Well, to sum up from last week. I came to some, I think, important conclusions:
1) the NT writers view look at tradition in two different ways. Sometimes it can be seen negatively (e.g. Mark 7), sometimes positively. It is the second kind (the positive kind) that I will be addressing in this and future posts re: the early church.
2) CofCs are notoriously inconsistent on the subject of tradition. This comes from the anti-tradition tendencies of our spiritual forefathers, as well as a sort of generic American revolt against “old” things. (Other sources could probably be named, but I’ll stick with these two for now.)
3) This anti-tradition stance has led to some extremely unhealthy consequences. First, since we never “look under the hood,” so to speak, we don’t realize that many of our beliefs and practices do not have their origins in the NT, but rather at some point in later history (which is a bad thing for a movement built around a principle of restorationism — the merits of which I’ll save for a later post). Second, because we are unable to think back more than a generation or two (generally speaking), we don’t realize that our beliefs and practices have changed — sometimes drastically — in a relatively short amount of time (which, again, is a bad thing for a group whose preachers loudly proclaim that they have always believed and taught the same things).
So what’s next?
I’ve been asked to discuss what relevance the early church/patristic period has for present day Christianity. Of course, when I was asked that, I immediately started talking about CofC views about tradition. Such is the nature of this venture: we confront in order to understand and to have a way to approach other larger topics.
I say that mainly to emphasize that when I’m talking about the early church I’m not referring to the early 19th century. There’s just a lot of background that needs to be covered before we can effectively discuss the early church itself (err… herself).
So, today, there’s one more bit of necessary background: I intend to analyze — to deconstruct, really — the traditional CofC view of church history. At the end of this little exercise, we’ll turn to the early church proper.
NI Churches of Christ hold to a view of church history that says this (WARNING: Satire ahead):
The first century was a golden age. The apostles roamed the earth and the “truth” (the content of which depends on whom you ask) was preached. First century churches provide a model for how all subsequent churches should look and act (except, I’m guessing, for Corinth): a cappella singing from Stevens and Shepard’s Hymns for Worship, multiple cups in the LS, Sunday school classes, Republican politics, no kitchen in the building, and a refusal to support colleges and non-Christians from the church treasury. Do you have a mental picture in your head? Good (it should all be clear from a simple unbiased reading of the NT, anyway). Well, by the time the church had lasted into its second generation, things weren’t going so well (1 Timothy 4.1-2). This, despite the fact that they had the NT to tell them exactly what to do. According to Paul, who lived to see this new generation of “Christians,” the Catholics were taking over. It wasn’t pretty. I’ll spare you the gory details and just tell you that before the ink was dry on the Book of Revelation, the church had entered into apostasy, complete and total apostasy.
From AD 95 onward, “church history” is a dark (and sad, really) tale of willful and deliberate disobedience to the express commands, approved examples (in the NT) and necessary inferences that our Lord left behind in the NT that was inspired by the Spirit (before the Spirit himself went on sabbatical — he hasn’t been heard from since, in case you’re wondering). Basically, the entire Christian Church extended its collective middle finger to Heaven. Some examples: creeds, monarchical bishops, transubstantiation, the Pope, original sin, infant baptism, candles, incense, instrumental music, idol worship, and Mary. The list goes on, but you probably get the picture. Some people during this time seem to have understood how bad this stuff was (e.g. Martin Luther) and they prayed to God about it, but since God doesn’t hear the prayers of sinners (John 9.31; Luther wasn’t baptized by immersion as an adult for the remission of his sins) all they were able to do was create more apostate churches.
If you’re starting to get depressed by all of this, don’t worry… help is on the way! In 1801, a mere 1706 years after the initial apostasy, a righteous man named Barton W. Stone held a Pentecostal-style revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, that ended with a call for Christians to be united with one another (a good message — the Lord doesn’t like Pentecostals, though, so don’t go getting any ideas). Well, a few years later, another righteous man, named Alexander Campbell, prayed to God and realized that having a bunch of different denominations was wrong and all of the apostasy that had swamped the church centuries ago could be erased by replicating the first century church. But wait, that’s not all! If everyone could agree on how to do that, then there would be unity, which is what Barton Stone wanted. Bonus!
This plan almost worked. Unfortunately, two things happened. When Campbell’s followers tried to call the apostates out of their denominations into the One True Church that they were restoring, a lot of people didn’t listen. Quite a few did, but not nearly everybody. Second, a lot of the people who did come into the One True Church were really just apostates in disguise; within one or two generations, they had revealed their true nature by supporting things like missionary societies and organs (1 John 2.19). Even Alexander Campbell himself turned out to be one of them!
The One True Church kept on trucking, though. A couple more generations down the road other apostates were unmasked (premillenialists, ‘one-cuppers,’ ‘liberals’ and supporters of divorce). The story of the restored One True Church is the effort to stand for the Truth “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Others have blogged about this understanding (and done a good job, I might add). It has been widespread in Churches of Christ for a very long time. My version, given above, is a composite from works by J.W. Shepherd, Brumback’s History of the Church, and countless adult class workbooks, tracts, journal articles and sermons.