Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

The Restoration Movement Fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Mar – Apr 1996)

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(A gospel critique of the American Restoration Movement and some suggestions concerning its future)

by Edward Fudge1
March – April, 1996

22The Present

I love the American Restoration heritage and owe it very much. It led me to Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, and it bequeathed me with valuable principles for serving him through this life. My great grandparents on both sides of the family belonged to the Churches of Christ, as did grandparents on both sides, and both my parents. My mother’s parents, Will and Delia Short, served as missionaries in Africa for Churches of Christ for more than 60 years. My father, Bennie Lee Fudge, preached for Churches of Christ all his adult life and supplied Sunday School workbooks to a full generation in thousands of congregations.

My own biblical and spiritual education included 17 years under the dedicated auspices of Churches of Christ teachers, beginning in first grade at Athens Bible School in Athens, Alabama, and continuing through that school, Florida College, and Abilene Christian University and graduate school. I began preaching and teaching in Churches of Christ at age 17 and have done so for more than 30 years. During that time, I have published articles in most of its papers, written commentaries for its teachers, sermon outlines for its pulpits, and Bible lessons for its classes. I presently serve as an elder and teacher in a local Church of Christ in Houston.

The Past

Thomas and Alexander Campbell and their associates were not alone in pursuing simple Christianity. Those men were the founders of our “Restoration Movement,” however, and Alexander Campbell’s own early progression of thought is easily summarized. His logic ran like this: (1) “Signs of the times,” coupled with the year-day principle of prophetic interpretation, indicate that Christ’s post-millennial reign is imminent; but (2) the world must be converted first; however, (3) Christians must unite if the world is to believe; and (4) the way to this unity is the “restoration” of the “ancient order.”2

No one in the Restoration Movement today shares Campbell’s four basic views. It is an arguable oversimplification to say that the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) have largely forsaken restoration to focus on unity; non-instrumental Churches of Christ have forsaken unity for restoration, and the independent Christian Churches (instrumental Churches of Christ) have attempted to retain both themes in a delicate balance.

Although we began as a millennial movement, we have largely chopped our millennial roots.3 R. H. Boll and H. Leo Boles engaged in a brotherly dispute regarding premillennialism in the Gospel Advocate from about 1910. Foy E. Wallace, Jr. led a non-fraternal purge of known or suspected premillenialists in mainline Churches of Christ in the ‘40s and ‘50s, a purge which extended to hymnbooks, college faculties, and missionaries in foreign lands. The psychological effect of such perversity is seen in the fact that a Christian scholar such as Robert Shank, welcomed by Churches of Christ and hailed as a hero of outstanding integrity after Southern Baptists rejected him for questioning their majority tradition concerning eternal security in his book Life in the Son, was suddenly and summarily rejected and ignored by Churches of Christ when he questioned our majority tradition concerning Revelation 20:1-10 in his later book Until…the Coming of Messiah and His Kingdom.

Unity, once a watchword, has become for many a byword; Campbell’s dream of Christian unity has been tarnished if not discredited by the realities of division among those espousing it. While Campbell hoped to “unite the Christians in all the sects,” his successors in our family line began as early as 1837”4 to deny the existence of any Christians in “the sects” — defined as all professing Christians except themselves. For these, “unity” was redefined to mean leaving “the sects” to identify with the “true church” (Churches of Christ).

The restoration of the ancient order of things, once an invitation and challenge to Christians in all the sects, has become the rationale for disqualifying all professing Christians outside the movement and for constant strife among those within.5 Like some cancerous cell gone wild, restoration for some has become a basis of fellowship and even a means to salvation.6

The Future

Our movement, like all other Christian movements, sprang from specific historical circumstances and filled a particular need. With the passing of time and the changing of circumstances, some founding principles were discredited, others were outgrown, and the rest had to be reinterpreted. If Churches of Christ are to continue as an identifiable entity,7 the time has come for us to formulate a new self-consciousness consistent with Scripture, which is appropriate to the present, capable of bearing the future, yet which retains authentic continuity with the admirable principles of our past. To that end, I offer six suggestions:

1. Use “restoration” as a tool, not an end.

I was reared on the notion that our movement is uniquely dedicated to uncovering the truth, of which the Bible is the primary source and final measure. For 18 years as I was growing up, I heard preachers say all that counted was what the Word of God revealed, and knowledge of that revelation required honest, careful, contextual study.

For my father (and many of my teachers), learning something new was a constant goal and they greeted its achievement with delight. More than once I heard my father end a controversial conversation by saying, “I completely disagree with your conclusions, but I respect your right to study the Bible for yourself and to stand on what you honestly believe it to teach.” I was later shocked to discover that not all our preachers shared those attitudes — though they all seemed to agree that other people should. This notion of constantly going back to the Bible must be preserved at all costs, and the person who takes it seriously is a genuine “conservative” in the only sense which ought to matter to people of integrity.

