For whatever reason, being a catechumen of the Orthodox Church has given me the impetus to reflect on the last seven years of Orthodox inquiry as well as on my heritage churches, the self-described Restoration Movement churches. Although I think it fair to say that my time as an Anglican (Episcopalian) helped me in the transition from my non-liturgical background into Orthodoxy, it has been my Restorationist heritage that has most shaped me, and, in some respects, most prepared me for Orthodoxy.
This past Sunday, at a post-service breakfast with Father Patrick, Khouria Denise, and two other young men who’ve been coming to All Saints, one of the gentlemen shared with me how his brother had married a young woman from the a capella churches of Christ. He himself being cradle Orthodox had little idea about these churches, and wondered at the notion that his brother (also cradle Orthodox) would find it possible to be involved with those churches, so I gave a couple of points of strong affinity between Restorationist churches and Orthodoxy.
Indeed, in the summer of 2000, after my first incredibly disappointing, even wrenching, semester at the Episcopal seminary, one of the things I was struck by, as I investigated the Orthodox Church, was how many Restoration Movement Christians there were who’d become Orthodox. I read many of their testimonies online.
I was thinking about this phenomenon of Restoration Movement affinities with Orthodoxy in particular on the drive home from teaching my business ethics class last night, and thought there are several specific touchstones at which Restorationist belief and practice strongly parallel Orthodox belief and practice. I want to reflect on these in this post.
But first a disclaimer: the Restoration Movement churches have no official institutional organ which aligns, coordinates and enforces similarity of belief and practice, so to the things I’ll be mentioning there are likely to have several exceptions depending upon the Restorationist church you run into. The most famous example: the use of instruments in worship. The non-instrumental churches of Christ agree with their other Restorationist brethren that Scripture is silent on the matter, there are no express commands one way or another (which doesn’t stop some from trying to find those express commands). However, the a capella churches interpret that silence to be prohibitive while the other Restorationist churches interpret that silence to be liberative. Also, even the same congregations in which I grew up as a youth have changed somewhat on some of their practices (divorce, for example), so that what I will describe is my past experience, which may not be applicable today.
But there are the following touchstones of similarity that I want to touch on: baptismal regeneration and its Trinitarian nature and its form, frequency of observance of the Lord’s Supper, divorce, male leadership, and, ultimately, its allegiance to an undivided, normative New Testament Church.
As I grew up, I may not have had a systematic understanding of soteriology, and I might not have been able to articulate even a coherent account of grace and human work in salvation, but I knew one thing pretty well (and had the biblical texts ready to justify my knowledge): baptism was the focal point of initial salvation. We might have had the (in)famous “Five Finger Excercise” (hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized)–sort of the Restorationist equivalent of Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws”–but we placed heavy emphasis on that last: baptism.
We did so, of course, in the context of a Protestant and evangelical world that preached, on the popular level where we lived, faith only. We could not reconcile “faith only” with Acts 2:38, Matthew 28:19, John 3:5, Romans 6:4, and 1 Peter 3:21–baptism had to be in there. How else does one gain a good conscience, receive cleansing of sin, and the gift/seal of the Holy Spirit, and how else is one born anew and raised to new life?
And we also knew enough about the Greek to know that the form of baptism was immersion, and the nature of baptism was Trinitarian. So we immersed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Now, that said, Restorationists reject infant baptism. After all, infants don’t or can’t, claim the Restorationists, believe, confess and repent. They do not have the intellectual or volitional capabilities to do so, and since such capabilities are predicated of baptismal candidates, infants are not to be baptismal candidates. (Of course, that meant Restorationists have to explain away a lot of biblical passages that speak of infants believing and exercising faith, as well as the “household” passages such as Acts 16.)
So, for a Restorationist, the move to an Orthodox understanding of baptism would be a short one, since the core substance is there. Infant baptism (which is not a confusion about baptism but about faith) would have to be worked out, as would a richer and fuller understanding of the sacramental nature of baptism. Restorationists have what is basically a sacramental understanding of baptism, but it lacks a proper ecclesiology, and therefore is not fully a sacramental understanding.
The Lord’s Supper
On the slimness of one verse, Acts 21:7, Restorationist Christians justified their weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. And that observance had nearly the same solemnity, seriousness and gravity that one finds in an Orthodox service. I remember being taught that one did not lightly partake of the Lord’s Supper, that this was a most serious time to reflect on one’s spiritual state, to confess and repent of sins to the Lord, and to remember the basis of our salvation and cleansing at Calvary. I was told more than once growing up, that one had better partake seriously of the Lord’s Supper, lest we become liable to the consequences St. Paul mentions at the end of 1 Corinthians 11.
