The New Testament of the Restoration

Another denominational post.   I have mixed feelings about this.

In my journey with God, I cannot control what I was born into.  The more I develop my testimony – the more I search the soul of the faith I grew up with and the scriptural record in search of clarity – the more I come to see the Community of Christ as the receivers of a New Covenant.

To grasp my meaning, you have to see the spiritual struggle told through the bible as a repeatable historical struggle.  The bible doesn’t tell the story of a linear history, though there is that sense.  More importantly, it tells the journey of a people with God – from their liberation, establishment, prophetic challenge, fall, and struggle to understand the messiah who fulfills the law of righteousness, but not their expectations.

The more I reflect on this story of judgment and redemption, I see it in the Community of Christ story.  The Restoration, like all the Restoration movements of the 19th century, arrogantly or not, proclaimed to reclaim the New Testament church.   However, like every prophetic “return to origins,” it suffered temptations – overstating its self-legitimacy, temptation to self-righteous, and idolatry of its “specialness” at the exclusion of others.   The church and its distinctiveness overtook Christ as the center.  Judgment came not from without, but from within the church.   Claims of apostasy, divided loyalties, and lead schisms.  More than once.

It seems, the most dangerous time in any movement is when past clarity, defined by knowing who your enemies are, is no longer clear.   A movement does not need to be conquered from without when the enemies are within.   When division, internal strife over “the true meaning of the movement” set the movement against itself.  Is this what happened with Israel?  Babylon and Assyria only filled a vacuum created within?

It’s certainly what happened with the Restoration…multiple times.  It happened in the last 40 year’s of the Community of Christ.

The more I reflect on the scriptures and try to piece together what happened to the Reorganization, I see the glimmer of a New Testament period possibly in the Restoration.  This is the emerging period.  It is defined by the following realizations.

  • In the end, Jesus is the first and last prophet of the church.
  • Therefore, Jesus is the center and that center is shared by any Christian who proclaims Jesus Christ as the measure of God’s creation and redemption.
  • The Kingdom Jesus brings breaks open all religious, ethnic, or national definitions.
  • That Kingdom on Earth is Zion.
  • Zion has arrived where Jesus Christ is present, followed, and proclaimed in people’s lives.

The Old Covenant of the Restoration would claim sole rights to the authority of this Kingdom.   The Old Covenant would not see the possibility of this covenant fulfilled in God’s ongoing revelation.  New revelation would only reinforce prior revelation.   The center of the church is not God’s new revelation, seen also in Jesus, but the church and its righteousness.

I must be clear.  I am not trying to use the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” in ways to disparage Jews, Judaism, or claim self-righteousness for the Community of Christ over any group of Christians.  Rather, as I’ve tried to say, I’m trying to see the struggle of the accepting Jesus, the Messiah, in a biblical context and read that into the life and history of a specific history and specific church…..

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23 responses to “The New Testament of the Restoration

  1. Matt:

    I think you are on to something here. May I add that I think external events (in the sense of being orchestrated by God, not the church) are forcing us toward the point where our closeness to others desiring to follow Christ matters more than preserving institutional roles.

    Christians of the New Testament found that they could no longer stay in Judaism and still be true to their own sense of mission. A distinctly “Jewish” Christianity was neither fish-nor-fowl and was an evolutionary dead-end.

    Christ is the eternal center, never the church. Never the faith community. Never a historical tradition. Never a single species on a speck of a planet in a reality where galaxies are as numberless as sand grains, and galaxies themselves may be small potatos.

    The restoration of mission — the new wine — is clear; the bottles it is to be put into are still being defined. God, not us, will do the defining.

  2. I agree with the critique of the institutional church. Once things are institutionalized, you inevitably move away from the mission/message towards emphasis on maintaining the institution. How do you keep on message becomes my question?

    I was surprised that the original post lacked a specific christology being suggested, because christology is the way I think we stay on message even in the institutional church. The way the prior revelation and ongoing revelation connect in Christ is that you either fulfill the law or you don’t. Too often, people of all faiths have institutional and theological reasons to avoid common ground. The common ground is justice, which I articulate as fulfilling the Law because I come from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. You do not have to agree that Chirst is Messiah to seek God’s justice, justice is a theme embraced by all religions. For Jews there is the Law. For Christians, Christ is not something new, but the word, the Law, embodied and lived in a person who dissolved all boundaries, strove to unite people, and sought justice through prophecy, resistance, and healing. Whether we see Christ as Messiah, prophet, healer, teacher, or good example, the common ground of faithful living is striving personally and communally for a vision of justice and the living out of that vision.