Apostolic Christianity was quickly polluted by the influx of many sources: Greek philosophy, Jewish tradition, and pagan lifestyles. Through the ages, common opinions became orthodoxy, which became unquestioned and finally unquestionable. The same may be said of thinking within our own movement as well. The concept of “restoration” might serve as a scraper, a handy tool for cleaning layers of encrustation from biblical understanding.

However, restoration is only a tool, not an end within itself—and certainly not the means of acceptance with God. Nor is it an indispensable tool, for others may approach Scripture and find life in Christ although they never think in terms of “restoring” anything.

Finally, our efforts are neither able nor necessary to accomplish God’s design of the ages. The “true tabernacle” is built by God, not man (Hebrews 8:2), and God’s “restoration” far exceeds our ability to accomplish (Acts 3:19-21).8

2. Remember that all God’s truth is for all God’s people, and that no religious group has its exclusive possession.

When it comes to possessing God’s truth, we humans all are like the blind men feeling the elephant. Each bears truthful witness to what he knows but the knowledge of each man is partial and, to that extent, distorted. “If any one supposes that he knows anything,” warns the Apostle Paul, “he has not yet known as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2).

In my experience, the Restoration Movement has meant sharing “our” truth with others, and receiving any truth from them that had escaped our notice. I have been privileged to teach, preach, and lecture at churches and institutions of many denominations, non-denominations, and assorted “true” churches: Presbyterian, Episcopal, Churches of God, Advent Christian, Methodist, Baptist, charismatic, and so forth. I have always taught what I believed I found in Scripture — and I have always come away with a new or renewed appreciation for some doctrinal or experiential truth cherished by my hosts but less well known or emphasized by our people.

I have usually found others eager to know more about Churches of Christ, and willing to consider insights we hold dear and which can be fairly based on Scripture. Among such insights are the ability to think and teach without written creeds, the role of baptism as the believer’s response to the gospel and as Jesus’ designated manner of initially expressing faith in him as Savior,9 the blessing to be found in weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the plurality of elders who actually pastor, and the fact that independent congregations can function without formal ecclesiastical machinery.

We may be confident that the God who used unwilling Pharaoh and indifferent Cyrus to advance his eternal purpose has no difficulty utilizing the labors of Ignatius and Augustine, Calvin and Luther, Cranmer and John Knox, the Wesleys and Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, William Miller and William Temple, Dwight Moody and Dale Moody, Karl Barth and David DuPlessis and Hans Kung. In the same way, I believe he called and used Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, the Sweeneys and Sewells and Lipscombs and Hardings and Brewers and the rest. But God’s use of any person—or religious movement—is a stewardship of grace to be exercised with humility, not a badge to be flaunted or trophy to be revered, or a stick by which to measure others.

3. Cherish the ideal of a pure church without casting it into an idol that competes with Jesus Christ.

Surely no one can quarrel with the desire for a pure church, especially if it is pursued in Christ-honoring humility and a loving manner. However, we must always be careful to preach Christ and not ourselves (2 Corinthians 4:5). There is a great tendency in our movement to do the very thing Paul renounces, which takes at least three forms.

First, one can preach an imaginary church of the ancient past, a hypothetical dream which has never actually existed on earth.

Second, one can preach the ideal of a pure church, which, given the power of sin, is an impossible dream, since there will always be tares among the wheat (Matthew 12:24-30).

Third, one can preach a particular historical movement or fellowship within church history as the only means of obtaining salvation or of pleasing God. This third tendency appeared early in our Movement. Tolbert Fanning began a sermon titled, “The Mission of the Church of Christ” with the words, “To impress the heart of the erring with the wondrous truth that ‘the Church of Christ’ is heaven’s divinely constituted organization for the salvation of the lost, is the first and principal labor of the minister of peace.10 This notion, popular particularly in the South, sprang from a simplistic identification of “the body, the church”(Colossians 1:18; Matthew 16:18, etc.) with the particular wing of the 19th-century Campbell-Stone Restoration Movement commonly known as “the church of Christ” or (in quasi-acknowledgement of its denominational character) “Churches of Christ.” That is heresy in the scriptural meaning of the term. To help eradicate it now and avoid it in the future, we should reclaim the slogan, so popular early in our movement: “Christians only, but not the only Christians.” The Bible does not say that denominationalism is a work of the flesh. It does say that factiousness or heresy is (Galatians 5:20).11

4. Relate to our historical heritage without losing our perspective.

Although we like to say that the New Testament church was established on Pentecost in about A. D. 33, and to claim that is all we are, we cannot erase the 1800 years which followed Pentecost as if they never transpired.12 Our movement did not fall from the clear blue sky. It had roots,13 ancestors, environment, just as all human movements do.