Ironically, in view of this seriousness and in view of our beliefs about baptism, we understood the Lord’s Supper in the Zwinglian sense: it was not a sacrament, the bread and grape juice were not the literal body and blood of the Lord, it was quite simply and essentially a memorial.
So the move here from Restorationism to Orthodoxy was a substantially greater one. Whereas baptismal issue were, in a sense, superficial to the substance, here we had the same sort of superficial atmosphere, but were substantially and essentially different. Of course, my move from Restorationism to Orthodoxy was mitigated by two things: my growing dissatisfaction with the Restoration view of the Lord’s Supper (which arose out of my growing awareness of the historic Church’s beliefs and practices regarding the Lord’s Supper), and my journey into, through and back out of the Episcopal Church. I went from mere memorial to “real presence” to full-on sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
Marriage in the Restoration Movement churches was not considered a sacrament, but similar to the beliefs and practices of the Lord’s Supper in the Restorationist churches, marriage was viewed with grave serious. In fact, among this group of non-liturgical churches, this was the one occasion where we borrowed freely from the marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer. Once again, all the outward trappings spoke of sacrament, though that viewpoint would have been rejected.
That said, marriage was serious business, and divorce was met with grave disapproval. I remember growing up and knowing that divorce would have prohibited any man from serving as a minister of a local congregation, as well as, in most churches, serving as an elder or deacon, too. In fact, even a year or two out of Bible college, I remember learning how one of the professors I’d studied under had been asked to resign once he and his wife had gotten a divorce. And that was in the early 90s.
Regrettably, I think some of the strictness about these things is diminishing, and more and more divorce is not being seen as an impediment to leadership in the local churches as well as the parachurch organizations.
Male Ordained Leadership
Growing up in the Restorationist churches, I did not experience, ever, anyone other than a man in positions of leadership. Ministers and youth ministers were men, elders and deacons were men. The first significant experience I ever had with women “leaders” was when I was serving as the pastor of a rural Illinois congregation and they elected a team of deaconnesses. But those women did not serve on the church board or vote in board decisions (though, with all the congregants, they would vote in congregation-wide decisions).
It wasn’t until I got to seminary (a Restoration Movement seminary) that I first came across serious arguments made for women in leadership positions. Not having a sacramental understanding of either the Lord’s Supper or of the ministry, and with no cognizance of apostolic succession, I found myself persuaded by these arguments, though I was not dogmatic or activist about it (it was a possibility allowed this particular argument’s biblical interpretation, it was not a “justice issue”).
It wasn’t until I got to the Episcopal Church, however, that I had first direct experience of women in ordained leadership. I came with a favorable open mindedness about it. However, my experience, both in the parish and at seminary, led me ultimately to conclude negatively about it.
The Orthodox Church, of course, only accepts men as deacons, priests and bishops. So, having had the experience in the Restorationist churches that I did, this is much more familiar to me.
The New Testament Church
But perhaps the one, overriding and undeniable reason I am now a catechumen in the Orthodox Church is that growing up I had drummed into me in all my religious teaching that as a Christian I had the duty and obligation to work for, promote and foster the life and witness, the work and the reality of the New Testament Church. Now, admittedly, this Restoration Plea, as we called it (“to work for the restoration of the simple and pure beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church”) was predicated upon a flawed ecclesiology. The “New Testament Church” was primarily a theoretical construct, an once-historical reality that needed to be reinstituted. While some Restorationists came close to teaching the the Church almost entirely disappeared after the “Great Apostasy” (variously dated), in my own upbringing I was not given that understanding. While I was taught that the Church had compromised the Gospel and her purity by the “accretions of man-made traditions” the Church never had disappeared, it was simply our taks to “restore it” (as one restores the luster of tarnished silver) or, to reform it. Indeed, some of the early Restorationist leaders viewed themselves as a second reformation.
So, the notion of the New Testament Church as a polestar had always led my thinking, as a Restoration Movement Christian, as an Anglican, and ultiamtely, it was what led me to the New Testament Church itself, the Orthodox Church.
It was in my last two years at Bible college that I began to see the huge problem that the Restoration Movement Plea (however well intentioned) had was simply that one could not leapfrog back some seventeen or eighteen centuries to the first century and assume that we could understand the New Testament Church better than did, say, St. Clement of Rome or St. Ignatios of Antioch. Further, the New Testament Church is a living, dynamic Body, the Body of Christ, it is not some theoretical construct that one makes by extracting certain information from historical documents, however inspired are those documents. The New Testament Church is alive.
I knew it. I knew it could not have died out, it could not have been so apostatized that it was unrecognizable. I knew it was somewhere. So I set out in search of it. My search led me out of the Restoration Movement churches, into and back out of the Episcopal Church, and finally I now stand within sight of the doors of the New Testament Church.
Lord have mercy. Grant me time and opportunity to enter that Church and fulfill my own personal restoration.