How the Restoration Movement Plea Directed Me to the Orthodox Church

For my brothers and sisters in the Restoration Movement churches, the following statement may seem fundamentally contradictory and nonsensical: It is the Restoration Movement Plea itself that directed me to the Orthodox Church.

The Restoration Movement Plea has never been officially formulated. Its end is, as Thomas Campbell put it, “simple Evangelical Christianity.” Of course, he did not mean by that what we know usually mean by evangelical. Rather, “simple Evangelical Christianity” is “that original simple form of Christianity expressly exhibited upon the sacred page.” The means to attaining that end are variously expressed as the reform of the present churches toward or the restoration to them of the apostolic beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church.

The Restoration Movement churches arose historically out of the primitivist and revivalist trends of the then-frontier lands of Ohio and Kentucky. And many of the original leaders, particularly Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were Presbyterians. These early Stone-Campbell Movement (as the churches are also known) leaders stressed two things: unity and purity of doctrine. Stone and his followers tended to emphasize unity. The Campbells and their followers tended to emphasize purity of doctrine. Whether by accident or design, those who sought unity through apostolic doctrine gained the printing presses, and thus the minds and imaginations of the young movement.

As the Movement leaders put it: they sought the common denominator all churches had, the New Testament Scriptures. As Thomas Campbell put it, “[T]he New Testament is as perfect a constitution for the worship, discipline, and government of the New Testament Church, and as perfect a rule for the particular duties of its members, as the Old Testament was for the worship, discipline and government of the Old Testament Church, and the particular duties of its members” (Declaration and Address). But what rule were Christians to follow in using the New Testament to restore apostolic belief and practice? That which is “expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in expressed terms or approved precedent” (ibid).

Many of these sentiments and principles can be found online in the fundamental texts of the Restoration Movement:

It is here, in these principles, of course, that we begin to see the problem. Not all Christians agree as to what is “expressly enjoined.” The Stones and the Campbells lived at a time in European and American history that gave great weight and authority to human reason. There was a certain naivete as to the ability of reason to go straight as an arrow to the truth, if one could but eliminate subjective prejudices. In this atmosphere, the Restoration Plea, so simple, so self-evident, so reasonable, was winsome. The Restoration Movement grew at a brisk clip in those early decades.

But the naivete of these early impulses were brought home as following the Civil War, the Stone-Campbell churches split over the use of instruments in worship. Instruments were not “expressly enjoined by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles” said most of the southern “Campbellites.” More of the northern brothers and sisters stated that instruments were not expressly forbidden, and thus were permissible. Forbearance won the day for a time, but since the division was predicated on more than instruments (it is hard to see how the sociopolitical tensions did not influence the split), in time this unity movement divided in two.

But reared as I was in the Restoration Movement churches, and educated and trained for ministry at one of the Movement Bible colleges, I was a firm believer in the Plea. Like the Stone-Campbellites of old, I loathed the divisions, having experienced their hateful effects in my own developing faith. But given my education, I also knew I could not just merely accommodate my beliefs to whatever Christian group I found in which I felt most at home. Many of my high school friends were Baptists, but I could not give up the belief that baptism was by immersion and which administration brought forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But my heritage churches, though begun with noble principles and labor, had fallen prey to the same schism they had sought to remedy. And by the time I was born, the Movement had split again, and now the three branches of Restoration Movement heritage were merely three more options among the vast sea of other Protestant divisions.

So as I entered my last couple of years at Bible college I knew that if I were to discover that New Testament Church toward which I had been inculcated to give my allegiance and all my labor, it would have to be beyond naive rationalist hermeneutics and simple primitivism. With Barton Stone and others I, too, willed that my heritage churches “die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling” (“The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery”).

I had discovered that my own churches had not lived up to their own principles. Yet I believed in those principles as fervently as ever–and even more so today. If my churches had failed, yet had had the proper basic impulses and original principles, what could I do to correct those mistakes, at least in my own individual efforts, and at the same time still live my heritage?

To begin with, I had to note where these principles were driving me. I was driven, of course, to the New Testament Church, but I was also driven to reexamine my supposed “objectivity.” The hermeneutic I employed, although it resonated in certain respects with other ancient practices, such as that of the Antiochene school, in its historical, grammatical emphases, by the same token, it was an alien mind forced upon the documents. The Scriptures were not originally interpreted as much as they were performed. That is to say, the Corinthians did not read the epistles addressed to them to ascertain as to whether or not spiritual gifts were still operative in their day, or had to come to some understanding as to the place of head coverings on women during worship. Rather, they heard the epistles in the context of the Eucharist and with an ear to doing that which had been enjoined upon them.

But how was I, removed by some eighteen centuries, by continents and oceans, cultures and language, to hear the texts as the Corinthians heard them? In the end, the very Restoration Movement Plea I was attempting to live gave me my clue: I would have to hear with the ears of the Christians who had heard the ones who had hear Paul. I would have to read the apostolic fathers (Ignatios of Antioch, the Didache) and the sub-apostolic fathers (Justin the philosopher, Irenaeus of Lyons) to best hear the New Testament as it was meant to be heard and obeyed.