  3. Darryl,

    What wonderful insights. I like the way there is a “Cosmic Christ,” in a way, that preserves through all the historical misappropriations. It reminds me a little bit of the theology of Wolfgang Pannenberg. But, to contradict myself a bit, I agree with you…even if I disagree with Pannenberg! Thank you. Your notion of an evolutionary dead-end is something I want to think about more.

    Josh,

    Thanks for commenting on such a denominationally-focused post. You and I agree, I think, on this almost eternal struggle between the Christ we confess and the institutional life of denominational faith. Your justice claim reminds me so much of Miranda. The challenge to create a coherent Christology is PRECISELY where my church is at. We are not even equipped to begin that process. Perhaps, I can be a part of that.

    Personally, I would start with a thought that came to me in my car. I have not forgotten it. If I had to put together a trinitarian doctrine of God, it would have to start with the proposition: “God is the Absolute, and the Overcoming.” In Christ, I see that dynamic happening again and again in the march of history…

    Maybe I’m a little more Pannenberg-ian than I think, but in the end, I think I would emphasize the concrete justice motif, not the ideal fulfillment. In other words, the overcoming, not the absolute.

  4. Matt,
    I find the idea of the New Testament of the Restoration intriguing and would like to hear more. I believe the Community of Christ is going through a time of transition. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the New Testament. Our mission seems to be focusing more on actually living out the Gospel rather than just believing a set of theological statements. The focus seems to be shifting towards mission, and rightly so in my mind. Perhaps, how to stay focused on divine mission will continue to be the most important question to face, not only for the institutional church but the non-institutional church as well. I believe the elements of culture that draws the institutional church away from its mission does the same with the non-institutional church.

  5. Tom,

    I would invite your thoughts, too. Your thoughts on mission are deeply a part of this paradigm shift going on – a shift in priorities from identity to action. I would agree with everything you said. However, I’ve been struggling with plumbing WHY this movement to mission is so hard. It’s not that it’s just “hard.” There are answers. Part of it has to do with what we’ve lost in this transition – discipline, spirituality, and mystery. “Doing” mission has traps similar to that of having distinctives or a “special identity.” We want mission to “make the difference,” which might just another way of being successful. If so, I think, this misses the death-stage of change. One way to think about it, perhaps, is to make a distinction between transition and transformation. Transformation takes into account the death that has to take place for new life to come, while our sense of transition simply fills that space death creates with time. Transformation is new life after some kind of death, while transition is simply change forged under the force of time.

  6. One part of the difficulty, for me at least, is that I think too much. My strength is analysis, but it is also a weakness. I can be so afraid of making a mistake (which is a kind of intellectual death) that I wait to act until I do thoroughly understand the principles and the plan. I’m a modern Thomas, unwilling to trust my own sense of the Spirit without the crutch of my intellectual understanding of the Spirit until the sense is overwhelming. That behavior has kept me spiritually safe perhaps, but has perhaps also kept me from doing far more for others than I have.

    Like a good third generation RLDS male of the 1960s and 1970s, I carefully selected a life companion who would share a common mission with me in the church. It was only later that I came to understand that her healing and empowerment WAS my most important mission from God, and I didn’t understand it until long after I accepted it as a command to be obeyed.

    Our minds are so small compared to our spirits, and those spirits are so small compared to the Christ!

  7. I like the distinction between transition and transformation. I wonder if our resistance to mission has something to do with our fear of death? Maybe it’s also a matter of being missional rather than doing mission…the former being a way of life and the latter focusing only on the results?

  8. On kind of a sidebar here, my view for several years is that the writing of the New Testament never ended. We continue to write it today, whether it receives the cloak of cannonization or not. The testaments are about the experience of a people in their walk with God, and the lessons learned along the way. That is one reason I refer to Micherner’s The Source as the history of God. We continue to uncover facets of God through his continued interaction with us, and this is the New Testament.

    Matt, I’m not sure I agree with your point that Jesus is the first and the last prophet of the church. That sounds almost too Mohammed-like to me. You are a prophet of the church, I am a prophet of the church, my neighbors are prophets of the church. Jesus was (is) the Christ (add whatever titles you want here), something none of us can ever be. He is the center of all that we are not so much as because of what he said (I get tired of those who just want to follow his sayings as a rabbi but can’t believe the part where he acknowledged his relationship with God the Father), but because of who he was/is.

