The Church Emerging from a Failed Evangelicalism: The True Restoration Movement

In the 500-year cycles Phyllis Tickle locates in the history of the Judeo/Christian faith we are one year into the emergence of a new form of Christianity (501 years removed from Luther nailing the theses to the church door, 500 years prior to the Reformation takes us to the Great Schism, when Eastern and Western Christianity split, and 500 years from then takes us back to Gregory the Great and the so-called Dark Ages, etc.) We are well into what I would call the “Great Return,” giving rise to new forms of Christianity (emergent, new monasticism, missional, small church, cyber-church, deep church) most all of which are concerned with a return to forms of church which involve doing life together in some significant form.  While for many this return has meant a return to Rome, Canterbury, or Constantinople, for others it has meant a return to the economic practices of the first church (a shared purse) or a return to the land (sustainable living), or a return to community living (the new monasticism). The way of summing up the failure of evangelicalism and the emerging Great Return is in terms of ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church: evangelicalism, according to Derek Tidball never had a developed theology of the church and, according to George Marsden, was characterized by a “general disregard of the institutional church;”[1] the Great Return is occurring in the wake of this abandonment of the centrality of the Church with a return to understanding the Church as the substance of salvation.

In terms of theology it has meant a return, in many ways, to a form of thought which is more premodern than modern (post-liberalism, post-evangelicalism, and post-modern), presuming truth is not to be found in rational foundations, objectivity, or mere propositions, but in Christocentric forms of community and practice.  The issue is, as always, a question of authority but it is clear hierarchies, institutions, denominations, and charismatic individuals, cannot be relied upon for truth. At the same time, this is not a retreat to the authority of the individual as there is a deep appreciation for the sense of how our world is formed in community (this is the great postmodern “discovery” of a Christian truth) and a desire to participate in altered forms of community – the Church.  This entails a strong sense of social justice (as anyone who deals with millennials experiences it) which is able to extrapolate from the local community to the global – (our local choices in clothing, food, and life-style have a global impact and our local inclusion should be extended globally – no walls or borders for those of color, gender, etc.) so that the  Kingdom’s establishment is a tangible reality.

Just as Luther and the reformers were disgusted with the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (Johann Tetzel’s unique fund-raising efforts – “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.”), evangelicalism is proving itself morally bankrupt. The present political climate is, for many, merely the last straw resulting in a permanent turning away from forms of the faith tied to money, power, hierarchy, and personality.  Barna reports “Millennials—are hyperaware and deeply suspicious of the intersection of church and consumer culture.” He cites moral failure, absence of God, judgmental and hypocritical attitudes, and anti-homosexual attitudes, as factoring into the departure. The mega-church – implicitly racist and classist (growing through building requires a “certain clientele”), the segregated forms of traditional church, the sexual perversions of “big time” preachers, but mostly the lack of engagement with “real life issues” and sheer emptiness is behind the fracturing of evangelical Christianity.

There is a certain insight which comes from having witnessed this failure from the perspective of a church and movement which once counted itself biblical but not evangelical but which has subsequently been mostly taken over by both evangelical thought and practice. As recently as 2002 Bill Baker edited a volume on Evangelicalism & the Stone Campbell Movement which, though it pointed to theological differences (baptism, the sacraments, ecclesiology, pneumatology), was eager to show how this Movement should be counted part of the evangelical fold.  In terms of scholarship, the Christian Church has had a growing presence in the Evangelical Theological Society and along with other branches of the Movement boasts its own study group at ETS.  But more than anything this may simply point to how inconsequential and slow academics are (being one I am aware).  Long before these academic advances the mega-churches of the movement had so changed the power structures and ethos of the Restoration Movement that the North American Christian Convention could boast as its goal for the 1996 convention, “Just like the Promise Keepers only better.”

From its inception evangelicalism has been largely defined by its parachurch organizations. As Tidball claims, “these agencies are often taken to be the true home of evangelicalism.”[2] The great irony is that the Restoration Movement had always had an uneasy relationship with the very idea of parachurch organizations. The concern had been to make the local congregation central and this was reflected in a theology which required entry into the Church through baptism and fellowship in weekly communion, so that salvation was in and through the Church. D. L. Moody’s biographer, James Findlay, by way of contrast, claimed Moody had no doctrine of the Church whatsoever. The North American Christian Convention was specifically set up so as to not resemble an agency beyond the Church but simply to provide for fellowship between churches. Yet in 1996 the stated goal was to be like the most famous evangelical parachurch organization and that year featured only prominent evangelicals and no speakers from the Christian church.

Certainly by 1996 the Christian church in its leadership and substance, in its Bible Colleges and academic institutions, through its publication The Christian Standard, and in the large majority of it churches, was mostly evangelical in practice and this practice had reshaped the faith. Fifteen years ago, William Baker and company considered this a mark of the success of the Restoration Movement.  What seems evident with the mass departures from evangelicalism, the moral bankruptcy of evangelicalism as witnessed at the national political level and in the mega-church ethos, and the attempt to return to a more authentic Church, is that evangelicalism is morally and spiritually depleted (which is not to say it will not continue to survive).

It was in 1996 that Joe Carson Smith, the preacher at my home church, attempted to found a group (The Remnant) which would return to a declaration of Restoration principles in the face of the sweeping turn to evangelicalism. (As far as I know, The Remnant, had very few takers – I was in Japan at the time.) Evangelicalism had won the day among Christian churches and this victory has come at a cost (closings of Bible Colleges which no longer offer much that is distinctive from their evangelical counterparts, departure of educational institutions and seminaries from Restoration principles, local churches dominated by the principles of Donald McGavran’s Church growth – the philosophical origins of the mega-church among Christian churches).  The Restoration Movement, Baker concludes in his study, is one more expression of evangelicalism. At this point in time this seems obviously lamentable.

Many years ago, in conversation with my father-in-law, Mark Maxey, I referred to “evangelicalism” and meant something-like “conservative Christian” – with the thought that he and I might count ourselves evangelical.  Immediately, I could see he was beginning to regret his daughter’s poor choices in life – namely myself.  If I had been a bit keener on my Restoration history or simply on my sense of time and place, I would never have made such a blunder.  Alexander Campbell himself had objected to the Evangelical Alliance’s faith statement in 1846 in regard to matters of conversion and faith (the perennial divide over the issue of baptism connected to both the work of the Church and the Spirit). He objected to the notion of total depravity, statements in regard to the Trinity, and the formulations surrounding Christ. The broad differences were over centrality of the Church and its direct role in salvation, which is not to claim his theology was adequate. However, Campbell’s ecclesiology, in its essence, was directly linked to his soteriology and it is in uncoupling these two that evangelicalism is unhinged.  Campbell and the early disciples were careful to negotiate the para-church question and with it evangelical faith and practice. Faith could not float free of the embodied practices of the local church (baptism, communion, discipleship, preaching).  Mark spent his life as a direct support missionary as a demonstrated witness to the centrality of the Church – and what I had failed to see was that evangelicalism was the antithesis of this understanding.

The Great Return to the Church, which I believe describes Forging Ploughshares, is very much attuned to the thought of Campbell and his insistence on a soteriology grounded in ecclesiology.

[1] Stanley Grenz, “An Evangelical Response to Ferguson, Holloway & Lower,” in Evangelicalism & The Stone-Campbell Movement (Intervarsity Press, 2002), 228.

[2] Quoted in Ibid.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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