Restoration Movement Christian to Orthodox Catechumen

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.

Baptism

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

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.

18 thoughts on “Restoration Movement Christian to Orthodox Catechumen

  1. Interesting post. I just found your blog from tag surfing.

    I’ve never been a member of a Restorationist congregation, but being a student at Harding University (maybe you’ve heard of it), Restorationist theology has become very familiar territory. It’s interesting to see a link between the Churches of Christ and Orthodoxy – I tend to look at them as being polar opposites, but it’s not quite so far now that I think of it.

  2. Great post, Clifton. As a fellow-worker of yours, who also grew up in the Restoration Movement (instrumental Churches of Christ/Christian churches after the Disciples split off in the 1960s, although some of my relatives were non-instrumentalists), I have to agree with your assessments on many points. I did hear in Sunday School from time to time how Roman Catholics were ‘not really Christian’ because of ‘idolatry.’ I never quite bought that one and the logic behind it.

    Campbell’s discussion on the nature of baptism is so close to a sacramental view that one wonders why he didn’t have a similar view on the Eucharist. Of course, few current Restoration Movement folks have probably really read Campbell, and many would probably diverge from some of his views.

    Also, Campbell never really gives any satisfying answers for why he believed the Greek Church was apostate. Interestingly his pleas for ecclesiological unity of local churches (i.e., parishes), and the need for each Christian body to recognize the acts and brotherhood of the others is essentially that of how Orthodoxy technically functions.

    Both my grandfathers were elders in their congregations . . . and both were staunch in their belief that only men served as elders. Interestingly, the preacher/pastor in all the congregations I grew up around were never deemed elders, but preachers/teachers/evangelists. Later some congregations seemed to move toward a model where the pastor was numbered among the eldership. I think in the past 10 or 15 years there has been a decided shift, at least among some of the instrumental congregations that split from the Disciples of Christ, and there is a sort of flow of members between various non-denom congregations – Church of Christ/Christian flowing to non-denom congregations with various Baptist heritages, or to Nazarene congregations, etc., and the issue of women in the pulpit and women on elders councils I think has a fair amount of variety, but I’ve lost touch a bit with those circles.

    One big gulf between Orthodoxy and the RM, which you only touched on with respect to music, is the peculiar sola scriptura mindset of this movement. In some, it takes the form of – if the scriptures don’t say it, we don’t do it; and in some it’s – if the scriptures don’t allow or prohibit, we will not debate about it, do it or don’t and we’ll remain in ‘communion’ with you. Some seem to take both stances depending on the issue.

    Lastly, then I’ll shut up, I think that many RM-types come to Orthodoxy because there is an inherent strong desire in the movement to worship and believe consistent with the apostolic witness. Once one encounters what the early Christians actually believed and did, and the history of the Church from Acts through to Nicea and Constantinople I, many RMers come to realize that they’ve actually found the fulfillment, the fulness of what the whole movement was after anyway, although the answers are sometimes a bit uncomfortable (like infant baptism, or the Eucharist, or the Saints).

    Pax

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Eric.

    I’m not quite sure how literal your self-description of “fellow worker” is meant to be, but it got me curious. I note that you, also, are an Orthodox catechumen, and am curious as to where you worship. Of course, I’d like to know more about your journey to Orthodoxy as well. But from the blog linked to your name above, I gather you wish to remain anonymous.

    But if you’d like to contact me off blog, you can reach me at chealy5 at yahoo dot com.

  4. Clifton:

    Thanks – fellow-worker for Christ, not some dude down the hall [chuckle] – but you and I have exchanged several e-mails already about my journey, etc. over the past couple of years!

    I tend to keep a low profile in the blogosphere out of respect for my family’s privacy, although not complete anonymity. I’ll drop you an e-mail.

  5. Could you give a definition of “Restorationist”?

    Are those the people who also use a word like “theonomian” and talk about theocracy and have some special economic theories?

    Or am I thinking of something else?

  6. Steve:

    Restoration Movement Christians are not theonomists, theocratists or federal headship-ists.

    The movement is, as I described above, simply a reformation movement that attempted to unite the disparate Protestant sects on the message of the Scriptures and the simplicity and purity of the beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church.

    While I above spoke of the a capella and instrument-using churches above, another branch of the movement is the denominational Disciples of Christ (with the chalice and cross emblem).

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so clearly. I believe that we see in a glass dimly, that is why there are so many denominations. I disagree about women in leadership roles in the church, obviously, I am from a different denomination, but we worship the same Lord:) Leadership can be poor regardless of the gender. It can also be brillliant with the light of the Son. Blessings as your pursue your education and your calling to the ministry.

  8. “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.”

    Even though I was never part of RM church (though I dated a guy once who was a member of one of the a capella ones), this last bit you posted is something I can really relate to. Sometimes it has to be all or nothing when you search. I couldn’t settle for anything less than the New Testament church. Thank you very much for sharing your journey.

  9. Thank you for sharing yout struggle with us. I became a catechumen last Suday, (May 11th/09) and getting to the point of saying’YES’! is a journey to two different worlds. The spiritual leader of the church I used to attend is in the process of re-marrying after divorcing his first wife. I had been troubled by the shallowness of that church for quite a while, but his life plans has shown that he is not following Christ, but is following himself. I want to be a part of the true Church, a part of the body of Christ. God bless you.

  10. Hi, I was doing a search for Restoration Movement seminaries, of all things, and came across your blog.
    I’m wondering how you came to believe that baptism was okay for infancts. What are the passages that you mentioned, about infants believing? And if it is possible for infants to exercise faith, what sins do they have to be cleansed from? Is the Orthodox church Augustinian (sp?) in its view of original sin?
    I don’t want to argue; I’m interested in what the Orthodox church teaches about this area of difference with the RM.
    I’m also interested in what changed your mind, what led you to the conviction that the Orthodox church is the New Testament church.
    You can just email me directly if you want.

    1. Did you get a reply- Orthodox believe that we inherit death from Adam, but not guilt. I accepted infant baptism because the Church does…the Church is the ground and pillar of the truth. As far as an apologetic for it, as a continuation of Israel, God is not less gracious to infants now, than he was in the Old Covenant where circumcision included children in the Covenant. One can find early pre-Nicene Fathers who admit to it (Tertullian-though he suggested that it not be done for practical pastoral reasons). Orthodox believe that because of death, through the fear of death and loss of the assmiliation (likeness) of God, that the ‘passions’ emerged, and through that, the propensity for sin. For Orthodox the inheritance of death from Adam was not a punishment but a consequence, derived from Adam’a alienating himself from Divine Life. Immortality in Orthodox understanding is not intrinsic to man, but is a gift of grace, by man’s union with God. Since our lostness is not punishment, our salvation is not forensic, or juridical, but primarily ontological- we are imparted Divine Life and that is anterior to the metaphorical ‘impartation’ of justification. In Orthodoxy we do not speak that we are justified until immediately after exit from the baptismal font- we say liturgically ‘we are justified’. And we do not speak of salvaiton in the past tense for the most part until after Communion ‘who has saved us’, it being a statement that is contingent on living the Way, and not just asserting a belief, or a legal covenant relationship.

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