    As much as I am interested in what other faiths have to say, and as much as we have in common with other people of good will, if we are in Christ, then who we become and what we do should have a completely different meaning than those who have chosen to stop at being good people. We become new creatures, called to become brothers and sisters of Christ, the sons and daughters of God (a topic I’m not sure has been all that well explored).

    Without becoming judgemental of those who do not share this choice, I think it is okay to recognize the difference, and that is what the CofC leadership team is doing in a highly methodical fashion. Their blending of our long-term traditions and revelations with the call to become that which we propound is prophetic, and echoes the voices of a long line of prophets. Even Gandhi called us to become the change we are trying to create.

  9. I’m not sure that is my takeaway from the Restoration experience. The early Latter Day Saint church made all sorts of errors — it abandoned peace for militancy, it forsook inclusiveness for exclusiveness, and ultimately it rejected personal revelation in favor of obedience to prophetic authority. This last feature of leader worship was (and in other Mormon factions remains) idolatry.

    However, I don’t think losing sight of Christ is the problem. In fact, I think extreme focus on Jesus is itself idolatry. If we now look at our canon and functionally reject our distinctive scripture by giving a special preference to the New Testament, I think we are missing the whole lesson of our tradition. The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants give us insight into what scripture is and what it is not. The New Testament is not a literal history and it should not be authoritative document. If we pretend that it is, then when people understand scripture for the human documents that they are, they will have the same crises over New Testament problems that they’ve had over Book of Mormon problems.

  10. First, Doug…I think we’re pretty much in agreement. I’m not sure I agree with your critique of recent emphases on Jesus=Rabbi. However, I think I understand your objection to my “Jesus is 1st and last prophet statement.” If you are democratize the prophetic role, I could only clamor agreement. What I am speaking more directly about in my Jesus as prophet statement is simply that Jesus’ ministry is the measure of all prophetic leadership. To argue that some President/Prophets are “truly called” while others aren’t, I see selective messianism, the kind the Pharisees and Sadducees exercised, which got Christ killed. I’m really railing against what I am beginning to see more and more in my beloved heritage…and that is the arrogance of the Restoration’s sectarianism. We are way to into ourselves. So many know the church and never met Christ. To proclaim Jesus Christ is not to become a generic Christian, like I’ve heard many in my role complain. Anyone who complains of generic Christianity have never met Jesus, only various religious “Christianisms.”

    John….I’m intrigued by a couple of things you say. I’m not sure I can concur. But, again…I’m not really sure. I don’t see how Jesus-worship can ever be idolatry unless Jesus becomes deified…so deified, he is replaced by some “modern day prophet.” Jesus, then, fades into the pantheon. While I’m not orthodox and appreciate a good heresy, I see the Restoration haunted by ideas that remind me of pieces of Docetism, Marcionism, and Pelegianism, where Christ is so triumphant over history, so metaphysical, the crucifixion and lessons of the crucifixion get lost. It’s like Jesus was historical (Palestine and the Americas!), but never a real person. We might understand idolatry well, but we DO NOT understand sin. I’m not presupposing a literal return to the New Testament. But, I do think we are struggling with a break from our Restorationism. And, I think we need to.

    The challenge, I see, is to accept the messiah that does not fulfill our expectations…and not to get stuck in religious traps. I preach it often. I believe very deeply in parts of the Restoration retelling of the Christian myth. I think we don’t realize, Zion has arrived. It’s come in the return of living Jesus to the center of our faith. That Jesus, for me, is the Jesus of the New Testament. We need to wrestle with Jesus’ Jewishness and we need to wrestle with Paul. Ironically, I think that was the whole premise of the 19th C Restoration. That said, you might be able to see how I think the Restoration actually clarifies the meaning of Christ and the New Testament. If our distinctive can be our unique testimony of Jesus Christ as savior of the world, and not wrap it in sectarian baggage, I think we will have moved into the Zion we’ve always professed.

    Let’s keep this up!!!

    Blessings,
    Matt

  11. Matt and John:

    Love the theological discussion, but may I jump back in as a dumb physicist?

    What God has been doing on this world alone has been going on for 1,000,000 times as long as the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. The arena of creation is unimaginably more vast than anything our scriptures hint at, except possibly in Joseph Smith’s retelling of the vision of Moses (which actually looks like something that robustly pops out of modern cosmological models).