This led me to read, as is often quipped by Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, all the parts I hadn’t underlined. I looked at 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 with new eyes, heard the text with new ears, and discovered that the Stone-Campbell understanding of the Lord’s Supper was profoundly mistaken. Indeed, far from restoring a New Testament practice, the Restoration Movement understanding of the Lord’s Supper as simply a memorial remembering what Christ had done, and nothing more, was only as old as the Reformation. In fact, Ignatios of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and, to put it plainly, the entire apostolic Church, had always believed that in the Lord’s Supper, the elements of bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I heard again, what I had so egregiously missed the first several times, that bishops are as old as 1 Timothy 3. I heard for the first time that tradition, far from being an evil thing, was absolutely necessary to genuine Christianity. It’s how, Paul told the Thessalonians, one tells the true from the counterfeit. I began to realize the full implications of Jesus’ promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against his Church.

In the end, the Restoration Plea drove me to the historic Church. I first started with the Benedictine monastic movements, and the classical texts on spiritual disciplines, worship and prayer. Simultaneously, I sought not only the origins of the apostolic Church, but sought, too, to trace its historical lineage. If I truly believed in the Incarnation and Jesus’ promise of the endurance of his Church, then it only made sense that I would be able to trace the Church from the New Testament era down to the present. Only if schism and division could make Jesus’ promise fail would my search be unsuccessful. But then, as the early Restoration Movement leaders expressed it, “Could anyone frustrate the desire and prayers of the Lord himself for the union of his Body?”

Of course, I believe that the search enjoined upon me by my devotion to the principles and desires of my heritage churches is ended in the Orthodox Church. Here is the apostolic Christianity I was taught to seek. Here is the basis and foundation for unity among all Christians. Here is no sect, or another party of Christians, but the Church of Jesus Christ itself. As Thomas Campbell said, “Were we, then, in our Church constitution and managements, to exhibit a complete conformity to the apostolic Church, would we not be, in that respect, as perfect as Christ intended we should be? And should not this suffice us?” (Declaration and Address). He, of course, did not mean, then, the Orthodox Church. But the implication for me is inescapable. The Orthodox Church is that apostolic church Thomas Campbell, his son, Alexander, Barton Stone, and many other early Restoration Movement Christians were seeking. My own search is at an end. All that is left is to arrange, as best I can, the final arrival of me and my family.

I said at the beginning that my claim that the Restoration Movement Plea drove me into the open arms of Orthodoxy would seem contradictory and nonsensical to my brothers and sisters in the Restoration Movement churches. I hope that such a peregrine journey as mine has been will now seem more reasonable and necessary. For my brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church who have come from the Restoration Movement churches, you know well what I mean here. And please pray for me and my family that we may soon join you.

8 thoughts on “How the Restoration Movement Plea Directed Me to the Orthodox Church

  1. Out of an overall interesting posting, this paragraph was particularly resonant for me:

    “I had discovered that my own churches had not lived up to their own principles. Yet I believed in those principles as fervently as ever–and even more so today. If my churches had failed, yet had had the proper basic impulses and original principles, what could I do to correct those mistakes, at least in my own individual efforts, and at the same time still live my heritage?”

    My experience with the Roman Catholic Church was very similar to what you describe here.

    However, I’m interested that you tacked “still live my heritage” on there. What heritage are you referring to? And why was it important to you?

  2. What a very pleasant and welcome surprise! Welcome, Megan. I can’t recall your last comment to my little corner of the blogosphere, but I’m humbled not only that you would visit such a blog as mine but also comment.

    As to your question:

    For all the failings of my heritage churches, they taught me to love Jesus, my brother and my sister, the Scriptures, and God’s Church. That was a heritage I could not jettison, and please God never will.

    It’s not that my heritage churches were somehow wrong to desire to see the actuality of the New Testament Church in their own day (and ours), but rather that their methods could only frustrate that desire. My heritage churches certainly had a flawed ecclesiology, but they were right to love the Church. Given their culture, they almost couldn’t help but go wrong, given their beliefs about reason and to what extent human effort could facilitate a unity that already was operative.

    When I became an Episopalian in 1996, I had just gone through a couple of very difficult ministry experiences. One was a campus ministry in 1992 where I was all but forced to fall in line with the program of the ministry founders, and also strung along in terms of funding information then left with three months to raise a year’s worth of salary. The other was a rural church ministry where a couple of young women got their noses bent out of shape and unleashed a gossip/character assassination campaign against my wife and me. So when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church my relationship with my heritage churches was, to say the least, pretty rocky.

    But the fact of the matter is, I could see through these human failings and still appreciate the concrete realities of my heritage churches. Since then, the hurt has worn off, and my respect and admiration for my foundational faith has only grown. Though liturgically I would feel more comfortable in an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish, in many more ways my hometown Christian Church would be much more congenial to me and where I now am.

    In short, I have circled back toward my heritage in coming to Orthodoxy, albeit I have not come back to exactly the same point where I left.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. So, if you could list out the main issues that you had with Orthodoxy 2 years ago, what would they have been? Issues that prevented you and your family from becoming Orthodox…

  4. My goodness no-one’s left a comment here for a while, but thanks for this. I’m currently looking outside my fundamentalist, hard-line Restoration movement CoC (which I’ve been bought up in), towards the Orthodox church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s