Much is made of what is termed the “Restoration Movement.” In theory, the idea is good. Restoration is a biblical idea, and who wouldn’t want that? In practice, the movement may not be what it’s often purported to be, for those who have claimed to be part of this movement are often not united or in agreement on what it means. While claiming to have restored first century Christianity, we may betray ourselves by acting in ways contrary to what God wants. One of the problems lies not in the idea of restoration, but in what people understand restoration to be.
The concept of restoration would imply that there was a break in something, a failure that needs to be rectified. “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; oh, restore us” (Psa 60:1). When thinking in terms of a movement, restoration has sometimes been viewed as a version of the following: Jesus established His church in all its purity, but over time apostasy occurred and the church was no longer what it was supposed to be. Therefore, the church needed to be restored to its original form. Men like Luther and Calvin tried to reform the church, but they didn’t go far enough. By the nineteenth century, men like Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone saw the need to actually restore, not just reform. Those who identified with them became part of this Restoration Movement, and primitive Christianity was finally restored (as if it were a one-time process). Sometimes in these discussions, the lines are blurred between the universal church (of which there is only one) and local congregations (of which there are many).
That is much oversimplified, of course, but the point is that restoration is often seen in terms of the “institution” of the church, and by going back to proper worship and work (the outward forms), the church may be restored to its original purity. However, this is not the way Scripture presents restoration. The universal body has no organization to corrupt or restore, and local churches will come and go through time, each independent of others.
Which particular congregation in the New Testament was flawless? The church at Corinth is known for its problems. Read Revelation 2-3 for a look at congregations whose candlesticks were being threatened because of problems. On it goes. Churches are comprised of imperfect people, and they were in constant need of correction from the very beginning because the people weren’t always doing what they ought to have done.
What IS perfect is the mind of God. There are instructions within the epistles, and examples of what God wants, presenting to us God’s mind on various issues; those instructions will always be flawless. In seeking to please God, we seek to know God’s mind (cf. 1 Cor 2:10-13).
Restoration is not about an institution, but is about the people. That is, when we speak of restoration, we should be thinking in terms of people being restored to God. In the Old Testament, we find this in the prophets:
“Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me’” (Jer 15:19).
“Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Lam 5:21).
Jesus referenced the coming of Elijah (John), and said, “he will restore all things” (Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12). In Acts 15:13-17, in discussing preaching to the Gentiles, James quotes Amos as God promising to rebuild the tent of David and to restore it “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord.” The restoration being sought was found through seeking the Lord and, by God’s grace, having sins forgiven through Christ (cf. Acts 3:17-26).
Paul wrote, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). Peter wrote, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet 5:10). Such restoration is attained through forgiveness.
Restoration is about being reconciled to God (Rom 5:10). The gospel is a “message of reconciliation,” and the essence of the appeal is this: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:19-20). When we are in fellowship with God, restoration has been attained. Restoration will always work that way. Even as David expressed it: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psa 51:12).
None of this means that what a local congregation does is of little importance. God has organization and work for local churches, and as with any other instruction, we ought to seek to do God’s will. However, doing the outward work without having the inward heart and fellowship with God personally will result in empty worship, and this has always been the case (cf. Matt 15:8; Isa 1; Mic 6:6-8).
Here, then, is our desire: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!” We invite all to join us in this desire of being reconciled to God through Christ. Therein is true restoration.