    A just kingdom of physical beings like us isn’t the end point of that creation, and Christ has been and will be involved in unimaginably more than the historical Jesus as seen by his followers (on whatever continent). In the sense that Jesus becomes merely a personal hope of salvation OR becomes merely an icon for a social movemove, Jesus becomes idol that can no longer lead us to other aspects of the Christ who governs skies Jesus never saw and who is busy still creating “kingdoms” beyond our ability to understand.

  12. Matt:

    These posts sent me scurrying to find Richard T. Hughes’s intriguing article in the Spring 1993 Journal of Mormon History: “Two Restoration Traditions: Mormons and Churches of Christ in the Nineteenth Century.” His basic thesis is that these two decidedly 19th-century religious institutions approached and understood “Restoration” in radically different intellectual ways.

    Hughes contends that Alexander Campbell’s wing of the Churches of Christ arose from the Enlightenment and understood the restoration of the New Testament church in scientific ways. The task at hand was to look deeply enough, in a scholarly and scientific way, into the earliest available documents of the New Testament Bible. The same principles, tenets, and structures from the first century would, in the modern era, produce the same “true” church.

    Joseph Smith Jr. also sought a restoration, Hughes contends, but it extended beyond the New Testament church. In Joseph’s fertile imagination, the Restoration came to include the Old Testament patriarchal order, exodus and exile, and, finally, a “restoration of all things.” But Joseph was a product of 19th-century Romanticism, not the previous centuries’ Enlightenment. And so his first act was not meticulous scholarship but the writing of a new “Romantic” story: the Book of Mormon. As if the Campbellites weren’t sufficiently horrified at that, Joseph also dared to write more “new scripture” (eventually compiled in the Doctrine and Covenants—and elsewhere) and attempted to “rewrite” the Bible itself. In doing this he functioned not so much as a scholar as a poet, storyteller, and prophet.

    Perhaps we in the Community of Christ should stop running from our Latter Day Saint past (or at least slow it down a bit) to approach the present moment as poets, storytellers, and prophets, as well. If we are true to our heritage as a people who, as Hughes points out, “place enormously more importance on the experience of God than on the Bible itself,” then what might happen as we deal with some huge issues (for starters: rebaptism and same-sex marriage) if we were to focus a bit less on human reason (reaffirming precedent for the “old way” or finding justification for a new one) and a bit more on spiritual discernment (for the Spirit of God to “speak” and lead us in renewal)?

    We are still, I believe, storytellers attempting to write new chapters of “God in Christ in community.” Previous chapters of this “story” arise from Old and New Testaments, Christian history, early Latter Day Saint experience, the Reorganization, and now Community of Christ. All lead ultimately to the kingdom of God on earth, or Zion.

    • Agreed! Thanks, Rich. This has stimulated some food for thought for me. I wish I had more time to respond….

  13. I have enjoyed reading all the various ideas here. I have a slightly different slant on the issue though. I do not believe Jesus was divine or for that matter that he resurrected. I think we put altogether too much emphasis on the worship of Jesus and not near enough on the message of Jesus. Jesus was all about trying to change the injustices of his society and I think that’s what we as a church should be doing.

    I think we, as a church and as individuals, need to stop emphasizing salvation theology and begin recognizing that salvation is here in this life and we cannot just save it for ourselves. There’s a world of need out there and even in our own communities. That’s where we need to work on salvation. Education needs to be provided for those who cannot afford it. Trade schools or college, whatever the person can handle. Education is the answer to poverty.

    Jesus’ message was a social gospel and that’s what we ought to be emphasizing too.

    • Margie,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      I appreciate your freedom with your views. I’d like to respond to this one.

      I don’t think your view is slightly different. To deny Jesus’ divinity is a huge difference to me. To me, to deny Jesus’ divinity denies the divinity of all people as God’s children. Jesus’ divinity and our divinity are intimately connected, though not the same.

      Denying the resurrection, also, is not a slight difference either. Orthodoxy aside, denying the resurrection snubs almost 2000 years of Christian consensus. Heresy isn’t bad, so don’t get me wrong. But, there are more than ample resources within the Christian tradition to make the same point you are making.

      I, personally, agree that Jesus worship is a problem. But, on this point, I think our criticism is much more of mainstream American Christianity, which should not define our view of Christianity as a whole. This is why theological study is so important and I fault the church for not getting up to speed with this.

