Thoughts on Patterns, Examples, and Restoration

One of the recurring themes in the Restoration Movement is just that: restoration.  Here, for most practitioners in the Restoration tradition, restoration is an attempt to reconstitute the form of the first century church in as much detail as possible, with the notion being that that form was immutable from its inception, and that there must be perfect fidelity to that form if we are to be acceptable to God.

Supporting such ideas are passages like Romans 6.17 that read in the KJV, “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.”  Some might say, “ See, here is a form, which is the same thing as a pattern.  These Romans were approved in following it, therefore, the pattern exists and must be followed.”

However, comparing other versions, the idea of “form of doctrine” becomes clearer.   In the NIV, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.”  In the ESV, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,….”  In the NLT, “Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you have obeyed with all your heart the new teaching God has given you.”  The emphasis is not on “form” or “pattern” at all.  It is on the “teaching” that changed people’s lives.

In Hebrews 8.5, the KJV reads, “Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.”  This is a quote from Exodus 25 in which Moses was given instruction to build the Tabernacle.  But the point is not that a pattern is essential to follow in keeping with the new covenant.  Inasmuch as the new High Priest is superior to the old one, the new dwelling place of God was not a tent made of hides or a temple made of stone.  The superior covenant with a superior high priest would be written on hearts and in minds, not stone tablets.  That “law” would become part of the people, not a burden to be followed, but a second nature to be lived.

I can readily accept that there is indeed a “form of doctrine (sensu teaching).”  However, I cannot find anywhere any reference to a “doctrine of form (sensu pattern).”  Are we instructed to follow examples?  Absolutely.  Paul told Timothy and Titus to be good examples and to follow the pattern of good teaching that Paul himself had shown them.  Paul instructed his readers to follow his example, but specifically as he, himself, was following Christ (I Cor 11.1).

So can we truly restore a true and accurate “pattern” of the first century church?  Maybe not, if we consider I Cor 12.27-30.  “27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”  Here, the first century church had miraculously gifted people and people appointed to specific tasks.  Fully five of the eight mentioned gifts or appointments are not present today, and indeed they were projected to cease in I Cor 13.  Yet, each of these was central to the actual form, structure, and function of the first century church.

But surely, we can get the offices right, right?  Maybe, or maybe not: Titus was left in Crete to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1.5).  We have concluded that to mean in every “congregation.”  Based upon the descriptions in various places, it appears that churches were meeting as small groups (congregations) in houses.  If a single “house church” constituted the church in a town, it would be logical to assume that the elders in a town were the same who were the elders in a congregation.  However, if there was a plurality of “house churches” making up the body of believers in a town, then it is equally logical to conclude that there was a body of elders in the town overseeing or shepherding the believers in the various congregations.  Where one concludes strict autonomy (town = individual congregation), another concludes cooperative oversight (town = sum of congregations), using the same premises.

What about a pattern for worship?  The only cohesive discussion of a “form” of worship is in I Cor 14.  However, this discussion specifically invokes miraculous gifts, relating to the controversy among the members at Corinth regarding their jockeying for position with respect to the spiritual gifts that had been issued for the specific purpose of building up the church.  Again, we no longer recognize tongue-speaking and prophecy today, having been done away with at a previous time, as predicted by I Cor 13.  We may use the principle that all things must be done “decently and in order,” but an actual “pattern” of activities is nowhere specified.

Perhaps the question, then, needs to be, which church is to be emulated and “restored”?  Certainly not the Jerusalem church directly after Pentecost.  They lived in what was essentially a communal society, sharing all their belongings as each may have need.  That example has been soundly rejected by most modern religious groups.  Surely not the Corinthian church, since they observed (and abused) the agape feast, among other indiscretions.  Certainly not the church at Cenchreae, since they had a female servant (which is translated “deacon” when describing an office reserved by modern standards since the middle ages only for men.)

Where we see variance among followers, it is likely because we have come to different inferences and conclusions with respect to a “pattern.”  To impose a pattern where none was specified is to bind a burden where none was required.  The burden of liberty is light.  The burden of an inferred pattern is impossible to bear, because it is a moving target: one person infers specificity from an example, while another infers latitude.  Can both be right?  That is not likely, if specificity is required.  But can both be wrong?  This is more likely, especially if we let our inferences become points of judgment with which we condemn others.

Are we required to follow a pattern?  Absolutely.  And that has already been alluded to previously.  The pattern is none other than Jesus.  Paul’s example was Jesus, and he urged his readers to follow that example.  Peter wrote, in 1 Peter 2.21, “For to this [i.e., suffering for being a Christian] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”

The conflict we see today is the same as it was in the first century.  Do we accept the liberty of grace, or do we, like the Judaizers who influenced even Peter, bind the burden of law?  To be sure, liberty is not the same thing as license.  But it is equally certain that binding inferred commands is not the same thing as liberty.

When we spend so much time and effort trying to reconstruct a pattern of organizational form and liturgical practice from disjointed verses, we lose sight of the real pattern.  Too often we focus on such externals to the exclusion of fulfilling the example of Christ in his love, service, peace, and grace.  Yes, he opposed error where it was prevalent among the Pharisees.  But central to his opposition was the underlying necessity of true discipleship: he required a change of heart, which they were unwilling to give.  Jesus offers peace and forgiveness and a light burden.  The old law was an impossible master, and impossible to master.  The grace and truth ushered in by Jesus provide an easier yoke.  We follow his commands to show our love for him, because he first loved us.  Perhaps Jesus’ greatest command was the one he gave to Peter and Andrew, Matthew, the rich ruler, and perhaps to countless others (though unrecorded): “Follow me.”  That is the central, life changing “pattern” of the teaching—be like Jesus.  To reverse that into requiring a “doctrine of pattern” is far from the simplicity of his outward-turning message.

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One Response to Thoughts on Patterns, Examples, and Restoration

  1. Pingback: A Pause to Reflect on Reaching 100 Posts | the trail is the thing

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