Insofar as we choose a common name, whether “Church(es) of Christ,” “Christian Church(es),” or any other, we are by dictionary definition a “denomination,” although that term has various meanings in the contexts of other disciplines. I once was part of a congregation whose sign said “Elm Street Church: A Meeting Place for Christians.” We asked to be listed under the heading “Nondenominational” in the church page of the local newspaper. Some Churches of Christ found that objectionable on grounds it suggested that they were a denomination. At the same time they declined our invitation to join us under the heading “Nondenominational.”

We can recover the sense of being a “restoration movement” in two important ways. First, we can remember that we are a movement within the church universal, which God may graciously use within that larger picture. Second, we can remember that restoration is always an unfinished business which compels us to keep moving. It is unmitigated hypocrisy for one to urge his religious neighbors: “Go by the Bible, regardless of what your parents, church, or anyone else has taught you before,” then dismiss those who urge biblical reform among ourselves by intoning “what faithful gospel preachers have always taught.” Our children are neither blind nor deaf to such foolishness, and those we have taught to be honest will reject it outright. Still, some will shake their heads and ask why so many are “leaving the old paths.”

5. Focus on the finished, perfect work of Jesus Christ rather than on our own sinful attempts at obedience or programs of “restoration.”

History is an ever-moving stream. We were born into it at a particular point; we will leave it when God sees fit. Over it all, however, stands Jesus Christ, and he alone gives it meaning. In the entire history of our race, these is only one short period in the life of one man which truly pleased God. There only can one find the perfect “doing” which can pass unscathed through the fires of judgment (Romans 5:18-19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:4-10).14 There only can one see the perfect “dying” which exhausts all the curses of a broken covenant and drains the divine wrath to its dregs.
No other life or death can stand before God’s holy scrutiny. This only can enter judgment and receive God’s acquittal. The gospel tells us that this has already happened—in the person of Jesus our representative. It is his obedience, his death, his blood, and his now-risen and glorified life which secures our acceptance and position before God. He obeyed and we are righteous (Romans 5:19). He died and we are reconciled (Romans 5:10). He arose and we shall pass safely through the great judgment day (Romans 5:10). The saving work is finished — the gospel is that good news. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” Romans 5:1).

6. Be satisfied with your identity as a Christian.

The sovereign God has told us that he is presently summing up all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). We ought not be astonished to find denominational loyalties diminishing, or the number of believers increasing who identify themselves simply as “Christians.” Jesus Christ can rightfully say ”He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23); however, no group of his followers can demand such allegiance. The apostles tried that once, and Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:49-50). We have a right to ask any person to declare allegiance to Jesus Christ. We have no right to require anyone to identify with us or to join our band of disciples.

Our “identity” must finally be no more than that of any faithful Christian in any age of the world. Separated from trusting faith in Jesus Christ, distinctives15 are worse than worthless. Then they instill self-righteousness and compete with the true gospel. In the Day of Judgment, there will be no point in bringing God a package of tracts proving our soundness, or dragging in a bundle of arguments that establish our “identity” based on supposed “distinctives.” Nothing we can bring will see us through that Day. We can only point then to the sinless Son of God, slain for our sins and raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).


Restoration Movement heirs have a noble heritage and a grand calling in Jesus Christ. It is the same calling God extends through the ages to men and women of every tribe and tongue and people and nation. God calls us to honor the Son of God, to bow before him as the Lamb slain for our sins, to proclaim him as the only Savior. He calls us to trust Jesus now for right standing with himself, the only way to real peace (Romans 5:1; 8:1).

God calls us to give ourselves to him with a holy life of thankful obedience and zealous service. He will call us one day to rise again—to be found in Christ, not having any righteousness of our own but that which comes only from God and only through faith in Jesus (Philippians 3:8-10).
Then he will call us to enter judgment, but without fear, to be presented forever to God by Christ the Lord with exceeding joy (Jude 24-25; 1 John 4:17-18). The everlasting gospel frees us to die to sectarianism in order to live to God. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Restoration Movement to all who believe.

1 Edward Fudge writes, publishes, lectures, preaches, and practices law in Houston, Texas. He has a master’s degree in biblical languages from Abilene Christian University and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Houston.

