Central to my own fellowship, the Restoration movement, is the desire to emulate the first century church—the original Christians.
This ambition, often called Christian primitivism, is not unique to the Stone-Campbell movement and has been sought by dozens of Christian groups throughout the centuries, including the Hussites, Anabaptists, Puritans, and Waldensians. All of these groups believed to some extent that in its infant stages, the church existed in a golden age under the leadership of the Apostles, and that the church today ought to be more like the Christians we see described in the pages of the New Testament.
There are countless ways we have attempted to align ourselves with the church in Acts. We have tried to mirror the theology of the ancient church, adopting the motto sola scriptura to do so, which lead to a reemphasis on believer’s baptism among other things. We’ve also adjusted our ethics and church practices to better mirror the first century church. This has manifested in the removal of instruments from worship settings, participating in a weekly Lord’s Supper, and greatly limiting the names that can be used on the church sign. Congregations have also implemented a rigid hierarchy in church leadership of elders, deacons, and ministers.
However, there are also numerous ways restorationist Christians have either ignored the precedent of the early Church or failed to imitate it. Some minor examples include the construction of church buildings, donning their Sunday-best, and institutionalizing altar calls. Moreover, Christians who have sought to recreate the church they find in Acts have failed in more important ways: not emphasizing the care of widows and the elderly, condemning alcohol and dancing wholesale (though this is fading), not giving freely of their resources, or reinterpreting the Lord’s Supper as symbolic.
These failures are fairly serious if one accepts the premise of Christian primitivism—that the first century Christians were closer to the unadulterated teachings of the apostles and (more importantly) to Jesus, thus making their example and the directives given them infinitely more important for us. This posture toward the early church demands that we mirror them to the best of our abilities, chalking up modern traditions to “wisdom of the world made foolish by God.”
Yet I think this way of thinking is fundamentally flawed. There is of course the issue that recapturing that golden age is impossible. Beyond the stark differences in culture and technology, it almost goes without saying that we no longer have the apostles to lead us. Moreover, we have something that those Christians did not: the completed canon, the holy book of our faith, the Bible.
Still, even more important is the problem that Christian primitivism makes no room for the church to improve. We like to think of our faith in universals and constants, yet Christianity—and Judaism before it—are saturated with progression and advancements. Even within our closed canon of Scripture, written in a relatively short amount of time, there is an evolution of belief—from dynamic leadership to formalized hierarchy, from apocalyptic thinking to Christian realism, from the imminence of Christ’s return to prolonged hope.
The Apostolic Age was a catalytic era delivering divine revelation and ushering in God’s Kingdom. But we must capitalize on the tools God gave us to continue establishing his kingdom, never content to remain static, and ask ourselves in every age, “What does it look like to be a Christian today?”