England, which had a long (and extra-biblical) process of ordination for church officials.
- They denied that the Church of England was a legitimate church, and argued that the Lord’s church was the only one true church.
- They denied the concept of “original sin,” and argued that mankind has the ability to choose whether to pursue or reject God. Thus, they were not Calvinists.
- They understood that repentance preceded baptism (which meant a child should not be baptized), and that baptism was the point at which a person is saved.
- They baptized by full immersion in water, as Featley argued that sprinkling was a valid means of baptism.
- They rejected the authority of the Pope, the authority of the Nicene Creed, and the teachings of Luther.
- They held that the church and the Kingdom are the same thing.
This book is only one example we could cite. I say all of this to say this: The idea of restoring simple New Testament Christianity is not a recent invention. Going back to the Bible is not a novel idea that originated only in the midst of the Second Great Awakening.
In fact, 21st century churches of Christ are part of the same restoration movement as the 1st century churches of Asia Minor (which we read about in Revelation 2-3).
Jesus told His church in Ephesus to “repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). He told His church in Pergamum, “Therefore repent” (Rev. 2:16). He told His church in Sardis to “remember […] what you have received and heard. Keep it, and repent” (Rev. 3:3). He told His church in Laodicea to “be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:19). These early churches had deviated from the Word of God, and thus Jesus commanded them to restore themselves to the pattern of sound teaching they had originally been taught (cf. 2 Tim. 1:13).
Today is no different. We have just as much responsibility to follow the New Testament of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes 1st century churches got it wrong. Sometimes we get it wrong today. We can only try our best.
But understand that every church – whether it be the churches of Christ in the 21st century or churches of Christ in the 1st century – is on a trajectory; each congregation is either moving closer or further away from Jesus Christ and His Last Will and Testament. Some churches have done a better job than others in restoring the simple Christianity of the Bible.
But to be the church of Jesus Christ, we must always begin with this premise: The Last Will & Testament of Jesus Christ is our exclusive pattern of faith.
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