2 I first became aware of this progression of Campbell’s early thinking from original sources while preparing a term paper on “Restoration Thought” for a class in church history at Florida College in 1964 or ’65. The paper was subsequently published in large part in a series of articles under that title in the Christian Standard. For the same analysis in scholarly form, see Richard T. Hughes and C. Leonard Allen, Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630-1875 (Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 170-187.

3 The early 19th century bristled with eschatological anticipation. Campbell’s post-millennial hope was but one form of utopianism that dashed against the rocks of human frailty, exemplified by the Civil War. See Hughes and Allen, Illusions of Innocence, pp. 160-163. For a sympathetic history of the Adventist Awakening, or “millerite” movement, see Clyde E. Hewitt, Midnight and Morning (Charlotte: Venture Books, 1983).

4 Hughes and Allen, Illusions of Innocence, pp. 128-132.

5 Hughes and Allen, Illusions of Innocence, pp. 102-132; Oliver Read Whitley, Trumpet Call of Reformation (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1959), pp. 181-214; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: World, 12th printing, 1972).

6 Alexander Campbell assumed the good fruit of the Protestant Reformation and did not consider it necessary to include it in his own program. Alexander Campbell, Christianity Restored (Bethany, Va., 1835; Reprinted by Old Paths Book Club), p. 183. Following an exhaustive review of representative sermons, Bill Love concludes that our first generation of preachers moved their central focus away from the Cross to restorationism and, ironically, set our whole movement on a path diverging from the central message of the New Testament The second generation thus “received a ‘cut flower’ theology of the atonement….By the third generation, the bouquet had wilted and appeared ready to be thrown out altogether.” Bill Love, The Core Gospel: On Restoring the Crux of the Matter (Abilene: ACU Press, 1992). Without a solid foundation built on Jesus himself, many people in the Restoration Movement came to view restoration itself as a means of right standing with God and as a basis for fellowship.

7 Although one might expect movements to keep moving until they reach their goal, then pass away, it appears that most religious movements reach a point, somewhere short of their goal, at which they stop moving but nevertheless continue to perpetuate the status quo. It is thus uncommon to hear it suggested, as I did recently at a conference of a “true church” other than ours, that the particular churches involved simply die, as such, with their members continuing to spread their distinctive principles in the various Christian groups to which they might go.

8 The word “restoration” in this text is apokatastasis, which appears only here in the NT and nowhere in the LXX. However, its cognate apokathistemi has a rich history in biblical literature and carries strong messianic and eschatological overtones. For a thorough discussion of this vocabulary of “restoration” see Otto Oepke’s article in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel & trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), I:387-393.

9 My characterization of our baptismal teaching above states matters in their best light. As a matter of fact, our sermons on baptism often come short of the New Testament’s rich exposition of that theme, particularly in failing to show the inward-outward relationship between faith and baptism, and in failing to make clear the centrality of Jesus Christ and his atoning work to both. Edward Fudge, “Baptism in the Light of the Gospel,” Mission Journal (April 1985), pp. 11-18; G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962).

10 Tolbert Fanning, The Living Pulpit of the Christian Church, ed. W. T. Moore (Cincinnati: R. W. Carroll & Co., 1867), p. 534.

11 “Factions” or “heresies” in this verse translates hairesis which has the root meaning of a group which stands apart and aloof from the whole based on its choice of opinions or understandings.

12 The illusory notion that one can live and act outside the scope of ordinary historical influences has characterized much of American religious and civil life, and gave rise to the title Illusions of Innocence, by Hughes and Allen.

13 See, for example, C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press, 1988).

14 The word “will” in verses 7, 9, and 10 is thelemati, not diatheke. The author is making the point that Jesus came in a human body, not to offer more animal sacrifices as a remedy for sin, but to give God what he had always wanted from us but never received: A life perfectly obedient to the divine “will.” Jesus presented God such a life in his death on the cross. God judged it and found it perfect (Hebrews 9:27-28; note the “as”/”so”). Jesus’ record of obedience is the only basis by which any sinner—inside the Churches of Christ or outside them—can be accepted by God. Because Jesus obeyed God perfectly, we may trust in what he has done for right standing with the holy God. That frees us to live a life of obedience (always imperfect) as a response of gratitude. Understood this way, the old hymn words proclaimed the gospel: “believe, obey: the work is done!”

15 Numerous “true churches” all pride themselves in their “distinctive” doctrines and practices, many of which they unknowingly share. It is probable that no true doctrine or practice is ever distinctive or that any distinctive doctrine is actually true, unless one accepts the claims of extra-biblical revelation on a par with Scripture, as do Mormons and some Seventh-Day Adventists. It seems especially odd that any group which urges that all people of common sense can unite on the clear teaching of Scripture would also say that only their group has properly understood some fundamental truth.Wineskins Magazine

Edward Fudge

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