      You are doing salvation theology when you say salvation is here in this life. Again, I see the kind of salvation theology you are trying to throw out as mainstream American Christianity, which itself is a modern expression of Christianity and should not be conflated with “Christianity” itself. We do not need to dispose of all things leading to “other worldly” religion in order to turn our attention to this one. In fact, I think Christianity’s other-worldliness is crucial for the very attention on this world you/I call for. The other-world I look for is both in this world, and the next.

      Jesus’ message was a social gospel. I agree that we should be emphasizing it above all else. But, our social gospel is empty without a vision of an-other world. Jesus’ resurrection, his divinity, and the divinity within created life, I think, are good foundations for believing in that world.

      I hope the purpose of my thinking, here, is more clear now. The New Testament moment I’m describing in this post is not a turn to American mainstream Christianity. One way to see my ultimate hope is to bring back some basic Christian themes that have been lost. I think seeing Christianity through some RLDS strengths can help do that. To get there, we’ve got to first get over our sectarian obsessions. I believe the church has largely dismantled this sectarianism in the last 40 years, but it still lives in the way we think about the church and our desire to be different. For some of these ideas, Jesus – as someone we share with others – corrects some of that.

      Thanks for commenting!

  14. Matt,

    I have a problem with another world. I believe this world is all there is. At least I haven’t been to another and come back to testify of it. Until I know a lot more then I do now, I prefer to think this world is “it”. Therefore, I believe we must work as hard as possible to make this world one of peace and justice…for all.

    When I say salvation for this world, I mean after confronting the message of Jesus, we should be able to make the necessary changes in our lives to be able to be a change agent in our world….even if it is just our local world.

    I am not being critical of Protestant Christianity as much as I am being critical of our own brand of Christianity. We teach otherworldly salvation theology in this church too.

    I believe the early movement adopted the idea of “divinity” for Jesus from Roman Imperial Theology. I believe it also helped them understand why their “messiah” died instead of over throwing the Romans.

    The very earliest Jewish members of “the way” did not consider Jesus to be divine. They were the people of the one God. As you said, I believe each one of us has the spark of “divinity” within us.

    • Margie,

      We essentially agree, I think. I am certainly not one to want to defend other-worldly religion. But, I think a blanket negation of other-world theology is just another imperial move.

      I don’t who your sources are for talking about Jesus and imperial theology are. There is ample evidence in the Gospels, themselves, to understand Jesus as divine. I guess its a question of how you spin it. Divinity of Jesus can serve imperial theology or justice for the oppressed.

      Personally, by itself, I see “one-world, this-world” theology as itself an imperial theology. Even a one-world, this-world concept is totalitarian by denying or ignoring any other. One World, One Peace, One Justice – Pax Romana.

      In my reading of black, Latin-American, Asian, and even feminist theology, the promises of another world are very important. It brings meaning to the sacrifices and purposes of this life and life with others. The promises of another-world-to-come are specifically significant. This world-to-come is precisely the motivation to engage peace and justice of this world. Denying this realm of God, either in heaven or on earth, would silence these important voices. that is something imperial theology has been doing for years. There is no self-righteous individualistic salvation theology in this theology, as I read it.

      • The belief in “only this world” can make all the difference between being a bitter agent for change and a joyous agent for change. The former can be very self-defeating.

        One cannot will oneself to believe what one does not believe. My experience has been when I needed grace to find intellectually consistent answers at many times in my life, the grace has been provided. That has been true even when it has taken me to strange theological places to answer questions no one else even needed to ask.

  15. Hi Matt,

    Great post. As a black sheep of the churches of Christ, I definitely understand restoration movements. My belief that we cannot exactly reproduce the early church has not made me any fans.

    I am not a church planter/domestic missionary. We are planting a network of micro-churches. These groups meet in Starbucks, pizzerias, an assisted living center and homes (lofts/apts).

    I found your website by someone’s search for Chicago Microchurches and somehow they found my website. I clicked on their search and then found you.

    Thanks for your great insight.

    Brian

  16. I appreciate all the comments although they certainly haven’t changed my theology. 🙂 I still do not see Jesus as “God”. I see him as a human being who attempted to change his culture for the better by bringing justice where there was none. The peace of Rome was accomplished with violence. The peace of the kingdom of God will be accomplished by justice.

    I have found no evidence for an afterlife. I think we do people we attempt to help an injustice if all we have to offer them is a place in an afterlife.

    And, no, I do not believe Jesus resurrected either.

    I guess you would have to say the God I feel I know is a process God.

    I cannot espouse a magic worldview.

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